Teddy Roosevelt once delivered a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest from an assassination attempt. It was that kind of bravado that made him one of America’s most colorful Presidents. I’m into Presidential history, having taught it for many years. I also live in Tampa, so have an increasingly avid interest in this particular American figure. Tampa was the staging and training grounds for the Rough Riders before they embarked for Cuba. It was also from a cigar warehouse in Tampa that Roosevelt’s orders were sent hidden in a cigar. History has no shortage of battle cries and slogans. “Remember the Maine,” a bold challenge issued by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, was one of the most memorable. An American battleship, the Maine, was sent to Cuban waters to protect Americans in the increasingly hot war zone there. An explosion later revealed to be an armament malfunction on board ship, was nevertheless blamed on Spanish aggression. With no small effort on Hearst’s part, America was soon engaged in the Spanish-American War.
What can we say about Ted Turner? This Atlanta Southerner has explored about every aspect of the Civil War in his productions that there likely is left to exploit. Fast forward a few decades, and now Turner set his sights on the Spanish-American War. It’s somewhat ironic, as Turner himself has often been compared, whether favorably or not, to Hearst himself. Credit Turner for being fair in his depiction of Hearst as an overzealous antagonizer for war. “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war,” he was once heard saying to a photographer. Even if George Hamilton appears grossly miscast in the role, the characterization was mostly accurate. In fact it is the acting that hurts this film the most. Tom Berenger is way too manic as Roosevelt. It is unlikely he was always so jovial even as his brothers in arms were dying around him. The portrayal is more often than not a complete caricature instead of a faithful attempt to portray a multifaceted individual. Berenger appears to have but one tone. Even by film’s end when his character can’t help but be overwhelmed by it all, silence is the only way Berenger can reveal Roosevelt’s obvious inner turmoil. Truth be told, too many of the characters are far happier than realism should dictate. Sam Elliott provides the best acting in the film as one of the regiment commanders. Unfortunately for him, his craft appears out of place. Other notable cast members include William Katt, Gary Busey, and Brian Keith as President McKinley.
The Rough Riders appears in its original full frame broadcast format. There is a ton of grain to contend with at times. Amazingly it is not anywhere near consistent. I suspect more than one film stock might be to blame. Colors have a lot of saturation to them. There’s no brightness to speak of, but good contrast gives us rich, deep albeit dark colors. The black levels are quite variable but never better than fair. There are a remarkable number of film blemishes that no one took the time to remove. I doubt any real restoration effort was made here.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is adequate to deliver dialogue but little else. There’s really not good sound replication for the battle scenes. It looks and sounds like a 1960’s Western on a cheap television. Nothing more.
An audio commentary with writer John Milius and producer William J. MacDonald contains lots of chuckles. After hearing them I really wonder if they were taking the material all that seriously. The track is sparse at times but does provide enough inside stuff to be worthwhile.
This really plays out more like a matinee Western than the history battle piece it appears intended to have been. Turner has treated historical moments with more respect in the past. Watch it strictly for the entertainment value. A Western featuring Teddy Roosevelt. Now that’s a true “force of nature”.