A U.S. cavalry troupe escort Cresta Maribel Lee (Candice Bergen), a young woman who spent the last few years living with Cheyenne Indians, back to her fiancé out west. En route, the soldiers are attacked by Cheyenne warrior, Spotted Wolf (Argentinean actor Jorge Rivero, also in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo that same year) and his braves who slaughter all save for callow cavalryman Honus Gantz (Peter Strauss). Having survived thanks largely to Cresta’s resourcefulness, the pair endure various misadventures through the wilderness, including an encounter with eccentric gun-runner Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence). They slowly fall in love, while Honus has his eyes opened to the cruelty perpetrated by the Colorado state militia. In the infamous climax, restaging a real-life incident at Sand Creek, the leads bear witness as Colonel Iverson (John Anderson) leads his soldiers into committing one of the most horrific crimes in American history.
Hugely controversial in its day, this Joseph E. Levine production draws direct parallels between the atrocities at Sand Creek in 1864 (perpetrated by Colonel John Chivington, one of several historical figures renamed here) and the then-recent My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Levine, who might have been looking to keep his finger on the pulse after The Graduate (1967), and director Ralph Nelson hammer the point home with a pretentious pre-titles crawl (“There is a dark side to man’s soul that has festered since Cain slew Abel…”), while a treacly theme song featuring the folk rock warbling of Buffy Saint-Marie allies this with earnestly liberal hippie cinema.
Nothing wrong with that per se, except despite its laudable intentions Soldier Blue hasn’t worn as well as the many older, more conservative westerns it’s rebelling against. Alongside Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), this was one of the bloodiest, most shocking and controversial films of its day. Yet long stretches edge closer to romantic comedy, as Cresta and Honus bicker like kids or spar like a bizarrely gender-swapped John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. She is uncouth and ruthlessly practical. He is prissy and naïve. The plot puts them in situations either silly or downright absurd, as Cresta goads “Soldier Blue” into fighting a Kyowa brave in his underpants, or bound captive Honus struggles to cover Cresta’s exposed buttocks.
Although the film fits that Sixties cycle of “lovers adrift in a turbulent period in history” that run from Doctor Zhivago (1965) to A Walk with Love and Death (1970), it’s likely Nelson was also invoking the French New Wave, with their sudden shifts in tone. Yet he segues from scenes of broad comedy recalling his wartime rom-com Father Goose (1964) to rubbing our noses in blood, flaming bodies and carnage, with little finesse. The end result unintentionally wavers between knockabout romp with a tacked on anti-war message or a nightmarish expose including some jarring asides. Somewhat surprisingly, the film was a box-office success in the States, although swiftly forgotten thereafter as Nelson was castigated as “un-American.” A filmmaker whose good intentions often exceeded his ability to deliver, Nelson tackled other racially charged thrillers, including another western tick… tick… tick… (1970) and the South African-set Michael Caine/Sidney Poitier starrer The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), yet somehow wound up his career with trashy sci-fi horror Embryo (1976). The film was a far bigger hit across Europe where its slightly overrated reputation as a classic endures.
Adapting Theodore V. Olsen’s novel “Arrow in the Sun”, screenwriter John Gay hampers things by rendering Honus a snivelling, ineffectual ‘hero’, albeit suitably shell-shocked by what he sees. However, Cresta is written as an engagingly gutsy and resourceful, torn between her need to save the Cheyenne and a nagging realisation she does not belong there. Even though roles like this saw Candice Bergen castigated by critics like Pauline Kael, she’s quite winning as the foul-mouthed Cresta, who chews herbs to make native medicine and - scandalously at the time - goes commando beneath her sexy Cheyenne mini-dress. Scenes where she wanders dreamily through flower fields or stands up to the callous military men are tailored for a trendy, youth audience, culminating in the moment the despicable Iverson grouses: “When I see young people behaving like that, I wonder what this country is coming to.”
It is somewhat contradictory that early on Spotted Wolf guns down surrendering cavalry officers, then later rides out waving a flag of peace. Still the horrific climax does make an impact: a child’s head is blown apart, a woman’s breast is sliced off, the Cheyenne are raped, disembowelled and decapitated. Honus wanders about sobbing “Why? Why?” while cavalry horses trample the American flag. It’s as subtle as a knee to the groin, but then again, what is there that’s subtle about genocide?