Welcome Home, Soldier Boys
(Richard Compton, 1972)
The subject of damaged soldiers returning from war has been the basis for many a film.
The Best Years of Our Lives. The Deer Hunter. Taxi Driver. Coming Home. The entire Rambo franchise.
What those films lack that is prevalent in 1972’s Welcome Home, Soldier Boys can be summed up in three glorious words:
Joe. Don. Baker.
An actor best known for walking tall with a two-by-four, as well as portraying many a heavy on television dramas, Baker’s trademark squint and scowl bring a sloppy realism to — well, most of his roles. But here it gives his character, Danny, a recently-discharged Vietnam veteran, an appropriate sense of frustrated sadness and alienation from the world he used to inhabit.
In Soldier Boys, three other soldiers join Danny in buying a used car and chasing a collective idyllic dream to become ranchers in California, but obstacle after obstacle threatens to derail them.
At the outset of their journey, the veterans encounter a young woman stranded along a desolate stretch of road (this movie is filled with drab landscapes). They encourage her to come along for a ride in what appears to be an offer of goodwill, but in actuality, only serves as an opportunity for all four of them to share her sexually. It’s awkwardly proposed, but seems harmless enough, since she is a willing participant. After they’ve all had a turn, the men even agree to drop her at the nearest bus station with $100. However, when she starts demanding more money to keep her quiet, Danny takes manners into his own hands literally by bending her over his knee and playfully/disturbingly paddling her. The woman flails enough to accidentally open the car door and launch herself out of a speeding car to certain death.
The chilling part is that while Baker’s Danny is originally as shocked as the audience at the woman’s death, his compadres remain unfazed enough to quip “She shoulda taken the $100.” Great line — almost too perfect, but completely tasteless — and then, as far as I can tell, the woman and her death are never mentioned again. The intent is clear. After surviving war, death has lost its punch. There is no remorse, and no consequence. The former soldiers just continue their journey.
Unfortunately, the middle section of the film is fairly mild in comparison to this shocking but relatively bloodless introduction. I feel this is representative of late 1960s/early 1970s low-budget cinema. I mean, even something as notorious as Easy Rider seems introspective and slow to a modern viewer. These men aren’t killers by nature, but they are ticking time bombs. Their chances for satisfaction slip further away with every obstacle. Their used car keeps needing repairs, they’re running out of money, and by the end of the film, the veterans might have reached their breaking point.
Joe Don Baker exudes moody detachment, and is a natural leader for this aimless group of ex-soldiers. But the direction and the writing tends to betray him. The great films in this genre, like the ones I listed above, tend to be character-driven, exploring the psychological damage of veterans. On the contrary, Soldier Boys is plot-driven and its characters (Baker excluded) are mostly flat and uninteresting. The plot itself is derivative and barely dramatic, simply pushing the characters from point to point on their quest for sanity and peace.
I guess I’d just love to see Baker’s John Rambo, just to let him deliver one of those terrible speeches about “getting to win this time.” But Welcome Home, Soldier Boys is watchable because Baker finds the heart in this film without ripping it out of someone’s chest, or worse, delivering a soliloquy about it.