Directed By: Sidney J. Furie
Starring: Stan Shaw, Andrew Stevens, James Canning
Tag line: "To keep their sanity in an insane war, they had to be crazy"
Trivia: The original script was written by Rick Natkin for a film class at Yale University in 1973
I first saw The Boys in Company C when I was in high school, a viewing that came courtesy of my favorite video rental store (the same one that introduced me to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets). At the time, Vietnam-themed movies were all the rage; Platoon had just won Best Picture, while films like Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, and even Good Morning Vietnam kept the war in the forefront, revealing, in often disturbing detail, the brutality and chaos of this particular conflict. Doling out equal doses of comedy and tragedy, 1978’s The Boys in Company C is one of the earliest, and most entertaining, movies to address the insanity of the Vietnam War.
It’s August of 1967, and five young men: Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw) from Chicago, Illinois; Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) from Galveston, Texas; Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck) from Brooklyn, New York; Alvin Foster (James Canning) from Emporia, Kansas; and Dave Bisbee (Craig Wasson) from Seattle, Washington, are being inducted in the United States Marine Corps (two volunteered, two were drafted, and one, Bisbee, a peace-loving pacifist, chose the military over prison). With Foster, an aspiring writer, acting as narrator, we follow these five through boot camp, and experience the hell they face in the jungles of Vietnam, where their incompetent commanding officer, Captain Collins (Scott Hylands), leads them from one ill-advised melee to the next. Though not a particularly good soldier, there’s one thing Captain Collins does know: soccer. With Billy Ray as his star player, Capt. Collins puts together a soccer team, promising his men that, if they win, they’ll never have to fight again. But when their first match against the Vietnamese champs turns into a fiasco, they must decide if the possibility of sitting out the war is as valuable to them as their dignity.
The Boys in Company C is, at times, hilarious, especially when its five leads are going through basic training. When they first arrive at the base, each and every one is berated by Sgt. Aquilla (Santos Morales), a short Hispanic drill instructor (he gives Bisbee the nickname “Jesus Christ”, due to his long hair and beard). Soon after, Fazio, who believes he can charm his way out of going to Vietnam, notices that the base has a golf course. Figuring all the big wigs hang out there, he leaves his squad behind (essentially going AWOL) and makes his way to the links, hoping to cozy up to a General or two. The next time we see him, he’s been picked up the M.P’s, accused of making an inappropriate pass at a General’s daughter. As a side note, R. Lee Ermey makes his screen debut in these early scenes, playing Drill Instructor Sgt. Loyce. But unlike his turn in Full Metal jacket, where he spewed out insults at the rate of 20 per minute, his character in The Boys in Company C takes a more personal interest in the development of his men (it’s he who convinces Washington he has the potential to be a great leader).
While the opening scenes of The Boys in Company C are light-hearted in nature, the film’s overall tone turns much darker once the five leads arrive in Vietnam, at which point the movie tackles more serious issues (drug abuse, torture, friendly fire) while also providing a glimpse into the daily routine of a marine infantryman in Vietnam, where one bad decision could lead to disaster (While out on patrol, Captain Collins orders his troops to cross a bridge. Ignoring the advice of his second-in-command, Lt. Archer, played by James Whitmore, Jr., who believes its best to send only two men across at a time, Collins orders them all to cross at once, which proves to be a costly mistake). Things do lighten up a bit when the action shifts from the battlefield to the soccer field, but only temporarily (as we soon see, not even a crowded sports stadium is safe from the fighting).
Two other movies dealing with the Vietnam War, which were also released in 1978, would sweep that year’s Academy Awards: The Deer Hunter took home Best Supporting Actor (for Christopher Walken), Best Director (Michael Cimino) and Best Picture, while Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (a film about the difficulties some troops had adapting to life after the war) won Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Actress (Jane Fonda), and Best Original Screenplay. Lost in the excitement was The Boys in Company C, which never attained the same level of popularity as either The Deer Hunter or Coming Home. But don’t let that deter you. Boasting a number of excellent performances (especially Stan Shaw, who’s magnificent as Washington, and Andrew Stevens, who was nominated for a Golden Globe), and featuring one of the most unusual (not to mention heartbreaking) finales I’ve ever experienced, The Boys in Company C may be the finest war film you’ve never seen.