Friday, May 25, 2018

War is Hell: a Memorial Day Memory

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend seems an apt time to look back on my years as story editor to Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. In that era, circa 1986 through 1994. many of our action thrillers were set among the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Some of our most prolific screenwriters were Vietnam War vets who could write accurately about military weapons and reproduce the slang of grunts in the field. I myself had no similar war experience to call upon when I was tasked with finishing up the script of a Concorde writer who’d dropped the ball on one of our projects. But I did my best, and Beyond the Call of Duty became one of my six Concorde screenwriting credits.

Roger Corman’s Vietnam movies were all shot in the Philippines, where Roger’s buddy -- the legendary Cirio Santiago -- had access to weaponry, jungle foliage, and legions of actual Filipino soldiers who were only too happy to put on Vietnamese uniforms and die dramatically for the cameras. Authenticity was never more than the vaguest of goals. But my writing colleague Frank McAdams is capable of much better. Frank, after thirteen months in Vietnam, entered UCLA Film School. He wrote Stagecoach Bravo, based on his own Marine Corps experience, as his thesis film, and it went on to win the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Competition. Later, after years of teaching screenwriting, he published The American War Film: History and Hollywood. More recently the University Press of Kansas put forth his Vietnam Rough Riders: A Convoy Commander’s Memoir (2013).

Some of the stories told in Frank’s memoir were already familiar to me from conversations we had had over lunch. There was, for instance, the major who took it upon himself to withhold from his troops those movies (like The Graduate and Dr. Strangelove) he considered offensively countercultural. But the episode that really stood out for me in Frank’s book began when, while in the process of writing a letter, he heard a commotion coming from the neighboring hooch (or canvas-walled living quarter). Peeking inside, he discovered a young Marine holding an M-16 rifle on eight U.S. Army officers and South Vietnamese Rangers. Hopped up on booze or drugs (or both), this Marine was mourning the deaths of two buddies by threatening the lives of eight men who were on his own side in the conflict. His weapon was set on full-automatic, and bloodshed seemed inevitable until Frank stepped in and managed to disarm him. For this gutsy act Frank received the Army-Marine Corps Medal. He continues to marvel that, in a few seconds’ time, he managed to prevent the sudden deaths of eight comrades-in-arms.

This dramatic real-life episode came back to me when I heard about the death of an actor named R. Lee Ermey. Ermey, who died this past April at age 74, was an actual Marine Corps drill instructor during the Vietnam era. After moving into acting, he found fame as the foul-mouthed  gunnery sergeant in the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 military drama, Full Metal Jacket. The foul but funny language Ermey’s character uses to intimidate new recruits was drawn from his own Marine Corps experience. It’s a raw and powerful way to open a film, especially when it culminates in one of the newbies suddenly turning on  this man who has never let up on him. The resulting bloodshed slams home Kubrick’s war-is-hell message. Like Frank’s story of the young Marine, it reminds us that in wartime there’s death around every corner, and it sometimes comes from places we don’t expect.

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