Cresta Marybelle Lee (Candice Bergen) and Private Honus Gant (Peter Strauss) are the only survivors of a Cheyenne attack on an US Army expedition. The two develop a relationship while living with the Cheyennes for two years before they manage to escape, only to be captured by Isaac Cumber (Donald Pleasence) an evil gunrunner, who wishes to profit by returning them to “civilization”. From being a naïve greenhorn the eponymous Honus grows up, partly by interacting with Cresta who horrifies him with her brash uncompromising ways,including spitting, and her anti American attitude. After escaping again Cresta is “rescued” by soldiers but she discovers their intentions and tries to warn the Cheyennes that they will be massacred. When the Cheyennes try to surrender, their pleas for mercy are ignored. Women are raped, children are killed and the entire village is burned to the ground in a grotesque bloody slaughter.
It’s easy to dismiss this film as a trite excuse for a graphic portrayal of bloodlust, just as easy as it is to draw parallels to the Vietnam War and the My Lai massacre. I think both of these are equally erroneous, based on a lack of understanding of both history and the impact of the film as a medium. Firstly the kind of atrocity committed in the film did happen. The film is reputedly based on the Sand Creek Massacre in which White Antelope was gunned down while bearing the White Flag, the Stars and Stripes were displayed by Black Kettle’s Cheyennes, and in which documented unspeakable violence was inflicted on men women and children alike. The leader of the outrage, John Chivington, was fond of the phrase which rationalized such behaviour to infants: “Nits make Lice”. The accuracy of the film's historical depiction is reduced somewhat by the shifting of its date from 1864 to a post Custer date of 1877, one year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The reason for this is hard to second guess, except that the average filmgoer is likely to have heard of Custer, especially in the United States.The reason why the new americans wanted the land- gold- was the same in both cases, but the historical and geographical contexts were totally different.
Secondly, comparisons to My Lai are unduly simplistic, and suffer from same criticism that can be made of most specific comparisons to an historical period. Films, in common with art forms in general,have a clear grounding in the attitudes, values and preoccupations of the period in which they are produced. My Lai happened because of the frustration of troops who could not differentiate between civilians who supported a guerrilla army and that guerrilla army, troops who were likely to be spooked by the nervous tension surrounding the whole military campaign. At Sand Creek a force of volunteer troops were deliberately led to destroy a peaceful village, which they did with cruelty and unbridled sadism. While both were inspired by racism and underlain by economic advantage, this would arguably apply to all imperial ventures. Parallels could just as easily be drawn to any imperial atrocity carried out for material advantage. Soldier Blue is uncompromisingly anti racist at a time when the Civil Rights movement in the United States was so inspirational it had been exported to Northern Ireland and needs to be seen in this context. It is most definitely a film of its time. Just as one can understand the carnage at the conclusion by reference to the times, the romantic relationship is pure late sixties and Cresta is the strident outspoken politically aware feminist from those exciting times.
Unfavourable comparisons with Little Big Man ignore the fact that the humour in Arthur Penn‘s film does tend to dampen down or sanitise the impact of its message. Little Big Man does explore the same ground as this film, but much more subtly, it is brilliant in its own way, but the ground is very broad, witness the rest of this website. There was room for a more strident, uncompromising and provocative statement to support the native Americans who were becoming politically active at this time, having occupied Alcatraz and established the American Indian Movement.
“Soldier Blue handles the material with bludgeoning crudity, Little Big Man with feeling and subtlety”. (Phillip French, Westerns, 2005 p 56)
The film’s social message is heavy handed, but this makes it clear and challenging and, as such, more likely to have considerable impact, which it did.
Complaints that the film stereotypically portrays the native americans as good and the soldiers/ new americans as bad ignore the fact that history is stacked with films that did the opposite. It is a dramatic device which works well in showing that there is a consistent alternative position to that of the new Americans. This criticism does not seem so attractive to reviewers of Dances With Wolves, twenty years later, although here the Pawnee could well have a case for objection, for the Wes Studi character is demonised despite the fact that the Pawnee were a spent force by this time.
Nevertheless, even if we understand a film we do not have to like it. I can fully understand Phillip French’s rather damning assessment of the film:
“an American girl (Candice Bergen) becomes an incredibly articulate critic of her culture (as well as an unbelievably foul mouthed one) after a period of captivity among the Cheyenne”
(Phillip French, Westerns, 2005 p 56)
Soldier Blue has much to commend it as a film. Buffy Sainte-Marie's haunting opening song (Yes this is my country, young and growing free and flowing from sea to sea...). Roy Budd’s score, and its use of cinemascope, the photography is beautiful and visually it is exciting. The plot is rather rambling and the ending shocking and sickening, but it does have a message which “knows where it’s coming from” and is “in your face”, which is probably why we seem either to love it or hate it.
Michael Coyne, in his excellent book "The Crowded Prairie" quotes the New York Times contemporary reviewer Dotson Rader, and it is this sentiment which leads me to value this film so highly, and to doubt those who wish to silence its message: "Soldier Blue in its shattering violence, for a moment snaps the deceitful armour of white "history" and lets blood run through. It is painful to witness. But it is necessary".