The Boys in Company C (1978)

'How in the world do they expect me to train Marines when they don't even send me human beings to start with?'

While Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were in production, Sidney J. Furie wrote and directed this far less ambitious Vietnam war film which beat the bigger pictures to the cinema by over a year. Considering that the only movies which dealt full-on with the conflict while it was running were The Green Berets and The Losers, The Boys in Company C has a certain stature as the first of a whole run of looking-back films, even if its uncertain tone borrows as much from MASH (there's a weird emphasis on soccer) as it foreshadows Full Metal Jacket (Lee Ermey plays exactly the same marine drill sergeant).

We open with a group of callow youths reporting for induction - Stan Shaw, a black guy with a plan to smuggle back heroin in body bags; Andrew Stevens, a hillbilly jock with a pregnant girlfriend; James Canning, a would-be writer who provides voice-over diary entries (a clever touch - he gets killed, not surviving to tell the tale); Michael Lembeck, a happy-go-lucky Italian-American guy; and Craig Wasson, a longhaired and bearded pacifist protestor. The film is essentially all vignettes, mostly absurd comedy with a horrific edge, stressing the monumental corruption, ineptitude and callousness of the army in Vietnam - Company C's officer (Scott Hylands) is a maniac obsessed with body counts, who combines bootlicking fawning on his superiors (a vital supply shipment the company guard at bloody cost turns out to be luxurious birthday gifts for a general) with lunatic notions about the war (he reasons the VC have learned tactical skills playing soccer and encourages the boys to form a football team) and the typical Vietfilm tendency for war crimes (it's not a proper engagement unless civilians are massacred).

The enemy are barely-seen, but launch an attack after the final comedy soccer match - which the boys have won, though they've been ordered to lose to prop up ARVN morale - and shake up all the characters: Shaw turns responsible, but his heroism is chiefly in fixing it so that Stevens can get free of the war and go home to his baby; Canning actually fulfils Robert Aldrich's cliché of how a patrol movie should end by throwing himself on a grenade; the pacifist hippie dies in action after he has seen his Vietnamese girlfriend killed by the cong (though mainly because corrupt officer Vic Diaz has used her as a 'human shield') and rushed out to be the gung ho soldier he said he wouldn't be. There are affecting moments (including a song written by Wasson) and some elements which would recur in subsequent films show up first here, but Furie still wavers between old-style war movie set-pieces (the man with his foot on a pressure mine, allowing for a suspense sequence) and counterculture cynicism about the whole enterprise.

First published in this form here.

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