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Wasted Warriors

Director marches into controversy


Director Gregor Jordan caught flack for his military satire Buffalo Soldiers before the film was even released.

"Some people have taken offense at the poster because Joaquin Phoenix is doing the peace sign," the 36-year-old Australian filmmaker said while on a promotional tour for the film. "That the peace sign, which just says, "Let's stop killing each other,' is offensive now gives an indication of how insane the world is going."

If audiences are touchy about the poster, wait until they take a look at Buffalo Soldiers itself. During a time when even ardent protesters dutifully say, "I'm against the war, but for the troops," the film takes a caustic look at men in uniform.

Jordan's film offers a darkly comic portrait of life on a US Army base in Germany at the end of the Cold War. As Specialist Ray Elwood, Phoenix comes across like M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly turned sexy and evil. A peacetime warrior with no enemy to kill, Elwood instead makes a killing by selling surplus Mop 'n' Glo on the black market and serving as the middleman in heroin deals.

"This is a film about a time and a place," Jordan says more than once during a brief conversation to distinguish the cinematic characters from US forces in Iraq. The film, based on Robert O'Connor's novel, depicts a bored, dissolute Army drawn heavily from high school dropouts and convicted criminals given the choice of military service or jail time. "When the Vietnam War ended, the US had a terrible time finding recruits, because its morale and popularity were so low," says Jordan. "Only 40 percent of the recruits in the 1970s and 1980s had high school diplomas."

Buffalo Soldiers' ne'er-do-wells engage in some hilarious hijinks, but when Elwood plays for higher stakes in trading purloined arms and hard drugs (inviting parallels to Iran-Contra), the film's darkness and bloodshed grow.

Jordan hastens to distinguish America's modern Army from the one his movie shows. "The Army's a very different place now. They realized that crime and drug use were prevalent and got rid of the bad apples." But he doesn't back away from the relevance of his film. "The kinds of people shown in Buffalo Soldiers still exist in today's Army, but not in the same way, and not on the same scale."

Jordan himself comes from a military family. He grew up on a Royal Australian Air Force base. His father was a pilot in Vietnam, and his grandfather a World War II veteran. Instead of enlisting, Jordan pursued filmmaking and won the 1995 Best Short Film Award at Cannes in 1995. He made his feature debut in 1999 with the stylish Australian heist picture Two Hands, which in turn led to Buffalo Soldiers.

Since its completion in July 2001, Buffalo Soldiers made a tortuous march toward wide release. It premiered September 8 of that year at the Toronto Film Festival, and Miramax eagerly purchased it September 10. The next day, the world seemed less ready for a military satire with a tone equivalent to Three Kings.

Miramax rescheduled Buffalo Soldiers' opening at least five times since then, with the picture finally opening in limited release last July; its biggest weekend found it playing nationally on only 24 screens, and its total stateside gross during its regular run was a paltry $350,000. (The movie is finally reaching Charlotte as part of the Charlotte Film Society program.)

"The delays in releasing had a little to do with post-9-11 and the military campaigns, but also to normal distributor things as well," insists Jordan. "Miramax had both Chicago and Gangs of New York in the latter half of 2002, and they wanted audiences to be in the mood to see a film like this."

At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2003, Jordan saw a sign that his film was likely to get a mixed reception. A member of the film's audience, incensed at its portrayal of the military, threw a water bottle at the filmmakers during the subsequent Q&A session. Jordan shrugs, "I thought it was incredibly funny that someone would wait until the end of the film to protest -- at least they weren't bored." But, he adds, "The people who take offense reveal a lot about themselves. [Their criticisms] make them out to be quite ignorant and blinkered people. It shows how political correctness has changed since 9-11."

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