I have always been a huge Jack Nicholson fan, I mean who isn’t, right? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone that said they didn’t like him as an actor. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest has long been a firm favourite of mine and his other work in the seventies in films such as The Passenger, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown are all incredible performances to say the least. Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973) has always escaped me and it wasn’t until last week that I finally sat down to see it for the first time.
In a year where we are seeing dozens of huge releases such as No Time To Die and Dune being put back until next year due to the pandemic, I have took the opportunity to catch up with some movies that have, for one reason or another, slipped me by. I must say it has been a treat to have the opportunity to go back to some of these cult classics and The Last Detail was one I was relishing more so than any other. With a superb supporting cast in Otis Young, Randy Quaid and Clifton James, this story of rebellion, discovery and friendship is a treat to behold. Especially for an old soak like me who has a passion for New Hollywood cinema and revels in all things 1970’s.
The story begins when Signalman 1st Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Nicholson) and Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Young) are called in to the Master at Arms office and given an assignment, or ‘detail’, to escort a prisoner from their base in Norfolk, Virginia to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. The always fantastic Clifton James plays the M.A.A. dishing out their orders and despite only appearing in the first scene, he makes an indelible imprint with his jovial witticisms and avuncular demeanour. The prisoner, Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) is an 18-year-old, wet behind the ears rookie who has been sentenced to eight years in the brig for stealing $40 from a charity box. Buddusky remarks “What did he do, kill the old man?” when he hears the harsh sentence, both he and Mulhall are both shocked to find out the stiff punishment was for something as trivial as petty theft.
The three men head out on the road, Buddusky making a secret pact with Mulhall to use the time allotted them and their per diem, to turn the detail into a road trip where they can catch some R&R and make the most of the circumstances. Meadows youthful inexperience and polite fragility begins to take an effect on his warders as they question him about the circumstances surrounding the theft and hefty sentence. Both Buddusky and Mulhall start to take pity on the young lad and decide that they will show him a good time en route to Portsmouth, by making several stops along the way to enjoy the finer points in life, namely drinking, rebel rousing and courting members of the opposite sex.
As we travel alongside these three sailors, we begin to observe each man’s character and the world they inhabit. Buddusky is the leader and not just becuase he is the ranking officer. This is a classic Nicholson creation, a long lost cousin of R. P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest or a distant relation to Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, Buddusky is the very embodiment of a “badass” rebel. He knows how to enjoy himself and is either the best friend you ever did have or the worst enemy you had the misfortune to cross. His alpha personality forces itself upon his travel companions, sometimes to their delight, other times to their chagrin. He knows the best places to eat and drink and is determined that the gang is going to get some kicks before they hand over Meadows to the “grunts” in Portsmouth.
In one particularly memorable scene, the three men find themselves at odds with a racist barman in Washington D.C. who thretens to alert the Shore Patrol if they don’t leave. Buddusky takes particular offence and asserts “I am the motherf****n’ Shore Patrol, Motherf****r!”, whipping out his .45 pistol and slamming it on the bar in explosive defiance. The following scene sees the three men walking along the street laughing about what has just happened and regaling the story to one another in high spirits. The realism captured here by Ashby is typical of the great director’s style, as he makes us privy to this personal moment, inviting us to join in the fun and laugh along with these naughty sailors as they enjoy the excitement of the moment over again.
Having bonded over their experiences on this road trip thus far, Buddusky, Mulhall and Meadows get a hotel room and start drinking, getting to know one another all the more. Buddusky in particular, takes Meadows under his wing, encouraging him to drink up, he shows him some of the signals used by the military. Here we witness all the motions of a heavy drinking session, in which there’s laughter, storytelling and all manner of rambunctious behaviour, that is until the beer runs out. When it does, Buddusky goes out for more and fulfills his self-appointed duty to keep the party going at all costs and never letting the fun die down for a second. Their journey may have temporarily halted in terms of physical distance, but is very much continuing in terms of their exploration of each other’s personalities, quirks and idiosyncrasies.
The Last Detail is very much a character piece, presented with a grimy realism that was typical of the New Hollywood era. The sets are all real locations, the acting has an improvised feel and each of the main players embody their characters with a high level of naturalism. The laughs are genuine and one gets the impression that the hangovers were too. As the three men continue their odyssey, they inevitably look for women to sleep with, finding out that Meadows is a virgin, Buddusky takes it upon himself to see that the young prisoner gets laid in his last few hours of freedom. They all visit a brothel and Meadows picks out young lady to be his first time. In a touching scene featuring Carol Kane in her first feature film performance, Meadows innocence is highlighted in his desire to be held and comforted. This increases our pity for him, knowing that all the fun is coming to an end and he will soon be locked away for a long time.
Having treated Meadows and themselves to a beer-fuelled, fun-packed couple of days, Buddusky and Mulhall begin to feel the pressure of reality looming. Knowing that they will soon turn this naive and good hearted youngster over to the Marines in Portsmouth, they each worry about his fate and are torn between fulfilling their official duties and releasing Meadows from their charge, allowing him to escape. The inevitable closeness between these three servicemen has now become their weakness and in the freezing cold of the Portsmouth snow they attempt to enjoy a farewell picnic together, before the unavoidable situation brings an end to the party. Buddsuky’s anti-authoritarian nature and Mulhall’s good character put them both in the difficult position of having to fulfill their duty, despite their fears of Meadows’ inability to deal with imprisonment. This is confounded by the fact that they both consider his sentence to be incredibly harsh, considering the crime.
I had been meaning to watch this film for years, and now that I have had chance to see it I felt a strong connection with the story. I too, travelled with the three men and laughed along with them, enjoyed the conversations and willed them on in all of their mischievous endeavours. By the end of the movie, I too felt the same sadness as Buddusky, knowing that something I had waited a long time to enjoy and had an exciting feeling of anticipation about, was now over. It is a good thing not to have seen everything yet. I am still happy that there are several canonical films that I have yet to watch, especially considering the lack of new releases avaiable in this strange time of COVID-19. The Last Detail is a fantastic character study that explores and encapsulates a small dichotomy of American life during the Vietnam era. It is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it was the perfect film for me to see at this point in my life. Highly recommended to fans of Nicholson and Ashby who may not yet have had chance, or haven’t watched it for a long time.
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