‘Teddy’ Roosevelt’s Heroism Portrayed In Epic War Movie
Who is the only 20th-century president to be sculpted on Mount Rushmore?
Who became the nation’s youngest president?
Who propelled the United States into world-power status when he led a band of volunteers up a Cuban hill to victory in 1898?
Bully for you if your answer is Theodore Roosevelt, whose regiment of cowboy and Ivy League warriors forms the basis of “Rough Riders,” a four-hour TNT miniseries starring Tom Berenger as Roosevelt.
The nation’s first real leader of the 20th century called the bloody triumph atop San Juan Hill “the great day of my life.” It’s also great material for an epic war movie, and “Rough Riders” unfolds like classics of that genre, such as “The Great Escape” or “Patton.”
The miniseries was co-written and directed by John Milius, who profiled Roosevelt as president in his epic movie “The Wind and the Lion.” Rated TV-14, “Rough Riders” will be shown in two parts at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. PDT Sunday and Monday.
The real Rough Riders never rode up San Juan Hill in a glorious cavalry charge. They fought their way to the high ground on foot under heavy fire from Spanish artillery.
Col. “Teddy” Roosevelt, however, began the ascent on horseback - until he had to dismount and shoot a Spanish regular with a Colt pistol retrieved from the Maine dreadnought whose sinking triggered the war.
Reality became legend in that moment.
The significance of “Roosevelt’s “splendid little war” outlasted its brief duration and the patriotic war fever fanned by William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow press.”
“The Spanish-American War lasted only three months, and it had the least amount of casualties, but it changed America,” said Berenger, who also serves as producer of the miniseries. “Oddly, it was our most popular war.”
The conflict turned the United States from isolationism and also “turned the page of history,” Milius observed.
Roosevelt’s troopers left the battlefield celebrities and heroes. Within three years, he was our 26th president, yet never forgot his band of brothers.
Of the Rough Riders’ cowboy contingent, Roosevelt wrote: “They were a splendid set of men … with weather-beaten faces and eyes that looked a man in the face without flinching.”
Of his Ivy League brethren, Roosevelt said they joined his banner to get “their best chance for seeing hard and dangerous service.”
Berenger, a leading man with meaty roles in films like “Platoon” and “The Substitute,” is difficult to recognize disguised by Roosevelt’s distinctive pince-nez glasses.
“Watching Tom, you can really see the impact the battle had on Roosevelt,” Milius said. “You can see the man changed into someone who is ready to be a great president.”
Milius sweats the historical details, right down to the Krag-Jorgensen carbines with smokeless powder ammunition issued to the Rough Riders.
“All the things I’ve learned through the years, I used the best generalship and best guerrilla tactics,” Milius said, smoking a large cigar that looked suspiciously like a hand-rolled Havana.
Getting historical details right is part of his mission, said Milius, who disdains today’s action blockbusters with their explosions and high body counts.
Former Marine Dale Dye, who trained Berenger in military arts for his Academy Award-nominated role in “Platoon,” ran a cavalry boot camp for the “Rough Riders” cast in Texas.
Soldierly skills taught by Dye - who appears in the film as Roosevelt’s commanding officer - included guard duty, marching and singing, Berenger said. “In those days, men who went to war knew how to sing,” he said.
So history buffs who know their cavalry airs - or their John Ford movies - will enjoy hearing the strains of “Garry Owen.”
As producer, Berenger assembled a cast of splendid supporting actors, including Sam Elliott, Gary Busey, Christopher Noth of “Law and Order,” Geoffrey Lewis, Brad Johnson and George Hamilton.
A melancholy Brian Keith makes a final appearance as President William McKinley. Twenty years ago, Keith played a vigorous Teddy Roosevelt opposite Sean Connery’s romantic brigand in “The Wind and The Lion.”
Berenger and Milius shared a historical enthusiasm for Roosevelt, who was an environmental crusader, political reformer, Harvard scholar, big-game hunter and cowboy. Roosevelt brought boxing and judo to the Executive Mansion - which he renamed the White House.
“He was volcanic,” Milius said.
“Playing Roosevelt was exhausting,” Berenger said. “Having to be like that every day was fun, but it was draining.”