In Tigerland, director Joel Shumacher plunges a platoon of undersized, undereducated, undertrained teenagers and twentysomethings into the last weeks of infantry preparation in 1971 before deployment to Vietnam, when military actions won not wars but transient advantage at the worldly Parisian negotiating tables and odium in the stateside streets. The setting outside combat augurs well. Fred Zinneman’s classic From Here to Eternity and the moving but psychologically brutal mid-sixties movies The Hill (Sidney Lumet) and The Bofors Gun (Jack Gold) all told thought-provoking “war stories” without ever going to war. Each of these movies attacked a military twisted inward, a military more intent on preserving its hierarchies than fighting wars, more intent on devouring its inexperienced recruits than deploying them. In each, good writing and thoughtful casting created a cadre of men unable to justify themselves but equally unable to surrender to the army.
Tigerland‘s characters are initially appealing in the same way: college dropout turned draftee hardass Bozz (Colin Farrell), college-educated volunteer and aspiring writer Paxton (Matthew Davis), and a callow bunch of skinny, largely Southern no-hopers who are already casualties of war long before they leave Fort Polk, Louisiana at the movie’s end. But Schumacher and first-time scriptwriters, Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, plunge viewers into a maelstrom of images and ideas sucked from the twentieth century’s obsession with technologized war. The film plunders these collective fragments of history and imagination so passionately that its unfolding emphasizes (as no other recent war film does) how strongly the poses and personae of Western recreations of war lean on the archetypes drawn by a few skillful writers and artists in the fifteen years or so following World War I.
When Paxton explains he volunteered for duty because he wants to go to Vietnam “to see what it’s like,” and transfuse war into the art of James Jones and Ernest Hemingway, he echoes a 1916 letter from the poet Isaac Rosenberg who died in the World War I trenches. “f I am lucky enough to come through all right, I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.” Bozz’s accusation that Paxton is hiding beneath a ready-made image of the “cynically funny soldier with two girls in a bar” routine, recalls not only the myriad far-from-home bar scenes of World War II memoirs and movies, but also, specifically, From Here to Eternity‘s Private Prewitt, who in turn drew his contempt for unit, army, and conventional patriotism from the much earlier anti-heroes of Robert Graves and Frederick Manning. Even Tigerland‘s cruel Captain Stearns (Nick Searcy) recalls, in his staccato breakthroughs of shell-shocked frustration, the scarred veteran commander of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End.
Nor can the film shake the predominantly American reworking of those images in the last twenty years of writing and filmmaking (whether overt or covert) about Vietnam. The shadows of Joseph Heller, Tim O’Brien, and Michael Herr infuse the poetry of the script, from the graphic variations on traditional profanity (such as “fiddle-fuck”) to Bozz’s “X-ray eyes for loopholes in the AR” [Army Regulations]. He rejects the army at every turn and for that very reason, grows ever more valuable to it. And while Paxton picks up the folksy sadder-and-wiser voice-over of Platoon‘s Private Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Bozz echoes Taylor’s crossing of the U.S. military’s racial lines.
The first sergeant to treat Buzz to a simple conversation and wizened wisdom is the African American Landers (Afemo Omilami). The first man to step up and support Buzz’ initial pitch for authority as acting “platoon guy” (platoon leader) is African American Private Johnson (Russell Richardson). The simplistic casting of African American characters as “natural rebels,” more in tune with a white man’s inchoate anger than his white comrades, reduces such characters to window-dressing for the protagonist—manipulative devices to convince an audience how cool, how righteous, how authentic that protagonist is. Tigerland firmly encodes its African American enclave (who prove their solidarity by performing as a corny barber-shop quartet) as the keepers of an incorruptible wisdom that only the protagonist can see, just as Platoon did.
For all its allusions to previous war stories, Tigerland has little story to call its own. Moments of beauty jostle bathetic scene-rigging, poignant historical verisimilitude crumples under anachronistic assonance, and skin-tingling acting runs up against wooden caricature. Most harrowingly, the images of men at war, which once signaled the individual’s dissent from the political treachery of national violence (and a more generalized horror of war), here conclude as a glowing advert for the cynicism of modern military training, the theory that if you can’t train a man to fight for country, service, or unit, you can train him very, very efficiently to fight and die for his friends.
Encapsulating all these failures is the movie’s treatment of Bozz, which turns a protagonist threaded with the traces of classic tragedy into one more war movie cliche. Colin Farrell whispers life into this Texan drifter, turning stillness into threat and transforming slippery eye contact into a lethal weapon. But neither the script nor the direction offers Farrell more than a series of frustrating dead ends for this brave portrayal. First, in revealing that Bozz is not just one of the guys, but has attended college for a year, the movie roots his power in his social and economic class as well as in his personality, as if a young man without higher education could not successfully challenge the military. Nor does the movie explore the subliminal complexity lurking in Bozz. Far from rebelling against the military, Bozz has launched a full-fledged revolt against his own charisma. It’s not the responsibility of leadership that terrifies Bozz, as Captain Stearns alleges, but his ability to attract his fellow men so passionately that they spill to him whatever anguish they carry, and his own attraction (he sought out a demoted platoon guy in the bathroom, for example) to men at their most vulnerable. Two men—Cantwell, the broken soldier who precedes Bozz as the “platoon guy” and, most interestingly, the sergeant monitoring the war game at Tigerland—“confess” to Bozz. When Bozz staggers back from the first of these narratives, with a look of horror on his face at the irruption of his own emotions and vulnerability, a flash of how the movie might have grappled with the character ignites the screen. But only for a moment.
The film does no more with the “confessions” than use them for heavy-handed symbolism (the ex-platoon guy weeps over a hand-held cross), then moves briskly to the next scene, abandoning any chance of exploring the homoerotic intensity of Bozz’ encounters. Bozz ends the film as the wholly conventional (and utterly improbable) reckless boy brought to burden-bearing manhood by the military’s care. He apologizes to Captain Stearns for the trouble he has caused and earns, in return, a slow and unsmiling salute of respect, man to man, warrior to warrior.
The crude pro-military sentiment of this hasty and artificial closure (Paxton’s subsequent weedy voice-over that attempts to create a mythic afterlife for Bozz is too insipid to constitute any movie’s ending) recasts the whole movie as a propaganda exercise. For example, while the story is developing, it is possible to shrug away the hackneyed “we’re hurting them for their own good” and “it’s a damn’d dangerous world in Vietnam and they don’t know it yet” sentiments exchanged by the NCOs and officers, mainly because such interludes are blessedly brief. But not at the end, when Bozz’s manipulations to secure the release of three men unsuited for combat—Cantwell, Miter, and Paxton—seem no more than a succumbing to military indoctrination. For the one unsurpassable loyalty the movie declares he has learned as an infantryman is loyalty to his friends (to the extent of shooting one of them in the eye rather than let him face certain death in Vietnam), the one passion that the military knows keeps men fighting long after all other loyalties die.
In 1917, Seigfreid Sassoon and Robert Graves agreed that they, too, had lost all loyalty to country, to government, and to the British army and all its commanders. As Graves subsequently reports their conversation, they both decided that their only reason for returning to the stalemated battlefields of Flanders and France was their desire to protect their enlisted men, largely working-class. However, for both Graves and Sassoon, this internal loyalty marked a radical rejection of both their class identity and the values of unreflexive jingoism with which it was suffused. For them, it was a liberating step beyond conventional patriotism and the distancing abstraction of “the masses,” and the images that step created bequeathed to the twentieth century a long-lasting and eloquent anti-war vocabulary. Tigerland turns that same step of acknowledging a responsibility greater than oneself into a personal defeat, the inevitable breaking of a rebel.