CONFUSION on the Ground

Five of the best American movies (and among the first) about the Vietnam War (or Conflict, if you prefer) debuted in 1978 and 1979.The Deer Hunter (’78) won five Oscars, Best Picture among them. Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Oscars for Coming Home (’78), and Apocalypse Now (’79) was a controversial legend in its own time.

Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), just out in Twilight Time’s beautiful HD presentation, isn’t often on lists of Vietnam films nor did it earn much positive press when it came out. Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s usually perceptive and often acerbic reviewer, was dismissive, even contemptuous, remarking that the plot alone “is simple to the point of pulp-dom. It comes from an excruciatingly poor novel called Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, which for some reason won the National Book Award.”

Ms. Kael was a brilliant critic, but she missed the mark on this one. As the saying goes, “Even Homer nods,” so even she is allowed an occasional oversight. The late Robert Stone was among the most accomplished American writers of the last 50 years.

It’s a shame that when Dog Soldiers was adapted to film, Hollywood moguls changed the title to Who’ll Stop the Rain, to cash in on Credence Clearwater Revival’s song and influence ticket-buyers. I suspect just the opposite occurred. The song is used to great effect in the film, especially the closing scene, but its transposition as the movie title obscures one of the book’s (and film’s) major themes, what Julie Kirgo in her liner notes calls the “chaos and amorality of Vietnam.”

Though the movie’s set first in Vietnam, the war’s ethical morass fully blossoms, then decays back home. It opens with journalist John Converse (Michael Moriarty), a former Marine, nearly dying in a mortar attack. Traumatized and ethically desensitized by the events he’s been covering, he turns to heroin-smuggling, reasoning that “in a world where elephants are pursued by flying men” (U.S. helicopters) and slaughtered because they’re suspected of carrying enemy supplies, then “people are just naturally going to want to get high.”

John convinces his buddy Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte), another ex-Marine, to sneak two kilos of skag into the States where John’s wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) will pay him. Back home, Ray quickly finds they’ve all been set up by crooked Fed Antheil (Anthony Zerbe) and his two goons (Richard Masur, Ray Sharkey).

A tarnished yet still principled existential knight in a strange land, Ray decides he’s had enough, telling Marge, “All my life I’ve been taking shit from inferior people. No more.” Realizing the score in more ways than one, he and Marge take the heroin and embark on a doomed quest for freedom, to escape the insanity and corruption.

In one of the film’s more troubling parts, Ray tries to move the dope through a sleazy contact who sets him up with a clueless couple, wealthy dilettantes wanting to explore the contemporary drug scene so the husband can describe it in the novel he’s writing. Ray promptly gives him something rather scary to write about.

In a last effort to escape ruthless Antheil and his thugs, Ray packs up a stoned-out Marge, a victim of the times, and heads for New Mexico’s border mountains, where he once holed up in a hippie commune back when peace signs, dope and rock music seemed an appropriate response to the war. There is no escape, of course, and the film’s conclusion features a realistic mini-firefight that mirrors the opening sequence.

Its subject is moral ambiguity, and everything about Who’ll Stop the Rain is razor-sharp, including the script co-written by Stone and Judith Rascoe. The cast is superb, particularly Nolte, who gives the best performance of his career. The same goes for Weld and Moriarty, both of whom nail their roles as passive survivors of tragic weirdness. Even the villains—Zerbe, Masur and Sharkey—are too real and frightening to be ignored.

Director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman,Isadora) brings an acute outsider’s eye to Stone’s gritty moral fable about the corruption of the American dream in the ’70s.

One of the unacknowledged gems of that period, Who’ll Stop the Rain is ready for rediscovery.