|John Milius & Hugh Wilson
|Country of origin
William J. MacDonald
Frank Q. Dobbs
|Anthony B. Richmond
Larry Levinson Productions
|July 20 –
July 21, 1997
Rough Riders is a 1997 American television miniseries directed and co-written by John Milius about future President Theodore Roosevelt and the regiment known as the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry; a.k.a. the Rough Riders. The series prominently shows the bravery of the volunteers at the Battle of San Juan Hill, part of the Spanish–American War of 1898. It was released on DVD in 2006. The series originally aired on TNT with a four-hour running time, including commercials, over two consecutive nights during July 1997. It is, as of 2022, John Milius' last directorial credit for a film.
In 1898 the US government decided to intervene on the side of the Cuban rebels in their struggle against Spanish rule. Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt decides to experience the war first hand by promoting and joining a volunteer cavalry regiment.
The regiment, later known as the Rough Riders, brings together volunteers from all corners of the nation and all walks of life. They include a stagecoach robber, Henry Nash, and patrician men.
When Roosevelt and his men finally land on Cuba, they face ambush, intense enemy fire, and a desperate, outnumbered charge up a defended hill.
Tom Berenger had starred in Gettysburg (1993) for Ted Turner and was also a long time admirer of Roosevelt. Berenger pitched the idea of a mini series on the Rough Riders to Turner, giving him an outline, and Turner agreed to finance a four-hour mini series for TNT.
"I see him as a `force of nature'," said Berenger, "a kind of sweet, endearing, enthusiastic and honest man who probably wouldn't make it in politics today. Yet this incident in our history -- largely created by William Randolph Hearst and other yellow press barons -- took him to the White House."
Berenger originally intended to play Colonel Leonard Wood, with Stephen Lang to play Roosevelt. Berenger said the mini series "needs a couple other names.'.. It'll be as much fun as `Gettysburg' was to do ... a bunch of guys playing a famous military unit... The casting director of `Gettysburg' told me she had 6,000 actors' submissions for that production. There were a couple of big names who wanted to do it so badly they said, `Just give me a couple of lines and a uniform - that's all I want.'"
Hugh Wilson wrote the first draft and planned to direct. Berenger agreed to star and was executive producer.
Eventually Wilson bowed out due to creative differences and Berenger suggested he be replaced by John Milius. Milius had long been an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, and featured him as a character in his film The Wind and the Lion, played by Brian Keith. He had tried to make a film about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders for a number of years but "nobody cared," he said. "When I would pitch a film about Roosevelt and the Spanish–American War, they wouldn't get it. They would say, 'It's not exactly a Western, and it's not a war picture, so what is it?' I think it's both. The last great Western of the 19th century.... [Roosevelt was] an extraordinary character. He makes a really good contrast to the way things are today. He put his money where his mouth was. He was the real thing."
According to Milius, TNT executives "said, `We'll let you make it if you can make it at this price, write it quick, be in production in three months'... all these impossible things," said Milius. "And I said yes."
"This one does sort of glorify war," said Berenger, who eventually agreed to play Roosevelt. "But you have to consider that it was written by John Milius."
"In a sense, one man going up that hill, one battle, and a man became President and we acquired an overseas empire," said Milius. "Courage and valor are no longer considered great attributes in our culture. But for Roosevelt, they were the only issues. I agree."
Milius says the script was also about the bonding of the men. "It shows you that things happen to people that they never get over. It's why vets can only talk to each other. Everyone of them is scarred for life... Men go off to war because they really want to, not knowing what it's going to be. They think it's an adventure, a romantic fantasy. And, of course, it never is. People are brought together and forced to do something that is truly unnatural to man – kill each other. But in doing this sort of extraordinary self-destruction, man seems to bring all of his virtues to bear."
The film was shot in Texas over 48 days on a budget of $19 million. "Believe me, there were no trailers for the stars or anything," said Milius. "If anything, you got a chair."
"I was just pleased I got to do the subject matter; the shorter schedule didn't bother me," Milius added. "It was just another way of telling a story. With the shorter schedule, I just did the best I could do, worked twice as hard and didn't get any sleep."
Six Texas locations served as stand-ins for Cuba, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C. - Palestine, a town southeast of Dallas, was the period railroad; the Cuban jungle scenes were done outside Houston and the hill country outside San Antonio stood in for the training camp and San Juan Hill.
Milius considers the film one of his best. "They had a lot of controls on me, at Turner, and I just ran over them... They hated me, but I got the film made, didn't I?... That's what you have to do. You have to be true to the vision that you start out to do, otherwise what are you even there for?"
Brian Keith, who played President McKinley, committed suicide after filming and before the mini-series aired.
A reviewer for Variety said "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."
A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote that "it rarely manages to surface above a seemingly endless array of skirmishes, firefights, ambushes, infantry charges, hand-to-hand combat, carnage and killing."
The Baltimore Sun said the film "overstays its welcome by at least a third... so oozes with testosterone that your TV screen may start sprouting facial hair.... Milius gets so caught up in the male bonding, in relishing the way war makes men of boys and brothers of men, that he forgets there's a story to be told. In the end, what could have been a top-notch film about a brief little war, whose lasting import far outweighed its immediate impact, becomes an exercise in the minutiae of battle."
Rough Riders was the most watched basic cable original movie in July, delivering 16 million households over 10 plays.