This week’s pick salutes the heroes of a forgotten American war, The Spanish American War which until the First Gulf War, was the shortest war in American history. John Milius (Red Dawn, Flight of the Intruder, The Wind and the Lion), directs Rough Riders, which stars Tom Berenger as future American president Teddy Roosevelt who commanded the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry unit during the war.
Originally aired as a three hour mini series in 1997 on TNT Networks, the film is a fantastic look at the men who made history against Spanish hegemony in 1898 Cuba. The film stars a who’s who of great actors and characters who would help to shape history. Gary Busey (Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler) commander of all cavalry units during the war, and a U.S. Congressman as well, Brian Keith (President William McKinley), Dale Dye (Col. Leonard Wood) Marshall R. Teague (Lt. John “Black Jack” Pershing), and Adam Storke (Stephen Crane).
As the United States was entering the twentieth century, its presence on the world stage was beginning to take hold. The Spanish American War was what allowed the U.S. to become a major player in world events, and allowed the U.S. to forever wield the “Big Stick” of foreign policy. The film opens up with a brilliant montage of newspaper headlines which depict the defenseless Cubans battling their Spanish masters, while Uncle Sam looks on with a sense of anger and an overwhelming desire to help the oppressed.
Famed newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton) who actually accompanied American forces in battle, is the man who stirred up American sentimentality and helped to shape political opinion for the U.S. government to take immediate action in Cuba after the U.S.S. Maine was attacked in Cuban waters. Hearst was quoted as saying “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”. Soon after the American public cried out “Remember the Maine and to hell with Spain”. The war was also an excuse for the U.S. to exercise its Monroe Doctrine, a centuries old policy of keeping out European influence in the western hemisphere, and the right to engage in military action if its special interests were threatened.
Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt uses his vast influence among Washington circles to join Col. Leonard Wood’s (Dale Dye) volunteer cavalry unit in hopes to see a real war before it’s over. Roosevelt is made a Lt. Col. and Wood’s adjutant. Roosevelt’s first job is to aid in the recruitment of the cavalry which was one of the widest assortments of cowboys, Indian fighters, mountain men, ivy league athletes, bandits, and future captains of industry, the “Wildest mad cat bunch since the Mongols rode the steppes”. Berenger plays an absolutely perfect Roosevelt who studied his mannerisms very well, right down to his “BULLY” expression. His performance rivals that of Brian Keith’s version in Milius’s The Wind and the Lion (1975).
Other fantastic performances include Milius alumni Brad Johnson (Flight of the Intruder) as Henry Nash, an Arizona bandit who reluctantly joins the volunteers in order to avoid the hangman, Sam Elliot as Capt. Bucky O’Neill (head of G Troop of the Rough Riders), Chris Noth (Craig Wadsworth), the son of a New York industrialist who wants to experience life as soldier, Bob Primeaux (Indian Bob) a Sioux warrior and member of G Troop, Adam Storke as American author and narcotics abuser Stephen Crane, best known for his 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage, and of course Gary Busey as Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler, who was commissioned by McKinley to take command over the cavalry units.
Wheeler had fought for the Confederacy during the War between the States or “Civil War”, and was a highly decorated man with over thirty years of military experience. Busey plays him brilliantly as a man who is truly alive only in battle. His son who serves as his adjutant is always correcting him when he refers to the Spanish as either “Yankees” or “Federals”, two references to Union troops in the Civil War. One other great scene is when his horse is shot by a sniper in a tree. He turns to his adjutant and says “That’s the first time in thirty years I’ve had a horse shot out from underneath me. It’s still a thrill son”. These scenes always make me laugh out loud.
The uniforms in the film are very well done. They are typical horse cavalry uniforms of that era complete with red stripes along the side of the trousers, infantry leggings around the shoes to keep out rocks and sand, campaign hats, canteens, and assorted weapons such as the Colt machine guns model 1895, and the magazine fed Norwegian Krag-Jorgensen carbine rifles which were used by American forces in the war. They were beautiful weapons, but they were no match against the German rifles that the Spanish were equipped with. After the war the 1903 Springfield rifle which was in U.S. service through the first early campaigns of World War II, was based on captured Spanish and German rifles from Cuba.
The epic battle scene occurs towards the end of the film where the American forces attack San Juan Heights on July 1, 1898; the iconic battle of the war which defeated the entrenched Spanish, turncoat Cuban, and German garrison there. Roosevelt leads his mad-cat troopers against the enemy emplacements and helps to end the war. A unit comprised of men from all walks of life, which was turned into an infantry unit due to not being able to bring their horses with them from embarkation in Florida, managed to defeat a well trained foreign enemy, and helped achieved Cuban independence. These actions helped the U.S. win not only Cuba as a place for American warships, but as a base of operations for rule over the Caribbean. The U.S. also acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines as its spoils of war with Spain. The Spanish American War made the U.S. the super power it has been for well over one hundred years.
History fun facts: Brigadier Wood would later serve as military governor of Cuba. Lt. John J. Pershing would have a long distinguished career as the head of the American expeditionary force in Mexico in 1916 against famed bandit Pancho Villa, and later as the head of American forces on the Western Front of World War I (1917-18). He is also one of only a few Generals who hold the rank of General of the Army.
Rough Riders is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.