"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, February 19, 2021

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys

In the wake of the Vietnam War, many films were made that examined what happened to American soldiers returning home, from classy prestigious studio films such as
The Deer Hunter (1978) to B-movie action fare such as Rolling Thunder (1977). Some explored how soldiers tried to re-acclimate to “normal” life back home while others depicted how their friends and family reacted to their return. A common theme among these films is how the veteran’s war experiences affected them, be it emotionally, psychologically or physically. These films were an attempt for America to come to grips with a highly publicized war that they lost.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972), directed by Richard Compton and written by Guerdon Trueblood, is a small B-movie that one can imagine playing in some small, rural town on the bottom half of a double bill. It hardly did any business and was barely reviewed, quietly drifting into cinematic obscurity but remains a fascinating oddity nonetheless.

Four soldiers freshly discharged from the United States Army try to re-assimilate into civilian life after a tour in Vietnam with designs to go to California where one of them claims to have inherited a chunk of family-owned land that they can make their own. They’re a tight-knit group as evident in the short-hand between them and the way they banter back and forth.

The four men try to buy a car and are taken advantage of by a salesman. They proceed to “check out” the vehicle and strip it down, knocking down the price from $6200 to $5500. This scene is crucial in that it not only establishes that these guys aren’t pushovers but are also savvy enough to deal with someone in a creative fashion when they feel that they’re being exploited.

The film is a road movie that takes a decidedly dark turn early on when the men pick-up a stranded woman (Jennifer Billingsley) whose car broke down on the side of the road. The proceed to take turns having sex with her but when she demands $500 to get a car and drive home instead of $100 bus fare, things turn ugly and she is thrown out of the car while it was going 65 mph. They don’t stop to see if she’s okay or dead and this scene is an early indicator of what these men are capable of and where the film is going.

Apart from Danny (Joe Don Baker), we are given very little backstory to these men. What we know about them is strictly from their actions in the present. Danny returns home to see his folks and realizes that his experiences in the war has changed him, his parents have stayed the same, assuming he’ll pick up where he left off before he went overseas. They don’t understand he and his friends want to make a go of it in California. A somber mood hangs over this entire sequence and the whole experience leaves Danny and his friends crestfallen, proving the old saying, you can’t go home again.

When their car breaks down somewhere in Texas, they are towed into town and are met with all kinds of flak from the locals. They are overcharged by a mechanic, mocked by Korean War vets for not finishing the job in ‘Nam, and thrown in jail for the night by the Sheriff (Billy “Green” Bush). These incidents only deepen their feelings of alienation and resentment towards civilians.

Low on gas and money, they finally roll into New Mexico and try to get gas in a small town but it is too early. They end up stealing what they need and for them this is the last straw. When they are meant with resistance from the locals, the four men unleash an orgy of violence that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. The ensuing bloodbath is shocking in its ruthless efficiency.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys ends on a nihilistic note that pays homage to the ending of The Wild Bunch (1969) but while Peckinpah mythologized and had great affection for his characters, this film doesn’t sentimentalize its protagonists. It doesn’t make any excuses for the behavior of these men, presenting the things they do in matter-of-fact fashion. The filmmakers show these men for who they are and lets us judge them. Unlike Rolling Thunder or First Blood (1982), this film isn’t a rousing revenge tale as the protagonists strike back at those that misunderstand and try to keep them down. This is a massacre, plain and simple.

This deviates from the common coming home from war narrative that asks us to sympathize with the vets that return damaged in one way or another. Not so much with these characters who are unrepentant in who they are, escalating slights against them that doesn’t make them victims but aggressors in a way that is unsettling. Is the ending meant to evoke the infamous bloody 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre? Is it suggesting that these guys killed women and children in ‘Nam and are carrying on where they left off? Who is this film made for? It doesn’t quite get down ‘n’ dirty enough for the exploitation crowd and isn’t palatable for mainstream audiences, which may explain why it slipped through the cracks over the years.



Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dirty Little Billy

The 1970s was a great decade for revisionist takes on genre cinema with the likes of William Friedkin shaking up the cop movie with The French Connection (1971), George Lucas’ take on the coming-of-age movie with American Graffiti (1973), and Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic private detective movie with The Long Goodbye (1973). These films upended the conventions of their respective genres with anti-heroes, downbeat endings, and eschewed a black and white worldview for one that was morally murky.
The western was a particularly fertile genre for reinvention with Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) offering bold takes. Among these films is the lesser-known Dirty Little Billy (1972), a grungy, no frills take on legendary outlaw Billy the Kid with Michael J. Pollard playing the titular character. The film came and went quickly and became so difficult to find that it wasn’t even able to develop its own cult following despite counting notable people like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie among its admirers.
The film establishes its grungy aesthetic right away with an establishing shot of a muddy puddle and an equally muddy foot stepping in it. Billy (Pollard) and his family arrive by train to a small frontier town and he promptly slips and falls in the mud – his introduction to this dead-end burg. His parents buy a house that can be charitably called a shithole – it’s covered in dust, no glass in the windows and livestock occupy one of the bedrooms. Train tracks were just laid down and the realtor claims that this means cattle will soon arrive and that will provide a source of income causing the town to grow. Judging by how dismal things look that seems highly unlikely. Billy’s family moved away from New York City for this?

Billy’s stepfather Henry (Willard Sage) sets him to work on the land but between his soft hands and lazy approach to work he’s kicked out of the house after a heated confrontation. Billy soon crosses paths with two fellow outcasts, Goldie (Richard Evans) and Berle (Lee Purcell), when he witnesses the former killing a man. An understandably wary Goldie threatens to kill Billy and they form an uneasy partnership which allows Billy to learn how to be a criminal. The rest of the film follows their misadventures as they try to get enough money to leave town.
Billy’s sullen attitude acts in sharp contrast to Michael J. Pollard’s cherub-like face. He’s a more low-key crook as opposed to Emilio Estevez’s cocky psychotic in the Young Gun movies. Pollard plays Billy as someone unusually calm during intense situations. He spends a lot of time watching others, learning from them what to do and not to do in a given situation. What better place to develop your chops as an outlaw than a saloon where he is shown how to cheat, gamble and steal – not from the best but rather from people who are just as desperate to get out of town.
Richard Evans plays Goldie as a nasty sadist who treats Berle like a piece of property, slapping her around when she refuses to work as a prostitute. He is a mentor of sorts to Billy, telling him how things are in the world. The film presents prostitution as a dehumanizing profession as we see her eating while servicing a client to take her mind off the demeaning act. Lee Purcell plays Berle as a scrappy survivor, the only one to outlast her seven siblings. She is excellent in the role, especially in a scene where Berle recounts the hardships she and her family endured. It is a touching scene that highlights her vulnerable side as she and Billy get closer.
Dirty Little Billy turns many conventions of the western genre on its head. Everybody is covered in dirt and wears raggedy clothing that looks like they’ve never been washed. Even the gunfights are clumsy, chaotic affairs that are over quickly. There is nothing cool about them. People are scared, they miss their shots or their guns misfire. The violence is brutal and ugly as evident in a nasty knife fight between Berle and the girlfriend of a rival gambler.

Billy’s education as an outlaw is paralleled with the growth of the town, which sees a boost in population thanks to a neighboring town closing. Dirty Little Billy is an origin story with modest scope and stakes with most of the action taking place in a saloon in a small town as Billy and his new friends spend most of their time drinking, gambling and scheming to no end. Billy is content to do nothing until fate forces his hand and make an important life decision. It isn’t until the climactic showdown with three fellow hardened outlaws that we finally see the beginnings of the famous outlaw he’ll become. This is refreshing take on the legendary historical figure and a no-frills western that deglamorizes the genre with unflinching conviction, anchored by a committed performance from Pollard.