John Tinseth looks back on one of the most important films in his life, The Last Detail, and marvels at how almost nobody saw it.
The Last Detail (1973) was as important a film to me as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Electra Glide in Blue (1974). “Bunch” and “Blue” are the book ends of off-beat films whose sole contrarian purpose in Hollywood seemed to be, “Fuck the money – Lets make the picture we wanna make.” Stephen Spielberg would end that in 1975 with the new concept of “Blockbuster” via Jaws.
I was a 15 year old high school student who was geek enough to join Naval Junior ROTC. And like so many things in life—I did it for the cool clothes: Naval Academy uniforms consisting of khakis—which required military press—dress blues, an anchor cap with khaki and white covers and my favorite, an almost black, navy CPO shirt with matching tie. Worn with the ultra-cool ‘tie tuck.’
My best friend’s father worked with Dad at Continental Army Command at Ft Monroe. Ed and I traveled the old post slapping ‘Sailors Have More Fun’ bumper stickers on anything they’d stick to. Prior to the Army – Navy game, a foiled attempt was made to spray paint, “Go Navy” on the Ft. Monroe water tower. Never wear all black against a grey background.
I saw The Last Detail at the post movie theater. It would be my first ‘R’ rated movie and it would contribute a cornucopia of vulgar expressions to my already impressive ‘Army Brat’ archive. Robert Towne wrote the screenplay from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan. Hal Ashby directed, even though he was busted for marijuana possession in Canada while scouting locations and Jack Nicholson considered it his best role. Of course…no one has ever seen it.
I watch it today and can easily see what attracted me. Two petty officers are assigned Shore Patrol detail to escort an 18 yr old seaman to prison in Portsmouth. What begins as a scheme to collect per diem, turns into a road trip of Schlitz, whores, a Penn Station bathroom fight with Marines and a picnic in the middle of a New Hampshire Winter.
Sewn into the humor is bleak darkness we don’t see in film anymore. Hell, even Towne and Ashby changed the ending from the book where ‘Last Detail’ predicts the outcome for the take-no-shit Buddusky played by Nicholson. Ultimately, life is a shit sandwich and few of us get any bread. How you live it and what you make out of it will not only define you…but you’ll have to wear it as well.