By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
Do you want to drive down to Margate to scatter the ashes of an East London butcher into the English Channel? If the idea at first makes sound like a dreary exercise, keep in mind that Jack (Michael Caine) was the butcher, and his three best drinking buddies from the Coach and Horses, who are coming along, are among Englands finest actors: Vic, the undertaker (Tom Courtenay); Lenny, the ex-boxer (David Hemmings); and Jacks best friend, Ray, the gambler (Bob Hoskins). Besides, Jacks son, Vince (Ray Winston), who broke with his father to become a car salesman, has borrowed a Mercedez-Benz for the trip. No, Jacks wife Amy (Helen Mirren) wont be coming. Shell be visiting their mentally retarded daughter, June (Laura Morelli), whom Jack has mostly ignored ever since her birth.
All this combines to give Last Orders the best ensemble acting of the year. Even on his deathbed, Caine adds a bit of extra glamour and mischief. With a wink at the nurse and another effort to borrow money, he uses joviality as a cover for disillusion -- and perhaps repressed guilt. Mirren, unfortunately, is largely wasted; she has a credible, low-key affair with Hoskins, but shes just not part of the main line of the story, the trip to Margate.
The pace is deliberately slow to allow for constant stops at pubs along the way. Memories are amusing, sentimental and occasionally rancorous. The men never quite get over the realization that all that is left of their lifelong friend is contained in a cardboard box, and they decide that a proper show of respect means carrying it with them into the next bar.
Director Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) has made a conscientious adaptation of Graham Swifts 1996 Booker Award novel, but the flashbacks are sometimes too brief and awkward, and the actors who play the mens younger selves never quite come alive. Schepisi seems unable to find a cinematic equivalent to the way in which the different voices of the novels main characters carry the story forward and make the relationships between them complex and humorous.
Though Jacks friends are easy to spend time with, one is left with a sense of disappointment at the end. Not because the movies subject is a downer, but because the action seems repetitive; it doesnt build to any real climax. The weather is bad and gets worse; the men argue dispiritedly about whose turn it is to carry Jacks ashes; flashbacks tell us about their military service in World War II; and we come to feel that the years of barroom banter cover up lots of disappointments.
We come to feel that although the Coach and Horses gang are neither saints nor heroes, they are decent men who deserve a grander send-off. Ultimately Last Orders shows the limitations of a narrative that deals with old age and dying without some framework of belief or common liturgy.
If youre looking for more action, try Vietnam during the bloody battle of Ia Drang in late 1965. We Were Soldiers, the super-patriotic, new Mel Gibson movie, captures the bravery of the First Battalion of the Armys Seventh Cavalry, roughly 450 men, as they encounter 2,000 regulars of the North Vietnamese Army in the central highlands. The script was written by director Randall Wallace from a memoir by a genuine war hero, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who commanded the battalion at Ia Drang.
Gibson communicates an inner toughness and sense of old-fashioned dedication that makes it possible to believe in Moore, and although the combat action is hard to follow, there is no attempt to prettify its results. The overall tone, however, is full of Hollywood clichés as men of all races and backgrounds come together to create something Moore calls what home was always supposed to be, a place where people would uncritically care for each other. Things undoubtedly got more complicated in Vietnam after 1965; the world described in We Were Soldiers is drug-free, pious and mostly white; one soldiers last line is Im glad I can die for my country.
The weakest part of the movie encompasses the units training period at Fort Benning, Ga., and conscripts the officers wives as pretty tokens of pre-feminist wholesomeness. Madeleine Stowe, who plays Moores wife, is called on later in the film to deliver the dreaded telegrams that announce the death in action of the husbands of other wives on the post. Those who suffered through the cardboard dialogue he wrote for Pearl Harbor will recognize Wallaces style.
Though Moore is presented as having earned an advanced degree in international relations, his approach to Vietnam seems principally influenced by the failure of the French army and of Custers last stand at Little Big Horn. He helped develop the air-cavalry strategy, which depended on helicopters, and probably sensed early on that the mission he had been given was a disaster. When a reporter asks him after the battle, How do you account for your victory? Moore may already suspect that the Vietnamese will prevail in the war, but there is no evidence that he had yet posed the question, What justifies the U.S. presence in Vietnam?
To its credit, We Were Soldiers does not demonize the enemy; their officers are brave and capable, and we are even shown a Vietnamese soldier taking a last look at a photo of his girlfriend before the final attack. The movie also gives considerable emphasis to religion; one of Moores most sympathetic lieutenants, Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), is an ex-missionary, and Moore himself is a practicing Catholic, a devoted husband who helps teach his five young children their prayers. It would be unfair to expect him in 1965 to be familiar with Vatican IIs teaching on war. The movie makes me wonder if the Catholics who are being called on to serve in George Bushs war against the axis of evil know any more about it today.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is Scunn24219@aol.com
National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002