Stars and strife

Buffalo Soldiers - a warts-and-all portrait of US Army life - was bought by Miramax on 10 September, 2001. It's been the subject of controversy ever since. Leslie Felperin reports on an 'un-American' film that almost got buried

Given that, these days, Americans are as jumpy as a box of frogs about any criticism of their country, it's not surprising that they've got their panties in a bunch about the poster for Buffalo Soldiers. It shows actor Joaquin Phoenix - who plays an enlisted man running a profitable drugs and stolen goods business in 1989 out of a US Army base in what was then West Germany - flashing the two-fingered peace sign (clearly a tribute to the famous poster for Robert Altman's MASH of 1970). At the top, the tagline reads "Steal all that you can steal", a riff on the US Army's own pseudo-empowering "Be all that you can be" slogan, while below Phoenix stands before an American flag, its stars turned into dollar signs. Buffalo Soldiers comes out in the US on 25 July and its distributor, Miramax, has been getting outraged calls for several months from people who think the poster is unpatriotic and paints the green camouflage of the heroic boys of the US Army in a less than flattering light.

Over lunch in London, the film's Australian director Gregor Jordan, a laid-back, jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy with a hearty laugh, tells me he's a little taken aback by all the furore, which includes not just the poster kerfuffle but also people walking out of its screening at Sundance and denouncing its supposed "un-Americanism". A non-plussed Jordan explains: "I made this film before there was such a thing as September the 11th." Miramax actually bought the film on 10 September, 2001.

Thanks to the events in New York, Miramax put Buffalo Soldiers on hold. And for a while it seemed the film - a robust satire illustrating the corruption, drug use and violence that goes on in US Army bases - might disappear altogether. Jordan's forehead crumples at the memory. "I was surprised I got any flak at all. After September 11, I thought the movie would be affected, but I hoped that maybe it would be a good thing, that it would key into a debate about war and why this shit is going on. It's something quite terrifying that people have gotten so upset about it, and that says something about America. Here in the UK no one gets upset, but over there, where the President is fighting these military campaigns in the name of democracy, the first casualty seems to be freedom of speech, the cornerstone of any democracy."

Jordan was so concerned by the mood of the country during the most recent military activity that, a few months ago, he asked for the movie's release to be delayed. Buffalo Soldiers was due to go out at the start of May this year, but the war in Iraq, as far as Jordan was concerned, was too big an obstacle to sidestep. "I thought, 'This is not the time to be putting this movie out. If we leave it a couple of months, the war'll be over and off all the front pages. Then we'll go.'" The irony is that now the war is over, and 'peace' has begun, the film feels more relevant than ever.

I tell Jordan that my brother was posted to the Army in Germany and said the kind of shenanigans depicted in the movie went on all the time - and worse. Jordan's chuffed to hear that, and tells me his military advisor for the film, an ex-Army Ranger, also told him he'd got it bang on. "He said he actually hated army movies that glorify and sanitise the life because it's just not real, and said that Buffalo Soldiers was the most accurate film he'd ever seen about army life." Jordan himself grew up on air-force bases and his father flew missions in Vietnam. Has his father seen the film? "He hasn't seen it yet. He read the script and thought it was pretty interesting. My mother read it and got a bit upset because she said it reminded her of when Dad was in the air force and she used to meet people all the time like that - all they wanted to do was kill someone."

Jordan shot the movie on location back in 2000 with backing from the now-defunct UK mini-major FilmFour, another reason why it's taken it so long to get to British screens. One doubts any production company now would have the guts to make something like it again. Based on the cult novel by Robert O'Connor, which Jordan adapted from scratch after a few other screenwriters had had a bash, the film depicts the base as a kind of summer camp from hell, focusing on a soldier (Phoenix), who's accepted a tour of duty as an alternative to going to jail (a real scheme offered at the time). Racial violence abounds on the base, and many soldiers are so bored they take up using easily-available drugs. In one hilarious scene a couple of acid-tripping soldiers accidentally crush a VW Beetle by driving over it with their tank. As Jordan explains, this was based on a real incident - except there was still someone in the car at the time. Jordan decided to make it an empty car in a later draft, lest the film end up viewing "like Bad Lieutenant in the army".

The film's original tagline, thrown out in favour of "Steal all that you can steal", came from Nietzsche: "Where there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself." (Wouldn't it be great if we lived in world where Nietzsche was used for taglines). Jordan sees the film as a way to convey a fundamental facet of human nature. "There are guys out there who really love war and if they don't have a war, they'll go and create one. I'd never seen that idea put across in a film before. In fact, a lot of war films say the opposite. Look at Saving Private Ryan. They keep saying, 'I just want to go home, I just want to get back to my wife,' and so on. I'd never seen characters before who say, 'I fucking love it here! Home is so boring!' Which is kind of true. Maybe Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse Now comes the closest, but he's also clearly crazy. The original book put forward the idea that professional soldiers train for years to go to war and when one comes it's what they're trained to do. Its idea about the military is quite pessimistic, that war is innate to human beings."

Jordan's star Joaquin Phoenix agrees. "I don't think the film takes sides. There's no winners or losers in it, just those who are allowed to fight another day. But also it's sort of cynical, because this isn't a movie that ends with a 'give peace a chance' message, more like a shrug saying, 'Well, that's the world.' In that way, I don't know why anyone would be offended. It wasn't a movie that was intended to offend. And if we don't show things as they really happen, then what's that about? Censorship!"

A fan of the film (which, he explains, is one of the few he's been in that he's actually watched after making it), Phoenix staunchly defends its honour. "I've never seen the film as anti-American, but more a movie about the dangers of power. But isn't to be anti-authority what it means to be American? Isn't that totally American? That's what seems weird to me about the controversy because this is a time when to ask such hard questions is appropriate. When everyone is fucking satisfied and there's nobody out there asking to be heard. Sometimes the attitude in America is just to keep watching American Idol. I think there's a danger that while we're watching who gets voted off the show, we're not watching what the President is doing in our name at home or abroad."

He bridles at the word "patriot". "I feel an immense connection to - and I'm sorry if it sounds so cheesy - the world, and I don't put one country in front of another. I love my life, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't have the right to criticise. We have to protect the rights that we do have."

Incidentally, Phoenix almost missed a chance to make the movie because his agent at the time declined the low salary on his behalf. Jordan had to smuggle the script to him through the back door. Phoenix loved it, signed on for it, and sacked his agent. An underrated actor, he gives arguably the best performance of his career so far, bringing a roguish, outsider's charm to the part, holding his own against such heavyweight actors as Ed Harris and Scott Glenn, as nice and nasty colonels respectively.

Phoenix and Jordan are now good friends, though Phoenix points out that he's never seen Two Hands, Jordan's first feature-length film. "I was worried if I saw it I'd think it sucked."He giggles. "So all through the movie for three months, [Jordan] was constantly referencing Two Hands: [mimics accent] 'Like you remember the scene in Two Hands? And I'd just nod my head and go, 'Yeah.' At the wrap party, I finally told him I hadn't seen it and he laughed.

Jordan clearly finds it easy to laugh at himself. Now that Buffalo Soldiers is finally getting a release, we'll be able to see if flag-waving Americans can do the same.

'Buffalo Soldiers' is released 18 July

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