Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989)

(Philippines/Australia - 1989)

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Written by William Nagle, Tony Johnston, Brian Trenchard-Smith and R. Lee Ermey. Cast: Wings Hauser, R. Lee Ermey, Albert Popwell, Robert Arevalo, Mark Neely, Gary Hershberger, Clyde R. Jones, Margi Gerard, Richard Kuhlman, John Calvin, Nick Nicholson, Michael Cruz, Henry Strzalkowski. (R, 99 mins)

Before it came back into circulation on MGM's HD cable channel, streaming services, and as an "MGM Limited Edition Collection" manufactured-on-demand DVD in recent years, Brian Trenchard-Smith's THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was a hard-to-find VHS obscurity going for exorbitant rates on eBay. It was a sought-after title not just for B-movie aficionados and cine-hipsters who embraced it after learning Quentin Tarantino was a huge fan, but also for Vietnam War veterans.  Released in January 1989 by the short-lived Fries Entertainment, THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was one of many post-PLATOON Vietnam War dramas that saw a marked reduction in the "The war's not over till the last man comes home" side of Namsploitation, where the heroes of UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), MISSING IN ACTION (1984), and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) went back to 'Nam to settle scores and take care of unfinished business. Instead, there was a shift to grittier fare like HAMBURGER HILL (1987), PLATOON LEADER (1988), and EYE OF THE EAGLE 3 (1989), throwbacks to the types of straightforward, formulaic, B-grade WWII and Korean War battle pictures that Sam Fuller made in the 1950s.  FIREBASE GLORIA's trump card was the presence of R. Lee Ermey, a Vietnam vet and former Marine drill sergeant who found work as a Vietnam genre Hollywood technical advisor on films like THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), where he can be seen as a helicopter pilot during the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence.  Ermey was hired by Stanley Kubrick to mentor actor Tim Colceri, who was cast as the brutal drill instructor Gunny Sgt. Hartman in FULL METAL JACKET (1987). Kubrick's instructions to Ermey were simple: "Lee, I want it real."  What Kubrick realized in witnessing Ermey's training of Colceri was that he cast the wrong guy in the part and that Ermey should be playing Hartman.  Kubrick, never known as the most sympathetic director to actors, felt bad enough about replacing Colceri that he gave the young actor the consolation prize of a small but memorable one-scene role as a trigger-happy doorgunner ("Get some!"). Ermey, meanwhile, was given wide latitude by Kubrick to improvise and actually wrote much of his own dialogue, creating one of the most memorable characters and some of the most quotable lines in cinema history in the film's harrowing opening 45-minute basic training segment (it's worth noting that Hartman's insults about "steers & queers" and "I will gouge out your eyes and skullfuck you!" were bellowed five years earlier by an Oscar-winning Louis Gossett, Jr. in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN).

Ermey's FULL METAL JACKET success led to him being given the lead in THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA, even though '80s B-movie icon Wings Hauser (VICE SQUAD) gets top billing. Like Kubrick, Trenchard-Smith gave Ermey a lot of wiggle room, allowing him to rewrite much of the script, which is credited to William Nagle and Tony Johnston (Trenchard-Smith and Ermey are credited with "additional dialogue").  Nagle wrote the novel The Odd Angry Shot, about Australian soldiers in Vietnam, and it was turned into the acclaimed 1979 film that may very well have the worst trailer ever.  He also scripted the WWII courtroom drama DEATH OF A SOLDIER (1986) before working as an assistant director on 1990s straight-to-video fare like INDECENT BEHAVIOR II.  It's hard telling how much of Nagle and Johnston's work made it into the finished film, but the result resonated with many Vietnam veterans who feel that THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA is the most accurate cinematic depiction of the war.  You can find that sentiment on message boards and IMDb user reviews, and I can even attest from my days at Blockbuster Video that this film was regularly cited as the most brutally realistic look at Vietnam that many of these vets had ever seen.

Now, as someone who's never served in the military, I can only approach THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA from the perspective of a fan or a film critic. You can see it trying to be a little more than the typical Namsploitation offering.  Its depictions of the savagery of war are unflinchingly grim and bloody, and the battle scenes have a relentless intensity to them. I suspect these are the bits of realism that the vets are talking about, along with paying briefly futile lip service to the idea that "The VC are soldiers, too," in the way it spends time with Viet Cong commander Cao Van (Robert Arevalo), who believes in respecting the courage of one's enemies.  Other than that, the story and the characterizations roll straight off of the war movie assembly line. At the start of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Sgt. Maj. Hafner (Ermey) and his right-hand man DiNardo (Hauser) and their squad commandeer and fortify a ramshackle firebase populated by stoned, disillusioned burnouts and led by a C.O. (John Calvin), who sits at his desk nude while jerking off to nudie mags and getting high. Of course, the no-nonsense Hafner is outraged over such things as weed and long hair, as Ermey himself probably is, and proceeds to whip the men into shape using the same kind of speeches he gave in FULL METAL JACKET.  Sure, it's entertaining hearing Ermey fire off quips like "We're gonna fortify this shithole and protect it like it's your daughter's cherry," or "It's time to sprinkle some shit in Charlie's rice," and another about how "there is no such thing as an atheist in a combat situation!" but when Ermey's not doing his Ermey schtick, FIREBASE GLORIA becomes so awash in cliches that it defeats itself.  There's a little Vietnamese boy named "Pee Wee" (Michael Cruz), who becomes a surrogate son to battle-hardened DiNardo, who's still mourning the death of his own young son; there's Hafner having no time for emotional silliness like a female captain (Margi Gerard) who's in charge of the infirmary; there's wide-eyed, naive innocent Murphy (Mark Neely), who immediately goes off the deep end and starts thousand-yard-staring like he invented it as soon as the shit hits the fan when Cao Van's forces attack; there's the crazed, stoned photojournalist (Nick Nicholson as Dennis Hopper); and with several reminders that he only has 17 days left in his tour, is there any chance radio communications guy Shortwave (Clyde R. Jones) is making it out alive?

One of the few instances of Namsploitation doubling as Ozploitation, THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA was a Filipino/Australian co-production that displayed the kind of grandiose action sequences that Trenchard-Smith was known for in his prior Australian exploitation films, which often showcased the death-defying stuntwork of perpetual Trenchard-Smith man-crush Grant Page (STUNT ROCK).  Once it gets going, FIREBASE GLORIA is almost non-stop battle sequences, with some explosions that would make Antonio Margheriti envious. And that's really what this film is all about.  It may have some scattered moments of lofty ambition, but it's really just a higher-end, Philippines-shot Namsploitation entry that's just made with more precision and care than, say, the Cirio H. Santiago joints of the same period, like BEHIND ENEMY LINES or EYE OF THE EAGLE (both 1987). Ermey is onboard to be R. Lee Ermey, but perhaps FIREBASE GLORIA's dramatic element would work better if Hauser's performance wasn't so terrible.  Hauser is a legend in B-movie histrionics, but that approach doesn't adapt well to serious drama.  His big emotional scene near the end, where he talks to Hafner about his dead son and how a drunken, post-funeral, three-week AWOL bender got him busted down to corporal should be DiNardo's big moment, but Hauser's bug-eyed over-emoting is just embarrassing and cartoonish, as is every line of dialogue spoken by Gary Hershberger, who turns up late in the film as Moran, an Army chopper pilot who lends the men some assistance. When Hafner gives Moran a list of necessary supplies, Moran quips "You want french fries with that?"  Hershberger seems to have been told to act as much like Bill Paxton's Chet-from-WEIRD SCIENCE as possible, and he's so grating that you almost expect him to smirk "Cleanup, aisle 3!" after mowing down some VC.  Speaking of ridiculous, don't miss the scene where an enraged Hafner yells at his men while carrying the severed heads of two slaughtered Marines.  It's possibly the most batshit moment of R. Lee Ermey's career.

If one approaches THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA as a B-grade actioner in the Namsploitation subgenre, it doesn't disappoint. It may occasionally try to go the extra klick quality-wise, but when it's all said and done, it's still the kind of movie that expects you to cheer and chant "U-S-A!" when DiNardo tortures an enemy soldier. That, coupled with Hafner/Ermey's almost John Wayne concepts of social conservatism (Hafner has bigger fish to fry than Moran getting a haircut and a shave), probably puts FIREBASE GLORIA more on the right-wing HANOI HILTON end of the political spectrum as far as these films are concerned. But it's all in the eye of the beholder: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA wasn't seen by many people in theaters, but became a word-of-mouth hit with both military vets and exploitation fans on video, and it's a film many of them have held near and dear in the 25 years since.  In other words, it's the very definition of a cult classic.

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