One of the first major studio films to deal with the Vietnam War after the war was over, “The Boys in Company C” was released near the beginning of 1978. The film got mixed reviews at the time and whatever notice it got was overshadowed by the double punch of Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (released at the end of 1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (released in the summer of 1979).
It’s a real shame that “The Boys in Company C” has been shuttled to the sidelines over the years, because it’s a really good movie. Admittedly, it’s uneven at times (at one point, it shifts from a war movie into a sports movie). But the film is extremely ambitious, attempting to tackle several important subjects (combat, drugs, racism). And the film boasts several terrific performances, specifically by Stan Shaw, Andrew Stevens, Craig Wasson, Michael Lembeck, James Canning, R. Lee Ermey, James Whitmore Jr., Noble Willingham, and Scott Hylands.
This was R. Lee Ermey’s first acting role and it’s very reminiscent of his role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” which many people mistakenly believe is his debut. Ermey plays the same hard-ass drill instructor we all know and love (and — gulp! — are deathly afraid of), but in “Boys in Company C,” there’s also a humanity that’s missing from his performance in Kubrick’s film. The scene above is a compilation of Ermey’s entire performance, but the part you really need to watch is the scene that starts 3:10 into the clip. This is Ermey and Shaw having an intense discussion about boot camp, Shaw’s struggles with being company leader, and Ermey’s explanation of what he needs Shaw to do. It’s a powerful scene, wonderfully acted by Ermey and Shaw. Please note that because it IS Ermey playing a drill sergeant, the language is beyond rough and extremely politically incorrect.
And not to slight Shaw. Most people remember Shaw as the doomed Toomer from “The Great Santini,” but his performance as Washington is outstanding, and in a film that’s basically an ensemble piece, Shaw is the lead of the film. Had this film come out a few years later, Shaw arguably may have had the career Denzel Washington had. His performance in “Boys in Company C” demonstrates he has the talent and charisma to have gone all the way.
Michael Cimino is one of the greatest crash-and-burn tales in Hollywood history. Cimino was someone who had bounced around Hollywood for years until he wrote and directed a Clint Eastwood hit (“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”) in 1974. Based off that, he got the opportunity to make a more personal project … in this case, “The Deer Hunter.”
“The Deer Hunter” was based on a script that originally had nothing to do with the Vietnam War called “The Man Who Came to Play” (written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker) which was about Vegas and Russian Roulette. Cimino had the script rewritten and placed the setting in Vietnam (the final screenplay was credited to Deric Washburn).
While “The Deer Hunter” went overschedule and overbudget, it still beat Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled and long-gestating Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” to the screen by approximately 9 months. So “The Deer Hunter,” by default, became THE first major studio film about the Vietnam War, post-Vietnam War. As a result, everyone expected (and treated) this film as a definitive statement on the Vietnam War, if only because there were no other films out there at the time about the subject.
If you see “The Deer Hunter” as a statement about the Vietnam War, the film will sadly come up short. I don’t see “The Deer Hunter” making ANY statement about the Vietnam War … at all. Now that there have been several films about the Vietnam War that have since been released, I think “The Deer Hunter” can be seen more objectively as a film about three friends who suffer a collective traumatic event and come back changed in irreparable ways.
There may be nothing to document that the infamous Russian Roulette scenes that took place in the film actually happend. But I don’t think the inclusion of these scenes says anything about the Vietnamese people or the Vietnam war. War in general is a messy, messy thing. Atrocities are committed on all sides in a war and not everyone plays fair or according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, Were all Vietcong soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on American soldiers? No. Were all American soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on the Vietnamese? No. Were there bad elements on both sides that committed atrocities who saw the war as an excuse to express their darkest sides? Absolutely.
Which is why, in retrospect, I can view “The Deer Hunter” less a statement about Vietnam, than what happens to three friends who suffer through a horrible tragedy and how it affects them. In my mind, the film could have removed the Vietnam element entirely and focused on another traumatic event (i.e. the one in “Deliverance”) and still have packed the same emotional and visceral punch. The use of Vietnam may have (arguably) been a cynical use of a real event for dramatic purposes. But to criticize Cimino for using Vietnam in his story is like criticizing Shakespeare for exploiting real events in several of his plays (“Julius Ceasar,” “Henry IV”). Not that I’m comparing Cimino to Shakespeare …
“The Deer Hunter” is, admittedly, a difficult film. It’s very long, has several disturbing and upsetting scenes, and is not what we conventionally see as a coherent text. But even 35 years later, it’s still an amazingly powerful film that is gut-wrenching to watch. The performances by Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale are amazing. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning. It’s still incredible that a film like this would have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it is truly deserving.
This film might still be celebrated today … if not for the fact that Cimino’s next film, “Heaven’s Gate,” was such a colossal critical and commercial flop. While many cineastes (including myself) can argue the virtues of “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s failure tainted the success of “The Deer Hunter” … to the point where several critics reversed their own opinions on “The Deer Hunter” to say that the emperor wore no clothes (Vincent Canby of the New York Times being the most notorious example). Which asks the question: “Did the critics really even love ‘The Deer Hunter’ or did they just jump on the bandwagon of praise? And by the same token, did they jump off when people turned against Cimino?”
To figure out this quandary is a useless party trick, in my opinion. While there are many parts of “Heaven’s Gate” that I admire, I still find the film severely flawed. Having said that, this doesn’t negate my appreciation of “The Deer Hunter” at all. It’s a film that never ceases to shock, amaze, and move me and is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
I remember seeing this film for the first time on an independent over-the-air TV station uncut around 1982 or so. The film was sold to the CBS network for $5 million. But allegedly, when they discovered that they couldn’t edit this film in an adequate way, they gave up on trying to show it. The studio (Universal Pictures in the U.S.) sold the film to independent stations who showed the film uncut in two parts. All of the language, nudity, and violence was on full-display. And to best of my knowledge, there were no FCC complaints. Compare that to the ABC network’s decision to show Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” uncut in the early 2000s and not only did complaints flood into the FCC, but ABC was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for showing it this way. I like “Saving Private Ryan” a lot, but even though it’s more graphically violent than “The Deer Hunter,” it’s arguably much less controversial. The times have indeed changed.
Not many people remember the late actor John Cazale by name. But you would instantly recognize him by the amazing characters he played (Fredo in the first two “Godfather” films; Sal, the quiet, but scary bank robber in “Dog Day Afternoon”; and Stan, the loudmouth macho-wannabe ne’er do well in “The Deer Hunter”). He was only in five feature films, before he died tragically of bone cancer in 1978. But every one of the films he was in (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Deer Hunter”) was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, three of which actually won the top award.
“I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale” is an-all-too-brief, but great documentary about one of the best character actors in film history. The fact that so many great actors (Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, etc.) made it a point to be interviewed for this film is a testament to Cazale’s legacy.
Trivia note: the film was released by the late Adam Yauch’s (MCA of the Beastie Boys) fantastic indie studio Oscilloscope Laboratories.