Tag Archives: Stan Shaw

The Boys In Company C (1978) Casualties of War (1988)

The Boys In Company C and Casualties Of War bookend a ten year period during which American cinema made a serious attempt to come to terms with the war in Vietnam. Hollywood would return to patriotism and propaganda. Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, and Forrest Gump would replace The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. But in the decade before Operation Desert Storm ended the “Vietnam Syndrome,” American filmmakers did have a brief window where they could at least attempt to tell the truth instead of “supporting the troops.”

The Boys In Company C may be a jumbled mess,  but it also set the template for everything that came after. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is really just a remake, and, truth be told, not even as good. Indeed, while great “auteurs” have their place in cinema, there are actually times when a B-movie, a rougher, less finished product works better. The Boys In Company C is a great B-movie. That it fails — and it does — has less to do with a lack of artistic merit then it does with sincerity and artistic integrity.

1978 saw a sudden burst of films about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Go Tell The Spartans. Before that, the only movie that dramatized combat in Vietnam was The Green Berets,  John Wayne’s ludicrous attempt to pen the American occupation of Vietnam into a framework set by World War II propaganda films. The Boys In Company C first follows, then breaks with the World War II paradigm. It begins with a group of American “everymen” arriving at Marine Boot Camp in San Diego. There’s Tyrone Washington, a drug dealer and pimp from Chicago, who, not incidentally, is also a natural soldier. There’s Dave Brisbee, a long haired hippie from Seattle who couldn’t get out of the draft. He arrives in handcuffs. There are Billy Ray Pike, a “good old boy” from Texas, Vinnie Fazio, from Brooklyn of course, and Alvin Foster,a would be writer from the Midwest. The first half of the movie tells the usual story. They get to basic training as a clumsy, self-centered group of kids, and leave as a team, as marines. But then they get to Vietnam.

If director Sydney J. Furie picks up what he finds lying around leftover from World War II and Korea, he breaks the mould when he confronts reality. Washington isn’t going to Vietnam to fight for his country. He enlisted in the Marines only so he could ship heroin home to Chicago in body bags, the contents of which are never examined.

Note: Ridley Scott would go on to flesh out the story of the “cadaver connection” in American Gangster, but The Boys in Company C tells it better, and with a lot less narrative baggage.

The executive officer of Company C, Lieutenant Archer, is a good soldier who looks out for his men. But the company commander, Captain Collins, is a war criminal who cares only about his “body count.” Not only does he hand an innocent 14-year-old boy over to a corrupt police official to be executed, he abandons Washington to his fate after he steps on a mine and activates the trigger. “That man is a dead man,” he says, turning his back on his fellow marine who, frozen in place, will be blown to bits if he steps off and releases the switch. Washington lives only because Billy Ray Pike, a white man from Texas, is willing to risk his life to save a black man from Chicago. Pike’s show of solidarity, in turn, shames Washington out of his plan to smuggle heroin.

The Vietnamese are not the enemy, Washington says to Collins. “You’re the enemy.”

But The Boys in Company C is not a radical, anti-war, or anti-imperialist film. In the end, it’s a film about a group of soldiers betrayed by their officers and their government. Washington, Pike, Brisbee, Fazio, and Foster are, for all their faults, a decent group of men who genuinely care about the people of Vietnam. Foster dies when he jumps on a grenade to save a group of children. After a sniper kills a teenage girl he had befriended, Brisbee changes from a peacenik and a reluctant soldier to a gung ho killer. Sydney J. Furie isn’t quite sure what his message is. Was the Vietnam War wrong? Or was it winnable and only lost because the politicians and bureaucrats wouldn’t let the soldiers do their job? Was the mission itself doomed from the very beginning? Or was it simply the execution? What about Tyrone Washington? Was his character an angry black nationalist who brought an anti-imperialist perspective to his fellow marines? Or was he an angry black nationalist who learned to be a patriot? In the end, he’s both. The film is neither right nor left, but leans right. It’s patriotic in spite of itself.

You can’t say the same thing for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War. If it took The Boys in Company C to break open the model of patriotism and propaganda that had framed American war movies ever since 1941, then by the time we get to 1988, American filmmakers, if not openly anti-imperialist, were beginning to get the history right. Casualties of War is a brutal, horrifying film, a Gothic horror story, but, if books like Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves are to be believed, dead on accurate. The “good war” and  the “greatest generation” are long gone. The United States army isn’t fighting to end slavery or to liberate France from the Nazis. It’s fighting for empire, pure and simple. De Palma’s soldiers aren’t a likeable group of American everymen. They’re monsters, abominations, no different from Spielberg’s Nazis in Schindler’s List. The director of Carrie and Dressed to Kill has buried American exceptionalism once and for all, ripped the mask off of the genocidal war in Vietnam and showed it for what it was.

Casualties of War is a meditation on toxic masculinity, on “rape culture,” on what turns ordinary men into war criminals. You might call it “Johnson’s Willing Executioners.” It is 1966. Five American soldiers are on patrol in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. They’re angry and cynical, sexually frustrated and paranoid. Their squad leader Sergeant Meserve, played by Sean Penn, decides to kidnap a 16-year Vietnamese farm girl for “mobile R and R,” as an object they can use sexually then kill when she’s no longer needed. Max Erickson, Michael J. Fox, thinks he’s kidding, but he’s not. Meserve, and his fellow war criminals, a Corporal Clark played by a very scary actor named Don Patrick Harvey, and a Private Hatcher played by a dough faced John C. Reilly, do indeed kidnap an innocent Vietnamese farm girl, gang rape her for 2 days, then stab her and throw her off a bridge. Their racial attitudes are no different from any Klansman in Alabama, American soldier at Wounded Knee, or Nazi in occupied Poland. The Vietnamese are subhuman. Any random 16-year-old farm girl is no different from a North Vietnamese guerrilla. “Nits make lice.”

“I thought we were here to help these people,” Erickson says, horrified that what he thought was a joke is deadly serious. Even though his naivete makes us groan, Michael J. Fox’s Max Erickson was quite real. Casualties of War is based on a historical event in Vietnam, Incident on Hill 192, where a Pfc Robert M. Storeby did indeed manage to bring 4 other soldiers up on charges of rape and murder and get them long prison terms. But as Nick Turse would later prove conclusively in his book Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai and Incident on Hill 192 were the exceptions. The army got caught. Every platoon in Vietnam had its My Lai and Hill 192, and very few of the soldiers involved faced any consequences. Lieutenant Calley, the butcher of My Lai, did no jail time at all. Colin Powell, who helped with the initial whitewash, later became Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. John Kerry, who protested the War in Vietnam, would lose an election in 2004 because he tried to tell the truth back in 1972.  I suppose he learned his lesson because he hasn’t told the truth since, but one line from his testimony in front of Congress in the 1970s made it into Casualties of War.

“Hey this is awesome,” Pfc Hatcher says during the kidnapping. “We’re just like Genghis Khan.”

I suppose Hollywood, like John Kerry, learned its lesson since they’ve studiously avoided telling the truth about the war in Iraq. The Boys in Company C was released only 3 years after the last American helicopter took off from the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon. The United States military has officially been out of Iraq for several years now, but, except for a few forgotten liberal films like Robert Redford’s Redacted and some random jingoistic dreck like The Hurt Locker, the war is nowhere to be seen. One would think that George W. Bush’s folly, which wound up destroying a whole country in the Middle East, would have already gotten its own Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, its own Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. But who am I kidding? As flawed as both those films were, neither could be made after 9/11. It would probably be career suicide for anybody who even tried.

The Great Santini (1979)

I sometimes tell people that my mother was like Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth from Ordinary People and my father like Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum from The Great Santini. It’s a harsh characterization, not completely accurate, and, even though it does have a grain of truth, it’s mostly the result of how both movies were in constant rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. Ordinary People framed my image of the toxic feminine. The Great Santini framed my image of the toxic masculine.

The Great Santini opens with a group of United States Marines stationed in Spain in 1962. Franco, unmentioned, is still dictator. Vietnam lurks ahead in the not too distant future. Castro is consolidating power in Cuba. The United States Marines are having a going away party for Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Meechum is a veteran, a popular, charismatic senior officer. He is also, as we shall soon see, a 40-year-old fraternity boy. After a waiter, then a senior United States naval officer, comes into their private room to ask, then order them to quiet down, Meechum and his buddies play a practical joke on the other people in the restaurant. They stagger out into the main dining room, drunk, and pretending to be even more drunk. There’s a band playing. Meechum grabs a woman and forces her to dance with him. She pulls away, indignant, then sits back down. Meechum, who had hidden an open can of cream of mushroom soup under his jacket, then walks up to the stage, and pretends to be sick. He then “throws up,” spilling the can of cream of mushroom soup. His fellow Marines start barking, get down on their hands and knees, and drink up the soup as if they were dogs drinking up their own vomit. It’s all good “fun and games” for the “men” who operate multi-million dollar fighter aircraft.

The scene changes to a military airport in Atlanta Georgia. Lillian, Meechum’s wife, Blythe Danner, Ben, his oldest son, Michael O’Keefe, younger son and two daughters are waiting for his plane to arrive. Anybody who’s seen the famous image of an American POW greeted by his family upon his return from Vietnam will immediately recognize the image. Meechum has never been a POW, and the war in Vietnam hasn’t even started, but the director Lewis John Carlino is reminding us exactly where we are in history. The conflict between the generations that will soon erupt in the streets and on the college campuses is also brewing in the Meechum between Meechum and his older son Ben.

It’s much easier to misinterpret The Great Santini than it is to misinterpret Ordinary People. If the family in Ordinary people, that icy, funereal trio of suburban Chicago WASPs, is so utterly cold and loveless that we realize from the very beginning it needs to crack up, the family in The Great Satini is a lot more complex. Lillian Meechum, and Blythe Danner is a much better actress than her daughter Gwynneth Paltrow, is a southern “lady.” She’s warm, gracious, kind, nothing like Mary Tyler Moore’s vicious upper-class Yankee bitch. What’s more, she and her husband, while they may fight, trade blows, and yell insults, genuinely love each other. After we see them in a post coital embrace, a long married couple in their 40s who still sleep with each other, they wake up, pile into a station wagon, and drive north to Beaufort, South Carolina and the 321st fighter squadron, which Meechum has been brought back to the United States to command. They sing. Lillian, a southerner starts out with Dixie, and Meechum, a Yankee, drowns her out with Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, it’s effective at making its point. Beaufort, which is near the famous Marine Corps base at Parris Island, is not Selma Alabama, or Philadelphia Mississippi. It’s part of the Sea Islands. It has a substantial black population and was the site of a famous experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The Marine Corps means there’s a substantial presence of the federal government. This isn’t a grim, backwoods redneck hellhole with night riders and burning crosses. It’s a gorgeous old Tidewater city with gigantic old plantation houses, a substantial population of people from outside the south, and no obvious signs of Jim Crow.

That said, racism, as we will see in the film’s climax, is still front and center. After Meechum rents a huge ante-bellum plantation house, he jokingly baits Arrabella Smalls, their black maid, with accusations that she’s a potential thief. Meechum is no racist, and Lilian treats Arrabella Smalls no differently than she would if she were white. But Arabella’s son Toomer, a fisherman and beekeeper, who we earlier saw driving his cart full of honey jars into town, will soon get into a fatal conflict with a local gang of racists.

The Great Santini is an old school 1970s liberal movie. While there is a nod to Meechum’s older daughter Mary Anne, Sarah Jane Persky, who codes “Jewish, smart, plain, feminist,” his son Ben is squarely at the center of the narrative. If Robert Redford, in Ordinary People, went right for the jugular, gutting his Chicago WASP family, and exposing it as a complete fraud, then Lewis John Carlino seems a bit confused about whether he wants to make a movie that’s genuinely feminist and anti-militarist, or if simply wants to tell a story about a father and son. I haven’t read the Pat Conroy novel the Great Santini is based on but here, in the film, Mary Anne Meechum seems as needy for her father’s attention as she does critical of his patriarchal authority. She mocks her father’s authoritarian personality, but always seems like her brother’s sidekick. She makes up stories about sleeping with black dwarfs to get his attention, which become more and more outlandish as he simply pretends she doesn’t exist. For Bull Meechum, his two daughters really don’t exist. There’s a darker side to his oddly likeable frat jock, but Carlino never quite exploits it as well as he should.

Ben’s feminine role model, his path out his father’s twisted, macho world view, is not a woman at all, but Toomer, the maid’s son. That a black man is used to symbolize feminized masculinity and a white man patriarchy is politically problematic to say the least, but at the very least it does put race and class at the center of the story. Even as Bull Meechum becomes more and more of a caricature of boy man, as he drinks, bullies his kids, and bullies his wife, his wife still defends him. “I want to give my son the gift of fury,” Meechum says to Lillian, “or else the world will tear them apart.” Lillian, the bourgeois southern lady, seems to agree. She plays both sides. She defends her son against his father, as soon as her son rebels, she defends her husband. Lillian doesn’t reject patriarchy at all. On the contrary, after Meechum viciously bullies Ben, who had the temerity to beat him as basketball, Lillian defends him. “Your father loves you,” she said. “He just wants you to be the best.”

And why shouldn’t she? Lillian Meechum isn’t stupid. She knows, along with her husband, that she lives in the United States, a capitalist country that values male aggression. To raise her son to be a feminist would, indeed, be a form of child abuse. It would take from him his ability to succeed, to make money, to attract women, to start a family of his own. Lilian is no Beth Jarrett. She loves her son deeply and has no trouble standing up to her husband when she knows he’s wrong. But she’s no radical either. How could she possibly know that in 1962 helping to impose a traditional masculine identity on her son might mean he’ll die, or, even worse, commit war crimes in Vietnam?

Toomer, on the other hand, is something of a revolutionary. These days, it might be possible to see Stan Shaw’s stuttering, folksy black bee keeper as racist, as a “magical negro,” but, if you look more closely, you can see that Toomer is the black, working class equivalent of Judd Hirsh’s psychiatrist, the benevolent father figure who helps the hero break out of his tyrannical WASP family. Toomer has no trouble standing up to racists, and not only verbally. When a group of “shrimp folk” break his honey jars and try to get in the way of his livelihood, he wrenches the leader into a headlock, and threatens to crush his skull under the wheels of his cart. When the gang comes out to home, he sets up a trap to overturn two cages full of bees. The racists scatter,  howling in pain. When the leader of the racist gang starts shooting his dogs — Toomer keeps about 20 — and accidentally shoots Toomer, Toomer, with his last bit of strength, opens the kennel door. His pack of hounds chase down the racist and kill him.

Indeed, Toomer’s willingness to use violence to defend himself puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to the Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman of Mississippi Burning.

But it’s still Ben’s story. While Ben never challenges Meechum over the neglect of his two sisters, he does stand up to him over Toomer. After the father orders the son not to interfere — “when the crackers and blacks go at it we don’t stand in the middle” — Ben defies his command and goes out to the bus. It’s too late to save Toomer, but, by at least trying, Ben saves himself. The tables are turned. Ben is no longer the bullied son. Indeed, as Bull Meechum continues to degenerate into the alcoholism that symbolizes his toxic, vicious patriarchal authority, his son becomes the parent, he the child. When Ben hunts down his father, who’s wandered off after a drunken binge, he not only saves him from public humiliation, he yells in his face “I love you dad. I love you dad.”

If Ordinary People’s toxic mother in 1980 meant Reaganite neoliberalism, The Great Santini’s toxic father would very soon, in the 1960s, mean Vietnam.

Meechum is killed after the fuel gage in his fighter jet malfunctions, and he crashes it into the ocean rather then kill civilians.  Ben and Lillian take command of the family, and try to maintain things as they’ve always been. Lillian orders Mary Anne not to cry at the funeral. Ben drives the family out of town, leading them as they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father’s old song. Ben’s Oedipal fantasy has come true. He has Lillian and the kids all to himself. He’s the man now. But Vietnam is only a few years away. Ben, 18 in 1962, is soon going to face a choice. Will he go to Vietnam, napalm civilians, become an agent of the imperial state as his father surely would have done, or will he rebel? Will he resist the draft? Will he go to Canada or jail rather than participate in genocide and war crimes? Will Lillian help him? We have no way of knowing, but, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, he does at least have a fighting chance.