I remember vividly when Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon” first came out in 1986. The media was all abuzz with talk of this being one of the first films to really look at the Vietnam War. The success of that film would unleash a whole slate of films about Vietnam, but, in reality, “Platoon” was far from the first film to deal with the subject. There were more famous examples like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter,” but then there was today’s movie…a strange little film about a soldier returning stateside to bury a comrade. Released in 1977, though supposedly filmed several years earlier…”Tracks.”
I might as well let you know from the start, there isn’t a lot of story here. The film centers on Sgt. Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper), who has returned to the US from Vietnam with the body of a good friend, and fellow soldier, killed in the war. Jack is taking his fallen friend across country by train to be buried in his home town.
There isn’t a whole lot to do on the train, so Jack spends a lot of time chatting with the odd group of fellow train travelers. There’s a guy named Mark (Dean Stockwell) who’s out to find an available lady on the trip. There’s also a balding guy who’s into buying land named Gene (Zack Norman) who can’t stop bugging a guy named Emile (Michael Emil) who’s obsessed with playing chess and comparing it to sex. But Jack is most intrigued by the lovely college student Stephanie (Taryn Power…daughter of Tyrone). She is traveling with her friend Chloe (Topo Swope) who has got her eye on Mark.
Mark manages to get Chloe and Stephanie to join him for dinner in the dining car and invites Jack to join them. Jack is very shy and awkward at dinner, but later, at the bar, he summons up enough courage to tell Stephanie how much he wants her to join him in his cabin. At first she doesn’t seem interested, but she follows him back to his room and the two have an awkward, almost, sexual encounter before she runs out. Strangely, the next morning, Jack has a rendezvous with a strange older woman (Barbara Flood) right after apologizing to Stephanie for the previous evening.
Jack and Stephanie continue to spend time with each other throughout the multi-day trip. Various mundane conversations between the various passengers occur all around them…nothing too exciting. But then, we see that Jack occasionally experiences hallucinations, most likely due to the traumatic stress of the war. In one sequence, he imagines the other passengers he is talking to trying to rape Stephanie. Later in the film, we see him pulling a gun and running naked through the train (yep folks, we get full-frontal Hopper in this one) from a military police officer. Then again, this whole episode may have been real after all, with the MP actually hunting down Mark, a political radical. We soon have a hard time knowing what is real and what is in Jack’s mind. Even some of the other passengers seem to be figments of his imagination. When Jack finally arrives to bury his friend, he completely breaks down and even turns the freshly dug grave into his own private foxhole.
As I said, there’s really not a lot that happens in this film. Almost the entire film takes place in the tight spaces of train cars. Most of the sequences are just people chatting with each other. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most of the dialogue was improvised by the actors. As is almost always the case in these situations, some of the scenes work well and others completely fizzle. The strongest scenes tend to be the ones between Hopper and Stockwell. Improvising dialogue is hard work, but these guys work so well together, their improv seems effortless. I wish the same could be said for all the performers, but there are several moments where the cast seems uncomfortable with the make-it-up-as-you-go approach. Though, I will say that Taryn Power did a fine job giving an appropriately quiet performance as the young woman falling in love with a troubled soldier.
The film is confusing but it does manage to hold the viewer’s interest. Though, if the filmmakers were really trying to say something profound about the struggles going on in the minds of Vietnam vets as they returned home, I think they may have taken the wrong approach. It just seems to be too intense a subject to leave to improvisation rather than careful scripting.
The premise of a troubled soldier transporting a dead buddy by train has a lot of potential. Hopper, Stockwell and Power all make watching the film an intriguing experience. But, in the end, the story really doesn’t go anywhere. I guess you could say the train never really leaves the station.