Rough Riders

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: John Milius

REVIEWED: 07-21-97

You know what Ted Turner likes? Of course you do. You can see it displayed every day on the far-reaching tendrils of his TV empire--be it TBS, TNT, TCM or CNN. Old Ted likes money, baseball, horses, the Civil War and any combination thereof. Since he's burned out every good Civil War story, character and battle making movies (Glory, Gettysburg, Andersonville, etc.), Ted's now moved on to the Spanish-American War. The new four hour mini-series "Rough Riders" premiering on Sunday, July 20, details the founding of Teddy Roosevelt's famous rag-tag military troop.

"Rough Riders" begins in 1898, when the soon-to-be president (then young assistant secretary of the Navy) formed the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. The Volunteer Cavalry was made up of wealthy Eastern dandies, hard-bitten cowboys and rough-and-tumble outlaws. Part One of "Rough Riders" deals mostly with the founding and training of Roosevelt's melting pot army. About 23,000 enthusiastic volunteers from across America are whittled down to a lean, mean fighting machine of 560 tough guys. Part Two moves on to Cuba and the famous battle of San Juan Hill. Roosevelt and his boys help turn the tide in this crucial battle against the Spanish. Americans don't take too well to well-oiled military machines. Ever since a bunch of starving, poorly equipped Yankees fought off their British oppressors, Americans have had a soft spot for scrappy misfits. And so, by the time Roosevelt's rag-tag raiders storm San Juan Hill, guns a-blazin', it's root-root-root for the home team.

There's something quite thrilling about boys going off to war--especially in an era when war was more of a mano a mano affair and not simply a matter of wiping out villages at the touch of a button. "Rough Riders" doesn't spend much time dabbling in the politics and what have you. It gets right down to the meat of the matter: men proving their manhood, bravery and loyalty in the heat of battle. Wives, girlfriends and fiancees are summarily kissed and dismissed, and it's off to war almost before the credits are done rolling.

Behind the camera is director John Milius, who knows a thing or two about making manly man movies. He's directed films like Dillinger, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. He's written ones like Apocalypse Now, Magnum Force and Evil Knievel. If there's a manlier résumé in Hollywood, I don't know of it. He's the perfect fellow to bring this red-blooded American tale to life. The battle scenes aren't exactly Gone With the Wind in scope, but they're pretty impressive for the small screen, and the "Yew shot mah brother, yew dirty Spaniards" drama is suitably stirring.

Tom Berenger plays Roosevelt as a blustery eager beaver--a man with no military experience whose charisma and leadership skills blossomed in the face of adversity. The big-ticket supporting cast includes Gary Busey, the late Brian Keith (as President McKinley) and Sam Elliot (who's made a surprisingly good career out of doing westerns in an era when nobody makes westerns anymore). Assorted historical figures of the day make cameo appearances (Stephen Crane, William Randolph Hearst, Frederick Remington) for all the history buffs in the audience.

The script (co-written by Milius) leavens its bloody subject matter with an airy wit. Cheery bravado and male bonding melodrama provide most of the grist between shootouts. The cast (especially Berenger) all look like they're having fun playing dress-up on Ted's dime.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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