DiNardo: “This is insanity.”
Hafner: “This is effective. Charlie’s got this valley by the balls. Won’t nobody step out of line around here.”
The “war film” remains a genre that crosses many boundaries — patriotic, personal, emotional, and on occasion, for sheer entertainment value (Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen offering the ultimate in adversary-demise-diversion no sane person bases on real life). Those that do depict actual events may put a sheen on them. Sergeant York and The Longest Day to more recent fare like Black Hawk Down and American Sniper. Then there are films the public tends to overlook or just wish to forget the war represented.
No matter how many of the enemy die, they resonate on a downhearted and sobering level…such a film was The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989).
As the Memorial Day holiday is once again at hand, I’ve made a habit of watching war films in remembrance of the men and women who died serving this country. This year I came to the realization that I’d only concentrated upon World War II. Because my father fought in it, that grand and global conflict has taken up a great deal of my time examining its history. Many do, if a parent was involved. A natural response as numerous veterans don’t speak of what they’ve seen or done while in war with family.
Just too painful.
Still, it was his time — mine had the shadow of Viet Nam looming way before even signing up for the draft. Started in junior high when network news programs began to list the “body counts” on nightly broadcasts after the ’60s reached their mid-point. Made an impression that’s lasted to this day. To say nothing of some of my older cousins who joined the Marines and went. One spoke with me the day before burying my father, thankful he, as a war-vet, helped him through his pain after returning home.
Had never to that point known that about my dad.
Conceivably since the government stopped calling up draft numbers as I became eligible after graduating high school, the Vietnam War offered its own compulsion. Why I continue to study both conflicts to this day1. My father’s past and what could have been my future. A difference between father and son that germinated an unquenchable thirst for the latter to understand. Knowing neither will fully attain satisfaction as war rarely rewards the few who’ve fought in it, or the many on the outside looking in.
Even now, “The War” retains an emotionally redolent history that’s hard to pin down on the American psyche, let alone on its cinema. A sore wound on either side of the argument as its loss still reverberates forty plus years later. Historically and onscreen. Whatever the political differences remaining, thankfully most came to the conclusion it wasn’t the fault of those cast to fight it. Though they paid a high price…a stigma previous war survivors didn’t have to endure because theirs wasn’t as contentious.
Initially ignored, Hollywood’s attempts to spell out this struggle run the gamut I described at the start.
Synopsis: A small Marine recon patrol stumbles upon a massacred local village with a lone child survivor. Suspecting the atrocities inflicted by “Charlie”, the Viet Cong, are somehow part of a massing attack in the offing. Dropping back to nearby Firebase Gloria, Sgt Major Hafner and his second in command Cpl. DiNardo shocked to find a poorly led, dispirited Army outpost. As the VC attacks begin, the Marines assume command of the firebase in an attempt to keep it from being overrun. Unbeknownst to them, this only the early, diversionary stages of the larger Tet Offensive the North Vietnamese plan on setting the South ablaze.
The low-budget flick a late-entry in the cycle of Vietnam War films studios fashioned during the Reagan revisionist years2 that struck a nerve among the few who saw its release in the January dumping ground of 1989. Countering à la 1987’s Hamburger Hill, its spare but effective style went beyond expectations. The William Nagle and Tony Johnston script (likely expounded on by a key cast member) primarily formed around characterization, rather than explosions and automatic fire, to draw the viewer in.
“The people were friendly. We liked them and they liked us… so it really hurt us to see their heads on stakes.”
The troupe chosen as fodder for war mostly unknown, or recognized only their roles supporting bigger names onscreen. Certainly, Albert Popwell, who’d recur in various roles for Clint in the Dirty Harry series, and in other films. But, it’s R. Lee Ermey and Wings Hauser who really stood out. Ermey, who made a name for himself after his supreme casting in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, had already done 14 months in the actual war depicted here, and in other feature film he’d participated in after retiring from the Corps3.
His participation, along with living in the Philippines that stood in for Viet Nam in so many film productions, undoubtedly lent filmmakers and writers peerless technical advisement. Whatever range he may lack as an actor offset by a drill instructor’s mentality and will. Add in the underrated Hauser, who made a name for himself as one of most hated B-movie villains ever in Vice Squad (1982), and it’s a potent tandem of the unlikeliest caliber that breaks your heart by the end as the survivors are sorted out.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria neither John Wayne’s attempt to rally the country to the cause in The Green Berets (1968) or 1986’s Best Picture winner Platoon made by Oliver Stone4. A pair that sit on either end of the chasm this war opened up from the ’60s onward. Perhaps this action-packed film’s frank portrayal of the war, or police action (take your pick), could only have come from someone like Brian Trenchard-Smith5. An underrated filmmaker who over the years has delivered his share of cult action fare.
What does it say about Hollywood when an English-Australian “genre film” director, a pretty politically astute one at that, could deliver the goods on a hostile subject while making it entertaining, even thought-provoking…and all on a frugal budget.
Quite a feat really, especially since the movie happened to be filmed during another almost as harried location. Shot two hours outside of Manila as the Philippines was still in the grip of two insurgencies following the return of democratic rule and government reform post-Ferdinand “Martial Law” Marcos. An Islamic one in the south, and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) on the main island of Luzon, where most of this movie was shot. Only someone like Trenchard-Smith could pull it off6.
For a war film that runs about 99 minutes total, it packs not only a lot of action, but personal by-play that delivers a wallop at giving the movie-viewer a peek at what it was like for those on the ever-changing front-line of the Vietnam War. Don’t take my word for it, you only have to read the reactions and reviews offered by those who were. Rarely do tight-lipped Nam-vets offer testimonials as to the accuracy of most “Vietnam War movies.” Somehow, what this director-producer-writer and crew put on the screen certainly did.
An ostensive effort to recreate the likes of Zulu and The Alamo using the most controversial conflict in American history unquestionably didn’t guarantee success, let alone admiration. But by some means, one written, produced and directed by Australians, on a scant budget, achieved that. Though forgotten initially, as cinephiles began to compile “best of…” lists for this sub-genre of the war film after Apocalypse Now and Platoon turned around the subject’s popularity, vets and admirers have backed the film, critically.
Pretty startling for a mere “genre movie” looking to turn a profit and allow its makers a chance at more work. As unlikely as it was influential. Uncompromising in its realistic depiction of combat in ‘Nam as any in this category, featured a story of both U.S. military personnel and the Viet Cong fighting tooth and nail as unsympathetic governments on either side moved chess pieces about. Ahead of its time in other words as We Were Soldiers (2002) followed suit in its portrayal of the Battle of Ia Drang come a new millennium.
Ultimately, giving voice to something all sides learned, ironically expressed in The Siege of Firebase Gloria by the Viet Cong leader:
“The courage of your enemies does you honor.”
I’ve dedicated this piece to my dear friend John J. Feeney, who passed away more than a year ago. Music lover, Vietnam War veteran, and husband to his beloved wife Paulette (who introduced us). Life has a way throwing people you instantly connect with together, but not giving you enough with time with them as you want. John will always be missed. Happy anniversary you two.
- Would add the Korean War to my preoccupation after marriage when I gained a father-in-law who fought there. ↩
- Just don’t get me started on the Chuck Norris’ vehicles to re-fight the war with Missing in Action and its prequel. ↩
- Prior to Full Metal Jacket and this film, “The Gunney” also cast in Apocalypse Now (1979), The Boys in Company C (1978) and Purple Hearts (1984). ↩
- The irony being the conservative Wayne never served in the military while the liberal Stone did and saw combat in Viet Nam. ↩
- As well as, one of the finest movie gurus offering the cleverest and most in-depth comment over at Trailers From Hell, currently. ↩
- “In fact, it was an item in all Filipino movie budgets at the time: the NPA were security staff for locations outside Manila. Indeed, who better to protect you from the NPA than the NPA themselves? I was told that they were better than the Philippine military. They did not get drunk, or bring their cousins demanding they get paid as well.” ~ Talk House article on the making of the film ↩