in Action 2
A lot of weight goes into the prologue, a brief bit of film stamping each GI with the title rubric. This serves as a distancing sort of résumé for the grand shocks that follow. The commandant revokes the Geneva Convention, his prisoners are criminals. “Your ambassadors of evil,” he tells them, “are being killed all over the world.” Col. Braddock, the senior American officer, is ordered to sign a confession of war crimes, and is tortured.
The second level of harshness is the realization that no confession will serve, because the commandant merely wishes subjugation of his prisoners. The third is that American weapons are housed in the camp supply hut, with which Col. Braddock not only makes his escape and frees his remaining men, but destroys the camp and its commandant as well.
The mechanism of all this is certainly most entertaining. Col. Braddock is hung by his feet with his hands tied, a sack containing a rat is placed over his head. Blood appears on it as he shakes his head violently, then hangs motionless. In a gag perhaps derived from Chaplin’s famous heaving shoulders that hide a calmly shaken martini, the bag is removed to show a dead rat clutched in Col. Braddock’s unconscious jaws.
An Australian journalist discovers the camp (now years after the war), and tries to bluff the commandant into surrender. He is dispatched, but first points the way of escape.
Following the demise of earthly hope in the commandant’s “pardon”, Col. Braddock hangs himself, it’s a ruse, and makes his way to the weapons cache.
There is a curious echo of Apocalypse Now in the commandant’s French partner, a civilian who deals in opium and girls, transported by helicopter. One of the GI’s is a turncoat-trusty, who enjoys the favor of the regime.
The sufferings of the prisoners are adequately conveyed, down to the point of their mildewed rags. “I’m glad you finally understand the extent of your guilt,” says the commandant, after forcing Col. Braddock to sign by threatening the life of another GI, whom he then murders most viciously.
This is an absolute, unequivocal position, conditioned exclusively by the commandant’s one desire to prove or know who is “the better man.” The straightforward surrealism of it is marked by its concentrated vision, in Napoleon’s sense, there being no resolution possible but an effacement of dramatic terms, so that this is a solidly remarkable film, skillfully realized and a pleasure to watch, for all its horrors, because they are so edifying in the long run, the main stylistic thrust being to express all this realistically within the context of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
It produces an odd dislocation of the historical sense, in a way, so as to give a pure sense of the action. The performances are ideal, and in particular there is Soon Teck-Oh’s inspired acuity as the commandant, which carries him through even the karate fight in the last scene, part of which is filmed in slow-motion. Norris is, of course, thoroughly imbued with his part, and there is Christopher Cary, a brutal Cockney thug on The Rockford Files, as the Australian.