My friends all know me as a movie buff besides a writer of mysteries. I’d like to tell you about a movie I saw a couple of nights ago that was so good it kept me in my chair for close to three hours. No, that’s not exactly right. I got up once at the bidding of my cat who reminded me rather strongly that it was time to get his night dinner ready. Now I’ve seen so many movies in my life that I can tell when I’ve seen an outstanding film, one that stays in my memory, one that I could talk about at length, bring up in an English class as an example of craftsmanship. “Rough Riders” is one of those. It is a television film, first shown in two episodes in 1997. John Milius directed it with the script written by him and by Hugh Wilson.
Before it started, I did a little fast research. The main character is Teddy Roosevelt and his organizing the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry unit that would go to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Having read about this president, I already knew that he was sickly as a child, had bad lungs, and terrible vision. I had always wondered how he could go to fight a war with his physical problems. But from my reading I also knew that he was indomitable. He resolved to live the toughest, most challenging life he could, and this opportunity to build a unit of fighting men whom he would go with to Cuba and fight along with seemed to be just right for his ongoing quest to be as strong physically and morally too as he could be. Those who enlisted in Mr. Roosevelt’s unit, as we see in the film, were willing to endure the rigorous training that would result in them knowing how to, having the will to, kill other men. One scene is especially grizzly to me. Sam Elliott, a trainer, asks his group how many of them have had to kill something or someone. Only a couple have killed an animal; no one has killed a man. The men train fiercely to be able to do this. When they get to Cuba and face the enemy with its heavy weapons, they change into killing machines themselves, and we see that change. As we watch them mowed down, we remember that just a while ago, we saw them shooting at targets. The background for the battle scenes was gathered from diaries and military dispatches that survive, so the battles are realistic. We know that this is modern battles are often fought too, the soldiers milling about from time to time, not sure of what to do next, not sure how to react to the enemy pulling some unexpected tactic, not sure of what do to when their friends are dropping right and left of them. Another thing I liked about the movie was that the soldiers in Cuba are from all walks of life. Hamilton Fish was a familiar name to me since I am a native New Yorker. When he walks into the training ground, sticks out his hand, and courteously introduces himself, I knew already about his rich, influential family in New York. Some of the soldiers are already fierce riders of different kinds. One person is supposed to be a polo rider in a former life. Some have owned their own horses and know a thing or too about riding. And the horses are shown in battle very realistically, sometimes being shot to death and collapsing while the rider may or may not die along with the horse. The clash of the opposing forces of men and horses is shown realistically as well. Men have fought this way for centuries, the poor horses forced into war. I’ve mentioned here that the film depicts many different types of men who are fighting in this war. The Buffalo soldiers are there too. And especially interesting to me are the people who are not soldiers but writers and other types covering the war for their own purposes: William Randolph Hurst, Stephen Crane, Frederick Remington. All of these people are shown getting along with everyone else as they go about their business of actively fighting the enemy in the midst of the shells or scribbling reports so the people at home will understand what is happening to Americans in Cuba
The list of actors in this film is full of veteran actors of superb acting ability as well as younger actors who have displayed their acting abilities. Everyone puts 1000% into their roles to get them right, it seems to me. While we become engrossed with individual soldiers, of course the most important role is that of Theodore Roosevelt, played by Tom Berenger. And he is fine and true, according to what I’ve read about Roosevelt. To portray Roosevelt’s personality as he has been shown in biographies and do it so that the audience accepts this man/boy for his bravery, his warm feelings for his comrades, his great desire to do this thing right, to find out how to fight this war, how to somehow stay well and all the other things it will take to participate in the great event and represent our country well and nobly, must have been one of the hardest roles ever played by Mr. Berenger. It would be easy to overact and portray Roosevelt as a good-heated, naïve, rich man. I encourage everyone reading this entry to make an effort to see the film. You will never forget it.