I’ve lived in Colorado for almost 20 years and have been thrilled to be able to raise my kids in this beautiful place. As my kids have gotten older, I’ve really been impressed with the way our schools here put an emphasis on teaching the history of our region. In fact, 4th grade students spend a lot of time on the subject. At my kids’ school they even do a program where the students dress up as various famous Coloradans. The film we’re looking at today, 1970’s Soldier Blue, involves what is one of the darkest moments in the history of Colorado…the Sand Creek Massacre.
As the film opens, a young woman named Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) is being taken by a group of cavalry soldier to meet up with her fiancé. Cresta has spent some time living amongst a group of Cheyenne. In fact, she was a wife to their leader, Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero). He is quite anxious to get her back, as the cavalry soon learns when a group of Indians attacks. The only survivors are Cresta and a young soldier named Honus Gent (Peter Strauss).
Cresta and Honus now must try to make their way to Fort Reunion, but it will be no easy journey. They must deal with the elements, other hostile natives, and the simple fact that Cresta is a pain in the neck! She makes it clear to Honus early on that she has no love for soldiers and that it is the natives who are suffering at the hands of the real savages…the military.
Along the way they also meet up with a strange traveler, Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence). He’s been smuggling guns to the Indians, which is just fine with Cresta and treasonous to Honus. After our heroes manage to escape from him, things start to turn a bit romantic for the pair. Still, they end up separated with Cresta going back to the Cheyenne and Honus back with the Cavalry just in time for the infamous massacre at Sand Creek.
Before I break this all down, please understand where I’m coming from here. The Sand Creek Massacre was a horrible event. It is perhaps my home state’s darkest day, but this is not a commentary on history. This is about a film…and in my opinion, a rather poorly made film. I seriously almost gave up on this film 2 minutes in when I could not take any more of the truly awful Buffy Sainte-Marie song that warbles over the opening credits. Ok, I may be exaggerating a bit there, but it is a bit hard to take.
So much of this film just focuses on the two main characters, so its success depends on how the audience connects with them. Candice Bergen’s approach to her role essentially pushes the audience away right from the get go. She delivers all of her lines with teeth clenched and little regard for concepts like subtlety or nuance. It also doesn’t help that her dialogue is way over-scripted. Essentially, it’s like watching a campus activist giving an angry speech…only there’s no campus and no audience other than poor old Honus.
I also really struggled with the lack of visual creativity on display in this film. The western landscapes are presented as drab and flat. Then the actors are so clumsily placed in this scenery that they seem to just blend in. I didn’t see any indication in the credits of where this was filmed, but all I can say is this, “I’ve lived in Colorado. I know Colorado. Colorado is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Colorado.”
Now, of course, we need to address the film’s conclusion. The depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre itself. In true post-Wild Bunch style, there are several bursts of bright blood throughout the film, but the violence at the end is turned up to 11, for lack of a better term. As I’ve already said, this historical event was, indeed, bloody and terrible…yet this film seems a bit too gleeful in its depiction of it. Even the film’s poster sensationalized the whole thing with the words “The Most Savage Film in History” in big bold letters. Even by today’s standards the film is very graphic. However, it becomes all too clear as the filmmakers lead up to this moment that their primary concern really isn’t to inform us about an attack on Native Americans that happened 106 years earlier. This is really about Vietnam, but the film is just so clunky as it tries desperately to be meaningful.
The historical events at the climax of Soldier Blue are both tragic and important. They are not to be ignored. Sadly, this is a film that loses sight of the things that could strike a chord in the souls of its viewers. In the end, it sinks to the level of being little more than a self-important exploitation film.