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Posted on Mar 21, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Rough Riders – Movie Review

By Peter C. Hipple


On the night of 15 February 1898 the battleship USS Maine was shattered by an explosion which sent the ship and two-thirds of her crew to the bottom of Havana harbor. Bolstered by wide-spread sympathy for those who were seeking Cuban independence from Spain’s colonial rule, mostly due to American “yellow journalism”, the emotion-charged Maine tragedy forced the already strained Spanish-American relations to the breaking point, precipitating a short war rapidly decided by two naval engagements.

On 1 May the U.S. Pacific Squadron under Commodore George Dewey steamed into Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, and destroyed the Spanish fleet. Two months later, Admiral William Sampson repeated with an annihilating victory over the Spanish in a running battle off Santiago, Cuba.


In addition to Sampson and Dewey’s crushing victories, naval operations included a blockade of the Cuban coast, bombardment of Spanish fortifications at San Juan, Puerto Rico by the battleship USS Iowa, the armored cruiser USS New York and other ships, and gunfire support of Marine and Army landings in Cuba and Puerto Rico. America emerged from the Spanish-American War as a major naval power.

Rough Riders depicts the battle of San Juan during the time of fighting between Spain and Cuba. The U.S took the side for Cuban independence and swept the Spaniards in the battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (1st Vol Cav) were made famous in this battle as they ferociously fought their way to victory.

The movie is split into two halves; the preparation for battle, and the battle itself. One of the main characters, Henry Nash, stumbles up in his attic to find his old uniform and photo of his regiment. He recalls how the war got started with violence in Cuba, and with the USS Maine sinking in Havana Harbor. “WAR!!” is the excited word coming from Mr. Hearst, a journalist who reads a telegram in New York about the breakout of the conflict. The movie then bounces back and forth showing how volunteers like polo players from New York City and frontiersmen from Arizona alike answered the call for the 1st Vol Regiment.

Characters were very memorable in this movie; most impressive was Tom Berenger who portrayed Teddy Roosevelt. He showed his outrageous personality which was also amusing to watch. He had a very close relationship with his wife Edith (played by Illeana Douglas). Bucky O’Neil’s character was very well played by Sam Elliott as the hard-nosed westerner who developed his troops from ordinary citizens into Cavalrymen.

In this movie you see a clash of personalities between O’Neil and Nash. Henry Nash was a laid back man who couldn’t make up his mind about staying or going, but after he had his chance to run after coming back, he was hounded by O’Neil the rest of the movie to become a soldier. In one scene, after the first battle, Roosevelt meets with some of his troops and shares some whiskey with them, it depicts the strong brotherhood of the regiment. Gary Busey also stars as a brash former southern General who partly led the 1st Vol into a dismounted assault on San Juan Hill.

Rough Riders is an action movie, with a pretty brisk pace. It will keep you interested and in your seat. Rough Riders is directed by John Milius (who also directed Red Dawn). I would caution against young audiences watching this movie because of the violence during the battle scenes, even though it is not rated. The movie is very lifelike, you feel every struggle, victory, and pride in what the US accomplished.


About the Author

Peter Hipple is a Submariner with the US Navy and is currently stationed in Groton, CT.



  1. This is commentary on Rough Riders and while I agree on the general movie review the technical aspects of the movie are an abysmal failure.
    Point one the opening picture of the Maine is not the original ship that had the explosion in Havana harbor with echelon turrets with the forward(bow) turret being to the right, of the center line of the ship and the stern(rear) being(offset) to port(left) of the center line of the ship. This looked as strange as it is to explain.
    The Maine built in 1899 to replace the ship lost and later raised in 1912 and sunk with military honors out at sea.

    Second point is that the Germans did not sell any arms to the Spanish because Basil Zaharoff the merchant for Vickers and Schneider screwed them out of the contract and sold the Spanish only British Vickers machine guns and French 75 field guns. The Mauser rifles were limited production made by the Spanish and German companies. Their were no German military advisor’s as much as they could have used them to improve their shooting accuracy.

    The third point is that the black infantry did not carry Craig Jorgenson rifles, but black powder Springfield carbines. They were second class soldiers and armed as such though they clearly performed as first line cavalry.

    A forth point is that the Internal Revenue Service acquired this title in 1952 and prior to that it was the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However income tax was declared unconstitutional in 1894 so there could not have been an Internal Revenue Service agent in the rough riders. In 1913 a constitutional amendment was passed which has given us the wonderful income tax.

  2. I have just watched this movie and as a piece of fiction it has a certain degree of entertainment. Though it does overlook the fact that Cuban rebels had virtually beaten the Spanish oppressors prior to the intervention of the U.S.

    The reasons for the U.S’s intervention in Cuba at that period had nothing whatsoever to do with the liberation of Cuba but was essentially to secure it’s borders and enhance it’s sphere of influence in an area where they considered they had a divine right to interfere.

    This approach ha been has been the mainstay of U.S. policy to the present day as can be witnessed by the savage embargo enforced on the small nation of Cuba.

    However the heroism of the ordinary U.S. soldier must be applauded
    dispite the fact they were used as a tool of U.S. expansionism.