In the late 60s, veteran sergeant Clell Hazard and ambitious recruit Jackie Willow are chosen for the US armys prestigious Washington Old Guard, burying the Vietnam dead, but Clell would rather be training boys to stay alive and Willow wishes he was off
After the third or fourth collapse of his career, Francis Coppola became a hired gun, emulating his heroes Howard Hawks and John Ford by directing tidy professional films on schedule and under budget.
This is a familiar mix of patriotic pride in the great traditions of the American military and numbed inability to make up the national mind about the rights and wrongs of Vietnam. If anything, the script is too balanced – with Caan being cynical about the war and getting tagged a ‘peacenik’ by his comrades, Anjelica Huston as a Washington Post reporter who represents the bleeding heart protester worldview and Sweeney as the gung ho grunt doomed to die in ‘Nam.
As celebrations of the military go – and there’s no denying this is one of those – the film works, with perfectly modulated performances from the whole cast and a fine streak of the sort of NCO hijinx and barroom eulogies found in John Ford cavalry movies. However, a cynical viewer might remember that Coppola had been making films for five years by the period in which this one is set, and that his original idea of a film for 1968 was You’re a Big Boy Bow, a celebration of the long-haired hell-no-we-won’t-go hippie free spirit sneered at by the short-back-and-sides, flag-saluting unforms who carry this movie.
If Coppola really meant Gardens of Stone, it would have been more courageous to have made it in 1968 rather than wait for the much more conservative, hawkish year of 1987.
Although downbeat, this celebration of the US military is done so expertly you forget that at the time it is set Coppola's idea of a great film was You're A Big Boy Now