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'Riders' Characters Prove Roughly Drawn

TV Review

July 19, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a good story lurking somewhere inside the two-part, four-hour miniseries "Rough Riders," the chronicle of the legendary assault on Cuba's San Juan Hill made by Teddy Roosevelt and his regiment during the Spanish-American War.

But it rarely manages to surface above a seemingly endless array of skirmishes, firefights, ambushes, infantry charges, hand-to-hand combat, carnage and killing.

It could have been much more. Roosevelt, played by Tom Berenger with enthusiasm and an appropriately toothy grin, was one of the country's most charismatic figures, even before he became president of the United States. An assistant secretary of the navy and an active proponent of America's destiny as a world leader, he sensed the personal and national opportunities presented by the 1898 war with Spain.

Seizing the chance for a leadership role with the Rough Riders--a motley, eclectic cavalry regiment that included both Western cowboys and Eastern polo players--he led a courageous charge up San Juan Hill. His path to the presidency was enhanced by "yellow press" stories in the New York Journal, published by one of the war's most avid supporters, William Randolph Hearst (played colorfully by George Hamilton).

Bits and pieces of this history intermittently surface in "Rough Riders," and the Roosevelt characterization occasionally touches upon the deeper currents that coursed beneath the surface of his public image. But the script of writer and director John Milius (who wrote and directed "John Dillinger," "Conan the Barbarian" and "Flight of the Intruder," and co-wrote "Apocalypse Now" with Francis Ford Coppola) seems more concerned with the smaller stories of the individual members of the Rough Riders.

Nothing wrong with that, except that the characters have the predictability of an all-ethnic platoon from a '50s World War II movie. There are the patrician young upper-class New Yorkers--Hamilton Fish (Holt McCallany) and William Tiffany (James Parks), who really do know how to ride horses; after all, they play polo. There are a couple of worthy Native Americans and a brave Latino. There is Gary Busey, portraying Gen. "Fighting" Joe Wheeler as--what else?--a noisy, unreconstructed Confederate blowhard.

And there is Sam Elliott as a gritty Westerner, a characterization he can probably do in his sleep.

Milius' script, which reaches for but never quite achieves an ennoblement of the manly art of making war, also doesn't provide much in the way of character enrichment.

To his credit as a director, Milius' battle scenes are extraordinary--some of the most effective ever done for the small screen. But the unrelenting battles and bloodshed that fill most of Part 2 of "Rough Riders" threaten to burn out even the most avid fan of cinematic warfare long before Roosevelt triumphantly concludes his epic charge.

* "Rough Riders" airs Sunday and Monday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on cable's TNT. It repeats Friday at 5 p.m. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be inappropriate for children under the age of 14).

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