By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Going through boot camp.
Tyrone (Stan Shaw), Billy Ray (Andrew Stevens), Alvin (James Canning), Vinnie (Michael Lembeck), and Dave (Craig Wasson) are five young men from varying backgrounds and wildly different temperaments who get drafted into the army in August of 1967. Their experiences in boot camp, which is harshly run by the demanding Sergent Loyce (R. Lee Ermey) and the equally stern Sergeant Aquilla (Santos Morales) prove challenging both physically and psychological, but the real test comes when they’re put out onto the battlefield and their personalities begin to disintegrate.
While the film acts like everything that goes on is based on fact and even includes specific dates for each event and at the end small bios of what occurred to the characters after they returned to civilian life it’s actually all fictional and based on a screenplay written by Rick Natkin in 1972 while attending a film class at Yale and then later expanded. It’s noted as being the first film in the 70’s to deal with the Vietnam War on the field of battle as well as the film debut of R. Lee Ermey playing a similar role to the more famous one that he did in Full Metal Jacket. Here though he’s thinner and while the things he says are certainly still aggressive it’s not in quite the over-the-top way as in the Stanley Kubrick film. In fact I sympathized with him here and the challenges he faced in trying to get the rag-tag group conditioned and how he supported the Tyrone character and the racism he had to deal with. Morales also plays the same type of drill sergeant and found it ironic that both men had some missing front teeth in the same areas of their mouths and wondered what the story was behind that.
Shot in the Philippines where its similar type of topography to Vietnam lends an authentic look and the viewer is given a vivid feeling for what wartime life was like where things could be calm and peaceful one moment and then bombs going off the next. While I’ve had my issues with Wasson, Stevens, and Lembeck in some of their other films where I considered their acting to be weak here their performances are solid and the transitions their characters go through during the course of the movie are compelling though without question Shaw is the standout.
While the first half shows the realities of war the second part becomes mired in the darkly comical absurdities. This was clearly inspired by the era where such films as M*A*S*H took the Korean conflict and turned it into a surreal comedy, but mixing the grittiness with moments of levity cheapens the reality. Scott Hylands’ character is particularly off-putting. He plays a captain who makes one insane blunder after another until he becomes more of a caricature. I’m sure it’s quite possible for high-ranking officials to make the occasional misjudgment, but this guy becomes clownish to the top degree making it almost farcical in the process. The climactic soccer game has the same issue where the soldiers can get out of fighting on the front line if they just agree to lose the game, but this scenario never actually occurred to any veteran I’ve ever known and it’s jarring to go from action on the battlefield to kicking a ball around like a war movie that suddenly turns into a sport’s one.
It’s still well enough directed to keep it engaging and there are some strong even profound moments despite the severe shifts in tone, but it would’ve been better had it maintained the realism from the beginning and not thrown-in stuff that would’ve been better suited for satire.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: February 8, 1978
Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video