Tuesday, April 30, 2013
(Some of) The Warts of War: Sidney J. Furie's The Boys in Company C (1978)
(The following is my term paper for Vietnam in American Film, one of my last classes at Emerson College.)
Inaugurating what would quickly become a decades long fascination with the subject, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978) was the first Hollywood feature film about America’s military involvement in Vietnam to emerge after the end of the war. Radically different in tone and narrative than John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) – one of the few Hollywood combat films made during the war as well as the last American film to depict the war in Vietnam before Furie’s film – The Boys in Company C follows a geographically diverse group of twentysomething recruits through their first tour of duty as members of the Marines from August 1967 to January 1968 (Hyams 200). Instead of aiming to arouse the patriotic fervor common to World War II Hollywood films, Furie opts for a more critical view of the military operation. In doing so, however, he continues to borrow a melodramatic language that places emphasis on sympathetic individuals rather than problematic political realities. Even as the film offers an indictment of militaristic arrogance by targeting its satire at inept superiors, its ultimate sentimentalization of the exploited soldier’s experience ensures that it stays within the realm of melodrama and never wrestles with more fundamental systemic questions.
A close look at the context surrounding The Boys in Company C’s production and release reveals the unique place it was to hold in the national consciousness, a place both embraced and complicated by the film itself. Produced primarily by the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest Company (a studio often associated with cheaper, riskier movies), shot on location in the Philippines, and featuring some actual members of the military, not to mention the fact that the film was the first to muster up the bravery to fictionalize a still touchy subject, the production had several superficial indicators of artistic ambition and grittiness. Then, the film’s marketing campaign emphasized that its main characters were “the craziest group of men this country ever sent off to war,” implying a sense of irreverence missing from the gung-ho patriotism of World War II films (Maslin). This sense was confirmed by reviews, which identified the film as a “frank, hard-hitting drama” (“The Boys in Company C”). To a certain degree, it’s obvious that the climate surrounding the film was one of both surprise and hesitance towards a new representation of war “that wouldn’t have been possible in a movie of the early 1940’s” (Ebert). However, this surface novelty proves not radical enough in the face of a particularly problematic war in which the U.S. government’s mistakes were of greater importance than those of the individuals involved in combat.
The film’s concern for people over politics is announced right from its opening scene, a credit montage introducing the audience to the five central characters as they prepare to enter boot camp, saying their final goodbyes to friends and loved ones. Each character represents a different shade of 1960s Americana. Middle-class high school stud Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) is pragmatically consoled by his father as he prepares to exit the car: “you’re doing the right thing, get the service out of the way.” Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw), an urban drug pusher clad in a flamboyant striped shirt and straw hat, fields concern from a buddy regarding how Tyrone’s absence will impact his drug access. Wide-eyed loner Alvin Foster (James Canning), who has aspirations to become a combat journalist, is enlightened on the seriousness of the war by an experienced elder. Italian-American pervert Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck) tries in vain to sneak in one last shag in plain sight with his disinterested girlfriend. Bearded, guitar-strumming hippie Dave Bisbee (Craig Wilson) is nearly dragged away from his car at the end of the scene, a muffled “make love not war” tossed into the wind as his final message to the civilian world.
Andrew Sarris, in a 1978 review of the film for the Village Voice, was right to point out the reductiveness of these characterizations, but it’s precisely this archetypal quality that allows for an instant familiarity and connection with these people. The opening montage aims to establish these characters as boyish, charismatic, and eclectic so that a feeling of corruption is aroused when their heads are subsequently shaved for Marine training. Immediately, the sense of diversity manufactured by these archetypes is removed, and only a dehumanizing coherence remains. Particularly in its first act, The Boys in Company C moves at a fast clip, with the bulk of its energy spent on revealing and then stripping its characters of their agency and individuality. In effect, this technique directs sympathy towards the recruits and antagonism towards a pack of malicious, amoral officers.
Indeed, the most illuminating and transparent precedent, among others, of Furie’s film to Stanley Kubrick’s later Full Metal Jacket (1987) is its ironic take on military leadership. Not only does The Boys in Company C inaugurate real-life drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey into the world of motion picture acting (a path that would climax with Kubrick’s Vietnam effort), but the film also relishes in the kind of bullying profanity and exaggerated order barking perfected by Kubrick nine years later. As Sergeant Loyce and Sergeant Aquilla, Ermey and Santos Morales, respectively, constitute a brash caricature of inflated masculine ethos. Unleashing constant streams of hateful language and do-or-die ultimatums, their goal is to do nothing less than pulverize their soldiers into the shape of Communist-killing machines and unreflective brothers in combat. Alongside the scattered emotions presented by the recruits (fear, skepticism, disillusionment, overzealousness), the undifferentiated force of this military infrastructure is, in the terms of melodrama, the closest thing to an outright evil in the confines of the film’s American-centric narrative. This vilification of U.S. officials – ranging from mild antipathy to utter hostility – is the most identifiable way in which “Vietnam films are in a dialectical tension with their generic predecessors” (The Hollywood War Film 94).
The Boys in Company C’s producer, Max Youngstein, proposed upon the film’s release that the American people were ready to “take a look at what happened in Vietnam, warts and all,” and surely the “warts” he refers to have to do largely with the film’s representation of drill sergeants (Suid 319). They also manifest themselves in Furie’s cinematic representation of the atmosphere of the war. Compared to later Vietnam films that privilege a single subjectivity and thus utilize more selective soundtracks, The Boys in Company C is a bombastic film; its diegesis is packed wall to wall with overlapping profanities, top-of-the-lungs combat orders, spinning helicopter blades, explosions, Vietnamese radio broadcasts, and American folk and country music squeezing through miniature boom boxes and out of Bisbee’s guitar. (At one point during an unexpected Vietcong attack on the American troops, Bisbee is seen strolling through the battleground playing a melancholy tune as bombs detonate and chaos ensues around him.) Rarely does Furie allow the audience a moment of calm amidst this cacophony, and it’s this unrelenting quality that defines the combat experience in the film. There is neither a moment for the soldiers to consider the broader implications of the events around them nor the mental space required to do so. Significantly, the madness of the film’s portrayal of wartime has been lost on no one. Roger Ebert mentioned the “craziness of the company’s first overseas patrol,” Emmanuel C. Levy emphasized the “brutality of war,” and Robert Eberwein acknowledges that the film “shows the absurdity of war” (32).
In many other ways, however, The Boys in Company C practices a much more limited revealing of the so-called “warts” of war referred to by Youngstein. As a side effect of Furie’s exaggerated treatment of the officers, they are rarely given the opportunity to emerge as flesh-and-blood human beings, and thus the film fails to demonstrate a palpable reason for their being the way they are. With the notable exception of a scene when Sergeant Loyce eases his inflammatory temperament to explain to Washington the burden of responsibility weighing upon him in a job that is constantly measured according to body counts (whether Marines or Vietcong), attention is drawn to the absurdity of their characterizations rather than the underlying forces influencing their behaviors and attitudes. Even when Loyce laments his situation, there is no mention of the authorities working above him, no point of view openly addressed on the efficacy or morality of the war effort itself. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner argue that this dodging of “more radical critiques of the military, U.S. foreign policy, or the values that support militarism” (242) has to do with a “[liberal] desire to maintain access to Third World labor, markets, raw materials, etc., and to forestall the rise of noncapitalist sociopolitical systems” (243). It's a rather extreme point of view, but the noncommittal, nonspecific nature of Furie’s anti-war stance is only perpetuated by the Hollywood Vietnam films that follow it, at which point the stubborn hidden motives suggested by Ryan and Kellner start to materialize into active racism towards the Third World.
The film’s refusal to deal with the systemic issues causing the war in the first place is enabled by Furie’s focus on the goodhearted soldiers. Weaving together the satirical training sequences and hectic episodes of combat is Alvin Foster’s naïve voiceover, a thread of innocence that seizes the audience’s sympathies during even the most seemingly bleak moments. Foster is a lower-middle-class kid with big dreams of becoming a writer on the front lines, but it’s obvious that he, unlike guys like Washington and Fazio, has no prior experience in any kind of endangering situation. His utter ignorance of the terrors of war or the corruption of the military makes him the ideal candidate to act as an audience surrogate as well as a medium for Furie’s critical intentions. As Foster makes sense of his surroundings, so too does the audience, and the results are grim. By the end of the film, it is Foster – not Washington, Fazio, Pike, or Bisbee, all of whom lack the curiosity that defines Foster from the beginning – who delivers the final condemnation of American involvement in Vietnam. His ascension to a more mature realization of the vague “wrongness” of the war is meant to mirror that of the spectator.
Because Foster himself never emerges as the main character of the film, however, it’s also possible to read his internal progression as a stand-in for that of the battalion as a whole. In The Boys in Company C, “contiguous interconnection prevails” over a single point-of-view; Furie is more concerned with drawing out tensions within groups (soldiers vs. officers) than within individuals, suiting his broader aim for anti-war commentary (Ryan and Kellner 243). Although the remaining central characters express obvious disenchantment right off the bat – reflecting the turbulent political climate in which the film is set – they each stray to varying degrees from the intensity of their initial exasperation and thus they are still fodder for the same coming-of-age trajectory through which Foster progresses. Washington shifts from despising the entire Marine force to targeting his bitterness merely at his superiors and earning a sense of hesitant respect for his peers. Pike’s early promise as a soldier is threatened by his submission to foreign drugs, an addiction that sets the stage for a pivotal third-act admission of guilt. Fazio shrinks from an early propensity towards irreverence when he catches a bad case of the clap in a Vietnamese prostitute district, and Bisbee’s hippie ethos is weighed down by a repeated exposure to death, loss, and dismemberment. At every step of the way, Foster’s simpleton English echoes these soldiers’ difficulties in its observational account of “the young marines finally [seeing] the corruption of the side that they are to assist,” effectively grouping them together as one convenient vehicle for anti-war sensibilities (McAdams 220).
At the expense of the film’s far-reaching engagement with the American military is a complete simplification of the Vietnamese both in terms of the South Vietnamese allies, the innocent Vietnamese civilians, and the Vietcong. In the case of the latter, Furie makes no attempt at any kind of representation, perhaps part of an effort to avoid eliciting fear and controversy in the American public while the “wounds” of the war were still fresh. Instead, bombs and sudden ambushes seem to emerge from no discernible source, allowing the enemy to remain a dangerous abstraction throughout the film. Furie’s less concerned with these unforeseen bursts of attack as facts of war than as narrative consequences of “bureaucratic incompetence” (Hyams 200). For instance, a particular set piece featuring a rogue Vietcong assault at a harbor emerges as a result of the soldiers being asked to bring expendables (liquor, cigarettes, and furniture) to a greedy general and less as a reflection of real wartime volatility.
Replacing this limited treatment of physical combat is a metaphorical stand-in for combat: soccer. If The Boys in Company C was not already vague enough in regards to geopolitical realities, the script enters soccer into a figurative role as an even further displacement of specifics. The officers seduce their soldiers into a fictional army soccer league about halfway through the film based on the promise that if they can hone their skills enough to beat a South Vietnamese team they can possibly be granted permission to go home. Likely because of its implausibility, Furie dodges the logistics of this alleged arrangement. Rather, the prospect of a soccer game to decide the fate of the battalion hangs over the film as a ludicrous parallel to a larger battle that is already conceived as absurd, childish, and meaningless, the unfortunate result of a sequence of inept bureaucratic decisions not unlike those made by the film’s hasty, immature officers. Fittingly, the film’s climactic scene involves a pivotal soccer game between the Marines and the South Vietnamese, but it does not play out as the soldiers were led to expect. Although the boys have shown enough talent to pull off an effortless victory, the sergeants make yet another in a continuing string of unusual decisions and urge their team to lose the game, insisting that it will boost their ally’s morale. (It’s obvious, however, that the officials care less about South Vietnamese morale than they do about assuming the appearance of caring.) Contrary to the initial agreement, Washington, Foster, Pike, Fazio, and Bisbee will have to head to Khe Sanh to continue fighting if they win (Hyams 200).
Furie’s way of dealing with this new narrative challenge is at once didactic and multifaceted. After the first half of play it appears as though the boys are going to give up the game and therefore succumb to the cynical ploy of their authorities, but a defiant halftime pow-wow encourages them to ignore their officer’s orders and win the game. Their defiance is treated as a heroic act, but the stealth Vietcong attack that ensues moments after their victory suggests a darker edge to their determination. The attack turns out to be the deadliest in the film, killing packs of innocent people in the bleachers for the soccer game (the South Vietnamese use women and children as shields, crystallizing their cowardly portrayal throughout) as well as, most significantly, Foster. Spoken from the void, Foster’s concluding narration is as follows: “we’ll keep on walking into one bloody mess after another until somebody figures out that living has got to be more important than winning.” On the one hand, the statement is a blunt summary of the U.S. government’s misguided intentions in Vietnam. On the other, it’s a line that recognizes the same impulse of government stubbornness in its soldiers. Put another way, the ending celebrates the battalion’s endurance, resilience, and care for one another – essentially, their moral exceptionalism – while simultaneously identifying these qualities as fatal flaws in the illogical trap that was the Vietnam War according to Hollywood.
The idea espoused by this conflicted denouement is that the Vietnam War was an exception to standard militaristic practice in America, not the norm. As Ryan and Kellner phrase the same sentiment, The Boys in Company C “criticizes a specific war while celebrating military values in general” (242). Nowhere is this more evident than in Washington, a character who embodies qualities of physical and moral toughness while also defiantly opposing his country’s involvement in Vietnam. Of course, like the film, his reservations are only skin deep; he doesn’t want to be there because it’s grim, deadly, soul-crushing, and because his officers are bastards, not because America’s intervention is forcefully imperialistic, patently racist, and fundamentally genocidal in nature. Furie’s refusal to approach these realities – which, admittedly, are less suitable to melodramatic discourse – guarantees that the film’s spectators only feel a vague regret for military action and an acute sense of pity for the soldiers rather than any more radical activist attitudes.
For being the very first postwar American film to deal with our experiences in Vietnam, The Boys in Company C gets a lot right: its influential ironic take on military higher-ups, its refusal to limit historical events to a solitary subject position, its use of an overstuffed mise-en-scène to evoke the unappealing chaos of the war atmosphere, and its avoidance of evil caricature in the face of the Vietcong (alongside the racist trends of future Hollywood Vietnam War films, this seemingly insignificant move can be singled out as a strength). But the film only goes so far, and the gaps in representation and perspective that it leaves are only widened by the batch of Vietnam War films that Hollywood would churn out in the decade to follow. Engaging in the war was a massive political misstep, and at its core, the film only presents a sampling of the negative dimensions to this historical decision, leaving the most nationally incriminating factors out of the equation. Its focus, to be sure, is on the warts of the war, which automatically legitimizes its ideological foundation in contrast to a film like The Green Berets, but it only illuminates some of those warts, many of which are the smallest, most inconsequential ones.
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