Directed by Hal Ashby
A lot of the films from this period of time (consider the American New Wave) feel very understated. I want to learn more about the influences and goals of those filmmakers (like Hal Ashby, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, many others). Of course they all had different ideas for what their movies should look like, but there seems to have been a certain new freedom given to these filmmakers to make the stories they want to make.
So you have a film like The Last Detail in which there are a lot of interesting character moments but hardly any big plot movements. I suppose it shows that what interests many filmmakers are the smallest moments between characters, a smile or an unexpected, improvised scream in a particularly charged scene.
I think as a director, on set each and every day, these tiny moments have much greater resonance. You sit with these moments, and you watch them over and over again in multiple takes or in the editing room. It must be a joy to work with someone like Jack Nicholson and just watch him run with a scene. So I guess what I’m getting at is that directors like Hal Ashby filmed the things that interested them with little regard for the mass appeal of the story.
The Last Detail feels like such a simple story, and there aren’t too many surprises in the film. A typical script is built on a foundation of set up, payoff and reversal. In this film, Beddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), are two men in the navy assigned to deliver a young navy kid, Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the naval prison. In the end they do just that. The reversal could be that they go through with it because during their multi-day journey, they bond with the kid (who endearingly calls them his best friends), but the two older men openly debated the pros and cons of taking Meadows to prison. They know they don’t have much of a choice, as it’s an order, but they also know the kid is going to get beat up in prison. It doesn’t help that Meadows’ crime was as small as trying to steal $40 from a polio fund (dear to the heart of the boss’ wife).
So with such a quiet film, what’s the point? So much emphasis is stripped away from the plot movements that there is a bigger spotlight on the characters themselves and their ultimate decision to not only deliver Meadows to prison but also to hit him upside the head a few times when he tries to run away near the end of the film. So what does this say about the characters and what do the characters represent in a broader perspective?
I’d wager a guess to say that this is all a commentary on the Vietnam war. It’s touched on in one scene in which a stereotypical 70s hippie throws antagonistic questions at the always uniform-adorned Mulhall. Mulhall, who goes by Mule, explains that he simply has to follow his orders. The point is clearly what should you do when you disagree with those orders? After successfully delivering Meadows, the two navy men are rigorously questioned by a condescending, young commanding officer. It seems like Beddusky and Mulhall can’t do anything right. No one is their friend. They did what they thought was the right thing in terms of the code they swore to follow, but they still get the second degree about their treatment of Meadows (which was above and beyond considering how much fun they gave him in his last week as a free man for 8 years).
In one scene, Beddusky and Mulhall commiserate on being “lifers.” They acknowledge that they don’t have anything outside of the navy. Beddusky was married once but refused to learn a simple trade and instead joined the navy. When we first meet him he’s either drunk or hungover or both. The navy is not everything he hoped it would be but that suggests how poor the alternative is in his eyes. Mulhall prefers to talk about what the navy has done for him. He seems to like his job, but he begins a spiritual-isn journey in which he questions what he and Beddusky are tasked with doing. On multiple occasions he talks about the “chicken shit detail” that is their mission. He has no respect for what they’re assigned to do, but he just does it anyway. He tries to justify his role in the navy, but it’s clear he’s unhappy with this assignment and probably many other assignments.
When the film ends, it feels like both men have lost something of themselves. Throughout the entire film they constantly wear their navy uniforms (complete with the white hat and “cute” blue get up). They prefer to go by their self-assigned nicknames (Mule and Badass), and they curse like sailors, which is fitting because they are sailors.
They have been out of the game of life for a long time. Beddusky and Mulhall show Meadows a good time around different towns and cities. They get him drunk for the first time and they ultimately buy him time with a prostitute for another first time. They’re taking care of him and showing them the world as they know it, but the world as they know it is full of too much drinking, paid for sex and more drinking. There is a scene in which they try sausage sandwiches that Beddusky claims are the best in the world, and Meadows and Mulhall back him up. Their insistence on the high quality of the sandwiches, though, feels forced. It’s as if they know that all Beddusky has are these little cheat codes about what kind of beer is best (Heineken because President Kennedy drank it) and where to go for the best sandwiches. He even teaches Meadows to stand up for himself. In an early diner scene, Meadows is too polite to return a hamburger with unmelted cheese. Beddusky demands he take it back. By the end of the film, Meadows on his own orders a waiter to take his eggs back because they’re not over easy. The waiter says they are over easy, but Meadows demands he take them back nonetheless. He then proudly smiles to Beddusky, insisting that he’s learning.
So yes, Meadows is learning, but he’s not learning the right things. He’s learning how to be Beddusky who hardly seems like a model citizen let alone a model navy man.
In the second half of the film, the three navy men hear mysterious chanting. They go to check it out, and it is a religious ceremony that makes Beddusky and Mulhall roll their eyes but makes Meadows quickly adopt the chanting. It’s obvious that meadows has something to chant for (his freedom), and later on a woman overhears him chanting and invites the three men to a party. The party turns out to be a handful of people, and it’s one of the only extended interactions between the navy men and ordinary people. It’s revealing, then, that Beddusky and Mulhall only have conversations that feel like small battles, and Meadows has a wonderful conversation with a woman who already seems to be on his side. He wins her over while the other men only push more distance between them and the rest of the party goers.
At the end of the film, I suppose the tragedy is that Meadows, who in theory has his life ahead of him (and experienced tremendous personal growth in the film) is locked away for 8 years while Beddusky and Mulhall return to living the the same way as before, not asking the necessary questions, resigned to their “lifer” status and following orders they don’t agree with. Meadows is the one character capable of change, but the next 8 years in prison might just beat that adaptability out of them until he’s just like Beddusky and Mulhall.