Gregor Jordan thinks the media are making a bit much of the oft- delayed release of his film "Buffalo Soldiers," finally opening Friday, almost two years after it was ready for release.
"Timing of a film's release is everything," he admits, noting that he was responsible for one of the many postponements himself because of the film's sensitive subject: scandal in the military.
"Buffalo Soldiers," which opens in New York and Los Angeles and goes into wider release in August, was seen as a controversial project from the start. Based on the novel by Robert O'Connor, it is a "Sgt. Bilko" for a cynical and postmodern world. The story takes place on an US Army base in West Germany, just before the Berlin Wall was torn down. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clerk and a hustler, peddling everything from drugs to arms. Things change with the arrival of a new sergeant (Scott Glenn), who makes squashing Elwood his top priority. The film plays out as a battle of wills between the two.
A darkly satirical look at bored soldiers searching for meaning in a peacetime military, it was shown at the Toronto Film Festival and snapped up by Miramax Films. However the date they acquired it was ominous: Sept. 10, 2001. The events of the next day meant that "Buffalo Soldiers" would join a list of other postponed films with violent themes, such as "Collateral Damage," although none had to wait nearly as long.
After Sept. 11, criticism of authority carried a price, including the claim that the critic did not support the fight against terrorism. "The sociopolitical climate had a bearing," he says. "People would miss this film because they weren't up for it."
After several more postponements, it was finally set for release this past May. Then in March, the US and Britain invaded Iraq, and it was the director himself who decided that the public mood was not yet right.
Jordan believes moviegoers are now ready to handle a film that depicts military figures as criminal or incompetent and deals with the issues such characters raise. "A time would come when people would start asking questions, and that time is now," he says.
In the film, US soldiers are responsible for drug-dealing, murder, and running arms on the black market. But Jordan doesn't see the film as a criticism of America. "The film is very much about a time and a place. You could have easily told the same story about a British Army base or a French Army base."
Indeed, he noted, in the novel, Elwood's character is "a lot darker." Even toned down, Elwood is still more antihero than hero. Jordan watched films like "Catch 22," "Cool Hand Luke," and "Scarface" for ideas on how to portray such a character. His chief inspiration, however, may come as a surprise.
"A big influence was 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' " he says, referring to the 1986 film in which Matthew Broderick turned playing hooky into an art form. "This is a guy who doesn't have any politics. He's an anarchist. He just doesn't want to be bored."
As an Australian, Jordan may have been an odd choice to direct a film about US soldiers, but he responds to that as well. "Anyone's an outsider, unless they've grown up on an Army base in West Germany," he says. "It doesn't matter where you're from. You're going to have to do a lot of research."
Some of it also came naturally because Jordan's father was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and he grew up on military bases in Australia. Nor are American ways alien to him. "Australians grow up with massive exposure to American culture," he says.
In the meantime, Jordan hasn't been idle waiting for "Buffalo Soldiers" to open. He's completed "Ned Kelly" with Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom, about the famous 19th-century Australian outlaw. It is set for US release early next year - assuming, of course, that there are no unforeseen circumstances.