One of the first, and best, films of its kind: an unsparing 1971 depiction of Vietnam veterans loose in rural America that foreshadowed a wealth of similarly themed pictures ranging from TAXI DRIVER to FIRST BLOOD. Scripted by Guerdon Trueblood (of THE CANDY SNATCHERS and THE LAST HARD MEN) and directed by Richard Compton (of ANGELS DIE HARD and MACON COUNTY LINE), it contains many elements that have become clichés in the ensuing years, but weren’t back in ‘71. The film, in fact, is very much in keeping with the type of unfettered cinema popular in the late sixties and early seventies; it can be viewed as the evil inverse of EASY RIDER, with thematic concerns and a bleak trajectory that directly recall that classic.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox (yes, there was a time when major studios took chances on dark and eccentric films like this one), WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS was not a success. It quickly fell into obscurity, and was considered “lost” for decades until being released, unexpectedly, on DVD through Fox’s Cinema Archives label in 2013.
It features four shell-shocked soldiers returning from Vietnam. Led by the burly, strong-willed Danny, the “boys” elect to move to California, and they purchase a used car large enough to comfortably transport all of them on the cross-country trip. Their first action is to pick up a woman whose car has stalled; this quickly leads to a mini-bacchanal in the back seat, and the woman’s unexpected death at the hands of Danny, who gets a bit rough and pitches her onto the highway.
The boys continue on, stopping off in Danny’s hometown to pay his parents a visit. The visit is an unpleasant one, reflecting Danny’s strained relationship with his elders. Further unpleasantness occurs during a sleazy motel stopover in which two of the boys stage a mini fire-bomb raid amid some unsuspecting prostitutes.
The following day the boys’ car breaks down on the highway. Stuck in a hick town while their car is being fixed, they get into a heated confrontation with some rednecks, which leads to an overnight stay in a jail cell. To make matters worse, the boys are gypped the following day by the automobile repairman, who vastly overcharges them.
The guys’ final stop is a tiny community called, ironically, Hope. It’d here that their mounting disillusionment finds its explosive release upon being confronted with a non-functioning fuel pump, an apathetic gas station proprietor and a trigger-happy cop. What follows is as inevitable as it is shocking.
Director Richard Compton does a good job building suspense through very subtle means: the “action” of much of the first hour is sparse-to-nonexistent, yet the viewer is kept on edge nonetheless. The effect is achieved through extremely deliberate (by modern movie standards) pacing, hauntingly desolate industrial locations and an eerily silent soundtrack, broken only by a Bluegrass score that gives the proceedings a vaguely DELIVERANCE feel. There’s also the early killing of the woman, presented in a disturbingly offhand manner that showcases the protagonists’ attitudes toward violence—and intimates there will be more to come.
That violence, when it finally arrives in the final twenty minutes, is sudden and shocking, presented with a striking absence of traditional action movie posturing. There are no heroes in the final conflagration, and nor, truth be told, any villains, just some severely flawed human beings pushed too far.
A pre-WALKING TALL Joe Don Baker is quite formidable in the lead role, and sets the tone performance-wise. Only an overwrought turn by the prolific character actor Geoffrey Lewis as an eccentric motel proprietor mars the film’s otherwise staunchly reality-centered aesthetic.
WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS
Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Richard Compton
Producer: Marvin Schwartz
Screenplay: Guerdon Trueblood
Cinematography: Don Birnkrant
Editing: Patrick Kennedy
Cast: Joe Don Baker, Alan Vint, Paul Koslo, Elliott Street, Jennifer Billingsley, Billy “Green” Bush, Geoffrey Lewis, Francine York, Timothy Scott, Lonny Chapman, Florence Mac Michael, Damienne Oliver, Luanne Roberts, Cherie Foster, Beach Dickerson, Ted Markland, Joel Lawrence