The Last Detail (1973)

A cynical take on the American war machine

A cynical take on the American war machine

18 | 104 min |

Jack Nicholson as Buddusky
Otis Young as Mulhall
Randy Quaid as Meadows

The basic story in this film is simple. Two sailors, Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), both of them career sailors or ‘lifers’ are stationed in Norfolk. They are assigned the duty of escorting a prisoner to the Naval Stockade (prison) at Portsmouth. With government expenses and five days to kill the opportunity for ‘fun’ along the way is not lost on the lifers.

The prisoner, Meadows (Randy Quaid) has been sentenced to eight years in military prison a dishonorable discharge. His crime was minor, the theft of $40 dollars from a charity box. Unfortunately for Meadows it was the base commander’s wife’s favorite charity! Meadows is being sent to a prison run by the despised Marines where it is unlikely he will be able to cope. As Buddusky and Mulhall say someone really stuck it to him. Meadows appears weak and naïve. It’s hard not to sympathise with him and be angry with a system that would punish him so disproprotionately compared to his crime.

Buddusky is sure that the younger Meadows (as well as him and his buddy) should see a good time on the way to the jail. Mulhall, in contrast, thinks that it will just make jail time more difficult for him as he will know better what he is missing as a large part of his life will be taken away before he gets to actually enjoy it.

A simple plot but what makes the film more interesting is how subversive it is. That’s maybe not a surprise given it was made after the military adventures started going wrong for the US and people were starting to lose faith that the Civil Rights movement had achieved equality. The Last Detail is full of criticisms of the American military. It’s a dark comedy which shows Mulhall and Buddusky stuck inside a rotten system. Sometimes the film is subtle in the way in which it undermines the military system. A carnival type of music plays in the background during many scenes, even during serious, sad moments. It creates a discordance and sense of doubt. At other times, often during comedy scenes or brawls, military/patriotic music is played but the aim is not to stir patriotism but rather to poke fun at it and undermine the concept.

Neither Mulhall or Buddusky have much faith in the system they work for. When Buddusky suggests that Meadow’s mother should write letters to her Congressman about the unfair treatment of her son, Mulhall responds that she can write letters until she owns the post office and nothing will happen! One theme of the film is that the individual is not seen as important by the system.

Mulhall, in particular, is cynical about things. “Man says go, got to do what the man says” he tells a group of anti-establishment hippies in New York City. Though they believe the system is corrupt they enjoy life in the Navy and realise that the outside world offers little else for them. The Last Detail has a cynical, bleak message at its core though it is presented in the form of a kind of road movie.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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