Since my birthday is the same as Teddy Roosevelt’s and I’m as near-sighted as he was, about as red-headed but in other ways VERY different, I ordered “Rough Riders” from Netflix. After all, if “The Trail” celebrated the endurance of women on the long journey of life, Teddy had something to say about charging uphill on the side of righteousness. As it turns out, the film was more about John Milius (b. 1944, roughly the age of my brothers) than Roosevelt, but that’s okay. Milius is from the generation AFTER WWII and before Vietnam, that great period of the “stand down” veteran when the long quiet stare was considered sadness rather than PTSD. In those days the big strong silent marshalls and sheriffs tried to avoid shooting people, but usually had to anyway. Milius loves the B-Western and John Ford.
Milius was born in St. Louis, that great mythic hub of the frontier opened by fur traders. Of course, he was close to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, California kids but masters of the grand tale full of paraphernalia, choreographed violence, and questions of loyalty. Male mythology that guides many of us still, esp. in Montana, was served and formed by the same understanding of war and warriors as drives “Star Wars,” an assortment of characters of every kind, united in brotherhood’s loyalty, and empowered by a nation, which they served by risking death in personal combat. None of this fancy no-risk flying over with bombs or remote control predator drones.
This movie is simply another version of what in my childhood we called “playing guns.” Not war or winning, but enacting the shooting of guns and the dying after being shot. Some of us were especially good at dramatic death, shouting “aaargh, I’ve been hit” and spinning on one heel, dropping, arching the back, gasping and thrashing, then suddenly going limp. In a moment one eye opened to see how the performance went over. Sometimes the hit was contested, but modern paint ball games have taken care of that. Except they have not preserved the high art of the dramatic death, at least not in the vids I’ve seen. They just take off their goggles and leave the field as though they’d merely lost at chess.
If Gary Busey's horse wasn't deaf in the beginning, it must have been by the end.
For grown men there is a body of knowledge about guns that’s quite comparable to trivia about athletic games or wine connoisseurship. Collecting the actual objects is admirable, but even knowing their history and capacities is so important that there is an entire website devoted to the many movies and the weapons in them. The one for "Rough Riders" is here: http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Rough_Riders It’s a whole sub-dimension of all the shooting and one that the director must keep in mind, so that there are chances for the viewer to get a good look at what character is shooting which gun.
When we were small, squirt guns were popular but they were nothing compared to modern space age water propel-ers that can nail a cat at twenty feet. Some are equipped to sound like guns, but they are usually transparent and in day-glo colors, not capable of the light glints and cocking clicks of a real gun, which is irreducibly a machine -- very clever and requiring maintenance. Real guns today are accessorized with laser sights, scopes, silencers and stabilizers. They come in a neat bit of luggage with custom-fitted foam interiors. I once watched a film about the psychological boot camp creation of loyalty of the soldier to his gun: “Your gun is your lover, your woman! You love the sight of her, the feel of her, you are never without her!” Guns are not generic.
Our best toy -- well, at least for the boys -- was cap guns. I googled cap guns and fell back in amazement. “Steampunk” cap guns, “Cyber Gothic” guns, “Civil War Musket, Wood and Steel Frontier Rifle Designed After The Original Rifle, Fires #917 Pull Off Caps”. The caps themselves come on plastic discs now, instead of the red paper roll of black powder dots we used. You had to thread them through the feeding mechanism past the hammer that exploded them by impact. It was like threading movie film into a projector. I still have the feel of doing that in my hands, managing that red ribbon of paper. Since no one would buy me a cap gun (we were gender-assigned) and my brothers loved theirs too much to share, I took the paper roll to the front steps and pounded each dot with a rock to make it explode. The smell of gunpowder, hot concrete, and summer sun mix in my memories.
It was equally important when playing guns to have a persona. “Rough Riders” supplies famous figures known to be in Cuba: Frederick Remington (shown painting a very un-Remington sort of picture, evidently before he weighed 300#), Stephen Crane (not given much respect), William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton -- WTF?), Black Jack Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers, two very noble (and “cruel”) Native Americans, and Sam Elliott who steals the whole movie from Tom Berenger who is supposed to be Teddy Roosevelt. (We can tell by his teeth.) Sam is the one who assures us that the Indians are “cruel” and tells us this is a good thing that the men should learn.
Sam’s role is “Bucky O’Neill” who in reality was present at enough key Western historical moments to have deserved a movie of his own. He really did have a mustache, which is lucky, because I just saw Sam in “The Contender,” a modern political drama in which he had a shaved upper lip, revealing it to be rather strange. The camera likes to linger on his “cruel” eye. He’s a very shoulders-back sort of person, but he’s played so many iconic roles that we are convinced that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Other characters are pretty predictable except for Chris Noth, who is supposed to be a patrician man, well-educated, and able to be slightly more objective or at least philosophical. We’re used to seeing him as the bold but slightly behind-the-curve hero of “Law and Order.”
Geoffrey Lewis is always good as the “rustic,” a classic comic-relief type used by Shakespeare and going back to Greek comedy. I just watched an episode of “House, MD” in which he was a defiant old codger who wished to die of cancer without pain relief because it would make him more distinguished. Not a comic role that time, but a version of the brave eccentric who is often the cook in Westerns, or maybe a sidekick of the hero.
This movie has none of the serious, cynical, flesh-exploding, cold-blooded bitterness of more contemporary war stories. No prosthetic heads rolling around. Rather it’s a kind of bildungsroman in which Roosevelt and everyone else goes from being adolescent to fully mature. There’s enough humor and slapstick to make it seem like a frat party that got out of hand, but there are no women except a few accessory hispanics and Teddy’s strange wife,so that pesky political/sexual issue is moot. Still, guns are phallic. But the survivors are blameless and even Stephen Crane, who takes some mockery early on, is enlightened.
The real Stephen Crane