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; aka 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.
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 – Lieutenant Colonel/Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
- Sam Elliott – Captain Bucky O’Neill.
- Gary Busey – Major General Joseph Wheeler.
- Brad Johnson – Henry Nash.
- Illeana Douglas – Edith Roosevelt.
- Chris Noth – Craig Wadsworth.
- Brian Keith – President William McKinley.
- George Hamilton – William Randolph Hearst.
- R. Lee Ermey – Secretary of State John Hay.
- Nick Chinlund – Frederic Remington.
- Dale Dye – Colonel/Brigadier General Leonard Wood.
- Holt McCallany – Sergeant Hamilton Fish.
- Geoffrey Lewis – Eli.
- James Parks – William Tiffany.
- Dakin Matthews – Wadsworth Sr.
- Mark Moses – Captain Woodbury Kane.
- William Katt – Edward Marshall.
- Francesco Quinn – Rafael Castillo.
- Adam Storke – Stephen Crane.
- Titus Welliver – B.F. Goodrich.
- Diana Jorge – Mademoiselle Adler.
- Eric Allan Kramer – Henry Bardshar.
- Angee Hughes – Sara Bardshar.
- Bob Primeaux – Indian Bob.
- Pablo Espinosa – Major Frederick Funston.
- Michael Greyeyes – Delchaney.
- Buck Taylor as George Neville.
- Darin Heames as Lieutenant William Wheeler (based on Joseph M. Wheeler, IV).
- Marshall Teague as Lieutenant John Pershing.
- John S. Davies as General Lawton (uncredited).
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 ofGettysburg’ 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 valour 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.
- Bucky O’Neill commanded ‘A’ Troop of which Henry Nash was indeed a member, not ‘G’ Troop. Craig Wadsworth was a member of ‘K’ Troop and was not a member of O’Neill’s troop.
- Bucky O’Neill is implied to be older; in fact the real Bucky O Neill was 38, as was correctly shown on his tombstone near the end of the show.
- Henry Nash was not a stagecoach robber but a miner and a schoolteacher. Nash and O’Neill did not have an antagonistic relationship due to O’Neill’s “6th Sense” that Nash was a criminal. Bucky O’Neill and Henry Nash were actually friends. It has been speculated that Milius based Nash’s character on William Sterin. In 1889, Sterin and three other men robbed a train in Arizona. O’Neill led the posse that captured Sterin & the three men who were subsequently sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison. In 1897, the men were pardoned and in 1898 Sterin joined the Rough Riders under an assumed name. It is believed that Sternin may have been killed in action during the “Battle of San Juan Hill.”
- Bucky O’Neill is not buried in the Arizona desert as portrayed in the final scene; instead he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
- There would indeed be a statue dedicated to Bucky O’Neill as Nash stated there would be, however, Nash had nothing to do with it. The statue was created after Henry Nash died.
- In reality, Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen Crane disliked each other and did not socialize during the Santiago campaign.
- Major General Joseph Wheeler is implied to be older and more experienced than Major General William Rufus Shafter, the V Corps commander. In reality, Shafter was two years older than Wheeler and also a Civil War veteran (and Medal of Honour recipient).
- Wheeler issued the order to attack San Juan Heights not to 1st Lieutenant John J. “Black Jack” Pershing of the 10th Cavalry, but to Brigadier General J.F. Kent, Commander of the 1st Division of the 5th Army Corps, who led his division in the main assault of San Juan Hill while the Rough Riders & the 10th Cavalry attacked Kettle Hill.
- No Spanish machine gun was present at San Juan Hill. The volume of quick firing Mauser rifles was mistaken as machine gun fire. There also were no German advisors with the Spanish forces, but there were neutral German military observers. Milius however insisted there were German advisers.
- Wheeler’s son, a West Point graduate who was his aide-de-camp, was actually named Joseph Jr. (“Fighting Joe”), not William as depicted.
- Roosevelt experts did not like a scene where Roosevelt, despite his patrician New York upbringing, attends a formal reception with his wife Edith (played by Illeana Douglas) and drags her around the room and harangues guests. “He was filled with wild enthusiasm,” Milius said, when questioned about the scene.
- A historian said that the final charge at San Juan Hill took place in tall grass. “San Juan Hill looked exactly like our hill,” Milius said. “The vegetation was almost exactly the same. We went to meticulous detail.”
- The final scene of the movie begins with the caption “22 Years Later.” Since the previous scene took place at the conclusion of the 1898 Battle of San Juan Hill, then the final scene must have taken place in 1920. The final scene is where Henry Nash, played by Brad Johnson, is in the desert, presumably Arizona, and is talking to the headstones of Buckey O’Neill and George Neville. In his conversation with the tombstones, Nash mentions 1) He just saw Teddy Roosevelt at Roosevelt’s New York home and that Teddy was “doing poorly,” 2) that Nash was a millionaire, and 3) that Nash’s son was at Harvard. However, Nash could not have met Roosevelt in 1920 because Roosevelt died in 1919 and Nash died in 1902 in Manila, Philippines. Nash was never a millionaire businessman; he was a schoolteacher and his last salary, in 1902 in Manila, was for $1,200 per year. Henry Nash never had a son who went to Harvard. In fact, he never married and never had any children.
Rough Riders was the most watched basic cable original movie in July, delivering 16 million households over 10 plays.
Production & Filming Details
- John Milius … (2 episodes, 1997).
- Allan A. Apone … producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Tom Berenger … producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Frank Q. Dobbs … co-producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Moctesuma Esparza … executive producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Kristine Harlan … associate producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Robert Katz … executive producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- Larry Levinson … executive producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- William J. MacDonald … executive producer (2 episodes, 1997).
- John Milius … (written by) (2 episodes, 1997).
- Hugh Wilson … (written by) (2 episodes, 1997).
- Peter Bernstein … (2 episodes, 1997).
- Anthony B. Richmond … (2 episodes, 1997).
- Sam Citron … (2 episodes, 1997).
- Affinity Entertainment.
- Esparza / Katz Productions.
- Larry Levinson Productions.
- Turner Pictures.
- TNT (1997) (USA) (TV).
- Warner Home Video (1997) (USA) (VHS) (full screen).
- Warner Home Video (2006) (USA) (DVD) (full screen).
- Warner Home Video (2009) (USA) (DVD) (Included in the “Sam Elliot Western Collection”).
- Schröder Media (2016) (Germany) (DVD).
- Videosonic (1998) (Greece) (VHS).
- Release Date: 20 July 1997 and 21 July 1997.
- Running Time: 240 minutes (total running time, with commercials) and 184 minutes (total running time, without commercials).
- Rating: Unknown.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.