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Rough Riders

Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 30, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted July 24, 2006 | E-mail the Author
In 1898 the US government made the decision to intervene on the behalf of the Cuban rebels struggling against the threat of expanding Spanish rule. The man who put forth the heaviest influence upon this decision was Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. By no means was this an effort Roosevelt made in order to simply watch from the sidelines; quite the contrary. Once T.R. set in motion an action which he felt was the right thing for the nation to do, he had no intentions on sitting back and watching the war take place while sitting behind an office desk. He craved action, glory, recognition and was in fact appalled at the idea of the United States going to war without Teddy Roosevelt in the thick of it- he saw the Cuban conflict as his opportunity to lead a regiment of men into battle and further his own name toward becoming one ever more indelible in the history books.

How Roosevelt went about placing himself in the struggle is amazing in itself. After McKinley declares war on Spain TR immediately resigns his office and joins the military, being given permission to form his own volunteer cavalry regiment, which he does- culling over 500 varied, notable men from a list of some 10,000 applicants from all across the nation. Known as "Teddy's Terrors" and "Rough Riders", these men came from all walks of life, rich and poor, Eastern aristocrats and Western cowboys, they nonetheless shared certain attributes essential to T.R.'s vision of what his regiment should be- men devoted to duty with excellent skills on the back of a horse. Alas, the troops wind up having to fight this war on foot rather than horseback, but fight they do against an adversary far better prepared than Roosevelt's men.

Directed by John Milius, he also co-wrote the script and openly admits that his childhood heroes were Teddy Roosevelt (played here by Tom Berenger), George Patton and Hopalong Cassidy. That he knows his subject is relayed to the viewer again and again during the movie. The excellent cast put together for this film is alot of fun to watch as well. Sam Elliott plays real-life Arizona cowboy/sheriff "Bucky" O'Neill, which is essentially a part with which Elliot can utilize the familiar tough as nails, hard nosed persona he is known for in any number of movies. Gary Busey plays boisterous, crafty former Confererate Cavalry General "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler, brought to the fray as commanding Cavalry General by McKinley in order to better unite the post- Civil War Northern and Southern troops. In his final role, Brian Keith plays President William McKinley with a craggy zeal. Seldom seen on screen,George Hamilton puts in a fine performance as elitist newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who is more than happy to use the war in order to increase his sales.

Significant is the stellar performance put in by Tom Berenger as Theodore Roosevelt, as fascinating a Presidential figure as one is likely to study; he is also listed as a co-producer for the film and was vital in having the story taken from concept to screen. While his career has seemed spotty in the years following an Oscar nom for Platoon, this wasn't his first foray into making a war flick for the Turner studios, having put in what I thought was the finest work of his career playing General James Longstreet in Gettysburg; in Rough Riders he proves that to have been no fluke, as his take on the charismatic TR is splendid- though a man born into wealth, over the course of his life he repeatedly aspired to do great things in politics and in many cases succeeded, and did so having suffered traumatic times in his life the likes of which many would never recover from. In 1884 both his mother and his first wife died within hours of each other- his mother at age 48 of Bright's Disease, and his wife falling victim to typhoid fever at the age of 22. Devastated, Roosevelt spent most of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory. He lived in the saddle, driving cattle, hunting big game and even capturing an outlaw, gaining the respect of his peers in spite of his refined eastern manner by showing grit and a will to accomplish whatever he set his mind to.

Most viewers will likely not be aware of the fact that much of Roosevelt's self-confidence was earned honestly as the result of physical adversity from the time he was an infant. Teddy was stricken with asthma as a child and in fact there was doubt he would live to see his fourth birthday; at age 11 his father took him aside and bluntly told him he had to take control of both his body and his life if he wanted to see adulthood. The result is the man we see roaring to go to war, now virile and alive having put his body through constant rigorous exercise in a number of fields in order to grow stronger. Accomplishing this only added to his brash, cocky persona; Roosevelt may have been born into elitism, but his literal survival was owed to personal strength of will. While the Teddy we see engineering the beginnings of his own personal war is preening, overzealous and green, he is also a man wise enough to learn the art of military leadership from friend and superior Leonard Wood (Dale Dye) and as is the case with many men, the taste of battle seasons, and yes, even humbles him a little along the way.

Whereas many films depict the beginnings of war in a stern fashion with the men who join stoic and determined, this film is about a war that lasted less than three months, and in many ways was started by the U.S. in order to simply have a war for that generation of Americans to fight in; likewise, the men from so many walks of life seem to be looking for a number of diverse things when volunteering for it. Questions about manhood, courage, honor and pride seem to come from many; others are seeking a way to escape their present day lives for one reason or another. There is a curious camaraderie among these men from all imaginable social circles, Harvard banker to bank robber taking up arms. The feeling one gets as the thousands of volunteers enlist is that of men craving adventure rather than vengeance, but soon find out that a soldier's life is about staying alive and killing the enemy- a hard job Bucky O'Neill pounds into his troops. Upon the U.S. invasion of Cuba they quickly discover it was a lesson well worth having learned, for the Rough Riders are swiftly engaged in bloody fighting. As with other Turner productions, the battle sequences here are tense and vivid, drawing the viewer into the fight; over half the film consists of the fighting in Cuba, culminating in the long, terrible campaign to take San Juan Hill.

The DVD-

Clocking in at 184 minutes, the miniseries is presented over two dual layer discs in a single Amaray keepcase.


Aspect ratio here is 1.33:1 fullscreen, preserving the film's original television exhibition. There are smatterings of slight print damage, especially at the beginning but this clears up very quickly. I found the transfer to look a trifle soft but video is mostly clean and colors are natural. On the whole a good effort.


The audio track here is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Nothing fancy here, just a solid track that is clear and easy to understand.


Commentary by Director/Co-Writer John Milius and Executive Producer William J. MacDonald- A rather lavish and informed commentary track by these two men, very much a joint effort in which the two discuss not just the movie but the biography as well as the TR persona as well as Berenger's considerable involvement in the creation process of getting a movie about Roosevelt to the screen. Both Milius and MacDonald are obviously knowledgeable about Teddy's life politically as well as historically and intersperse their own takes on the events of the time as well as the many efforts necessary in order to quickly film the movie, apparently in a period of 50 or so days. The two seem to have alot of fun doing the track; great stuff for anyone interested in the film.

Final Thoughts-

Rough Riders makes no bones about that fact that it is a study in American patriotism and the unselfish will of men willing to die in battle, with a diverse assemblage of larger than life characters being portrayed as heroes when called upon to serve their country. To get an idea of the kind of charismatic notoriety Teddy had in the period one can make a plausible comparison to Gov. Schwarzenegger; Roosevelt seemed born to someday be at the nation's helm. Berenger absolutely nails the part of Teddy Roosevelt, and fine takes by Busey, Dye, and Elliott make this a movie well worth watching for any war film fan or history buff. Highly recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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