14 October 2003 | cariart
Rousing Milius Adventure!
ROUGH RIDERS, John Milius' tribute to the legendary Spanish-American War volunteer unit headed by future President Theodore Roosevelt, can be nearly considered a 'prequel' to his classic, THE WIND AND THE LION. Certainly no director has ever presented a richer portrait of one of the most complex, fascinating men of the twentieth century than Milius has, in these two films.
When 'War Fever' against the Spanish grips the nation, fueled by the inflammatory headlines of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (flamboyantly played by George Hamilton), young Teddy Roosevelt (Tom Berrenger, who is superb), exhibiting the headstrong energy he was famous for, decides he has to be a part of it. Getting veteran Apache fighter Col. Leonard Wood (real-life film military adviser Dale Dye) to command his unit, Roosevelt puts out a call for volunteers, and his name, already famous nation-wide, draws an extraordinary mix of personalities, from bank robbers (Brad Johnson, in one of his best performances), to a frontier marshal (Sam Elliott, who would play a similar character in WE WERE SOLDIERS), to Indians (Bob Primeaux and David Midthunder, both excellent), to a group of Ivy Leaguers (led by LAW AND ORDER star Chris Noth).
At a White House meeting, President William McKinley (a frail-looking Brian Keith, who had portrayed 'T.R.' in THE WIND AND THE LION) and his Secretary of State, John Hay (R. Lee Ermey), appoint southern Congressman 'Fighting Joe' Wheeler to lead the American forces, with the rank of General (primarily to appease a South still bitter over the Civil War). An ex-Confederate officer (portrayed by Gary Busey, who nearly steals the film), Wheeler takes a liking to Wood and Roosevelt, and to 'Black Jack' Pershing's 'Buffalo Soldiers' (the famous Black regiment), over the 'regular Yankees', and does his best to give them preference, while offering his 'unreconstructed' advice.
With the eyes of the world on them, the 'Rough Riders' train (Elliott says, bluntly, "I'll teach them to become killers"), bond (the cowboys are stunned when Ivy Leaguer Noth easily breaks a stallion, then are told that he is a champion polo player), and show complete devotion to the eccentric but beloved Roosevelt ("He's one of us," one cowboy says, proudly). Despite a series of snafus (the horses get left behind, turning the unit into a 'dismounted cavalry'), the 'Rough Riders' make it to Cuba, and the thick of battle.
With legendary personalities Hearst, Fredric Remington (Nick Chinlund), Stephen Crane (Adam Storke), and Edward Marshall (William Katt) chronicling their actions, Roosevelt and his unit would be bloodied but unbowed, achieving immortality, with the 'Buffalo Soldiers' beside them, at the Battle of San Juan Hill...
Told as a flashback narrated by Brad Johnson, ROUGH RIDERS emerges as a remarkable history of a group of remarkable men. At the film's center is, of course, Berrenger's remarkable portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt, who, experiencing war first-hand, matures dramatically, developing the courage and strength of character that would soon make him a truly great President.
John Milius proves, again, that he is one of America's most underrated directors. ROUGH RIDERS is superb!