Roosevelt opens with a pro-American address to the Naval War College. Thankfully he doesn’t bellow “Bully!” as the program attempts to show how, as in TR’s case, war can act as a catalyst for men’s characters. Asked to head a seg of the cavalry, TR defers to his longtime friend Col. Leonard Wood (Dale Dye). The green Roosevelt volunteers to be Wood’s second in command. What the vid series does emphasize is spirit.
Rough Riders (Sun.(20), Mon.(21), 8-10 p.m., TNT) Filmed on locations in Texas by Affinity Entertainment, Esparza/Katz Prods. and Larry Levinson Prods. Executive producers, William J. MacDonald, Robert Katz, Moctesuma Esparza, Larry Levinson; co-producer, Frank Q. Dobbs; director, John Milius; writers, Milius, Hugh Wilson; camera, Tony Richmond; editor, Sam Citron; sound, Ken Willingham; costumes, Michael T. Boyd; music, Peter Bernstein; theme, Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Jerry Wanek; casting, Julie Alter. Cast: Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott, Gary Busey, Brad Johnson, Illeana Douglas, Chris Noth, Brian Keith, George Hamilton, R. Lee Ermey, Nick Chinlund, Dale Dye, Holt McCallany, Geoffrey Lewis, James Parks, Dakin Matthews, Mark Moses, William Katt, Francesco Quinn, Adam Storke, Titus Welliver, Troy Curvey Jr. It’s not straight history, the name-dropping’s something fierce, and fictional characters are mixed liberally with imaginary takes of legendary figures; the first two hours of the four-hour opus are colorful, the second disturbingly corny. “Rough Riders” is a rough, sometimes silly, take on extraordinary American history.
Writers John Milius, who directed with plenty of zest, and Hugh Wilson bring on their major figures in individual sequences. Two outlaws in Arizona, seen holding up a coach, escape into the volunteer ranks; four self-described “patricians,” one of whom’s family is in trade — William Tiffany (James Parks) , Hamilton Fish (Holt McCallany), Craig Wadsworth (Chris Noth), B.F. Goodrich (Titus Welliver) — all but shake as they recite the Saint Crispin’s Day pledge , a theme the writers seem to favor.
The ebullient Roosevelt, aware of the future importance of the U.S. in international affairs, gathers up courage to tell his wife Edith (played graciously by Illeana Douglas) he’s off to the wars — and, amusingly, she approves. Calling him a “force of nature,” she says, “It’s your war. You’ve done your best to start it ”
He had largely organized the Rough Riders to help the lst U.S. Volunteer Cavalry bounce the intruding Spanish out of Cuba after the blowup of the battleship Maine (not particularly convincing) and Hearst’s flamboyant attacks on the Spanish presumptiveness. The Spanish are not portrayed, represented only by pale-outfitted figures tumbling from trees or scrambling atop the hill around the block house, which was probably the way it was.
Gary Busey, handing in the best perf in the telepic, creates a vital and welcome Confederate Gen. Fighting Joe Wheeler, who also happens to be a senator. The late Brian Keith’s mild President McKinley deals calmly with situations, and Capt. Buck O’Neil (Sam Elliott) smartly heads up G Troop as he tries valiantly whipping the men into some shape. The role’s not demanding enough for Elliott, but he carries on manfully as the good actor he is.
Brad Johnson plays stagecoach holdup Henry Nash, an outlaw who, joining the army to escape a posse, ends up a hero.
O’Neil, a stiff-backed Lt. John Pershing and young Pershing’s Sgt. Buck (Troy Curvey Jr.) share a forbidden, inter-rank drink after O’Neil learns why Pershing , eventually commander of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, was called “Black Jack.” A passel of contemporary historians may be startled.
The Rough Riders’ training and maneuvers look ragged, as indeed they were, and Milius and Wilson, aided by old-time newsreels and copies of old front pages , have the right spirit going. Production designer Jerry Wanek has discovered apt period interiors. His tropical jungle scenes of ground troops working their way infantry-style toward the Spanish enemy are serviceable — and, in a nice touch, good enough for whimsical naturalist Roosevelt to enjoy a bit of bird watching as the troops infiltrate the foliage and byways.
Milius and Wilson uncover another similarity to “Henry V” as Roosevelt on the night before battle visits the troops by firelight, which indeed TR did do.
William Randolph Hearst (dandily played by George Hamilton), the man blamed for starting the war, is seen in Cuba sending back first-hand reports in mauve prose; and William Katt plays a variation on the much-respected New York Journal’s correspondent Edward Marshall, seen here as a sarcastic dude who razzes emotional writer Stephen Crane (Adam Storke, playing as though the writer were in awe) for fictionalizing the Civil War in “Red Badge of Courage.” Marshall was, in fact, along with Richard Harding Davis, TR’s favorite reporter, while TR didn’t like Crane.
The fighting, getting confusing, turns tiresome. The four-hour production begins its nosedive about here as sentimentality and cliches clog up the works. The thief Nash, whom O’Neil is onto and tells him so, is wounded but miraculously overcomes the pain to prove himself as the campaign toward San Juan Heights begins; another equally important character stands up and asks for it: “There ain’t a Spanish bullet made that can kill me!”
Old-hat situations and remarks turn the thin vid fare into a series of embarrassingly trite war-film situations and expressions. The actors are at a loss, but director Milius plunges ahead through hackneyed dialogue and unmoving death scenes. Fighting men are romanticized, but Busey pulls off a boisterous Wheeler, showing what combat men are like. It’s as though Busey were battling another war from his fellow combatants.
Whole procedure suggests that Theodore Roosevelt became a man through the ordeal, and that the brave men under him who lived were better for the trauma.
Berenger’s hearty and foolish as the early-on TR, and Elliott’s patented deadly force again stands him in good stead. Julie Wilson as Fish’s accommodating mother lends grace to the venture, while Brad Johnson as the no-good Nash is a standout.
Tech credits are good, the camerawork colorful, Michael T. Boyd’s costumes throughout an eyeful, though the soldiers in combat seldom look strained, much less dirty. War is heck.