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 ...").
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."
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
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.
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."
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?
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
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.
then, you don't see Buffalo Soldiers as being hopelessly dated
by the swirl of events in Iraq and Afghanistan?
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.
a fairly extreme notion, especially for a Hollywood movie.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the G.I.s of Buffalo Soldiers aren't likely to be confused
with those who delivered aid to the impoverished masses under the
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.
of course, one considers Catch-22 to be a work of non-fiction.
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.
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.
racial hostility as portrayed in Buffalo Soldiers wasn't something
you made up either?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
hardly was a household name, though.
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.
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.
didn't bother him that a non-American would be in charge of the project?
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
haven't exactly been sitting back, waiting with bated breath for the
release of Buffalo Soldiers.
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.
a movie about Ned Kelly in Australia must be like shooting
one here about John Dillinger or Jesse James.
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
there's room for another biopic?
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
We felt the time
was right for a retelling of the story, which really has never been
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.
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
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
can do a passable American accent. But, yeah, the Australian accent
can be a bit freaky.
best we can do is attempt dopey impressions of Crocodile Dundee.
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.
say, "Put another shrimp on the barbee, mate," and we'll
just look at them. It's an American impression of something that just