Thursday, April 26, 2018

Welcome Home Soldier Boys (1971)

          Something of a thematic predecessor to the Sylvester Stallone hit First Blood (1982), this grim melodrama depicts the travails of four Green Berets who return to the U.S. after service in Vietnam, only to discover that their personalities are so fundamentally changed by their harrowing overseas experiences that they no longer fit into normal society. Released amid the first wave of pictures exploring the impact of PTSD on Vietnam vets, writer-director Guerdon Trueblood’s movie has as many problems as it does virtues. The character work is thin, the psychology is dubious, and the story becomes cartoonish toward the end. Yet alongside Trueblood’s countless missteps are several vivid moments, a pervasive sense of melancholy, and a propulsive overall narrative—even though it’s hard to believe a lot of what happens, viewers never doubt that something terrible is imminent.
          Leading the vets is Danny (Joe Don Baker), a hulking country boy enamored of traveling to California with his comrade-in-arms, Kid (Alan Vint), in order to start new lives as farmers. The plan is to raise some hell along the way, accompanied by Fatback (Elliot Street) and Shooter (Paul Koslo). Viewers’ first clue that all is not right with the group occurs when they pick up a sexy hitchhiker, take turns with her, and toss her out of a moving car when she has the temerity to ask for money. The vets share a moment of panic before pressing onward as if they just narrowly escaped a skirmish with enemy combatants. Later, things get even more debauched when a creepy hotel clerk (Geoffrey Lewis) gives the vets the run of his place while also providing a steady supply of booze and women. By the time the group reaches Danny’s childhood home, they’ve crossed some point of no return, morally speaking. Violence becomes inevitable.
          It’s hard to imagine what Trueblood might have done differently to put this thing over, since Welcome Home Soldier Boys operates well outside human reality for much of its running time, and the climax is as outrageous as it is disquietingat some point the picture transitions from metaphorical to silly. Nonetheless, the actors, Baker especially, convey a sense of tragedy, as if the vets don’t realize how deeply years of killing for Uncle Sam scarred their souls. The vets also seem bewildered by the scorn they encounter from civilians. In one scene, Danny reveals to a woman that he’s killed 113 people. She laughs. Small moments like that resonate even when Trueblood’s clumsy attempts at grandiosity don’t.

Welcome Home Soldier Boys: FUNKY

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