Nothing is more bully than war, "Rough Riders" would have us believe, and no man was ever more bully than Theodore Roosevelt. His mythic charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill is rousingly dramatized in TNT's four-hour miniseries, which, unfortunately, overstays its welcome by at least a third.
This dream project for writer-director John Milius ("Red Dawn," "Conan the Barbarian"), for whom macho has provided a way of life and a paycheck, so oozes with testosterone that your TV screen may start sprouting facial hair. Not that that's necessarily bad, but Milius gets so caught up in the male bonding, in relishing the way war makes men of boys and brothers of men, that he forgets there's a story to be told.
In the end, what could have been a top-notch film about a brief little war, whose lasting import far outweighed its immediate impact, becomes an exercise in the minutiae of battle. It's as if some videographer (although a talented one) put a camera on the battlefield, and what we're watching are the unedited tapes.
Tom Berenger portrays Roosevelt as a crass showman who matured not by virtue of advancing years but by virtue of taking men into battle and killing the enemy. A sickly youngster who forced himself into good health through exercise and strength of will, Roosevelt spent his young years looking for a chance to win old-fashioned glory. An assistant secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley (who's played here by the late Brian Keith, in his last role), he chafed under the constraints of the bureaucracy -- until the Spanish-American War came along in 1898.
Despite thick glasses and a lack of military training, Roosevelt browbeat his superiors into letting him lead a group of men into battle. Besides a number of his Ivy League friends, the Riders included cowboys and Indians from the Southwest, mountain men and lawmen, and -- at least in the movie -- one outlaw, Henry Nash (Brad Johnson), who happens upon a recruiting train while outrunning a posse.
Both Roosevelt, who sees war as a jolly good adventure, and Nash, who's trying to escape the law, become soldiers for the wrong reason. And they're not alone: Craig Wadsworth (Chris Noth) is a member of the upper crust who's drawn in when a friend proclaims it "the duty, the honor, of the patrician class to lead by the sword," and Gen. "Fighting Joe" Wheeler (Gary Busey) is a former Confederate who simply substitutes Spaniards for Yankees.
In fact, few of TR's recruits seem to really believe there are wrongs that need to be redressed in Cuba. That's appropriate, since the Spanish-American War was fought because A) Spaniards were blamed for sinking the battleship Maine (many historians doubt they were responsible); B) William Randolph Hearst wanted to sell newspapers ("Truth is the first casualty of war," George Hamilton, as Hearst, tells a colleague); and C) American sugar merchants in Cuba didn't like the way they were being treated.
Milius really sweats the details, going so far as to note how the American war boys, told to use shells that produced a smoke screen, declined; somehow, such obfuscation was ungallant.
Those touches enhance the film's verisimilitude and will no doubt make historians smile. Still, Milius' love of his subject has its eye-rolling drawbacks. Suggesting the Spanish-American War helped bind together a country still smarting from the Civil War, Milius has the Riders parade past a young boy who turns to his granddad, who's dressed in Rebel gray. The boy, noting the soldiers are wearing blue uniforms, says they must be Yankees.
"No," says Pops, fighting back a tear, "they're Americans."
There's also the recruit who thinks the whole "fighting for your country" thing is pretty silly until he tries to pay a prostitute for her services. "What you and the boys are doing for all of us is enough," she says, refusing the cash.
Such moments fail to sink "Rough Riders." In Roosevelt, Berenger may have the role of his career, pulling off the transition from glory-hogging ham (Roosevelt's trademark toothy grin earned him the nickname Toothodore) to military and world leader.
Too bad TNT insisted on making this a two-night affair; as a two-hour film, "Rough Riders" could have told its story and held everyone's interest.
Pub Date: 7/19/97