R. Lee Ermey has been one of those perfect character actors over the years, even starring in a History Channel show that answered all sorts of questions about the military. His performance in Full Metal Jacket is the one he will always be known for, but he delivers another excellent performance in a far lesser known but very high quality film about the Vietnam War, 1989's The Siege of Firebase Gloria.
It's early in 1968 and a long range Marine recon patrol led by Master Sergeant Hafner (Ermey) keeps coming across signs of increased North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activity. With his second-in-command, Corporal DiNardo (Wings Hauser), and a six-man patrol, Hafner leads the small group of Marines onto a small firebase named Gloria deep in the Vietnamese jungle. They find a poorly constructed, undermanned and under-supplied defensive position that's just waiting to be overrun should the Viet Cong attack. Hafner takes command, DiNardo helping at every turn, but their time is running out. As the Marines work to build up the firebase, the Viet Cong unleash the Tet offensive all over the country, American positions fighting back against waves of attacking guerrilla fighters. With no real hope of getting reinforcements, ammunition or supplies, can Gloria hold out or is it already too late?
Where do you go for a very solid movie about the front line fighting in the Vietnam War? Why, Australia of course with the Philippines providing the filming locations. From Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith, 'Siege' is one of those hidden gems you're glad you stumble across. I caught it a couple times on TV during Memorial Day marathons and found it recently during just such a marathon on MGM-HD. Why are there so few movies about Vietnam? More specifically, about the fighting in Vietnam? My first thought is because America lost. My second is that this was a particularly nasty war with fighting unlike anything the world had seen. Trenchard-Smith's film doesn't shy away from that nastiness. At different points, it shows American soldiers "fragging" their own officers, American soldiers killing wounded Viet Cong soldiers, among other things. We also see the particularly brutal remnants of a Vietnamese massacre of a peaceful village, decapitations, rapes, a pile of murdered children's corpses. Not exactly uplifting stuff.
Limited somewhat by a smallish budget, 'Siege' makes up for it with that hard-edged, in-your-face authenticity. At no point does this feel forced. Though two screenwriters are listed in the credits, Trenchard-Smith has stated in interviews that Ermey wrote the screenplay. Whoever wrote it...it's good in a brutal, straightforward fashion. We get a bigger picture of what's going on with the Tet Offensive, but this is a story with its focus far more on the foot soldiers, the infantry, the grunts. We follow a single engagement (over 3 or 4 days) as a small garrison tries to defend a remote outpost against overwhelming odds. There are some stiff moments, and the characters are from the War Movies Handbook 101, but the movie is always interesting. The realism and authenticity does an excellent job in that department.
No big names here, Ermey and Hauser carrying the heavy lifting. Ermey was a Vietnam vet who served multiple tours before being sent home with his wounds. His narration is that no-frills type of voiceover that would come from a lifelong Marine, a soldier who's seen all that war has to offer. He's tired, worn down but loves the Marines and loves the fight. Hauser's DiNardo is his close friend who's struggling with some personal demons but remains an incredibly capable soldier in his own right, a soldier Hafner trusts with his life. Who else to look for? There's Murphy (Mark Neely), a young soldier figuring out the ins and outs of Vietnam, Coates (Clyde Jones) the radioman -- who's called Short Waves) who's also on short time on his tour, and Jones (Albert Popwell), an Army sergeant who bristles at the Marines' commands but knows ultimately it's their call.
There's other parts, some more worthwhile than others that include an on-base nurse, a war photographer thrust into action, a wounded officer who survived Viet Cong torture, and a very strong part for Gary Hershberger as Moran, a gung-ho chopper pilot who continuously risks his life to bring Gloria any supplies and ammunition he can. His brief interactions with Ermey's Hafner on an under-fire landing zone are perfect, the no-nonsense Marine lifer vs. the free-spirited helicopter pilot who doesn't have much use for rules or authority. Also look for Robert Arevalo as Cao Van, the commander of the attacking Viet Cong forces, presented as a human being, not a stereotypically evil villain. Not much in star power or name recognition, but some solid supporting parts across the board.
Wasting little time in its 95-minute running time, 'Siege' is action-heavy and never lets up. The violence is brutal and uncomfortable but while it is particularly graphic, the camera doesn't linger on the violence. War, killing and death is quick and hard-hitting, brutal and unceremonious. We see the lines all along the firebase up in the air, Viet Cong pushing forward as Americans fall back and then the other way when the outnumbered American infantry push back. There are brief respites but they're quick breaks, and it is never too long before the attack continues. Is this a groundbreaking war movie? No, but it is very effective on multiple levels. It succeeds as a war story and as an action movie. It has little in the way of a reputation or cult following, but it deserves far more. A difficult movie to watch, but one that is worthwhile in the end.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989): ***/****