Vietnam movies have a pretty set structure when it comes down to it. A soldier is sent into the maelstrom, comes across a cast of assorted characters before coming to the logical conclusion that war is hell, and this war specifically is the worst because no one knows why they are fighting and it is ultimately unwinnable. With variations here and there, this is the tried and true method. And it works, but it does wear a bit thin.
So it is refreshing that you should take a different approach, and instead focus on a platoon of soldiers who have been drafted into service, who have gone through basic training, and are in the final stages of their more advanced training before deployment. They are on their way to Tigerland, a proving ground as close to Vietnam as can be made stateside, and while many are scared and some are full of bravado, only one – Roland Bozz – has both the guts and the smarts to be a true soldier, and therefore serve as a glib guardian angel for his squad.
From the outset, then, you have an edge on any other movie of your genre thanks to your off-the-beaten-patch storyline. Not simply the training aspect, which has also been well-trodden, but the character arc of Roland Bozz.
At first, you seem to be setting Bozz up to be simply a Hawkeye-esque thorn in the side of the military establishment. He is a hearty, jovial, sardonic Texan who questions authority, antagonizes the hotheaded, gung-ho soldiers, and proves himself more capable than anyone else in his unit. All of his antics land him in a mess of trouble, yet he never seems to let his mischievous spirit falter.
Then, one night, he listens to a personal story from one of the other soldiers, who has a wife and young children but cannot get out of the army. Bozz first chastises the young man for telling a personal story because it suddenly makes Bozz care for him. Then Bozz informs him of hardship discharges, including all of the necessary steps to take in order to attain one. The young man follows Bozz’s instructions and is soon on his way home.
This incident gives Bozz a kind of instant celebrity among the other soldiers in his unit. “If you don’t wanna go to Vietnam,” one soldier says, “you either got to pray to Jesus, or talk to Roland Bozz.”
From this point on, Bozz is set up as a conundrum. He is knowledgeable regarding the rules and loopholes that one would need to exploit in order to get out of the army, but never attempts to extract himself. As training wears on, he becomes be more and more involved in the life of one soldier who has no issues with going to Vietnam, who wants to serve his country, and who even expects to write a novel about it when all is said and done. As he and Bozz bond, their relationship will drive the story towards its ultimate conclusion, in which Bozz must come to terms with what it means to be a soldier, and a leader of men.
The key victory in all of this plotting, though, Tigerland, is how you toy with the idea of what a soldier really is, and how Bozz comes to understand his part in the unit. Bozz never truly accepts the idea of going to war for the purpose of fighting the war, but he does realize that he is one of the few men capable of commanding and earning respect, while at the same time exercising the judgment and rationality necessary to get everyone home alive. That is, unless he doesn’t let them come at all.
Duty is a word that gets thrown around a lot in war films, but you among all others seem to have a real idea of what duty is. Duty is realizing that you fill a need, and deciding to fill that need to the best of your ability. Duty is understanding that you are needed and willingly giving yourself in the way you are needed. It is good to finally see a movie that – while not condoning the draft, nor action in Vietnam – can still find the courage to celebrate someone who does the right thing when put in a difficult situation. Celebrating a commitment to duty and valor and honorable service is a rare thing indeed, and you pull it off with a gritty, realistic, no-frills style that perfectly suits both your story and your characters.
You are a simple story, with simple truths at your end, and yet the novelty and rarity of your message – in addition to your stellar acting and direction – makes you well worth seeking out.
Brian J. Roan