Audrey Tautou
Guy Pearce
Ludivine Sagnier
Frankie G
Eugene Levy
Christopher Guest
Dennie Gordon &
...Dawn Taubin

Steve James
Lisa Cholodenko


..
Gary Dretzka
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Ray Pride
..Patricia Vidal



 

 

 








 

July 17, 2003

Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan probably was feeling pretty full of himself on the evening of September 10, 2001. After all, Miramax had just purchased his inky black military comedy, Buffalo Soldiers, which had debuted a few days earlier at the Toronto Film Festival, and a rave review would appear in the next morning's Hollywood Reporter (" ... hits the satiric bull's-eye with deadly accuracy ...").

Twenty-four hours later, however, his world - along with everyone else's - would be turned upside-down by terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and over the skies of Pennsylvania.

Even though Jordan was confident his check from Miramax would clear, the fate of his movie immediately became far less certain. Based on a novel by Robert O'Connor, Buffalo Soldiers described a period in military history when soldiers in the all-volunteer army apparently spent most of their time getting high and devising schemes to walk away from their service to the country with something more than chump change in their pockets.

The movie was set in Stuttgart, Germany, in the waning days of the Cold War. The first Iraq war was still a few years off, and no one was quite certain that our troops were up to the challenge of combat. O'Connor's book was a Catch-22 for its time, with specialist Ray Elwood assuming the role once played by Milo Minderbinder.

On September 18, 2001, Variety's Todd McCarthy summed up Jordan's overnight buzz-kill with brutal succinctness. After describing the film's "cynical" portrait of camp life, the critic observed, "Possibly much more damaging in terms of the film's commercial prospects, however, is the slim chance, any time in the foreseeable future, that the American public will feel like supporting an entertainment that hinges on an absurdist view of an entirely disunified and incompetent military. All of a sudden, this looks like the wrong film at the wrong time."

Apparently, Miramax agreed with that theory. After several false starts, Buffalo Soldiers finally will be released on July 25, and, thanks to an alarmist dispatch on Matt Drudge's website, the hoof beats of unbridled pseudo-patriotic outrage already can be heard in the distance. The blaring headline, "DISNEY/MIRAMAX SET TO RELEASE FILM DEPICTING AMERICAN MILITARY AS DRUG DEALERS, CRIMINALS; TIMING SEEN FUELING IRAQ WAR CONTROVERSY," would hardly qualify as news anywhere outside of an alarmist's paranoid imagination. But, it was a Sunday, and old news apparently is better than no news … especially when you can take another potshot at Disney.

News that troops who recently liberated Baghdad's airport - in the name of Uncle Sam and George W. Bush - also felt duty-bound to liberate high-end products from the terminal's duty-free stores received far less notice.

Fact is, Buffalo Soldiers is a difficult movie to watch, especially in the light of events that have occurred since 9/11. The American soldier of 2003 -- the media leads us to believe, at least -- is a much different creature than his or her equivalent number in 1989. Going mano a mano with an RPG will do that to a person.

As such, the movie has the look and feel of a period piece ... and a good one, at that. Moreover, Jordan says, the picture is an attempt to understand what happens to warriors in times of peace. In voiceover, Elwood describes his comrades as "soldiers with nothing to kill, except time," while Jordan borrows a coda from Nietzsche, "Where there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself."

David O. Russell's Three Kings asked similar questions.

Complicating matters even further is the movie's poster, which features the tag line, "Steal all that you can steal," and Joaquin Phoenix flashing a peace sign in front of an American flag festooned with dollar signs, instead of stars. It immediately reminded Hollywood conspiracy buffs of the original poster for What a Girl Wants, which Warner Bros. pulled to placate a handful of right-wing morons who decided Amanda Bynes' fingers were weapons of mass distraction.

Phoenix is terrific as the khaki capitalist, Ray Elwood. His performance is supported by some wonderful work, as well, by Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sheik Mahmud-Bey, Elizabeth McGovern and Anna Paquin.

In the time it's taken Miramax to make up its mind on Buffalo Soldiers, Jordan's gone on to shoot, finish and release, Ned Kelly, a biography of the legendary Aussie outlaw.

Movie City News interviewed Jordan last month, on the patio of the Hotel Mondrian. The controversy over the film's release had yet to surface. Last week in London, though, the amiable Aussie commented, "Here in the UK no one gets upset, but, over there, where the President is fighting these military campaigns in the name of democracy, the first casualty seems to be freedom of speech, the cornerstone of any democracy."

MOVIE CITY NEWS: I imagine that one of the complaints you'll hear about Buffalo Soldiers is that it's just another attempt by Hollywood liberals to slander our proud fighting men and women. Guilty or not guilty?

GREGOR JORDAN: I grew up on an Air Force base in Australia, where my father was a pilot. He fought in Vietnam, so I grew up on war stories and around soldiers.

I don't see this film as anti-American or anti-military. It poses some interesting philosophical questions about warfare, aggression and the need for violence by certain people ... I think that idea really translates well in these characters.

MCN: Obviously, then, you don't see Buffalo Soldiers as being hopelessly dated by the swirl of events in Iraq and Afghanistan?

GJ: It's of its time, yes, but I think the film actually is way more topical now, than it was before. It says that war and warfare are things certain human beings really like and want.

There are warlike people out there who are aggressive and expansionist. Those ideals of the '60s and '70s - you know, "give peace a chance" - seem to be overly romantic.

MCN: That's a fairly extreme notion, especially for a Hollywood movie.

GJ: Warfare is something quite innate in humans ... war was invented way before diplomacy. Today, it is seen as this weird aberration, which only happens when diplomacy breaks down ... and no one really wants war.

This movie suggests that there are people out there who do. This may be a pessimistic viewpoint, but I think it's a fact.

MCN: Ever since the first war in Iraq, the media has portrayed the American bases in Germany as being little more than rest stops on the way home for released POWs, victims of terrorist attacks and wounded heroes ... oh, yes, transfer points for flag-draped coffins. This movie offers a very different viewpoint on the American presence there.

GJ: Working out the story in Buffalo Soldiers, I had to do a lot of research. It involved traveling to Germany, visiting the bases, talking to soldiers and Germans who lived near the bases. I also pored through newspaper and magazine articles from that period.

MCN: The scene in which a tank driven by stoned American soldiers goes on a rampage through the streets of Stuttgart might seem a bit far-fetched to some viewers.

GJ: The Germans effectively were under an occupation force for 45 years. The idea of a tank running amok in that German town wasn't strange to the people I spoke to, who'd seen tanks rolling down their streets every day, for years.

Not that the occupation was always seen as a bad thing. In fact, the American presence really helped the economy of those towns.

MCN: Still, the G.I.s of Buffalo Soldiers aren't likely to be confused with those who delivered aid to the impoverished masses under the Marshall Plan.

GJ: In World War II, the Americans were part of an international coalition that liberated the whole of Europe. This sort of (criminal activity) went on, I suppose, but the soldiers' primary focus was on the war, so it wasn't on such a large scale.

MCN: Unless, of course, one considers Catch-22 to be a work of non-fiction.

GJ: At one point in the movie, Elwood's roommate makes this speech about how his father would still get together for reunions with his buddies from World War II. They're friends for life.

It isn't likely that any of these guys will be attending reunions 35 years from now.

MCN: Reports of misconduct from the front lines in Iraq don't come as any surprise to you, then?

GJ: I don't think the problem has gone away, really. I read stories about Green Berets using their skills at rappelling down the sides of buildings to steal cars, and of soldiers stealing money in Iraq. But, you could tell the same story about soldiers in the English, Russian or Chinese army, as well.

MCN: The racial hostility as portrayed in Buffalo Soldiers wasn't something you made up either?

GJ: At the time, it was like gang warfare. In Tom Clancy's book, Into the Storm, the first couple of chapters deal with this period ... how drug use had become a big problem, and how the troops were forced to undergo drug testing. He talks about how officers were afraid of going to certain parts of their base without armed escorts.

MCN: Every time a soldier is killed in Iraq, it makes headlines back home. Most of the violence described in your movie will come as news to civilians.

GJ: The weird thing is that the stuff you see in this movie has been toned down from what actually occurred. There were 20-30 murders a year among soldiers in West Germany, while accidental deaths averaged between 800 and 1,000 a year.

Australia's record on this sort of racial thing is as bad as anyone else's. There were Aboriginal units in World War II, but they weren't allowed to vote until 1965.

MCN: Can any marketing campaign for Buffalo Soldiers overcome the patriotic backlash everyone expects to erupt when it's released?

GJ: I think people in the studios underestimate the intelligence of the population. Movies are getting dumber and dumber because studio executives don't think people can cope with serious material.

I think there is a great demand for movies that aren't sequels or involve comic books. I think that we've moved on to a new phase, a time of reflection, so people can take stock of what's gone on since 9/11, and how to move forward ... recognize the mistakes and try to rectify them.

MCN: After the hijackings and terrorists attacks, you were stuck in Toronto with all those critics ... many of whom had seen Buffalo Soldiers two nights before. How weird was that?

GJ: We had the premiere showing on Sept. 8, and sold the film to Miramax on the night of Sept. 10. The timing was quite bizarre.

It was clear the next day that the attacks would have a negative impact on the marketability of the film. I was confident, though, that there would come a time when the movie could be seen as being topical, again.

MCN: It must come as some relief to you that, barring yet another national tragedy, Buffalo Soldiers finally will see the light of day. July 25 is only the latest in a series of release dates.

GJ: Miramax thought it could wait out each new phase (of U.S. response to the attacks). As soon as we were ready to release the movie, though, something else would happen and we'd have to postpone it, again.

Before Sept. 11, war wasn't on anyone's minds. Now, it can't be avoided.

MCN: How did the project come to you, in the first place?

GJ: A producer named Rainer Grupe had held the rights to the book for several years, along with some other people. No one could quite figure out how to do it. Not only is the book very bleak, but the narrative is very unstructured, as well.

I'd heard about it from an agent as ICM, and asked one of Grupe's assistants to send me a copy of the book. I had to go away for about a month to try and figure out what the story was and how to make a movie out of it.

MCN: Yours' hardly was a household name, though.

GJ: Rainer had liked the energy and comic turns he saw in my first film, Two Hands. When I told him that I had a story figured out, he said I could do it.

There already was a script, but I wanted to do my own. So, I re-read the book and started all over. My script was turned over to James Schamus, and I started to develop the script with him.

MCN: It didn't bother him that a non-American would be in charge of the project?

GJ: He said he wanted an Australian to direct the movie, because an Australian might add a sense of objectivity lacking in an American or European director. I'm not sure I agree with that, though, because some of the best satires about America have been made by Americans, especially military satires.

MCN: You haven't exactly been sitting back, waiting with bated breath for the release of Buffalo Soldiers.

GJ: No, in fact, I was able to write, shoot and finish Ned Kelly in the interim. I was too busy to focus on a marketing campaign, which was OK with me.

MCN: Making a movie about Ned Kelly in Australia must be like shooting one here about John Dillinger or Jesse James.

GJ: No, it was more like making a movie about Che Guevara in Cuba. Everyone in Australia knows about Ned Kelly. There's no real equivalent in America.

MCN: Tony Richardson's version of the legend has been showing on cable for the last few weeks. How was that film received in Australia?

GJ: Ned Kelly was very charismatic and larger than life, even when he was alive ... a bit like a pop star. He was a big guy, sort of like a heavyweight-boxing champion ... so, to have Ned Kelly played by Mick Jagger ... it was just the wrong choice. Jagger wasn't built like Kelly and didn't have an Australian accent. We hated it.

MCN: So, there's room for another biopic?

GJ: There have been a lot of movies made about Kelly. The first feature-length film, in 1906, was made about Ned Kelly, and that was only about 25 years after he had died. Only about 10 minutes of that film still exist.

We felt the time was right for a retelling of the story, which really has never been told right.

MCN: The cast is full of well-known Aussie actors, who regularly commute to Hollywood to work in studio projects.

GJ: Ned Kelly was interesting because it wasn't your basic small Australian film. It was financed by Working Title, and distributed through Universal.

It attracted Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts and Rachel Griffiths.

MCN: I'm always amazed by how easy it seems to be for Australian actors to portray Americans and Brits, while the reverse isn't the case, at all.

GJ: In Australia, we're constantly exposed to American culture, through Hollywood movies and TV. So, it isn't as if we're strangers to that kind of accent.

Most Australians can do a passable American accent. But, yeah, the Australian accent can be a bit freaky.

MCN: The best we can do is attempt dopey impressions of Crocodile Dundee.

GJ: No one in Australia says, "Put another shrimp on the barbee." That was based on an advertising campaign. First of all, we call shrimp "prawns," and no one really puts them on the barbecue, either.

Americans will say, "Put another shrimp on the barbee, mate," and we'll just look at them. It's an American impression of something that just doesn't exist.

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