By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Seaman escorted to prison.
Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) are two navy lifers assigned the task of escorting an 18 year-old seamen named Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison. Meadows had been caught lifting $40 from a charity fund run by a wife of a senior officer. In return he got court-martialed and given an 8-year sentence in the brig. Buddusky and Mulhall feel the sentence is too harsh and immediately take a liking to the soft-spoken young man who despite his tall height seems harmless and mile-mannered. During the trip, which is expected to take a week, the two men decide to show Meadows a ‘good time’ by taking him on many side-trips including a whorehouse where the young virgin has sex with a prostitute (Carol Kane). As the time grows near for them to turn their prisoner over to the authorities they start to feel reluctant about doing so, but the fear of being kicked out of the navy and losing all of their pay and benefits keeps them grounded in their responsibility even as Meadows tries several times to escape.
It may seem amazing to believe now, but this film, which has won over almost universal appeal both from the critics and film viewers almost didn’t get made due to the fear from the studio that the word ‘fuck’ was spoken in it too many times. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who adapted the story from the novel of the same name by Daryl Poniscan, was pressured to take most of the uses of the profanity out of the script and in fact production was delayed while both sides had a ‘stand-off’ about it with Towne insisting that “this is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” Eventually the script got green-lit with all the ‘fucks’ intact, which at the time was a record 65 of them. In retrospect I’m glad Towne held his ground as without the F-word being used, or some silly lesser profanity substituted in, would’ve given the film a dated feel when being watched by today’s standards where the word is said hundreds of times on social media and sometimes even in commercials where it’s only slightly bleeped-out. This is a problem when watching other films from the late 60’s and early 70’s where goofy slang gets thrown in to compensate for the lack of the F-word, which in turn hurts the film’s grittiness and edge, which thankfully got avoided here.
The story was a problem too as many studio execs considered it too ‘non-eventful’ to make for an interesting movie, but this is the whole reason why the movie is so special as it doesn’t try to throw in the cheap antics other Hollywood films might to make it ‘more entertaining’. The film remains low-key and fully believable throughout and may remind others, as it did me, of one’s own coming-of-age experiences when they were 18 and hanging out with others who were older and more worldly-wise. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who appears briefly as a cab driver, insistence at using natural lighting only also helps heighten the realism.
The story takes many amusing side turns that manages to be both poignant and funny including a brawl that the three have with a group of marines inside a Grand Central Station restroom, though I did wish some of the other segments had been strung out a bit more. One is when the three men attend a group encounter, which features Gilda Radner in her film debut, to a bunch of chanting Buddhists. I felt it was weird that the men just stood in the background and didn’t assimilate with the group during the meeting and begin chanting alongside the others, which would’ve been funny. The scene inside the hotel room where Buddusky can’t get his roll-out cot to fold-out right and forcing him to sleep in a uncomfortable position should’ve been played-out more too. Are we to believe that he slept that way the whole night?
Of course it’s the acting that makes this movie so special. While I never pictured Nicholson with his over-the-top persona as being someone who would be a part of the regimented culture such as the navy I ended up loving him in it and felt this was the performance he should’ve won the Oscar for. I especially got a kick out of the way he would get all fidgety when outside in the cold, which I don’t think was acting at all as it was filmed on-location in the Northeast during the very late autumn/early winter and I believe he was really freezing as he was saying his lines.
While his character is not as flashy, Otis Young is every bit as excellent as it takes a good straight-man, which is what he essentially is, to make for a good funny man. The part was originally meant for Rupert Crouse, who unfortunately got diagnosed with cancer just as the production began forcing the producers to bring in Young as a last minute replacement, but he manages to deliver particularly in the scene on the train where he loudly castigates Buddusky for his misbehavior. Quaid is quite good too even though he goes against the physical characteristics of the character, who in the novel was described as being ‘a helpless little guy’, but director Hal Ashby, who can be seen briefly during a barroom scene, choose to cast against type by bringing in a tall, hefty fellow who looked like he could defend himself if he had to, but is just too sheltered to know how.
The ending is the one segment where I wished it had been a little more emotionally upbeat. It’s still a big improvement over the one in the book where Buddusky dies, which fortunately doesn’t happen here, but it still isn’t too memorable either. The film though overall does a good job of conveying the underlining theme of how the navy men where just as imprisoned as Meadows, at least psychologically, and unable to consider life outside of the navy box that they had spent their entire lives in and where thus locked-in more so than Meadows, whose sentence in jail would only last 8-years versus a lifetime like with Buddusky and Mulhall.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: December 12, 1973
Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes
Director: Hal Ashby
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube