Thursday, August 30, 2012

Talk about a revolution…2 war-time romances

Hail, Hero! (1969) is a long-forgotten film that stars Michael Douglas.  It is one of the very few films in which he plays a young adult.  In this, his feature film debut, Douglas is a college student named Carl Dixon.  This was a good 15 years before Romancing the Stone, and it is a Douglas you might be completely unfamiliar with.  The story takes place in the 1960’s at the onset of the Vietnam War.  Carl is an anti-war free spirit.  He is upbeat, energetic and spontaneous.   Douglas does an incredible job here in making the character Carl both eccentric and lovable at the same time.  The irony of the story is that Carl is returning home to Arizona is order to tell his divorced parents that he has enlisted in the US Army.
Carl does not want to fight.  In fact, he is against war and killing altogether.  But he has decided to enlist to make a point; out of confusion and desperation.  His insecurities stem from the relationships he has with his brother and his parents.  His brother has a lame leg and it is partially due to Carl’s actions.  What happened is that Carl once threw a snake at his brother’s horse.  The horse got out of control and landed on top of his brother.  Also, Carl’s father is always bragging about his achievements fighting in previous wars.  Carl believes that if he wasn’t the cause of his brother’s ailment, his brother would’ve been fighting in Vietnam.  He decides that he has to take on this responsibility instead.

While Hail, Hero! is not heavy on plot, it is an excellent character study.  It is an exploration of a new type of hero.   Carl is not your typical hippy.  Yes, the generation gap is explored in this film, but it’s more than just that.  Even without his long hair, Carl can sense the hypocrisy of the older generation.   At the same time, he is able to sympathize with it.   He realizes that everyone fears death and what he must do, as a hero, is to face it.   
Balancing out the seriousness, Douglas’ acting adds much humor to this picture.  Carl prances about with a tiger skin on his back, plays matador with a jeep on a country road, goes skinny-dipping, befriends an old pothead in a cave and pulls a terrible party prank involving a mummified baby.  Also, in the film’s finale, he turns artist, painting a terrific anti-war mural on the barn of his family farm.  
The film was based on the novel by John Weston and has never been released on DVD.
Cactus In The Snow (1971) is another comedy/drama that takes place during the Vietnam War.   A young Richard Thomas plays Harley, an orphan and a soldier. While he is on leave, the shy Harley decides that he would desperately like to lose his virginity before he is shipped off to fight.  

The story starts when Harley hitchhikes and ends up in a car with a drunk guy who propositions him.  Harley escapes and ends up at a mod nightclub.   He gets drunk enough to walk over to a table and ask a few girls that are sitting there if any of them would like to sleep with him.  They find him charming.  One of the girls decides to bring him back to her house.  Only there is one small problem…
Before they get undressed, Harley passes out drunk and the girl admits that she too is a virgin.  The next day the girl, named Cissy (played by Mary Layne), makes a checklist of things she’s like to do before she loses her virginity.   She decides to do these things with Harley before sleeping with him. They decide to 1. Buy Her a Nightie 2. Ride a Merry-Go-Round 3. Walk by the Sea 4. See a Movie 5. Take a Drive.  Another one of the things Cissy does is get her hair cut short, which makes her look kind of awkward.  
While the two argue and make fun of each other, it is obvious that they are falling in love.  The couple actually reminds me of Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin from A Taste of Honey(1961).   They are very sweet together.  Harley goes and finds one of his foster mother’s who doesn’t even remember who he is.   Having second thought about sex, Cissy decides to buy a prostitute for Harley.  Harley meets the prostitute and is not sure if he could go through with it.  Then, when the two do try to sleep together, Cissy’s parents come home and kick Harley out.
Finally, the tender moment comes when the two have to say good bye.  As Harley’s train is leaving, the two remember that they have forgotten to exchange full names and addresses. There is a moment when we think the couple will be reunited.   But it is too late.   Harley is shipped off to war in order to die.  And while young love is true, it’s also too short and bittersweet.
Richard Thomas was actually in a bunch of great movies throughout the 1970’s at the same time that he starred in The Waltons.  For example, I’d also recommend Last Summer (1969), and September 30, 1955 (1977).  In some ways, a young Richard Thomas in these pictures reminds of an American version of Tom Courtenay.
Cactus In the Snow was written and directed by Martin Zweibach, who previously wrote the screenplay for Me, Natalie (1969) a strange film with Patty Duke that had a Rod McKuen soundtrack.  It was also released in the UK as You Can’t Have Everything.  It has never been released on DVD.
Both of these rare coming-of-age Vietnam-era movies are definitely worth seeking out.  They are stories about soldiers who don’t care to fight.   They are stories that favor LOVE over WAR!  While some may call these dated, I say that this theme is TIMELESS.

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