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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1972) review


Joe Don Baker (Danny), Alan Vint (the Kid), Paul Koslo (Shooter), Elliott Street (Fatback), Billy Green Bush (Sheriff), Geoffrey Lewis (Motel owner), Jennifer Billingsley (prostitute)

Directed by Richard Compton

"...the secret to getting what you want in this world is living longer than anybody else."

The Short Version: Unheralded drive in director, Richard Compton precipitated his Hixploitation classic, MACON COUNTY LINE (1974) with this similar and striking Vietnam era drama that culminates with a powerfully violent finale that seems to come out of nowhere. Its slow pace acts as a catalog of numerous persecutions and shadiness perpetrated on these unwanted hometown heroes that erupts in violence at the end. Seldom talked about, it's a highlight of the 'War Is Hell' sub-genre of angry Vietnam veterans having trouble fitting back into "normal" society.

Four friends return home after having served in the Vietnam War. From the moment they get off the bus, the former Green Berets are seemingly ignored and unwelcome by the very citizens whose freedom they were sent off to protect. They head out to California with the purpose of raising cattle on 300 acres purportedly belonging to one of the former soldiers. Having difficulty readjusting into society, those they come in contact with either scoff at their time overseas, or treat them with contempt. Nearly broke and out of gas, a minor incident in a small town called Hope finally sends the soldier boys over the edge erupting in a ferocious revenge.

"Hell, we was in Korea. Nobody came back till the war was over...nobody"

This occasionally slow paced, frequently engaging, irony laced road movie modestly succeeds in detailing a group of ex-military men trying to find their place in a society that has seemingly passed them by and simply doesn't care. While it's not totally successful, the film perfectly captures both a sublime and seedy view of cross country Americana as the boys make their way from Arkansas to California in the pursuit of unlikely prospects. The trouble begins after the boys pick up a prostitute shortly after beginning their trek. Taking turns with the wild woman, they plan to give her a $100 and put her on a bus, but she has other plans demanding they fork over $500 and return her to her own car. Since they've taken her across state lines, she threatens to go to the police if they don't comply. The woman accidentally falls from the moving vehicle and the four men, momentarily bothered by the incident, decide to saunter forth.

"Ya''s what you do with what ya' got that make the choice in life...ya' either run from it, or ya' use it."

Coming two years before Compton's superior low budget smash, MACON COUNTY LINE (1974), this can be viewed as the director's warm up for that genre defining drive in classic. And just like MACON COUNTY, SOLDIER BOYS builds to an explosive climax, only this earlier film has more scope, packing a massive wallop during its final 15 minutes. MACON COUNTY's ending is more personable, more viscerally shocking and is also the better movie. The finale of SOLDIER BOYS, while a metaphor for (possibly) the My Lai Massacre, is shocking in its abruptness, but also careens into exploitation territory with its hailstorm of explosions and bullet riddled bodies. Its violent immediacy resembles the ghoulish fury seen during the conclusion of the even more sadistic Vietnam parable, SOLDIER BLUE from 1970, a film with an almost unparalleled level of cruelty that seemingly comes out of nowhere during its finale.

Danny: "Well, I can tell ya' what I seems like the only thing I ever done."

Lydia: "What's that?"

Danny: "Kill...I killed 113 people."

What's most fascinating and tragic about the last 15 minutes is what causes the sudden outburst of brutality and death. Over the course of the film, various individuals try to cheat, steal, provoke and persecute the four men. At the end once our now destitute quartet have reached the ironically named town of Hope in New Mexico, they only want some gas to carry themselves to their final destination now just within reach. The elderly proprietor refuses to sell them gas in the early morning hours. They wait and wait till Danny has had enough and after stating "I've spent my whole life waitin'", proceeds to help himself to the gas by breaking the lock off of the tank.

poster: google images

What follows is the disturbing and savage destruction of the entire town. Hope is literally wiped off the face of the Earth and its near 100 population of men, women and children along with it. The army shows up believing the leveling of the 'speck on a map' hamlet the result of an attack from a dozen or more men. The action continues briefly till this 'Wild Bunch' finally succumbs to numbers and a new world they were incapable of occupying. In another touch of irony, earlier in the movie when the group make a stopover in Danny's hometown of Foley, Texas, a sign states 'Foley Welcomes You'.

Director Compton was, and still is one of the unsung masters of drive in exploitation cinema. He enjoyed employing both subtle and blatant political and social subtext in his movies. His films ranged from the biker hit, ANGELS DIE HARD (1970) starring William Smith, the lesser sequel RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (1975), the New World production, RANSOM (1977) and the star studded post apocalyptic opus, RAVAGERS (1979) among his numerous credits. WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS is one of the directors better accomplishments, and in addition to being one of the most provocative of the 'Vietnam Revenge' sub-genre, it also anticipates the multi tiered Hixploitation genre which would soon prosper. The original music by Ronee Blakley (and some bluegrass by The Country Gazette) provides a suitable country vibe and, like many of those later 'Danger In Dixie' movies, the songs act as a storytelling device.

The performances are pretty decent across the board with Joe Don Baker especially standing out. He comes off very natural. He perfectly conveys just the right amount of emotion ranging from subtle irritation inside a country bar after some rednecks sling insults their way regarding their time in Vietnam and outright anger after another hillbilly mechanic tries to rip them off on car repairs. The fact that these men go off the deep end over what amounted to a trivial altercation makes their predicament all the more powerful and depressing. Baker struck drive in and movie history gold with his formidable, intense role as real life Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser in the hugely successful and popular tale of southern triumph and retribution, WALKING TALL (1973). Baker also took roles in other memorable genre fare such as THE PACK (1977) and SPEEDTRAP (1977).

Alan Vint, who also co-starred in Compton's MACON COUNTY LINE with his brother, Jesse Vint, plays 'The Kid', the youngest of the group and the one member of the quartet that keeps the unit together through all their troubles. Carrying with him a tattered photo with a vast view of California property, it's this promise of a "new life" that the four former soldiers are fighting for in addition to social acceptance. After the destruction of Hope, there's one last surprise coda that had it been known earlier, then all the turmoil culminating in devastation could have been avoided.

Paul Koslo, the dependable character actor who frequently provides slimy bad guy roles whenever needed, plays 'Shooter', the predominantly silent member of the BOYS. Popular character actor, Geoffrey Lewis (also in Compton's MACON COUNTY LINE), has a minor role as a sleazy motel owner. Fans will remember him from MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973), SILVER SADDLE (1978) and as one of the main villains in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) as well as several other Clint Eastwood movies and numerous other genre films including SALEM'S LOT (1979). Producer, Guerdon Trueblood made his mark as a writer of a handful of 70s killer animal movies and even directed his own exploitation classic, THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973).

While it follows much the same pattern showcased in Compton's most famous film, it's a slightly lesser endeavor that has some interesting things to say that become more apparent upon repeat viewings. An undeservedly ignored and unknown road movie, the sudden explosion of mayhem at the end will likely relegate the film solely to the minds of rabid drive in movie lovers. It's a recommended film to those familiar with the likes of BADLANDS (1973), ROLLING THUNDER (1977) and the similar FIRST BLOOD (1982). More of a downbeat drama with a powerful punch at the end, all others may wish to think twice before allowing these BOYS into their HOME.


Temple of Schlock said...

Great movie! Had its premiere engagement in San Antonio beginning December 12, 1971. That's Jack Starrett doing the voiceover at the beginning and ending. Your transfer looks better than ours. Where'd you get it?!

venoms5 said...

I agree, an amazing movie! Sadly, I think it will only click with the most devoted of 70s followers and exploitation hounds.

Wow, Jack Starrett is one of my favorite directors of all time, thanks for that interesting bit of info! I thought it was Baker doing the closing voiceover, though?

I got it off of ioffer. I didn't realize there were multiple versions of it. It's the version with Japanese subtitles and runs 91 minutes. There's a couple spots where nudity is digitally fogged out.

This one is crying out for a legit release. I'm hoping it will pop up on Fox Movie Channel at some point in a restored version.

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