Wednesday, May 21, 2014

#1,374. The Boys in Company C (1978)

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 very one that also introduced me to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets). 

At that 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 chaos 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 into the United States Marine Corps (two volunteered, two were drafted, and one, Bisbee, a peace-loving pacifist, chose the military over prison). 

With Alvin, 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, 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, these five must decide if the possibility of sitting out the war is more valuable than their dignity.

The Boys in Company C is at times hilarious, especially when its leads are going through basic training. Upon their arrival 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 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 more light-hearted, the film’s tone becomes much darker once its five leads arrive in Vietnam, at which point the movie begins to tackle 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, 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 men 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 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 is 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 just be the finest war film you’ve never seen.


David said...

Being born at the end of the 80's in the UK it might seem odd that the Vietnam War should hold much significance to me but for some reason it's a conflict that I've been morbidly fascinated by for a long time. I'm a fan of most of the other Vietnam movies that you mentioned in this review but this is one that I can't say I've heard of before. Definitely another one to add to my ever expanding list of films to check out.

hurdygurdygurlCANADA said...

I like the quote, "For them, staying alive is more important than winnning."

irish said...

good cast, average script.

James Robert Smith said...

I saw this film first-run, and had completely forgotten that Ermey was in it.