Los Angeles, July 15: A dark comedy film about the US military that opens with a painting of the Stars and Stripes being stamped on by soldiers is expected to raise a political storm.
Buffalo Soldiers depicts rampant heroin use and trafficking by bored soldiers in Germany and the theft of lorryloads of Pentagon property, including guns that are sold off to gangsters.
A poster advertising the film shows Joaquin Phoenix, playing an army “spiv”, in combat fatigues with an ammunition belt wrapped around his neck, saying: “Steal all you can steal.”
The film has earned favourable comparisons to the military satires Catch 22 and M*A*S*H, but this is an uneasy time in America, with rising concern at US casualties in Iraq.
Before Buffalo Soldiers has been seen by the public, a retired army colonel, Franklin Henderson, has complained about scenes showing military policemen (MP) “committing acts of violence and engaging in corruption”.
He was particularly anxious, he said, as some of the MPs were black, degrading “the sterling service” given to the army by the historical Buffalo Soldiers, a black regiment founded in 1866.
Set at the end of the Cold War in Stuttgart, Germany, Buffalo Soldiers follows the misdeeds of Army Specialist Ray Elwood, played by Phoenix, and a brigade of fellow rogues and addicts. Suffering the malaise following Vietnam, the soldiers have no interest in duty or heroism.
The Los Angeles Times said the film “is to military service what One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was to mental health.”
Miramax won a studio bidding war for the rights, but executives clinched the deal the night before the September 11 attacks. Suddenly the film was in trouble. A year later, at a test screening in New York, a viewer said, while she did not dispute the film’s accuracy: “I think this is a time when we need to be patriotic and I don’t think the American public should see it.”
It has been postponed five times but is now due to be released in New York and Los Angeles on July 24.
Rick Sands, Miramax’s chief operating officer, said: “We don’t want this film to be misinterpreted and we want to be sensitive to the current situation in the world.”
He added that the same New York audience had been tested again for its reaction, which was “much better”. “People said it was great to see a movie that wasn’t sanitised,” he said.
The film, which also stars Ed Harris and Scott Glenn, was well-received at Robert Redford’s Sundance festival, although one person threw a plastic bottle at the director, Gregor Jordan.
Jordan, an Australian, said: “After September 11 it would have been the wrong time to release it. But now the film’s become even more topical.... I hope it’ll work the same way as M*A*S*H did in the Vietnam war and provoke a bit of thought and create a bit of controversy.”