Snake-bitten ‘Soldiers’ is delayed again

Times Staff Writer

Some movies have all the luck. “Buffalo Soldiers” is one of them, but unfortunately for the film all of it has been bad.

For the fifth time, Miramax Films has postponed releasing the dark comedy about the American military, worried that its depiction of drug-dealing U.S. soldiers in 1989 West Germany would be as welcome as the Dixie Chicks in the Rose Garden. It’s but the latest setback for a provocative movie that already was derailed by the Sept. 11 attacks, only to be sidetracked a year and a half later by the war in Iraq.

The film’s postponement is one more example of the country’s uneasy cultural climate, and highlights the extreme caution now being exercised with even vaguely provocative art or artists. The Baseball Hall of Fame recently canceled an anniversary showing of “Bull Durham” and appearance by the film’s stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, fearing they might utter something less patriotic than “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” rock star Dave Mathews has been assailed for criticizing American foreign policy, and talk radio hosts suggest antiwar activist and actress Janeane Garofalo should be muzzled, if not worse.


Caught in the middle, Miramax agonized over shifting “Buffalo Soldiers’ ” release date yet again. The studio, historically Hollywood’s most fearless, worried it would be accused of political timidity and filmmaker neglect if it shifted the film’s debut. But Miramax also was concerned that if it released “Buffalo Soldiers” as planned on May 9, the film itself could be lost in a maelstrom of criticism over the studio’s decision to distribute the film so close to the Iraq war.

“We don’t want this film to be misinterpreted, and we want to be sensitive to the current situation in the world,” said Rick Sands, Miramax’s chief operating officer. “Buffalo Soldiers” is now set to open in New York and Los Angeles on July 25.

The film’s director, Gregor Jordan, agreed with the studio’s decision to postpone release once again, but not everyone involved in the film was pleased by the news. “I really don’t know why they are waiting so long to release it,” said Eric Weiss, one of the film’s three credited screenwriters. “I don’t see the movie as unpatriotic. It doesn’t really comment on what we are doing now,” Weiss said.

“Buffalo Soldiers” has been snake-bitten since shortly after it was completed in June 2001. Loosely adapted from a novel by Robert O’Connor, the Cold War movie is set outside Stuttgart and tracks the misdeeds of Army Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) and a brigade of fellow miscreants, addicts and stumblebums. Set in the malaise following Vietnam, the film’s combatants have scant interest in duty and heroism. Indeed, the film is to military service what “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was to mental health. Following a flurry of bidding, Miramax acquired the film at the Toronto International Film Festival on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, and contractually pledged to release it within a year.

But as soon as four planes were hijacked the next morning, the world changed, as did the film’s prospects. The nation immediately rallied around its firefighters, police officers and armed forces. Suddenly, a movie about an Army battalion secretary who steals truckloads of requisitions and traffics heroin looked not only inopportune but distasteful. The movie was penciled in for a July 2002 premiere.

Even with that patient schedule, a test screening held in New York City in January 2002 suggested Miramax might not be letting enough time pass after the September attacks. According to Jordan, one woman spoke out during a focus group after the screening, saying that while she didn’t dispute the film’s accuracy, “I think this is a time when we need to be patriotic and I don’t think the American people should see it.”


The film’s release was delayed until later that July, and then delayed again by almost a year, until March 2003 (it opened in Germany in October 2002, where it did not fare well). “Buffalo Soldiers” was tested again in December 2002 in the same New York theater, and the reaction was much better, Jordan says. “People said it was great to see a movie that wasn’t sanitized,” the director said.

In a rare move for a film that had been shown at another prominent festival nearly 1 1/2 years earlier, the programmers of the Sundance Film Festival invited “Buffalo Soldiers” to this year’s lineup. The movie was well-received but still divisive. At least one audience member denounced the film, even throwing a plastic bottle at the director from the theater balcony.

Nevertheless, the movie kept attracting critical support, earning favorable comparisons to the military satires “Catch-22” and “MASH.” Miramax scrapped the March debut and decided a May release would fit best. But then world events interceded again, and as the Iraq war began and Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, the studio had to revisit the film’s release date one more time. Last week, the studio consulted with Jordan, who advocated that the film be held.

“Even before Sept. 11, I always knew this would be a tough movie to put out,” Jordan said. “It’s an antihero story, and the subject matter is reasonably controversial. But I didn’t want the movie to get seen in the wrong light. The movie is supposed to be confrontational. But it is not supposed to be offensive.”

Part of the decision to hold the film until July 25 also was prompted by the availability of star Phoenix. The actor is currently filming the firefighter drama “Ladder 49” and would not have been available to conduct television and print interviews for “Buffalo Soldiers” until early July, the studio said.

All the same, “Buffalo Soldiers” now has been awaiting release for so long that Jordan has directed and released another movie, Heath Ledger’s “Ned Kelly.” That film has opened in Jordan’s native Australia and is scheduled to be released domestically by Focus Features in 2004.


Miramax is hardly the only studio to postpone a film’s release. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, several companies held off releasing a number of completed films whose subject matter was considered overly topical, including the World War II movie “Windtalkers,” the CIA spoof “Bad Company,” the bomb-on-an-airplane comedy “Big Trouble” and the terrorist story “Collateral Damage.”

In almost every case except for the corrupt police drama “Training Day,” the postponed films flopped anyway, perhaps due more to feeble quality than to rescheduling. More recently, 20th Century Fox delayed releasing the sniper drama “Phone Booth” last fall because of loosely similar shooting attacks in Washington. But “Phone Booth” opened in first place April 4 and has grossed a respectable $35 million so far. Meanwhile, Focus Features decided it will not open the film “The Guys” in L.A. on Friday after the film, based on the stage play set in post-Sept. 11 New York, performed horribly in its opening earlier this month in New York.

Before the war began in Iraq, Jordan expressed anger over America’s increasing intolerance for dissent, how those who disagree are labeled unpatriotic.

“Freedom of speech has become such a casualty,” the director said. “People are afraid of even having an opinion. And if your opinion goes against what’s considered the common interest, then you better keep your mouth shut.”