Greetings, all and sundry! Taking a brief lull in the panic time weeks of the holiday season. I’ve decided to reach back to a film that its studio (United Artists) didn’t want. Totally disclaimed with a next to nothing trailer and ad campaign. Heaved a sigh of relief upon release and ran for the hills, afterwards.
Which is a bit strange, given the film’s pedigree. Acquire the rights Robert Stone’s best-selling and award winning novel, Dog Soldiers, from 1973. Have Stone kibitz in on a meticulously faithful screenplay by Judith Rascoe. Find locations from San Diego, to L.A., Berkeley and Mexico. Spend whatever is left on an up and coming, lean and very talented cast of mostly then, unknowns. Then lateral it all to budding Czech director, Karel Reisz. And a criminally shunned and forgotten, often gritty slice of West Coast, Post Vietnam America evolves:
Who’ll Stop The Rain: (1978)
Which begins with “The Great Elephant Zap of 1969”. Where artillery and Huey helicopters full of Marines are used to comply with some off the wall directive from either MACV or the Pentagon. Working on the assumption that elephants could be used by the North Vietnamese Army and local Viet Cong. To move non man transportable logistic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And witnessed by former Marine turned counter-culture journalist, John Converse (Michael Moriarty at his personal best!), Who voices over: “You see, in a world where elephants are pursued by flying men, people are just naturally to want to get high.”
Which sets the tone for future events with a dark and stormy, monsoon night just off Tu Do Street in Saigon. Where Converse has a meeting with somewhat politically connected, Charmaine (Gail Strickland). Who wishes to make a statement and a boatload of money by sending three kilos of incredibly pure Laotian heroin to a buyer in California.
The solution to that problem is John, his pharmaceutical friendly wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld, finally playing a messed up adult for a refreshing change!). And the man who owes John’s survival during his earlier tour in Vietnam. Ray Hick.
Converse’s old squad leader and now, Merchant Seaman. Whose AK (transport ship) is docked at Cam Ranh Bay. And is due to take back several shot up tanks, trucks, helicopters and assorted sinews of war to be repaired in San Diego.
And Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte showing tremendous potential very early on!) is a unique individual to approach. Part Marine (“Once in. Never Out!”), a competent seaman. An avid fan of Nietzsche with trappings of Zen. Who live by his own personal code regarding violence and his familiarity with it. Not exactly a borderline psychotic, but scary enough when provoked. In short. One who needs to be approached cautiously. And Converse is all about caution.
Hicks listens to his friend’s proposal. Not solidly reassured that Converse’s wife, Marge would be waiting with the money. Something involving so much weight and payoff should be backstopped and egg crated to the nth degree. With contingencies, friendly conspirators, witnesses and fall backs.
None of which are present two weeks later. As Hicks, his ship and the still wrapped in brown paper bundle of heroin cross the Pacific. Rotate out of Pearl Harbor and docks in San Diego. A phone call to Marge doesn’t improve prospects after Hick’s retrieves the smack he’d tossed over the base’s barbed wire fence and into a nearby Dumpster.
The wheels start to come off as Hicks knocks on the door of Marge’s small suburban home. Where Marge is preoccupied with her infant daughter, Janey. And has convinced herself that her husband’s get rich quick scheme isn’t really happening. Then come completely off as loud, obnoxious third and fourth parties make themselves known. Or at least try to.
Blustering, overweight Danskin (Richard Masur, before One Day At A Time, and showing tremendous dramatic chops!), a parolee with a record of violence turned enforcer and drug thug. And Smitty (Ray Sharkey. Never more paranoid, skinnier, slimier or oilier!). Trying badly to impersonate federal officers while Hicks pins Danskin against the front door.
Marge grabs Janey and the junk. Hicks gets physically creative with Danksin. And a hasty retreat is sought. To Marge’s parents in Berkeley to drop off Janey. Then back to Hicks’ ramshackle trailer digs in the hills above Oakland. For a compass, shovel, map and an obligatory foot locker. And its M-16, magazines, duct tape, grenade launcher attachment, rifle grenades, .45, ammo. Allowing Hicks to finally get serious about the existing situation.
Hicks has an idea and the name of a friend who may help. A mid level “dealer to the starts” and rich and connected of L.A., Eddie Peace. In the interim, John Converse has returned from Saigon and drops by his elder radical father in law (David Opatoshu). Who knows something about what is going on and advises John to get a lawyer. John takes it under advisement. Steps out into the busy mid day Berkeley sidewalk. And is cold cocked by Masur. Stuffed into a van and taken away for some imaginative interrogation. And an introduction to one of film’s superb villains. Corrupt, amoral and personal agenda driven District Attorney, Antheil (Veteran character actor, Anthony Zerbe. Never better!). Who has Danskin and Smitty in his employ to either frame low-level dealers. Rip off their cash in the hopes of arranging the buys of larger scores… Basically, the three are about a frog’s leap above pond scum.
Hicks and Marge connect with Eddie Peace (Delightfully slimy Charles Haid in possibly his best work!). Who’s fed up with supplying the piddling needs of the rich, spoiled, ‘Dr. Spock’ generation. And is looking for a diversion. Though the idea of three keys may be a bit beyond his reach. Eddie needs to make some calls and sets up a tentative meet to test the smack’s quality and meet some possible money people.
The party is rather intimate. Eddie, a husband and wife screenwriting team. Gerald and Jody, who seek “authenticity” in developing a possible character. Hicks and Marge. Small talk is had. Eddie sets up a few lines of smack and coke. Brings out a needle and syringe. And things get interesting very quickly. Eddie loses interest in footing the buy as Gerald collapses from a virgin mainline and Jody not very far behind. Leaving Eddie to clean up the mess. As Hicks and Marge head south to the craggy mountains, canyons, ravines and valleys of Mexico.
Hicks is aware that he and Marge have about a day’s jump on Antheil. And Hicks wants to choose his own fights and battlegrounds. And the one chosen by Hicks is superb. A deep canyon with rock walls. A naturally amphitheater and earlier gathering spot for concerts, peyote, mescaline, acid and other chemical fads of the late 1960s.
Ray has his work cut out for him. Repairing the wrings on the canyons massive speaker and strobe light system. When not predicting vantage points for Converse, Antheil and company. Already aware of the end game. Converse for the three kilos of heroin. And Hicks can’t let that happen to his buddy. Or his wife, who’s been low in her preferred Dilaudid. And has been experimenting with the heroin.
Antheil, Danskin, Smitty and Converse arrive not quite loaded for bear. In the wrong clothes, shoes, gear and disposition for a cross country trek and a slow war of waiting and attrition. Though Converse has the just the right malaise and mindset to sit on the sidelines and watch how things play out. Well aware that he’s.”been waiting my whole life to screw up this badly”. The events he set into motion weeks ago have taken on a bent life of their own. And are now controlling him and others.
The high-tech walkie talkies Antheil has procured only work on line of sight and are generally useless where there are mountains and ridges all around. Danksin is asthmatic and Smitty is just itching to shoot something with his scoped Remington bolt-action rifle.
Hicks hears Converse and company with hours to spare. As they take the plateau opposite the adobe church Hicks, a few locals and Marge call home. Smitty decides to get Hicks’ attention by shooting some livestock as Antheil uses a Bull Horn to propose the deal Hicks had predicted. He knows that he and Marge and the locals can wait Antheil out, but Marge throws a curve ball by stepping out with the smack above her head. Ready to deal.
Marge takes the longer, lower path. While Hicks watches Marge. And then prepares for a personal war. Checking magazines, adding two blanks on top for the attached grenade launcher. Then duct taping two rifle grenades to his thigh.
Adding “They got my buddy, man. Now they’re going to kill him and that pretty lady. How am I going to let them do that, huh? Did you see the way she walked to her fate? Nothing but class. she’s the love of my life, no shit. Beats the hell out of all of them.” before giving instructions on the speakers sound board and breakers for strobes and taking the higher, shorter and goat path east of the church.
Figuring fields of fire and which targets to hit first as Marge and Converse embrace. Hicks fires a rifle grenade to blow up Antheil’s Range Rover. Another disrupts Antheil and Smitty as Hanks Snow’s “Golden Rocket” blares down from the darkness and strobe lights fill the plateau.
John and Marge still have the smack as they run for the shadows and Hicks covers them. Taking down Smitty. Wounding Danksin. Then finding John in the cover of some boulders. Hicks gives John instructions where to join up later just inside the border and along some deserted stretch of rail road tracks.
Hicks is content that he can keep Danskin and Antheil pinned down until sun up. As Danskin creeps in close with a heavy barreled revolver…
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
An excellent first big screen glimpse at the talents of a young Nick Nolte. Fresh from the television mini-series, Rich Man, Poor Man and Peter Benchley’s The Deep. Treading the cynical anti heroic path of Robert Mitchum’s best films and delivering on many levels.
Standing in the fore front while gliding through the jumbled, chaotic, sometimes gritty under belly of major cities along California’s coast. In one of the best and most detailed executions of Post Vietnam America. From a past master of the topic.
Cinematography by Robert H. Kline allows you to feel the heat and humidity where required. Especially in Mexico. Set Direction by Robert De Vestel is a bit on the spartan side, but so is the story.
Original Music by Laurence Rosenthal heightens suspense and punctuates the film’s often graveyard hipster comedy. When moving things along with Credence Clearwater Revival’s Who’ll Stop The Rain as road music.
Now. What makes This Film Great?
The entire premise of the film, for one thing. Who, but Robert Stone could concoct a tale where a man riding shotgun on six plus pounds of near pure heroic can possibly be the hero?
Stone pulled it off on paper. Offering the just as fully fleshed out flip side of Forrest Gump. And Reisz pulls it off on film.. Assembling an exceptional cast led by Nolte and buttressed by Michael Moriarty. Whose la cafard and malaise suit his character, John Converse to a T. Knowing soon enough that he is in way in over his head, but there is not a lot he can do about it.
And offset by Tuesday Weld finally playing an adult as Marge. And quietly running to the bleachers with it. Reacting in a near panic at Hick’s first violent encounter with Danksin. Yet mellowing a bit towards Hicks’ explanation after their encounter with Gerald and Jody. And why he messed over Eddie Peace. Ms. Weld is mesmerizing to watch. Giving as well as she gets opposite Nolte’s Hicks. Not backing down a bit when confronted by Antheil and company. And very possibly laying the foundation for a later role as Jessie, opposite James Caan in Michael Mann’s premiere, Thief.
And for any film with Mr. Nolte as a leaderless samurai with a code to succeed. The bad guys must be singularly and collectively creepy, scary and evil. And the supporting cast of Anthony Zerbe, David Masur, Ray Sharkey and Charles Haid have never been better!
Mr. Zerbe’s Antheil is equal parts smug, untouchable arrogance and a well used, amoral familiarity with the limits of the law. And how they can be stretched, abused and used to intimidate. While Mr. Masur shows an intriguing range for drama. And being seven different kinds of thawed Nitroglycerine scary as Danskin.
Ray Sharkey seethes with pent-up paranoia and fear of Danskin. Literally itching and scratching to get out. The closed down and creepy flip side to his outgoing, smooth talking role in The Idolmaker, two years later. Though it is Charles Haid’s Eddie Peace who draws the most attention for his brief time on screen. Setting the pace for slimy drug dealers a few years ahead of time.
All these elements work together to create a gritty, sometimes grimy slice of Americana most would like to forget. But should take the time to find and see!