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Rough Riders:
The Last Movie about Real Americans?

[1]4,304 words

“A splendid little war” was how Secretary of State John Hay described the Spanish-American War of 1898. Since Hay had served in Abraham Lincoln’s administration, he had had a lot of experience with more jaundiced wars like the one in the 1860s. The Spanish-American War was little, and its splendor depended upon where you were when it occurred. In DC’s clubrooms and in Congress, it was quite alluring, and was to most of the country. But if you were on the front line taking rounds from Spanish Mausers or suffering agony from malaria or dysentery — which a good part of the army was — it was not so splendid. However, you got to see war, and you experienced brotherhood in combat, which is a major theme of this film. It is “dedicated to the Volunteer soldier, who has served America bravely throughout its history.”

If we remember anything about this war, it is the show-biz aspect of its most famous unit, the First US Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Rough Riders. A mix of volunteers from the Southwest, college students and veterans ready for a real war, this unit’s appeal was partly military and western, and all jingoism. Are you ready to “Remember the Maine” (do you?) and free Cuba?

This was a miniseries that originally aired on TNT in 1997 and was directed by the conservative John Milius. Milius was always fond of Roosevelt, as shown in his earlier film The Wind and the Lion (1975), which also deals with the era and its jingoism.

Rough Riders begins with a monologue by Teddy Roosevelt (played by a very spirited Tom Berenger) calling America forth to be strong, determined, manly (they really talked like that then), and ready when she is tested. Roosevelt’s stirring speech implies that America needed a crisis (the crucible of war is what would have been said at the time) to see what she was made of. As the newspaper mogul William Hearst (a semi-oily George Hamilton) tells the artist he sends to Cuba: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst is jubilant when America declares war.

Rough Riders is flag-waving, but also shows how the system molds people to view a crisis. Spain’s rotten oppression of Cuba is shown through the eyes of Hearst’s press, and the voice-over of Henry Nash (Brad Johnson) is that of a plain, average American trying to make sense of it all — but not much, because we’re Americans, we’ve got to fight those oppressive Spaniards, and men — good, American men — want to be part of this fight.

The story is told through three viewpoints. Nash, who robs a stagecoach, joins the Rough Riders to flee the law, and slowly becomes a part of the team. There is Craig Wadsworth (Chris Noth), an upper-class man who wishes to experience war; he is curious, uneasy, and feels he needs some kind of test of manhood. Then there is Teddy Roosevelt, and no more need be said except that he gives us the official, historic view — but, like Wadsworth, has doubts about whether he’ll be equal to the task.

One of the film’s high points is Joe Wheeler (a splendidly robust and snide Gary Busey), a Congressman and former Confederate general who had a dozen horses shot out from under him. President McKinley (a weary and visibly ailing Brian Keith; Keith committed suicide shortly after the film was completed) tells Wheeler they are ready to fight and need his participation. After some more official fluttery, Wheeler cocks a sly grin: “What you mean is, you need a Southerner.” It’s obvious a war against a united foreign enemy will heal the Civil War’s still visible wounds and a touchy racial situation. Wheeler tells McKinley not to worry, because “the South always likes a good fight.” After getting assurances that this appeal to glory and political unity isn’t a backhanded way of taking his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee away from him, Wheeler is put in charge of the Volunteers.

Since Rough Riders was a TNT production and Milius had Ted Turner’s approval, who is known for his love of the Old South, there are lots of positive references to the South and the Confederacy, and it becomes apparent that the Rough Riders have the spirit of the Confederate army. They are always at odds with the regular army, and Wheeler inspires them to march, fight, and engage like the Confederate army did.

The film features a great group of actors led by Sam Elliot as Bucky O’Neill, an Arizona lawman who Elliot plays his usual manner of a gruff scene-stealer. O’Neill is suspicious of Nash and keeps his eye on him.

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The Rough Riders assemble for basic training, and the film goes through the usual overlong training sequences, as well as the usual clichés about all Americans joining together to fight: cowboys, Harvard men, robbers . . . It’s familiar and well-done, with lots of big, musical Marlboro Man on the soundtrack. A multicultural touch is added by Rafael Castillo (Francesco Quinn), a Hispanic caballero ready to fight, and Indians aren’t left out: one joins the Rough Riders, a Sioux, and Indian Bob (Bob Primeaux) is an Apache who will assist O’Neill in turning the men into killers. “The Spaniard is cruel,” O’Neill says in a low, threatening tone, saying that the Rough Riders must learn cruelty and killing to survive. It’s the usual basic training routine, recalling Vietnam, when we were told how deadly and evil Victor Charlie was, and during the Cold War about how Ivan was likewise. I suppose the same rhetoric was used in relation to “terrorists,” but now that we’re rock solid with Ukraine, Ivan is probably back in style.

In a bout of political correctness, Indian Bob says he’s not going to Cuba with the gang because he is an Apache, and they are still at war with the US government, so he will return to Indian school. I note how many flag-waving Americans always have a soft spot for Indians, from the 1973 movie Billy Jack to all those blue-eyed, blonde types proudly bragging about their Cherokee descent.

As the Rough Riders depart we get the full Americana treatment of cheering crowds, lots of free booze, and even the hookers give the Riders freebies. War is hell? Not so far.

When their train passes through the South, white and black crowds are jubilant. Confederate vets turn out in uniform and salute them. A boy speaks to his grandpa, who is wearing his old, gray uniform. “But they’re Yankees,” he objects. The old vet grins. “No, son; they’re Americans.” Again, another bit of Turner, I think, and there is also the scene at headquarters in Tampa, where a Union officer introduces himself to Wheeler. He fought against him at Atlanta, it turns out. Wheeler is bitter and refuses to shake hands: “Sir, Atlanta isn’t one of my fondest memories.” The Yankees had burned the city, and this must have been put in to please Turner. Such pro-South movies are surely a thing of the past.

Now the problems begin. The US Army is hopelessly log-jammed trying to get its boats to Cuba. They wait. And wait. We are shown Roosevelt having sex with his wife, Edith, as he wonders if he will have the strength of manhood in battle, and what will happen if he dies . . .

The next day Wheeler pulls Roosevelt aside, telling him that the Rough Riders must get the next train. It’s slated for a New York regiment, but, as Wheeler says, Confederates could always outmarch the Yankees, and the Rough Riders have to make the train or miss the war. They abandon their horses, barely making the train and then head off, smiling and catcalling at the shouting, fist-shaking New Yorkers. This actually happened, and in reality the Rough Riders had to leave behind a third of their command as well. But in reality, the vast majority of volunteers across America spent their time in training camps and went nowhere except to parades and taverns. That the Rough Riders actually made it to Cuba was exceptional.

They are then stuck on a boat for two weeks, but the movie rushes us to Daiquiri, where the American forces land to prepare for their assault on Santiago. There’s then another bout of wondering how everyone will do in battle, and much “when I’m tested” by Wadsworth and Roosevelt. Nash just wants to make it out alive, and with O’Neill still eyeing him, expects the worst.

The Rough Riders recon the area and blunder into the Spanish at El Caney. The film shows it as a confused engagement with lots of snap shooting as first blood is drawn. Spaniards fall like leaves as the Rough Riders pop away, although in reality it was a draw. Nash, seeing his comrades fall around him, runs away. But his flight leads him to the Spanish flank, where they gleefully start shooting at him, and he becomes a pop-up target for the laughing troops. Nash is wounded, but their fire draws the Rough Riders, who then charge through the brush and mow down the Spaniards, turning the Spanish flank.

Nash’s cowardice saved the day. He’s honored, but O’Neill glares at him, knowing what really happened.

The Rough Riders then run into another patrol and open fire, only to discover that they are in fact Cuban guerillas. They join together and force the Spanish back. Wheeler is enthusiastic and cheers the men on. “Come on,” he bellows, “let’s get them damn Yankees!”

“Spanish, sir,” his son and aide quietly corrects him. No matter. For the record, Wheeler did actually say this. Headquarters thinks the Rough Riders are bungling the attack (which was true, but in fact the entire American force bungled it), and Wheeler backs his boys. “Sir,” he tells the general, “we have engaged the enemy. We are killing them, and we are advancing.” Wheeler knows what the brass wants to hear, and the Rough Riders deliver the goods as they stumble to victory.

There is an interval with a lot of philosophizing about battle, courage, and manhood. Roosevelt leads this, but Wadsworth is a close second, while O’Neill offers his lawman’s view. As always, the actors are good and rugged, even if the dialogue is a bit long-winded and predictably pompous — sort of like a John Wayne movie’s slow bit before the showdown. As always in these films, someone recites Henry V’s speech from before the Battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day (“We few, we proud, we band of brothers . . .”). These are all good turns, yet some cutting would have helped — but this is a TV movie. Where the movie triumphs is that it’s the characters that keep you watching. Milius cast real, American-looking and -sounding actors. If you want realistic American actors these days, you usually have to go to Canada or Australia.

The next day is the Battle of San Juan Hill. As all history buffs know, it was actually at Kettle Hill where the fireworks took place, but San Juan sounded more show-bizy than Kettle. For a splendid little war, San Juan Hill was a boiling cauldron. The Spanish were entrenched and exacted a heavy toll upon the Americans, not the least due to their Mauser rifles, which were accurate and deadly compared to the older Krag-Jorgensons the Americans were equipped with.

The Rough Riders joined forces with the Tenth Cavalry, a black regiment commanded by Lt. John J. Pershing (a rugged and very commanding Marshall Teague), later commanding general of the army and nicknamed “Black Jack” because he commanded black troops, but also because he was considered a hard-ass.

The Americans are mauled by Spanish fire, and although I empathize with Milius’ attempt to recreate a gory battle, I find inaccuracies in it that got in the way of my enjoyment . . . well, almost. As I said, it has a great cast and does the battle scenes very well. I was surprised there was so little of the Tenth Cavalry. I thought the studio would have been Negro-happy, but this was 1997 and TNT wasn’t typical Hollywood.

As the Spanish are picking off the Americans, Wheeler and Pershing demand support. The brass have their own worries, and at the field hospital Nash is caught between worrying about his wound and going back to the boys. A wounded black soldier, overacting, inspires Nash to limp back into the battle along with him. The black soldier is uneasy about staying at the hospital, where yellow fever (“yellowjack”) is starting to take lives. There was a genuine fear that the US Army would be decimated by fever the longer they stayed in Cuba, so there was a push urge to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

One of the film’s faults is that the Spanish exist only to be gunned down in large numbers, being little more than a useful target for Rough Riders to shoot, stab, and punch. In actuality, the Spanish put up a strong defense. 571 Spanish troops under the resourceful General Pomba held off 4,000 Americans for several hours. Not a word is said about Pomba here. Indeed, the film shows the Spanish being led not by Pomba, but by German advisors. This is a complete inaccuracy, and is one thing about the film that angers me. The Germans direct artillery fire at the Americans and use Maxim machine-guns on them. The Spanish had no machine-guns at the time, nor really much in the way of artillery, although their Mausers were quite effective. During the shooting, Nash tells a defiant O’Neill that he should take cover. Standing tall, O’Neill shrugs him off: “There’s not a Spanish bullet that can get me.” A second later, a shot kills him. This really happened.

After receiving a battering, the Rough Riders get the order to charge, and Roosevelt leads his men into it. It is basically a straightforward attack: the usual American style of no brains, just guts. Their assault was aided by two factors: the hill’s irregular slopes, which offered them a chance to avoid the Mauser fire, and the arrival of Gatling guns under Lt. John Parker, which raked the Spanish positions. Even Roosevelt credits the Gatlings with helping to turn the battle.

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The Rough Riders take the blockhouse that the Spanish were using as their base in the area, scattering the Spanish as they retreat in good order, and overpower their German advisors. To secure the position, Roosevelt forces a German to show his men how to use a Maxim gun so they can provide cover fire during the next attack. Then the German is executed at Roosevelt’s command. Roosevelt calls him a “Hun,” although that term didn’t come into use until the First World War. These inaccuracies bother me. I assume Milius is a kraut-hater because he also villainized the Germans in The Wind and the Lion.

The Wind and the Lion is (very) loosely based on the 1904 Perdicaris incident, when Greek-American merchant Ion Hanford Perdicaris was kidnapped by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a Moroccan chieftain, and held for ransom. This was seen as a slap in America’s face, not to mention the West, decency, and especially Theodore Roosevelt (played by a very robust Brian Keith). Roosevelt sent American ships to join a European task force, as everyone and their mother seemed to want to divide up Morocco. Milius makes the story into a sweeping epic. Perdicaris is played by a winsome Candace Bergen, and Raisuni is a wise Sean Connery. The US Marines fight the Moroccans while, absurdly, a few feet away and well within shooting distance a Marine band plays Sousa. Suddenly the Germans invade and start blasting Raisuni’s forces, but — Semper fi! — the Marines join Raisuni and together they defeat the Germans.

This is all nonsense. There were no Germans in or even near Morocco during this incident. Only four US Marines landed in Morocco: a security detail for a diplomat. As for Perdicaris, sorry, Candace Bergen, but Ion Perdicaris was a 64-year-old man at the time. It might have been a great role for Dustin Hoffman or John Huston, the latter of whom played Secretary of State Hay in the film. The incident did make for lively rhetoric at the 1904 Republican convention, when the slogan “Perdicaris alive or Raisuni dead” helped get Roosevelt a second term as President. When it turned out Perdicaris wasn’t even an American citizen, however, a chagrined Roosevelt and State Department immediately dropped the whole thing. So it seems being a kraut-hater is the easy road to take in Hollywood, especially if you’re Jewish, like Milius.

An interesting footnote to the story of The Wind and the Lion is that its release coincided with the SS Mayaguez being seized in Cambodia in May 1975. The ship, which was American, had crossed into Cambodian waters and Khmer Rouge forces boarded it and took the crew hostage until it could be determined what they were doing there. President Ford was mindful of the horrible publicity the US had received when the USS Pueblo had been seized by North Korea in 1968.

The US sent Marines to rescue the crew, but the operation ended as a muddle because the crew had already been moved to a new location, leading the Marines to assault an island that was heavily defended (the Khmer Rouge were in fact preparing for an attack by the North Vietnamese, not America). This attack was in fact the last action of the Vietnam War. Four Khmer Rouge swift boats were sunk and three American helicopters were destroyed; 38 Americans were killed, as were 25 Cambodians. It turned out that the crew of the Mayaguez was already being released as the attack began. Three Marines were left behind when the withdrawal began, as were the Marines’ dead. The three prisoners were later executed by the Khmer Rouge.

I mention all this because it was said at the time that the White House staff had seen The Wind and the Lion, and that it had partly inspired them to do something. “It was our Patton,” an aide said, referring to the film which allegedly gave President Nixon the idea of invading Cambodia. The Mayaguez incident is regarded as the last page of the story of the Vietnam War, and like that much larger conflict it was a complete failure, with Afghanistan being a more recent example and Ukraine surely being another waiting in the wings.

As should be clear by now, Milius seems to like flag-waving and real, red-blooded American patriotism, but it’s always a tad inaccurate. In Rough Riders, Milius has the famous author Stephen Crane at Cuba, which he was — but he wasn’t at San Juan Hill. During the battle, he and another journalist spout wild, baroque descriptions of battle which teeter close to hamming it up. A better historical character to have would have been Richard Harding Davis, a well-respected and skirt-chasing reporter of the time who was also present and wrote a terse but dramatic account of the battle. But of course, we have to have moving accounts of war as fought by men. Since Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, a classic about the American Civil War, his casting in this solemn study of volunteer soldiers was almost inevitable and typical of Hollywood. Most of them only know three or four figures of American literature; that’s why most of our writers are ignored. There are 15 film versions of Huckleberry Finn.

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Twain might have made a good cameo here, since he opposed the Spanish-American War and our taking of the Philippines, as he argued that we couldn’t really be a republic and an imperialist power at the same time. In 1900, when he appeared alongside a young Winston Churchill, he criticized Britain’s repressive actions in the Boer War but admitted that America’s suppression of Philippine independence made us no better. “Now,” Twain remarked, “we are kin in sin.” Twain had also been a volunteer soldier in the Civil War, but he deserted after a short while, and this would not be in the spirit of the volunteer soldier Milius rhapsodized so fervently in his opening dedication.

The Cuban campaign didn’t end with victory on San Juan Hill, but the movie stops there as the heroes gather. Happy, wounded, exhausted — but they have conquered. They pose for a photograph as, in slow motion behind the American flag, we see one of the buildings that they have just taken from the Spanish — and it belongs to an American sugar company. Old Glory’s slow-motion flapping is a mix of dignity and uncertainty: Were the Rough Riders fighting for Cuban freedom, or for American sugar interests? Therein lies the rub.

We can praise the volunteers and understand their desire to prove themselves in battle, but they were nevertheless fighting an imperialist war. The war with Spain established a pattern America followed throughout the next hundred years: find an incident (or create one), puff up the country with moral indignation and attack, and serve the interests of corporate profit. I try not to be sour about this, but this is simply war biz the American way.

I appreciate the wonderful costumes and period detail in Rough Riders; men and women appear to dress and talk as they really did in 1895. I enjoy the acting of the wide range of character actors, from Tom Berenger’s mirror-like imitation of Roosevelt to Sam Eliot’s splendid Bucky O’Neill to Teague’s Pershing shouting over gunfire to his black troops: “This . . . is the reason your government pays you fifteen dollars a month.” It’s a great popcorn movie, a Western. Perhaps this war was, ultimately, the last Western. But it also conjures images from the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — and now perhaps Ukraine. We have enjoyed our imperial wars, as long as we don’t think of the men and women who were maimed, killed, and mentally shattered in them.

After I saw Rough Riders, I reread my copy of Gore Vidal’s Empire, a novel of the era, and it was pleasurable to enter into a larger view of America’s rulers at the time, such as Roosevelt, who Henry James considered to be “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise.” Roosevelt considered James a snob and a sissy. It is the world of Brooks Adams, who insisted that America seize as much power as it could, constantly reiterating that whoever controls Shansi province in China, with all its coal and iron riches, controls the Earth. It is time for America to become an empire, Brooks said. The Philippines were a good place to start, and so our fleet was sent there to wait for an incident. When it was time to “Remember the Maine,” American forces fought a precise and decisive battle there, unlike in Cuba. Rough Riders ignores the Philippines, as our history classes usually do; the oppressed Cubans, and tough hombres like the Rough Riders and Roosevelt, are better showbiz.

Empire is a meditation on the new American empire, such as Hearst’s machinations; he convinces Caroline Sanford, his new editor, that “the ultimate power is not to preside in a white house or parliament while seated on a throne, but to reinvent the world for everyone by giving them the dreams you wanted them to dream.” What really has more lasting power: a battleship with its colors flapping as it steams across a foreign sea, or a movie whose dream-like images curl around your imagination and psyche during childhood and beyond? Hearst created a new reality for the masses through his media empire, a theme Vidal developed more fully in his Hollywood, where the studios crank out pro-war films during the First World War and then begin narcotizing the public through the screen — leading us to films like Rough Riders. The snake bites its own tail.

Rough Riders ends well enough: Although one soldier returns to an empty shop abandoned by his wife, Wadsworth enjoys New York society and is quietly satisfied that he did his duty for country, class, and honor. Roosevelt beams as he enters his mansion on Oyster Bay, with his children and Edith adoring him.

Nash, the robber who went into battle and reformed, is shown many years later, older and recalling those heroic times, including how he spent part of his hold-up money in buying a monument for O’Neill. It seems that Nash, although heroic and thoughtful, didn’t return the money he stole. He’s not entirely reformed, it seems. But I appreciate the sentimentality involved, as well as Nash’s nostalgia and sense of duty in recalling his time with his “band of brothers.” A criminal becoming virtuous and public-spirited but still keeping his stolen loot is a truly American trait, possessing a sense of irony Mark Twain would have applauded. Nash has, in the American way, “done good.”

And in that sense, so has America. We have an extraordinary sense of equating virtue with cash, clothed in hypocrisy that we inherited from our English forefathers. Truly kin in sin. But I still enjoy Rough Riders. It is great entertainment, with ots of action and salty, scrappy dialogue given by equally salty and scrappy characters. As it is, the American empire seems to be in a restive, perhaps terminal state. Too many lies and too many not quite so victorious foreign wars cling to us like a week of hangovers.

We’ve gone from worshipping Teddy Roosevelt as a war hero to simply worshipping whichever Marvel movie legend is on the screen this month. We had a good run. Rough Riders is a sepia-tinged, splendid show of where it all started, when all we needed to do was “Remember the Maine” and wave a penny flag as we wondered if we would pass the test of combat to become true men, true heroes, and genuine Americans.

Such, such were the joys.

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