"THE ARMY's the only goddam thing holding this country together," says a West Point cadet in Ward Just's Military Men.
Other military men--post-Vietnam now--say this in The Last Detail, but they're talking about holding together their own shattered lives. The Navy is the only goddam thing holding them together. They hate the motherfucking Navy. They'd be crushed outside the Navy. They love the goddam Navy.
A theme like this frames a movie well--this idea of an environment which kills you and saves you at the same time. The thing that makes you crazy has turned you into something that wouldn't last a minute on the outside. Here are three enlisted men--lifers--and they're caught in camp in Norfolk without a war, awaiting their "orders." First there's the kid--the big, gawky out-of-it one from high school who joined the Navy to find his manhood but only found "men" who made more fun of him. He is a kleptomaniac, and before the action begins he tries to lift $40 from the polio contribution box at camp. Polio is the commander's wife's favorite charity. The kid is court-martialed, dishonorably discharged and sentenced to eight years in military prison.
Two older sailors, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, one white, one black, have a reputation for being "mean bastards," and are given the "detail" of escorting the prisoner up the coast to Ports-mouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire. Given a week and travel pay, they buckle their guns and catch the bus for Washington, handcuffing the thieving menace, who would be in tears if he weren't so sluggishly dreamy and scarred by the jeers of boot camp and adolescence.
Adolescence--the movie is attuned to this. The kid's virginity and inexperience with drink is the taking-off point for the one last "good time" (and the first) the men decide to show him in cathouses and bars all the way up the seaboard. Indeed, sometimes the movie mistakes this for a theme--that he is growing up and learning the ways of the world ("Welcome to the wonderful world of pussy," says the white sailor, and maybe we are supposed to glow at the kid's pride as he leaves the whorehouse).
In fact, on one level this emotional mechanism--which turns to obvious sadness in the end--works fine. It's a kid having some fun, feeling the oats of acceptance for the first time. Except for the expletives--which are the film's idiom, and still form an expressive language--this could be a children's film. Or an old Hollywood picture, in the good sense of recalling simple emotions buried since a wide-eyed and easily-swayed childhood. When the kid grins and drools drunkenly, it's sweet.
BUT A MOVIE these days needs more than this, which The Last Detail seems to realize. Even as the old salts befriend the prisoner, take off his handcuffs and teach him to be tough and manly, they can't reach him. The klepto is too used to stealing affection and cowering with it: the gruff backslaps only make him smile a dreamy and faraway gulp that's almost the choke of a sob. Randy Quaid's performance catches the whippedcur look perfectly, shoulders hunched and forlorn.
But what are these men really teaching him? They teach him their own brand of stealing, yet now it's the illicit fun of male camaraderie--teaching him to drink, to swear, to rent women. The movie sees that these lessons are the lessons of the adolescent male, being fourteen and yelling "fuck" at the top of your lungs, glorying at the mysterious defiance of it. This is all the older men have to teach. For all their tatoos, the Navy has them in a state of arrested development. They've been to Vietnam but they've children, lost in the world and hiding in the order of Navy life: playing truant and breaking rules in one of the only adult institutions that gives a damn if you fool around.
They're condemned to an excruciating surface life. It's 1973, it's winter, it's Boston and New York and Greyhounds and trains--all browning grass and filthy slush and highway grit. Usually the scene is familiar, and you feel as if you're in the background of every shot, with a knapsack maybe, not noticing the three sailors standing smoking in the corner by the luggage lockers. The career soldier on leave for a good time travels the circuit of the friendless and the mobile, nowhere to go but the next station or bar or cheap hotel, the most public terrain in the world. Socially he's so ostracized that even going into a private home feels foreign. All he identifies with is his uniform, so much so that if he sees a Marine he fights him.
A dying military, then, is best documented when the context is the rest of American society. In an earlier day the sailors would have been symbols and heroes; now they're rejects and they know it. Here it's not Indochina guilt that touches them--the pain is that they wouldn't understand that--but they are puzzled and defensive in the real world. Maybe the most interesting scene in the film is when the soldiers meet some pant-suited women in New York who take them back to a dope party. The movie can't resist making them into religious fanatics who are into chanting, which complicates the matter when the point is that they're really quite normal (though the kid's eager response to the road to salvation--shades of Salinger's Franny and chicken sandwiches--is worth catching). Anyway as they enter the hip apartment the intentions of the older sailors are obvious, and they try to charm their way into bed. Nicholson's sailor--suavest man in the Navy, who fights without dropping his cigar--starts his come-on, talking earnestly about standing on the bridge with the sea around you and the wind coming at you and the romance of Bangkok--the woman is appalled. Young's sailor squirms unhappily under interrogation and defends Nixon in it's-our-country terms. They both sleep alone. Meanwhile one woman takes the kid aside, saying, why don't you run, why don't you go to Canada or something? He looks blankly back at her.
THE LAST FEW minutes of the action, of course, are clanging doors and rough Marine guards and angles through prison bars. Which isn't giving the ending away, because there's always an inevitability about where the movie is going. This would be okay if things weren't so clumsy sometimes. Part of this lies in the occasional one-dimensionality of the unfolding of the plot. It's not that there aren't cross-current themes: the glimmerings of sympathetic consciousness awakened in the older sailors is one, and it's brilliantly performed in each isolated scene. But the characters are on the road, in a new place each time, so they have little control over a development that happens too awkward and fast.
Director Hal Ashby further jags the film with fade-out-overlap transitions, the idea being that everything is in transit, with close-ups of buses and trains, dolly shots galore. This is a self-conscious technique, particularly when the general look of the film is dull and formless. Even when you're trying to put across existential banality there's no reason to sacrifice style, but Ashby does. The prison-to-prison closedness of the action seemed to make the moviemakers shove messy details into the inbetween rather than shape new levels of meaning or regulate the rhythm. "Significant" background voices drone constantly, the Anchors Aweigh music is dopey-ironic, and there's an unnecessary and facile glimpse of the kid's mother's room in some tacky New Jersey somewhere--strewn with bottles.
BUT THERE is fine, fine acting here. Jack Nicholson has received great praise for this role, which he deserves, although there's enough else there that he doesn't have to bail the movie out. Usually Nicholson is given time to build up momentum in a scene, but perhaps momentum is the wrong word, because he's more of a snapper.
His even keel is projecting faint disgust at everyone and everything in every movie; he even breathes half-sarcastically, jaded beyond belief. Here it's not a world-wise jaded: the landscape of his face is as dissipated as the roads and stations--all blear, stare, and past-drunk. This is the heavy-lidded look of a Robert Mitchum, except that his moves are quicker: he's dead and jaunty at the same time. The adroitness comes from doing everything with ceremony: never has anyone ever used a napkin with more style, only the style is devilish and cynical. He's got class with a seventies lack of it. But the even, keel is only temporary--his sense of timing is knowing when to explode. And when the explosion comes, the drama is positively thundering.
The tragic hero on the beach at Atlantic City, or facing the wind with the wheelchaired old man, or impotent in Carnal Knowledge--what's so scary about the wreckage of Nicholson's empty lives is that you don't know when the ruins are going to detonate. His helpless rage has the tension and unpredictability of a madman.
NEAR THE END of The Last Detail they are in a wintry park and the kid sits hungover and breaks a stick in two with deep concentration. Later he stands sillhouetted in the distance and jerks the clockface Navy hand-signals he's learned from Nicholson in the last few days. When he gets out of jail he wants to be a signalman.