Sidewinder’s View: “Welcome Home, Soldier Boys” (1972)

I love B-grade drive-in exploitation flicks from the 1970s. Unpretentious, fast-paced, straightforward melodramatic drive-in stuff, creatively shot on a shoestring. The more action, the better.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, starring Joe Don Baker, Alan Vint and Paul Koslo, is one of those drive-in pictures I’ve been looking for for over ten years now, having heard mention of it on the audio commentary for the Macon County Line DVD.

I knew the premise of the film, kind of, and was curious to see if it was as fantastic as it was said to be. Considering it’s from the director of the Macon County Line movies, it had to have something going for it, I thought.

The plot: Four newly discharged Vietnam vets, traveling cross country to California, run into women trouble, redneck trouble, car trouble, crooked smalltown auto mechanic trouble…just all sorts of trouble, resulting in lost $$$, disillusionment, lost tempers…

…and an extremely violent, nihilistic finale that has them wiping out the population, and most the buildings, of a tiny New Mexico town with machine guns, grenades and a rocket launcher. Weapons they’ve been carrying, unknown to the audience, in the trunk of their recently purchased Cadillac touring car, throughout the entire movie.

They’re supposedly en route to become farmers in California. Yet they’re packing machine guns, ammo, grenades and a rocket launcher in the trunk of their car? These aren’t even GI-issued machine guns, so…where’d they come from?

Or are we just to assume that all ‘Nam vets, upon discharge from active duty, are handed this kind of lethal hardware to raise hell with? And what the hell were they going to be farming in California– from the looks of the artillery they’re packing, I’d guess marijuana. It’s never explained.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers concocted the big shoot-’em-up/blow-’em-up conclusion first, then fashioned a story in reverse to explain/justify it. Trouble is, the massacre of the town feels so out of character for these four vets that, in spite of the well-staged shootouts and explosions, it took me right out of the movie.

And I couldn’t exactly get behind what these four guys were doing as they were gunning down fleeing civilians and firing rockets into a National Guard helicopter.

Like its four principal characters, the story just kind of drifts along until its final climactic section. Joe Don Baker, as the group’s leader, is the only character we really get to know. His three cohorts aren’t given much to say or do that would lead us to identify with or sympathize with them.

When they start shooting up the sleepy little town– basically because Baker’s tired of waiting for the gas station to open up and decides to rob its pumps by splitting their chain-lock with a tire iron, despite being ordered by an arriving police officer to stop– they ceased to be charming or sympathetic. At that point, they’re merely goons.

Or was this meant to be some sort of antiwar statement, coming as it did at the tail end of the Vietnam conflict? Quite likely, I’d say.

I know a little bit about the making of this movie, but not much. I know it was barely released by 20th Century Fox, then shelved and locked away in their vault ever since (I watched an uploaded 80s VHS version of the film with Thai subtitles on You Tube this morning, otherwise I never would’ve had access to it).

UPDATE: The film has since been released on MOD DVD. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Home-Soldier-Boys-Baker/dp/B00D23GMUE

Either way, it didn’t convince me. Not as a B-grade drive-in exploitation feature, nor as some sort of low-budget/high-minded political statement. The storytelling was too clumsy. The character development rang false.

The closing action sequences were very well made, but I felt like the characters– before they went about leveling the innocent town and its 81 citizens– should’ve been more clearly defined as villains to have done what they did. It just seemed to pop in without justification from left field…pun intended.

It was all too much to swallow, especially since the filmmakers seemed determined to perpetuate that (then still fresh) slanderous Hollywood cliche of the Psychotic Ticking Time-Bomb ‘Nam Vet by having these four go on such a mass-murdering rampage, sort of like the real-life jihadis in Mumbai over 35 years later.

Particularly since no such incident occurred for this picture to be ‘inspired’ by, it just makes the decision to have these characters, at the drop of a hat, go inexplicably homicidal all the more offensive.

So what we have here is a ninety minute movie, with about 80 minutes of humdrum goings-on, delivered at a snail’s pace, followed by a final 10 minutes of nihilistic carnage. Probably helped make for a kinetic, high-energy, thoroughly misleading trailer, but the actual film was a stunning disappointment, on several levels.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys was directed by Richard Compton, who had a major hit two years later with Macon County Line, which was very similar to this film, in both style and storytelling…except that film worked. Plus it had Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies in it.

I’m not so confused anymore as to why this film’s languished for so long in Fox’s vaults. At least I didn’t have to pay any of my hard-earned $$$ to figure it out.

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