Soldier Blue, a loosely fictionalized account of the Sand Creek Massacre, is one of the most violent films ever made. I don’t say this lightly. While I’m not a big fan of “trigger warnings,” this film merits one. Don’t see if it you’re easily traumatized by beheadings, graphic rape scenes, hacked off limbs, or the slaughter of children. But keep this in mind. Soldier Blue is fictionalized history, but it’s still history. The United States army under Colonel John Milton Chivington did murder 133 Indians, 105 of which were women and children, near Sandy Creek Colorado on November 29, 1864. This was not the “fog of war” or a desperate battle where American soldiers had to kill or be killed. That Summer, Chivington, in one of the most infamous statements in American history, had made his intentions explicit, genocide.
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!” he had said. “I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
We begin with a small detachment of United States cavalry in Eastern Colorado. They’re guarding a shipment of gold, a paymaster’s detail, and, above all, Cresta Maribel Lee, a white women who, like Debbie Edwards from The Searchers, had lived for years with the Indians. Cresta Maribel Lee, played by a young Candice Bergen, is no teenage girl, and certainly no damsel in distress. More importantly, she’s not very likeable. After she and Private Honus Gent, played by Peter Strauss, are the only survivors when Cheyenne Dog Soldiers massacre the paymaster’s detail and the party of soldiers, she seems blase, unconcerned. Having lived among Indians, she knows how to camouflage herself. But, to Gent’s horror, her attitude towards his dead comrades is cold, matter of fact, callous. She remarks casually that they’ll have to lay low for some time. They’ll be scalping and mutilating the bodies for hours. She loots food and supplies. She takes off her shirt, and parades around in her underwear. She’s vaguely amused when Gent wants to say a prayer for the dead.
Candice Bergen is a horrible actor — and its difficult to express just how bad she is — but it doesn’t matter. At times her emotional detachment is so total it almost seems like the inappropriate affect of a madwoman. But as Private Gent gets to know her, he realizes it’s not about a lack of personality, but about her loyalties. Cresta Maribel Lee had agreed to go back to white civilization to meet up with her old finance, but she still cares more about Spotted Wolf, the Cheyenne Chief she had married two years before. “You’re a traitor,” Gent says when he realizes she’s a white woman who sides with the Indians. But Honus Gent will learn that Lee is not innately unfeeling. Rather, she has seen so many white atrocities against Indians that she’s numb. What’s more, Strauss, not much better an actor than Bergen, seems almost as cold as she does. His “prayer,” Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade memorized, gets him briefly choked up, but, to anyone familiar with the poem, his emotion is awkward and almost silly.
What makes Soldier Blue work in spite of, or even because of the bad acting is how its recreation of the brutality of the American West is so stark and so uncompromising that, at times, it can remind you of the apocalyptic violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Any human emotion would seem ludicrously inadequate. Unlike the stylized gore fests of Reservoir Dogs or Inglorious Basterds, Soldier Blue does not allow you any distance from the atrocities taking place on screen. The film speaks with all the passion its characters can’t manage to express. Honus Gent, Spotted Wolf, Christa Maribel Lee, and Colonel Iverson, Soldier Blue’s fictionalized John Milton Chivington, are pygmies, insects even, set against a primal, gigantic western landscape that strips them of any pretence of civilization and reduces them to savages.
Indeed, as in the historical Sand Creek Massacre, it’s the Indians, not the whites, who maintain some semblance of humanity. Spotted Wolf, like the historical Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, rides out to meet the United States soldiers with an American flag and a white flag. He wants peace. The United States Cavalry certainly do not. After briefly dispatching the small detachment of military age Indian men, Iverson and his 700 soldiers first shell, then destroy the Cheyenne village at the foot of The Rockies. Nothing Oliver Stone filmed in Platoon or Brian De Palma showed us in Casualties of War comes close to what happens here. Even though we know we’re watching a film — Special effects back in 1970s weren’t quite as good as they were in the late 90s when Spielberg filmed Saving Private Ryan — we also feel as if we’re quite literally watching the Sand Creek or My Lai massacres. By taking the film’s violence and sexualized violence so far beyond anything that had been seen before — and remember, the production code had only been repealed in the 1960s — Director Ralph Nelson jars us out of our built in defense mechanisms. The horrific violence in Soldier Blue is profoundly moral because it’s reality. By shoving our faces in the horror and depravity of American history, Nelson makes it impossible for us to be voyeurs. Solder Blue is not entertainment. It’s provocation.
The film ends with Honus Gent handcuffed to the back of a United States Army wagon train. He’s under arrest for having attempted to stop the massacre. Cresta Lee follows along. The real life Honus Gent, a United States Army Captain named Silas Soule, was something of a hero. He did indeed try to stop the Sand Creek Massacre, reported the atrocity up the chain of command, and was murdered by Chivington’s loyalists. Does Gent wind up being murdered by Colonel Iverson’s goons? We don’t really know. Cresta Lee, we assume, would like to go back to live with Spotted Wolf and the Indians, but she doesn’t have that option. They’re all dead. She smiles at Honus Gent but the idea of romance, by this point, just seems a bit silly. The narrative drive of Soldier Blue has overpowered the flimsy characters and the bad acting. It would be hard to imagine an angrier, more passionate condemnation of genocide.
Just a final note: The uncut version of Soldier Blue was only released in 2006. People in 1970 saw an edited version that spared viewers some of the worst violence. Even at the height of the protest movement against the Vietnam War, Soldier Blue was considered too explosive to show in full.