Military Advisors: Dale Dye, CAPT, USMC (ret); 1st LT Michael Stokey; SSGT. Michael Edmiston; SSGT. Ruben Romo
Historical setting: A platoon of young Vietnam-bound soldiers undergoes infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1971.
Authenticity: Filmed in Florida on an apparently modest budget, the filmmakers have recreated sets that look remarkably like Fort Polk and central Louisiana, even if on a small scale. The terrain is very similar. There are scenes where the soldiers are wearing field jackets, which may come as a surprise to some, but it actually does get that chilly in the autumn mornings at Fort Polk.
While the barracks buildings are not the two-story white clapboard structures of Fort Polk’s North Fort, a reasonable substitute is used. The latrines are appropriately dreary and spartan, their fluorescent lighting bathed in a familiar hazy glow. The living bays are standard military style, but not like those at the actual Tigerland, where the double bunks were parallel to and about 4 feet from the walls, and only the drill sergeants would permitted to walk in the center of the bay.
The film’s portrayal of Leesville is a bit off, but not significantly so for the purposes of the story. One was not apt to find hippies in central Louisiana back then, and the two centerfold beauties the soldiers pick up at the bar are far too attractive to have hung around Leesville; they would have moved to New Orleans, looking for husbands or selling their services to conventioneers.
The uniforms are very accurate and properly worn, although the fatigues worn by the veteran instructors should have been less of an olive drab and more of a faded green color from wear, repeated washings, and starching. The recruits correctly wear issued “U.S ARMY” and stamped name tapes, while the cadre wear customized machine-embroidered tapes. The combat patches worn on the right sleeves of the staff are actual divisions which had seen action in Vietnam, and they all wear subdued Combat Infantryman Badges (most have airborne “jump” wings as well.) They wear the patch of the Fourth U.S. Army, which is correct; Fort Polk was a Fourth Army training facility, reassigned to TRADOC in the big reorganization of ’73. The khakis look correct save for the pockets.
The equipment is of the period, even including the two different types of flash suppressors on the M-16A1 rifles in service late in the war. The cadre instructors wear authentic-looking stylized helmet liners with infantry branch and Fourth Army insignia on them. The troops ride to the training ranges in 2.5-ton trucks (‘deuce-and-a-halfs’) rather than the traditional ‘cattle car’ trailers, but this is a rather minor detail..
Care was also taken to make the dialogue authentic. The cliché profanities which proliferate among combat soldiers are liberally sprinkled throughout the script, with particularly colorful expressions used by everyone. Even the privates use them, having certainly adopted them from their instructors in Basic Combat Training. In summary, the dialogue is excellently recreated.
JOHNSON: Wilson, I want you to listen for the ‘Pop.’
WILSON: What’s the Pop?
JOHNSON: That’s the sound your head’s gonna make the first time it comes outcha ass.
Commentary: Hollywood has long had a fascination with military training, where the clash of civilian and military cultures is most acute, and peaceful individuals are transformed –- to one degree or another – into warriors. Boot camps have provided fertile material for comedies such as Buck Privates , Stripes, and Private Benjamin , and dramas including Take The High Ground, An Officer And A Gentleman, and Full Metal Jacket . The most common plot in these films revolves around individuals who have the greatest difficulty making the transformation, often relying on regrettable stereotyping and predictable endings.
Enter Tigerland, an extraordinary film set in Fort Polk, Louisiana near the close of the war in Vietnam. Soldiers who have recently completed Basic Combat Training arrive at Fort Polk for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) as infantrymen --- the last post prior to shipping out for Vietnam, and combat.
We are immediately introduced to Private Bozz, played quite convincingly by Irish actor Colin Farrell. At first glance, he appears to be a character we’ve seen in other films about young men in training, like Jan Michael Vincent’s hippy at Marine boot camp in the ‘70s made-for-TV movie Tribes . But as the story develops, a far more complex character is unveiled.
Typically, Bozz is a street-tough survivor whom we, like his platoon buddy Paxson, come to admire as he resists those agents tasked with his transformation: the training cadre. Yet, just beneath the Teflon persona and spring-loaded fists, resides a compassion for his fellow soldiers so strong, that he is moved to tears over their sad lives and plights. He willingly assumes the role of ‘barracks lawyer,’ advising desperate soldiers of the legal and administrative processes available to get discharged from the service. Why? “You don’t belong in the Army,” he tells them. But he also appears to be repulsed by the idea of killing another human beings. Does Bozz belong?
The cadre of veteran professional soldiers seems to think so, if Bozz’s disciplinary record is any indication. Rather than giving up on Bozz and discharging him from the Army, he is released from the stockade to return for training. Perhaps it’s Bozz’s survival instincts, or his flashes of leadership which encourage them to persist.
There is one noncommissioned officer who is determined to crush Bozz, however. Sadistic and brutal, Staff Sergeant Thomas (James McDonald) is an unfortunate Hollywood stereotype whose preferred method of discipline is punches to the face and kicks in the ribs, often in full view of his company commander and superior NCOs. He is determined to break Bozz because he despises Bozz’s will to resistance.
Other members of the platoon include Paxson (Matthew Davis), a college drop-out from New York who befriends Bozz. Miter (Clifton Collins Jr.), the Louisiana youth who is running away from a father he can never please and an adulterous wife, to prove that he is man, or die a hero. Nineteen year-old Cantwell (Thomas Guiry), another Deep Southerner; he was married at 15 to a woman 9 years his elder, and now is a father of two and stepfather to two more. Still another Southerner is Wilson (Shea Whigham) --- insecure, edgy, and by the film’s end, psychotic --- the natural antagonist to Bozz. And Johnson (Russell Richardson), younger brother of a Vietnam veteran and the only black recruit with any significant lines, and not at all intimidated by the racist Wilson. All of the characters ring very true, devoid of the quasi-bravado typical of Hollywood military characters.
We observe snippets of their training for combat, culminating in their final week and test: the simulated Vietnam known as Tigerland, where one of the platoon’s internal conflicts will reach its violent climax. (If you’ve guessed that it involves live ammo --- and what Hollywood military picture doesn’t? -- you’ve guessed right.)
But Bozz is the most complex and interesting character, and the fulcrum of this drama, around whom the other characters orbit and interact . Most of us have encountered free spirits like this in the military at one time or another. They can be natural soldiers – that is, when they want to be. We marvel at their mixture of an instinctive ability to endure in spite of a seeming indifference to accomplishment. They seem to conform to their own code of discipline, and only occasionally to others’. They are inconsistent, yet somehow reliable. And then, before we can even fully understand them, they are gone, leaving us convinced that wherever their lives took them, they would manage to survive. In some ways, we wish we could be more like them.
Perhaps it is the film’s ending that convinced distributors to disregard critical accolades and limit release to just two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Actually, Tigerland transcends simple-minded, profit-margin Hollywood pabulum to achieve something more. It is certainly a study of the collision of personalities and cultures, but it force-marches a step or two further -- It is an album. We know these men. They’re real, and their stories are real. Their behavior is genuine. They were our squad mates --- the guys we trusted on our left and right. They were the buddies we grew with.
And Tigerland revealed to me how much I miss them.
About the reviewer: Bill Eldard was trained as an infantryman at Tigerland, Ft. Polk, LA in the fall of 1973, and served for 2.5 years in Germany with the 1st Armored Division. Sergeant Eldard completed his enlistment in 1976, and served in the Virginia Army National Guard from ‘77-‘78. In 1979, he was commissioned as a US Navy intelligence officer through Aviation Officer Candidate School (the venue of An Officer And A Gentleman), and retired after 24 years of active military service earlier this year. He is currently writing a book about World War Two feature films.