Despite a fuzzy script that glosses over important transitions, resulting in a disjointed and episodic storyline, The Boys in Company C deserves a respectable position in the history of movies about the Vietnam War. Not only was The Boys in Company C the first American feature to capture the madness of America’s disastrous involvement in Indochina—countering the jingoism of John Wayne’s vile The Green Berets (1968)—but The Boys in Company C provided two very important elements that Stanley Kubrick later repurposed for his powerful but problematic Full Metal Jacket (1987). Like the latter film, The Boys in Company C is divided into two parts, with the first section depicting basic training and the second section dramatizing life on the battlefield. The Boys in the Company C also includes the debut performance by R. Lee Ermey, the motor-mouthed ex-Marine who plays drill sergeants in both The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket.
Directed by Sidney J. Furie, who cowrote the picture with Rick Natkin, The Boys in Company C opens with a mosaic of scenes introducing five new USMC recruits: streetwise drug dealer Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw), naïve hick Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens), longhaired war protestor Dave Brisbee (Craig Wasson), scheming slacker Vinne Fazio (Michael Lembeck), and would-be war chronicler Alvin Foster (James Canning). Foster’s narration, representing entries in his combat journal, ties the film together. The men bond during six weeks of harrowing training under the command of instructors including Staff Sergeant Loyce (Ermey), then encounter pure lunacy in Vietnam once they fall under the command of Captain Collins (Scott Hylands). A gung-ho fool who regularly endangers his men by pursuing pointless missions, Collins earns enmity from all of his subordinates, even his seasoned second-in-command, Lieutenant Archer (James Whitmore, Jr.).
The drama of The Boys in Company C stems from the tactics that enlisted men use to keep their lives—and their sanity—while fighting a losing battle in which commanding officers are as dangerous as the enemy. During one memorable incident, for instance, the soldiers suffer heavy casualties while escorting a convoy, only to discover that the trucks they’re escorting are full of luxury goods intended as gifts for a U.S. general. The picture culminates with a soccer game, of all things, and the climactic scene falls somewhere between the brilliant satire of the football game in M*A*S*H (1970) and the surrealism of the surfing sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979).
While The Boys in Company C ultimately comes together well, it’s a bumpy ride. Furie has a tendency to skip important phases in the development of relationships, so characters often shift from adversaries to friends with little explanation. The director also introduces several subplots via exposition instead of proper scenes, so it feels as if big chunks of the movie are missing. That said, the acting is consistently vibrant, if not especially subtle. Overlooking the fact that he’s too old for his role, Stevens does some of the best work of his early career, especially during his many tense standoffs with Shaw, who dominates the picture with his intensity. Wasson adds soul (even crooning a tender ballad at one point), while Canning perfectly incarnates a certain kind of irresponsible junior officer. As ambitious as it is undisciplined, The Boys in Company C is compelling and frustrating in equal measure.
The Boys in Company C: GROOVY