Here's a tale of cruel irony: A dark, rambunctious Army comedy called Buffalo Soldiers, shot in 2000 for a bargain $15 million, was once the toast of the Toronto film festival, where it sold to Miramax after a lively bidding war. The director-cowriter, a relative newcomer from Australia named Gregor Jordan, was getting some attention. Robert O'Connor -- whose novel of the same name spawned the film -- was in town to see the finished print. That was on Sept. 10, 2001.
The next day, O'Connor's stepdaughter was one of more than 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks. And the world had become a place where no one wanted to sit through an anarchic romp about a criminally inclined supply clerk (played with Mephistophelian glee by Joaquin Phoenix) using his post at a base in 1989 West Germany to fence stolen weapons and cook heroin while musing that ''war is hell, but peace? Peace is boring.''
More recently, the film seemed to be prompting a substantive national debate: The Drudge Report announced that Miramax had received a letter from a retired Army colonel, protesting the use of the term buffalo soldiers, a 19th-century tag applied to the African-American soldiers who fought Native Americans in the conquest of the West. Drudge also took the opportunity to describe Buffalo's poster, which featured the tag line ''Steal All That You Can Steal'' over a shot of a camo-clad Phoenix flashing a peace sign. This ignited the conservative talk-radio circuit (one Texas pundit told Jordan to go back to Australia). It even sparked an Internet-organized protest against the movie's supposed antimilitary stance, which is scheduled to take place in New Bern, N.C.
Two weeks ago -- two years, two wars, and five bumped release dates after its Toronto screening -- the film finally bowed, and generated little interest and less money (an estimated $29,000 in six theaters) in New York and L.A., markets that are generally friendly to politically loaded cinema. Despite the setback, Miramax plans to stand by the film. ''We're expanding it to the top 10 markets [on Aug. 8], and then the top 20 and top 50,'' says Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands, who notes that box office in Britain has been more promising. ''It's an important film.''
''What surprises me is that a number of people who have a hard time with this film -- and some of the people who are defending it -- haven't seen it,'' says Scott Glenn, who plays the hard-nosed sergeant out to eradicate Phoenix's criminal cabal. ''So what's going on there? We're really not talking about a movie at all.'' The actor adds that anyone who questions his patriotism gets the same answer: ''1958907...my serial number in the United States Marine Corps.''