What I remember:
The truth is I remember very little about this film except that I liked it very much. In fact, I had read the novel upon which it was based, “Dog Soldiers” written by ex-Merry Prankster Robert Stone. As a big fan of the novel, I was extremely pleased to see a film adaptation.
Director Reisz had done three other films I was familiar with at the time, “Morgan”, “Isidora” and “The Gambler”. I was unaware of his history as part of the “Angry Young Man” film movement in England. I also remember Nick Nolte being his usual intense self, and thinking that an older Tuesday Weld was MUCH hotter than I remembered from her days as Thalia in “Dobie Gillis”.
My memory was that the adaptation actually equaled, if not surpassed the book, something that rarely happens. The movie was part of a mini-wave of Vietnam Veteran films, which in that year alone included the brilliant “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter”. I loved all three films, the other two being considered classics nowadays. Sadly, this one has been forgotten. Let’s see if it deserves its fate.
“In a world where elephants are pursued by flying men, people are going to naturally want to get high”. John Converse
A journalist (John Converse, played by Michael Moriarty) in late ‘60’s Vietnam has seen so much horror, and is so disillusioned, that he decides to cut a heroin deal. A merchant marine friend of his (Ray Hicks, portrayed ny Nick Nolte) will smuggle 2 kilos of pure heroin back to the States, where Converse’s wife will pay off the sailor. Upon arriving in California, the sailor immediately sees that some people are already wise to the deal, and he and the journalist’s wife need to go on the lam with the dope. The members of the other group are either the dirtiest cops ever, or just simply bad guys masquerading as cops. The chase takes our couple from Berkeley to L.A., then to New Mexico, where a stand-off ensues that includes all the major stateside players.
Q- Was my memory accurate?
Does war turn you into a person without morals? Does it make you lose your ability to reason? Does it take a normal civilized person and turn him into a killer? Does it make a man question authority?
Well, duh. I mean, haven’t you watched any war movies since “The Green Berets”? The main theme of “Who’ll Stop The..…..Lord, I am going to need a shortened name for this movie. That is WAY too much typing to reenter again and again. Let’s just go with WSTR. Thanks. The main theme of WSTR is disillusionment. It’s kind of the asexual version of “Boogie Nights”. By that, I mean that it is all about how happy hippies become badass drug dealers, all because they and their buddies saw some nightmare in the shit. I am not trying to belittle this theme, even if it sounds that way. When WSTR was made, this was a fairly fresh concept in the movies. It spread like napalm fire, and soon, every film about the Vietnam War was alike in message. Even films about other wars had some form of this “end of civilization” leitmotif (see my On Second Look entry on “Breaker Morant”).
What is it that separates WSTR from some of these other movies? Robert Stone helped with the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, and the dialogue is priceless from the outset. Many of the lines sound like something from a James M. Cain hard-boiled novel of the 40’s. There is a real toughness in the fabric of these characters. Even Margie Converse (as played by Tuesday Weld) goes from bookstore clerk to drug dealer on the run with a sudden streak of courage and edge that reminds one of Vivien Rutledge from “The Big Sleep”. Ray’s own disillusionment differs from John’s; he is disillusioned with incompetent authority, and it’s a very concrete focus. John is simply done with life. Michael Moriarty plays John as if he were already dead, just ghosting around all these events with no real concern for his friend, or his wife and child, or even his money. Ray’s problem with the guys in charge doesn’t stop him from having morals; he is loyal to the Converses to a fault. He doesn’t want them getting screwed over, and takes as much umbrage as if he were the victim. Ray is like the child who realizes that his parents aren’t always right, and decides that the only people he can trust are his friends. Why he trusts a friend who talked him into this life-threatening pursuit for a measly grand, I can’t explain.
Karel Reisz was rescued from the holocaust in one of the kindertransports of the ‘30’s, and virtually raised British. He did lose both parents to the camps. In England he became part of the new cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s with filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, making the classic “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” starring Albert Finney. Whether a man of this background can have insight into the beat/hippie movement of ‘60’s America is moot. Robert Stone’s imprimatur is all over this picture, and I am sure he was an integral part of the filming. Much of the style is reminiscent of ‘70’s made for TV films. There’s somebody watching our hero from a distance…quick! Zoom in from behind our hero to see the guy up in the hills behind a bush. All we need is some blaring trumpets and a fuzzy guitar. Flashbacks to Converse’s trauma in Nam are clumsily handled and too brief to have impact. Hicks apparently travels on a ship with no crew or other passengers from Vietnam to Oakland.
Reisz is able to generate a lot of tension, however, and some scenes are quite memorable, particularly the final sequence and the standoff. What really makes the movie click is the great characters and dialogue. There are more than a few Tarantino type exchanges, which gives the script a very contemporary feel.
Remember how I said Tuesday Weld was hot in this? Sorry, but this film has about as much sexuality as an episode of “Lassie”. She is neither hot, nor alluring. I have no clue where I got that notion. Nolte exposes more skin in 5 minutes of this movie than Weld does in the entire film. She spends most of her time doing her best Mia Farrow, which is actually quite appropriate for the role. If you want to see a hot, older Weld, check out her masochistic sexpot in “Once Upon a Time in America”. There is one scene in WSTR where she goes from strung out to high on heroin that is one of the most impressive bits of acting you’ll ever see. I mean, she physically changes; it is quite remarkable to watch. Nolte, who ironically 1st appears playing football--his next role will be as a wide receiver in the superb “North Dallas 40”—is a force to be reckoned with. His character was loosely based on beat writer Neal Cassady. He does not come across as an intellectual in any way, but that’s fine. We get the idea that he is a man-child, a free spirit. When they reach a place in the New Mexico mountains that is clearly based on Ken Kesey’s LSD commune, he bubbles over with the memories of the good times, recreational drugs and extended adolescence of the now abandoned retreat.
The bad guys are also quite unusual for the period. Richard Mazur (veteran character actor, known for “The Thing” and “Risky Business”) and Ray Sharkey (star of “Willie and Phil”, Mazursky’s awful take on “Jules and Jim”) play thugs who would have been just as at home in “Home Alone”. Mazur’s character is obviously Jewish, Sharkey’s is Italian. The two torture Converse, argue with each other and generally bumble about in a startling combination of terror and comedy. Anthony Zerbe, veteran TV and film bad guy, is the head of the fed/not fed group. His performance is pretty much one-note. There is also a great turn by Charles Haid (Renko from TV’s “Hill St. Blues”) as a Hollywood drug dealer, done with just the right amount of sinister smarminess. I’ve already discussed Michael Moriraty’s take on John Converse, it is a thankless role, but he pulls it off well.
ON SECOND LOOK
I’m not going to say that WSTR holds up, because there are ways in which it’s dated style and misused soundtrack really do not. Was it so important to use Creedence that they even renamed the film for one of their songs? Nowadays, the film would seem more relevant had they just kept with “Dog Soldiers” as the title, and used music by Hendrix or The Grateful Dead, music that represents that period better to our perspective in the 21st Century. The film still has a lot of power, and one must remember that it was part of a ground-breaking wave of post-war Vietnam themed movies. It should be watched for that, and it should be treasured for it’s brilliantly acerbic and humorous dialogue.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2