In the broad scheme of things there haven't been too many movies about Buffalo Soldiers—the African American men of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiments. John Ford's 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge, starring Woody Strode in the title role, is one of the best, and it's not exactly the director's finest moment. Meanwhile there's the blaxploitation era film Soul Soldiers, starring Rafer Johnson, which is hands down the worst film about Buffalo Soldiers. The most over-rated has to be Glory, which is loved by many, but ultimately a disappointing film that focuses far too much attention Matthew Broderick's white commanding officer, and not enough attention of the black troops (which historically speaking were not yet referred to as Buffalo Soldiers). There are one of two more films out there, but none of them do justice to this forgotten bit of U.S. history, or they simply aren't that entertaining. Which is why I went into this made-for-television movie with so much apprehension—it just didn't seem like it could be that good of a film.
Well, much to my surprise, Buffalo Soldiers turned out to be a well-made film that overcomes most of the usual trappings of both made for television fare, which can tend to include pedestrian direction, tepid writing, and weak performances. More importantly, Buffalo Soldiers manages to overcome the biggest problem all the other films of this nature have had. Specifically, a white person is not the central character of this film, with an ensemble of black actors playing supporting roles. This film is about the black soldiers of the 9th and 10th, and for that reason alone, the film is worth checking out.
Danny Glover stars as First Sergeant Washington Wyatt of H Company, a regiment of black soldiers stationed in the New Mexico territory in the 1800s. Wyatt, like many of the men he serves with, is a former slave. His career in the Army affords him more respect than his life as a slave did, but not much. He and his fellow troops are still treated as inferiors, and they still face incredible racism from their white commanding officers, and the white citizens of the frontier they are charged with protecting. But the big challenge facing Wyatt and his men is the amassing army of Apaches that has been responsible for the murders of white settlers throughout the territory. Lead by the enigmatic Victorio, the Apaches are gaining numbers as they unite with other renegade bands of fighters, and it is up to the men of H Company to stop them before a full-scale war breaks out. After a series of deadly encounters with Apache fighters, Wyatt and his men finally find themselves in a situation where a confrontation with Victorio is imminent. But as the deadly showdown draws closer, the men must wrestle with their conscious, as they realize that despite their perceived freedom, they are still doing the bidding of their white masters.
It's no great secret that there have been very few good westerns in the last ten years. And despite the fact that it is made for TV, Buffalo Soldiers is one of the better westerns to come along in the last decade. Charles Haid's direction has enough grit, and there's enough violence that you could almost forget this film originally aired on TNT. But where the film succeeds most is the performance of the cast. Glover is great, and his is surrounded by an ensemble of character actors that all turn in great work, especially Glynn Turman and Michael Warren as his fellow soldiers, and Carl Lumbly as a half-breed Indian scout. The film's biggest weakness comes in the end, with a climax that tries to reconcile the crisis-of-conscious the soldiers face in a way that will leave everyone feeling good. Well, the end does have a feel-good quality to it, but also a bit unrealistic given the reality of history. But despite a finale that seems to be a product of the politically correct era in which the film was originally produced, Buffalo Soldiers is still a great movie.
And for those of you wondering where the name Buffalo Soldiers comes from: In real life the men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry got the nickname Buffalo Soldiers from the Indians they engaged in combat. The name came from the thick dark hair of the black soldiers, which the Native Americans felt resembled buffalo wool, as well as the way the soldiers of 9th and 10th fought.
Buffalo Soldiers is presented full frame. The image transfer is spotless, with vibrant colors.
Buffalo Soldiers is presented in Dolby Digital stereo.
There are no bonus features on Buffalo Soldiers.
If you are a fan of westerns, or a student of black history, you should definitely check this film out. And even if you don't quite qualify as one or the other, Buffalo Soldiers is still entertaining enough that it warrants watching.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]