On WGBH Tonight: Slogging Through to 'Nam
Basic Training will be shown Monday October 4, at 8:00 P.M., and Friday October 8, at 9:00 P.M., on Channel 2
The most enraging scenes in Basic Training seem, at first, incidental to the film's major themes. At their center is a scrawny private named Hickman. He's average height, has a thin, sucked-in face with no forehead to speak of; he is pasted with puzzlement, and he walks as if he doubts he can make it.
When we first meet Private Hickman, his sergeant has pulled him out of formation. While his battalion marches behind him, Hickman is drilled separately. And his separateness is embarassing. He pivots too slowly or too fast, he swings his arms haphazardly, he can hardly keep step with the sergeant's call. When he rejoins his platoon, the training sergeant bears down hard: "You're out of step Hickman. You're out of step Hickman. You're out of step Hickman." And Hickman just keeps stumbling along, laughing when he turns in the wrong direction, or when he jars the dogface in front of him.
Hickman has been singled out for us by the director as well; whenever he comes on screen thereafter, there's an initial shock of recognition and an initial laughter. But we remeet him as he talks to a different sergeant, one who is kind, and placating who is, in fact, helping Hickman lace his boots. Hickman has let Basic, his awkward training errors, and the razzing of his bunkmates get to him. He has tried to commit suicide.
His Chaplain and First Sergeant seem, in their own ways, understanding enough. The sergeant private's anguish family" and "motivation" problems. The Chaplain, a Negro, offers to talk with him at any time. Both higher-ups are split between their sympathy for Hickman and the programmed reactions of their military routine. At one point, the chaplain slips into: "All of life is really a lot of ups and downs..." Which somewhat dazes the would-be suicide.
The capper to the series of episodes comes near film's end. An instructor is demonstrating the proper way to dispatch a Cong with the use of a blackjack or the victim's own helmet:
If he happens to be a modern day soldier, and you break his strap, what are you gonna do? Give his steel pot back to him...Thrust it severely on top of his head, and put him out of his misery. Easy as that. Again, lower him to the ground, give him a heel stomp, and you're finished with him. Thank you, demonstrator. Give the demonstrator a big hand.
The demonstrator is Hickman, and when his fellow soldiers applaud, the poor fool looks happy.
The Hickman scenes strike the viewer particularly because, for once, the antagonists are clearly defined, and their personal conflicts complex. The incidents are restricted, so that their meat is revealed without harsh imposition on attention-span. And, finally, they say something definite: they not only describe how the army deals with an unbalanced individual, but why, by design, it is incapable of doing so. Hickman is urged to pick himself up, and keep on struggling with the group: that's the only way to be a man. It is, of course, the only way the army can conceive of men. If Hickman were directed otherwise, the rhetoric he's heard since entering training camp would be deflated.
Hickman's case borders on the pathological, but it has general implications. Forced social structure for no immediate cause doesn't necessarily result in mental collapse; but it does entail, where there are no fixed culture and system of morality, a questioning of individual heritage and worth. The vulnerable individual is crushed.
Aside from the Hickman scenes, Basic Training, produced, directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman, shares the same Virtues and short-comings of other Wiseman films. If it does give you a feeling for army life, it gives none of the motivating sense, only the jargon and defenses used in training camp.
On the plus side are, first, its clear definition of the contours of the recorded experience; and, second, its ironic tone, which rarely allows its serious intentions to be pedantically expressed.
The faults are those of the cinema-verite form. They include repetition, over-emphasis on physical detail, and an over-cautious approach to point-of-view. Basic Training is, at times, simply dulling.
Wiseman records major events in the career of a single training company. The film opens with the draftees being billeted, shaved and photographed; it closes with the company's graduation nine weeks later. In between have come physical testing, training in arms mastery and hand-to-hand combat, ideological indoctrination sessions (in which "political" or "moral" questioning is frowned upon), and the constant instilling of military discipline.
The film's narrative is chronological. Its structure is complex. We are generally viewing events from the company privates' point-of-view, and at generally their rate of comprehension. If the early scenes are frenetic, the film becomes more leisurely and detailed as the company activities grow more serious.
In addition, there is an analytical undercurrent. An archtypal figure is being formed: the good soldier. He smiles a lot, not perturbed by his compromises, which he is told are necessary. He sees no contradiction between his life styles outside the army and in (says Dad: "come out a man, son"); he is, in fact, able to justify his conduct as part of a great chain of American being.
There is a rhetorical summation in the film, similar to that in High School (actually, the entire film follows from the previous work). Awarded the "American Spirit of Honor" award, a private named Marshall traces the concept from Valley Forge to Gettysburg to San Juan Hill to France to World War II....
And now Southeast Asia. Laying aside the political controversy surrounding this conflict, we see once again displayed that American Spirit of Honor. Fighting men dying for their nation and democracy...
Then there is a parade, and Wiseman consciously uses all the craggy-face-against-darkened-skies cliches to film it. Basic Training ends with a drum major pumping his arms like a human gasket, which only reiterates what the film's been demonstrating all along: that the army is a goalless, reciprocating machine.
The conclusions and characterizations are, of course, elementary. And the film is, photographically, very crude. Despite all this, the fact that the experience is filmed head-on carries with it a definite educational value, and some visceral impact. (The gasmask test and hand-to-hand combat training sequences are inevitable stunners). Basic Training does something well-suited to television: it presents events in all their surface complexity, with only the barest contextual or human fabric to support or explain them (thus skirting issues of interpretation). The verite approach doesn't make for art, or even sophisticated social commentary. But unless you've been there yourself, Basic Training is worth watching.