Except for the visceral violence and the gender reversal almost plays like a traditional western, mismatched pair, army private Honus (Peter Strauss) and white squaw Cresta (Candice Bergen), trekking through Indian Country until finally ending up where they started, he at the cavalry fort, she back with her Native American husband Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero). Initially viewed as an allegory of Vietnam, specifically the My Lai massacre of 1968, no less powerful for that element not resonating so much.
From the outset this U.S. cavalry troop has little in common with the polished units of the John Ford era, the alcoholic commander, sex-obsessed soldiers, while the Cheyenne are considerably smarter, knocking off the unit not to rescue Cresta but to steal the money being ferried to the fort in order to buy rifles. The soldiers are so raw they don’t even post “flankers” to warn of imminent danger, are taken by surprise and decimated within minutes.
Cresta, who has a better grasp of the terrain, is first to find safety, later joined by Honus. Usually, it’s the male who is dominant, the female weak, needing rescued, tended and escorted home across perilous territory. There’s nothing innocent about Cresta who shocks Honus with her cursing and the way she strips off underwear that will hold her back over their long journey. While he makes his bones, defeating a Kiowa chief in a knife fight and demonstrating his marksmanship by shooting a rabbit, largely it’s down to Cresta to plot their course, tutor the young man in the ways of the wild, and get them out of scrapes.
There’s not much to the plot except them growing closer, eventually huddling together for warmth, while she fills him in on the genocidal tendencies of the U.S. government and how life on a reservation will ruin the indigenous people. But the preachy stuff takes second place to their relationship, the virginal Honus surprised by his own feelings, made more difficult by the fact that his more worldly companion has a fiancé back in camp.
There’s an interlude of sorts when they are captured by the itinerant Cumber (Donald Pleasance), uncovering and destroying his cache of rifles intended for the Native Americans, and pursued as a result.
Although theoretically, the action takes place after Little Big Horn in 1876, the references are to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. We’re given no backstory as to how Cresta came to be welcomed in the Native American camp and was accepted as the wife of Spotted Wolf, and she is regarded almost as a traitor for succumbing. The narrative drives the audience towards Honus as the shocked observer on one side of the battle and Cresta as part of the Native American camp outnumbered by the massed Cavalry and massacred.
The film is more remembered for the violence than the performances which is a shame because Candice Bergen (The Magus, 1968) is particularly good as the far-from-typical Western woman, not just in her defence of the Native Americans, but in her gutsiness and know-how, and in a superb gender reversal becoming the protector of the male rather than the other way round. Peter Strauss (Hail, Hero, 1969) makes the transition from youth to maturity, from staunch defender of American policy to outraged witness of its barbarity.
While you would need to track back in history to get the Vietnamese references, you will need little reminder of the atrocities armies can visit on the defenceless. The movie appeared at the same time as Dee Brown’s non-fiction book Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, the first major work to take a different perspective on the Indian Wars. I’ve just finished reading The Earth Is Weeping by John Cozzens, published in 2016, who had greater access to historical data and presented the story in less black-and-white terms and which would have challenged a narrative that placed Cresta as a loved and loving wife in a Native American camp.
Whichever version you read, the outcome is still the same – unforgivable genocide.
The U.S. commander here, Col Iverson (John Anderson) is a pitiless creature. Once the main Native American force has been wiped out, he does nothing to prevent the subsequent raping and killing, some of the scenes filmed too strong for audiences weaned on the violence of the spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch (1969).
Director Ralph Nelson (Duel at Diablo, 1966) almost employs the bait-and-switch approach, lulling us with minimal violence in a tale of the couple’s journey across the wilderness, before revealing the appalling unstoppable climax. John Gay (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968) wrote the script based on the Theodore V. Olsen novel Arrow in the Sun.
Still retains its power half a century on.
5 thoughts on “Soldier Blue (1970) ****”
I remember seeing the trailer in 1971 and deciding not to see the film. I was put off by the suggestion of exploitative violence. But I also remember Buffy Saint-Marie and her hit song and I was a big fan of Ulzana’s Raid. I’m intrigued by what you say about the film and more recently I’ve read various historical and fictionalised accounts of the girls captured by different Native American peoples during the colonisation of their lands. I’ll now look out for Soldier Blue. btw Duel at Diabolo is one of two films referenced in Jordan Peele’s Nope.
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I suspect The Wild Bunch had raised the barriers regarding acceptable movie violence but that was merely bloody rather than objectionably brutal. The Earth Lies Weeping gives some excellent accounts of what happened to white squaws that doesn’t fit this narrative. But on the back of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the idea that we had been old a shoddy bill of goods by Hollywood had taken root. There was a report in today’s paper that the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow had until recently proudly displayed Native American artefacts from one of these massacres, never questioning the morality of doing so.
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When did Kelvingrove stop this? The revamp in the early 2000’s?
Skipped this due to the rape content, although the damage was done when I saw Straw Dogs at 11….
Straw Dogs at 11 – that’s censorship for you!
Think the Indian stuff was later than that. They were still arguing about ownership.