Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: John Gay (from the novel Arrow in the Sun by T.V. Olsen)
Starring: Candice Bergen, Peter Strauss, Donald Pleasance, John Anderson, Jorge Rivero, Dana Elcar, Bob Carraway, Martin West, James Hampton
Country: United States
Running time: 115 min
Year: 1970
BBFC Certificate: 18

Revisionist Westerns, i.e. those which challenged the traditional ideas of the ‘Old West’ and the Western films they inspired, were all the rage in the 1960s and early 1970s. From the well-known likes of The Wild Bunch, Django, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to lesser known features like Marlon Brando’s sole film as director, One Eyed Jacks, and the subject of this review, Soldier Blue. Whilst some revisionist Westerns were played purely for entertainment, some had a bit to say, and in the case of Soldier Blue, director Ralph Nelson and screenwriter John Gay used the action as the backdrop for an allegory of the then still raging Vietnam War.

The film opens with some text talking about the horrors of violence, and foreshadowing the graphicness of the finale, which perhaps isn’t needed yet does signal what’s to come and, for those squeamish about graphic violence, will be welcomed. The plot sees Private Honus Gant (Peter Strauss) as a part of a cavalry that comes under attack from Cheyenne Native Americans. Gant, and a woman called Kathy (Candice Bergen), whom the cavalry were assigned to protect, are the only two to survive the attack. It’s a striking, visceral and vicious way to open the film, with brutal violence and stunts and some excellent cinematography, with the camera rarely staying still.

Following that violent opening, for the most part we follow the pair as they try to find safe ground; an odd couple for whom romance begins to blossom before the controversial finale which sees them encountering the US army slaughtering a tribe of Native Americans, in a gruelling and tough to watch final act.

The screenplay was adapted from a novel called Arrow in the Sun, by T.V. Olsen, which had been inspired by events that took place during a massacre in Sun Creek, Colorado, in 1864. The film proved controversial for its unflinching violence, particularly the massacre which closes it, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a very effective and realistic sequence that today is still very tough to watch thanks to the violence and bloodshed, particularly against women and children.

Much of the film is a two hander as the lead pair try to find safety and also try to get along, bickering, falling out and getting to know each other. It’s almost like an odd couple dramedy with the human drama sandwiched between the two scenes the film is best known for, the opening and closing violent action sequences.

The difference in tone between the opening and closing acts of violence and the rest of the film is like night and day. There’s a playfulness and lightness to much of that central thrust of the movie, which is echoed by the sometimes jovial score by Roy Budd, who scored the classic British gangster film Get Carter the following year. The theme song by Buffy Sainte-Marie is also light, and became a hit in the UK amongst other countries.

That relatively light-hearted approach is at odds with the scenes that bookend it, but perhaps does make the finale even more impactful. If you went in knowing nothing about the film, that finale would probably hit even harder than it does, coming unexpectedly (and it hits pretty hard anyway). It’s incredibly violent, gruesome and bloody, unflinching and difficult to watch.

Bergen plays her role well, leading the way, robbing corpses to find things the pair can use and taking charge of the situation. Strauss shows an emotional vulnerability as Gant, the titular Soldier Blue as he’s called by Kathy. He’s not always convincing, particularly when the full-on emotions of the scenes are called for, but gives a generally good performance in one of his earliest roles, before he won an Emmy Award for his role in the 1979 made-for-TV movie The Jericho Mile and garnered five Golden Globe Awards nominations. Donald Pleasance’s character Isaac shows up almost halfway through and isn’t one of the British actor’s finest performances, though he’s always such a watchable actor. He’s wearing teeth prosthetics and feels like a caricature and his appearance is little more than a cameo, appearing in just a couple of scenes.

Soldier Blue is an incredibly impactful and memorable film that isn’t always successful. Its visuals and cinematography are excellent with some beautiful scenery and shots, Bergen gives a strong lead performance and the opening and closing acts of violence and brutality are memorable, though tough to stomach. It’s easy to see how they’re an allegory of the Vietnam War. Yet, some of the other performances are weaker, the shifts in tone are uneven, and much of the middle act filled with lightness which borders on slapstick and feels at odds with those opening and closing scenes.


Soldier Blue is released in separate 4K steelbook and Blu-ray editions by StudioCanal on the Cult Classics range on 15th July 2024. The transfer is excellent, rich in detail and with not a blemish, though some of the visuals that play out behind the opening titles are softer than the rest of the film. Audio is great too.

The film was released with cuts, according to the BBFC website: “Compulsory Cuts were required for illegal horse falls and potentially indecent images of a child”.


Brand new 4K restoration

Interview with actress Candice Bergen

Audio commentary by film critic Steve Mitchell and Howard S. Berger

The commentary is great, with Steve Mitchell and Howard S. Berger speaking honestly but affectionately about the film. They recognise why it got a mixed reception, look at the shock value of the poster, and its place amongst other Westerns of the period. The authenticity is also highlighted, together with the way the film subverts the Western genre. I thought it was a generally well made film, despite my reservations of some of the elements, but the pair clearly think more highly of it than I, and I admit that their affection is infectious. They also share background and commentary on the director and some of the other actors in the film, as well as insights to the background and some of the scenes. It’s a rich, valuable and worthwhile commentary. 

The 12-minute interview with Bergen is a fine addition. She gives an honest look at the film, recollections of the production, which was one of her first films, and how she found it a fun movie to make.  She recalls the final battle sequence, extras brought in, the effects, and how it was received in the US. A nice interview.

Soldier Blue is a very well made film that opens and closes with two incredibly violent sequences. It’s not a perfect movie, but the elements that work well, work very well, and it is certainly a revisionist Western that deserves to be better known. StudioCanal provides an excellent audio-visual presentation headlined by a brand new 4K restoration, though be warned that the film is cut. Whilst extras are light, the commentary alone is first class and packed with background, information and critical analysis of the film.


Soldier Blue - StudioCanal
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