No. 22: Uncommon Valor

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Ted Kotcheff‘s absurd shoot-em-up POW rescue movie Uncommon Valor is exactly the kind of movie I expected to see a lot more of when I first began this project. It’s a film so specific in the trendy emotional strings it was built to tug on and so heavy on that very specific ’80s brand of machismo that it’s going to immediately seem like the perfect fodder for today’s ironic hipster movie-lover looking for a few chuckles.

But back in 1983, irony didn’t course through the veins of every movie lover the way it does today. Reactions were clearly deeply divided between critics who were put off by the movie’s almost flagrant disrespect for what was still a very somber subject (Vietnam) and the general public, who clearly loved the movie judging by its $30.5 million box office gross.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into that critical reaction since it’s fairly obvious what the critical beef with the film would be to anyone who has seen the movie. In short, Uncommon Valor is a heist movie only instead of expert thieves robbing a bank or stealing a diamond, it’s a bunch of Vietnam vets who plan a rescue operation for their friend left behind as a prisoner of war. In terms of pure concept, it’s not a bad idea for a movie. In execution, it’s a movie that ends up making Vietnam look like a barrel of laughs.

The problem comes in the fact that the filmmakers simply carry the heist film analogy too far. Fair enough that you’d want to use that formula to establish your main group of characters: the smart and world-weary leader (Gene Hackman), who also happens to be the father of the POW in question; the laid-back surfer dude who specializes in explosives (Reb Brown); the young enthusiastic one who doesn’t know what he’s getting into (Patrick Swayze); and yes, the black guy who really isn’t sure that this is a good idea (Harold Sylvester). That’s not the whole team but you can see where this is headed.

The use of stock characters isn’t the problem here. Nor is the structure of having the guys go through a rehearsal run of the rescue operation. It’s a movie trope that’s used over and over again in this kind of movie because it serves a purpose: it helps the audience understand exactly what’s going on during the real action sequence later and makes surprising developments in the operation even more surprising to us.

It’s some of the other genre tropes that start to feel a little awkward in a movie about a very tragic and (at the time) very recent war. Moments of levity are pretty frequent in Uncommon Valor, particularly during the training sequence, as we get to see the guys dancing to nonspecific rock music, pretending to kill each other by hanging signs around each other’s necks that read “Wasted” or “History”, making Agent Orange jokes, and laughing at the weird habits of their teammate Sailor (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who is clearly suffering from some version of post-traumatic stress disorder. These gags would feel right in a traditional heist movie, maybe even some war movies, but when the entire premise is built around what was at the time a very real issue (POWs left behind in Vietnam), it seems more insensitive and inappropriate. It’s a tough call for me as a 2010 viewer but I can certainly see what the 1983 critics are talking about and why so many of them found the film distasteful and much less fun than it was clearly intended to be.

As for the 1983 audience who clearly did not find the movie distasteful for the most part, New York Times writer Samuel Freedman had his own opinion as to why the film seemed to capture the so much attention (and money) from the public at large. In short, Freedman believed the public was desperately seeking an outlet for their confusion and anger at the outcome of the Vietnam War and movies like Uncommon Valor provided, in the form of fantasy, a way to right the wrongs of the war and erase the national embarrassment and humiliation that comes along with losing a war.

The film does have its moments that acknowledge this dark cloud hanging over its characters, particularly with the character of Wilkes (played by Fred Ward from The Right Stuff) who has taken to creating art out of barbed wire to deal with his post-war depression. Malcolm in the Middle star Jane Kaczmarek gets about 30 seconds of screen time as Wilkes’ wife who we see berating him for considering returning to Vietnam for this rescue mission. Wilkes, like the rest of the men on the team, is shown as a man who is haunted by what happened in the war but who immediately jumps at the chance to return as though one more mission is the obvious solution to make everything right again.

We also get a very on-the-nose speech from Hackman at the beginning of the training portion of the film in which Hackman essentially lays out the philosophy and purpose of the film in fairly clear terms.

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive as a man who grew up with a very clear idea of the story of Vietnam. The mutually agreed upon view of the war as a tragic failure, a lesson to be learned from, probably wasn’t completely established in 1983 and this movie served perhaps as a part of an ongoing debate on how to view the war. As I said earlier, this movie is very difficult to take seriously in the post-ironic age of 2010. Once you’ve seen Team America: World Police, it’s difficult to watch a movie like Uncommon Valor and remember that it probably didn’t all seem tired and obvious to the audience that flocked to see it in theaters.

In the decades that have followed, I think it’s fair to say Uncommon Valor has certainly faded from prominence and is probably a fairly obscure title to most movie lovers today. I certainly had never heard of it before starting this project and having watched it, I didn’t spot any moments that have gone on to become pop culture reference points. As such, there’s not a lot of information or video clips out there to share from this film but thankfully some thoughtful soul uploaded what is easily the best moment from this film, the closing credits. They won’t spoil anything for you and the shots you see of each of the characters having some fun sums up the tone of the movie pretty well but it’s the long take about halfway through this clip that makes this a closing credits sequence for the ages. If you’re thinking there’s some kind of context from the movie that will explain this long take or that there’s some reason behind what’s going on there, you are mistaken. I have seen the movie and I’m just as baffled as you will be. Enjoy.

Next Up: The sequel that was begging to be made, Porky’s II: The Next Day. Seriously.