In 1973, U.S. involvement
in the highly unpopular Vietnam War was drawing to a close. Most of Hollywood's iconic responses to that war in the decade following its end-truly some of the best war films, or films of any genre-focused on the dehumanizing and costly toll of a conflict many saw as lacking in purpose. Surprisingly,
The Last Detail,
a '73 buddy-movie dramedy about three Navy sailors on a booze-fueled trip up the Eastern Seaboard, hardly acknowledges the contention surrounding Vietnam or even that it was happening.
This can make the film feel a little tone-deaf, as if director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne were willfully ignoring the elephant in the room dominating the American consciousness at the time. But where
The Deer Hunter
gives you a tortured portrait of an enlisted man's life,
The Last Detail
offers a simpler yet no less realistic take: Sailors still like to drink, fuck, and fight. That's a trope-heavy take on masculinity, but in a way it serves to humanize a generation of veterans who didn't return to a hero's welcome.
The film begins at a naval base in Norfolk, where two crusty self-described "lifers," Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), are assigned to escort a baby-faced young sailor, Meadows (Randy Quaid), to jail after he's caught trying to steal $40 from a donation box supporting a charity beloved by a commanding officer's wife. Increasingly, Buddusky and Mulhall see their trip as a chance to make a man out of the oafish Meadows, who is set to spend some of his prime adult years behind bars. When a bartender refuses to serve Meadows in a Washington, D.C. bar, Buddusky loses it, chewing out the barkeep and pulling a gun on him. The trio does the more sensible thing and leaves to buy beer, starting an all-night bender that proves Buddusky to be sensitive and abrasive, sometimes both in the span of a few minutes, teaching Meadows flag signaling and then trying to toughen him up by fighting him.
Meadows proves he can hold his own days later in a scrap with Marines in New York, a cause for more partying and boozing. In Boston, not far from their final destination, the elder sailors make sure their teenage charge doesn't get locked up a virgin. They take him to a whorehouse and pool their money to get Meadows a prostitute. When the young man finishes prematurely, they sympathetically pony up again so he'll have a much better experience to hold on to. Toward their trip's end, Buddusky and Mulhall seem to question if they can actually go through with their duty, their eyes and tone showing they might consider the idea of springing the young sailor free.
The Last Detail
plays out like
in Dixie-cup hats and Navy blues, but it is bookended by reminders of the military's rigid code of conduct. While Hollywood would go on to present harrowing looks at the atrocities and psychological scars of Vietnam-films that are more memorable, if not entirely better-the portrayal of the military life in
The Last Detail
has its own authenticity.