Nate and the Colonel (2003)

Rating: B-

Dir: Paul Winters
Star: Paul Winters, Ricco Ross, Mark S. Brien, Carlos Milano

Towards the end of the Civil War, Confederate Colonel Ben Loftin (Winters) “liberates” some Union gold from Major Haskell (Milano), who takes revenge by killing Loftin’s wife. In turn, this sends Loftin, along with newly-freed slave Nate (Ross), across the continent in search of Haskell – who still wants ‘his’ gold back. However, a chance encounter with an injured Chippewa native brings both them into contact with an entirely different, almost alien world. There’s more than a little Dances With Wolves here, obviously, though this is a) far less annoyingly preachy, and b) about 130 minutes shorter than Costner’s ‘epic’. It’s nicely even-handed, with good and bad on both sides, and even Loftin has issues – the loss of his wife has driven him to drink, and a bleak past is hinted at by his Army nickname, “Bloody Ben”.

I must commend Jay Truesdale’s cinematography which is excellent, and helps conceal what I suspect was not a large budget. Still, it evokes the period well, despite occasional mis-steps; in one scene, supposedly lit by a candle or fire, the flickering is clearly produced by someone turning an electric light on and off. Also have to say, at least two characters possess facial hair of such striking complexity, it distracts considerably from what they’re saying. If Winters has a chink in his armour as author/director/actor, it’s as a writer. Most scenes work fine on their own – we particularly enjoyed the meeting between the trinket-bearing government rep and the chief, with translation by an interpreter whose native name would seem to be Drips With Sarcasm.

However, the flow between them is shaky, with the pieces fitting together poorly; for example, Loftin’s alcoholism is disposed of with an ease that’s laughable. Similarly, the climax relies upon an encounter of such coincidence as to cripple its potential, and the villain miraculously loses his ability to shoot accurately when targetting, at point-blank range, one of the lead characters. However, he’s better in front of the camera, and most of the acting is solid. Ross is perhaps the stand-out in a role that could have easily toppled over into caricature, while Brien cuts a fine figure as Chippewa warrior Hunting Thunder (even if he did occasionally remind me of Willem Dafoe). These strong performances help counter the weaknesses in the material, and the film’s overall impact is solid, occasionally reaching very effective.