The Boys in Company C; Big Wednesday; Capricorn One
• At last a film about Vietnam—not its after-effects, but the war itself. However, the first half of THE BOYS IN COMPANY C deals with basic training at Camp Pendleton, material that has become thoroughly familiar through dozens of previous films. Most of it is played for laughs, and the main difference between this and its predecessors is the endless stream of gutter language.
The second half takes place in Vietnam (though filmed in the Philippines), and is much better, though still far from being a brilliant piece of film-making. Even the low-life humor of the first part helps to etch the individual characters, so that it is living people and not ciphers who fight and die in swamps and jungles. A strongly anti-Vietnam-war film, the expected themes are all to be found: mines and booby-traps that kill instantly and unexpectedly, officers who demand "body counts" and in order to get them bomb villages which are not even "enemy territory," captives who are shot at once although they have done nothing except be impressed into the Viet Cong, officers who give such stupid or sadistic orders that their own men turn on them. Throughout the film the villains are Americans, especially the officers.
This film is a breakthrough only with regard to its subject-matter. Though the characters are not quite stereotypes, the story line, as well as practically the entire script, is one long continuous cliche.
• What happens to those who have made not only an avocation but a vocation out of surfing after their all-too-brief season in the sun has passed? BIG WEDNESDAY is an attempt to deal with this question. With spectacular photography, natural ocean settings full of sound and surf and pounding waves, and a cast of young actors and actresses to whom the action is well suited, one would think that this is a film that couldn't lose. But it does. It starts promisingly but proves inadequate for handling the serious themes that appear after the fun-and-games period has gone.
The main defect is inadequate characterization. The principal characters (Jon- Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey) are not very well individualized, nor even developed at all. Since one gains very little insight into what makes any of them do what they do, and the script is singularly unhelpful in revealing this to us, it is difficult to identify imaginatively with any of them. Perhaps, one might object, there isn't all that much to identify with: and there isn't, in the characters, but surely there is in actual persons on whom such characterizations are based, and none of the complexity of actual persons is captured in these characterizations.
The moral of the tale appears to be that sooner or later one must settle down to the serious business of living. But if so, the film doesn't show this happening to any extent, and the emphasis is rather on adolescent ideals and loyalties remaining unchanged into adulthood. There was a good opportunity in this material which was largely missed. Perhaps writer-director John Milius, an ex-surfer himself, got carried away by his own dreams; at any rate the dreams did not carry over with any power or imagination into cinematic reality—"or perhaps the dreams were insubstantial to begin with?
…and, like an insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such things As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
(Shakespeare, The Tempest)
• The book on which CAPRICORN ONE was based first appeared in the early 1950's. Its subject, a phony space-shot to Mars, would have made a more credible film before the first real moon-shot occurred in 1969.
Why then did so much time elapse before the film was made?—and still more after the film was in the can, shopping around for a distributor? I suspect that it required a post-Watergate atmosphere to make it credible: only in such a mood would American audiences really believe that the US government would lie, cheat, and kill in order to keep the truth from being known to the people who paid their salaries.
Today audiences do believe it, and apparently believe it enthusiastically. If you doubt that popular attitudes have changed in this regard, watch the audience reaction to this film. Of course, the heroism of the-few-against-impossible-odds is always a stirring theme, but in the present case it would be difficult even for a viewer with an I.Q. of 60 to be ignorant of the fact that the villain, with all the armed might on its side, is none other than the US government. It is at least a change from previous filmfare to hear loud cheers from an audience when aircraft crash and burn, when such aircraft are manned not by "enemy nations" but by the armed forces of the United States.
Though the film begins slowly, it picks up momentum and the last half hour or so is enormously exciting. Were not the helicopter-vs.-plane shots above the desert extraordinarily well filmed, the animus of the viewer against the Forces of Evil (the US government) would have a much less clearly defined focus. The film is also surprisingly well scripted in parts (best excerpt: the verbal exchange between an inquisitive reporter—Elliott Gould—and his employer). The major improbability in the story is that, of all the hundreds of people who would have to know about a fraud of this magnitude, not one would write an autobiography or even in an unguarded moment confess the truth to his wife after the affair was over. A secret requiring such a degree of collaboration would be almost impossible to keep.
Though the anti-government theme is peculiarly libertarian (actually it is an anti-American-government theme), the rest of the film is not: no opposition is anywhere expressed toward government projects (e.g. space shots) as such, and there are several references to the "immorality of profits." There is very little in the way of discernible ideology in the film, other than the anti-government stance set in motion by the Nixon affair.
There is also another side to the coin. Just as in the Aesop fable about the boy who cried wolf too often ("The liar is not believed, even when he tells the truth"), one day there may be a genuine emergency which Americans will believe to be as phony as the Mars shot. Citizens of nations in which films like this cannot be shown, where people are more sheep-like in their attitude toward their government, will have no lingering doubts when their nation is called to arms. In that case the truth will not be known until it is too late to be of any use. To those who are distrustful, not only of governments but also of film-makers, the thought may possibly occur that this too is part of the motivation behind this film—or at least one of its more unpleasant possible by-products. The observation that a film such as this one can at least be shown in America, will not occur to people who live in "closed societies," for they will be unaware of the fact that such a film was ever made.