Pretty well done
As Jeff Shaara, author of the enjoyable The Old Lion: A Novel of Theodore Roosevelt, says in a conversation with Jared Frederick on Reel History, there are the inevitable limitations of a TV movie and there are certainly historical inaccuracies in Rough Riders but all in all “they did a pretty fine job.”
Above all, Ted Turner’s film benefited from the performance of Tom Berenger as Roosevelt. A lesser actor could have hammed it up much more, having Roosevelt mugging and shouting “Bully!” all the time but Berenger plays it lower key and, we feel, more realistically. The film manages to explore Roosevelt’s motivations and feelings with subtlety and in some depth.
A lot of credit must go to the late Hugh Wilson and to John Milius, who together wrote it, and clearly did their research. Of course they ‘Hollywoodized’ parts of the story; they were putting together an entertaining movie, not making a documentary. But basically, they got it right.
Mr Milius has come in for some stick from certain quarters ever since he wrote those Dirty Harry pictures, and writing and directing the likes of Conan the Barbarian didn’t necessarily endear him to his critics either but he is a voracious reader and prolific writer, and his The Wind and the Lion in 1975 already addressed the Teddy Roosevelt myth – though much more sensationally and less historically.
We begin with the explosion of the USS Maine as casus belli and see Roosevelt, then assistant Naval Secretary, addressing the Naval War College on America’s mission and duty to step onto the world stage. He frankly preaches a war of empire.
We switch to the ‘Wild West’ and the hold-up of a stagecoach. Outlaw Henry Nash (actor Brad Johnson, who sadly was to die of Covid) enlists in order to escape pursuit from a posse led by Buckey O’Neil (Sam Elliott, doing his classic Sam Elliott bit). The real O’Neil did in fact, in 1889, lead a posse in pursuit of some train robbers, and captured them. One of the robbers, William Sterin, possibly did enlist, and was killed on San Juan Hill. In the movie the Nash character (the real Henry Nash was a civic-minded teacher and not an outlaw) does this, and after cynicism and cowardice, steps up heroically and redeems himself. It’s probably the most fictional part of the movie. But that’s OK.
We switch to the East coast and see patrician (and actually rather repellent) rich New Yorkers wishing to emulate their daddies’ exploits in the Civil War and gain glory for themselves, reciting Shakespeare, making oaths and such. One of these, another real person, diplomat and banker’s son Hamilton Fish (Holt McCallany) will play a leading role in the story, becoming a sergeant and perishing on the field of battle.
In reality, the so-called Rough Riders (the name was never official and many other nicknames were given to the regiment) did indeed consist of a wide variety of men, from East and West (and in between). Roosevelt himself, as we know, bestrode the two worlds, a Harvard-educated Easterner who cattle-ranched in the Dakotas.
We then meet Teddy and his wife Edith (Illeana Douglas) and get our first look at Berenger in the part, looking remarkably like the photographs and, as I said, doing an excellent job really. Edith knows her husband wants war and will go to fight and there’s nothing she can say or do to stop it, so accepts. That was probably accurate.
Roosevelt understands that he has no military experience and is happy to serve as second-in-command under his friend Leonard Wood. Wood became Chief of Staff of the US Army, Governor of Cuba and Governor General of the Philippines. Here he is played by Dale Dye, a military man who served as technical adviser as well as actor.
Roosevelt delivers his famous line about President McKinley having “the backbone of a chocolate éclair”. The President is played by Brian Keith, who had in fact been Roosevelt himself for Milius in The Wind and the Lion, but who had cancer at the time (he doesn’t look at all well) and was most sadly to commit suicide before the release of the film. He did a good job as McKinley.
McKinley wants a Southerner in a senior position and recruits Joseph Wheeler. Fighting Joe Wheeler (1836 – 1906) was the talented Confederate cavalry commander and is played (and played up) by Gary Busey as one of the most colorful of the characters in the tale. He reputedly often referred to the Spanish as “Federals”, thinking himself back in the old days. According to Mr Shaara, he plays too active a role, for the real Wheeler was further back and not on the front line in action, but never mind, it’s good cinema.
We also meet the scurrilous William Randolph Hearst, well played by George Hamilton, who delivers to Frederic Remington (Nick Chinlund) the – probably apocryphal – line, “You furnish the images and I’ll furnish the war”. We will often see Remington busily daubing amid the chaos of battle while Hearst taps out sensational copy on his typewriter. Actually, Hearst did visit Cuba, though he was not in the battle. Once again poetic license. The filmmakers do seem to have used Remington’s work to get the look of the thing.
Fred painted it
Other famous figures appear, such as drunken writer Stephen Crane (Adam Storke) and journalist Edward Marshall (William Katt) and they bond on the battlefield. Storke provides over-the-top melodrama as he recounts the events of San Juan Hill to a fallen Marshall, who lies paralyzed. Marshall has accompanied Roosevelt closely, taking notes and even helping out (not exactly a non-combatant). Marshall did exist, living on paralyzed and with one leg, and he wrote an account of the war before dying in 1933, though it was actually another writer, Richard Harding Davis, a real Roosevelt fan who helped build up the Teddy legend, who accompanied Roosevelt on the field.
Black Jack Pershing (Marshall R Teague) is there too, a young lieutenant, doing jolly well, it must be said. In fact I don’t think they’d have won without him.
Rodger Boyce plays the enormously obese General Shafter, a Civil War hero who had completely lost it by 1898, so that the battle was won in spite of rather than because of him. He was so fat no horse or mule could carry him and he had to be carted about in a wagon.
One of the rich socialite recruits presents the regiment with some Colt’s machine guns and this apparently was not accurate. Though other units had them, the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (the proper name of the Rough Riders) were surprised when they heard the sound of machine guns in battle, thinking them Spanish. They themselves had no such weapons. But it makes good theater.
Geoffrey Lewis puts in an entertaining cameo as a soldier and takes his sporting shotgun into battle, to good effect.
The death of Buckey is dramatic. Sam delivers the line “There ain’t a Spanish bullet been made that can kill me” just before a Spanish bullet kills him. Hubris indeed. O’Neil did indeed die below Kettle Hill. Roosevelt wrote, “The most serious loss that I and the regiment could have suffered befell just before we charged … As O’Neill moved to and fro, his men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants said, ‘Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you.’ O’Neill took his cigarette out of his mouth, and blowing out a cloud of smoke laughed and said, ‘Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me.’ A little later he discussed for a moment with one of the regular officers the direction from which the Spanish fire was coming. As he turned on his heel a bullet struck him in the mouth and came out at the back of his head; so that even before he fell his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness.”
There’s a telling vignette as we see, atop the hill, the sugar refinery with the brand name of the company on it, and the Stars and Stripes blowing bravely before it. Just one word of the company’s name is visible, EMPIRE.
At the end there are some homecomings, triumphant and sad. Teddy returns to Sagamore to the bosom of his family. 22 years later, i.e. 1920, we see Henry Nash (who died in 1903) visiting the grave of Buckey in the Arizona family plot (where he wasn’t buried). But you know, it makes a bit of poignant drama.
The Spanish are clad in a rather odd white suits. In fact, according to Shaara, they wore blue, but that probably would have been confusing in the movie, given the color of the American uniforms. Remington painted them in khaki.
There are German military ‘advisers’ up on the hill. I don’t know what evidence there is for that. Maybe Milius was thinking of The Wild Bunch.
The film (screened in two parts) comes in at 184 minutes on the DVD and is a serious effort. Turner must certainly have thrown budget at it. As Shaara says, they have used “a great deal of license in these scenes” but I reckon that’s fair enough. I think they did get across the spirit of the truth, even if they got some facts wrong. And it rattles along as a good yarn should.