The Lucky One: Hollywood’s Changing Perspective on War

John Coffey

Could The Lucky One have been made in 1975 about Vietnam?

The Lucky One

Director: Scott Hicks
Cast: Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Jay R. Ferguson, Blythe Danner
Studio: Village Roadshow Pictures
Year: 2012

Recently I saw the preview for the latest Zach Efron vehicle, The Lucky One. Admittedly, I am not in that film’s target audience, but there was something about the preview that irked me beyond my sometimes irrational dislike for Nicholas Sparks adaptations (I remembered laughing out loud during the Nights in Rodantha trailer when Diane Lane ran next to a bunch of wild horses on a beach, and being angrily shushed by a woman behind me). For those of you who have not seen the trailer, which seems to pretty much lay out the plot of the film beat by beat, Zach Efron is a soldier in Iraq who finds a picture of Taylor Schilling on the ground shortly before his squad is attacked. When he returns home from the war he finds the woman in the picture to thank her for “saving his life” but can’t figure out how to tell her and instead becomes her coworker (!?!) on her family farm with her persnickety mother (played by Blythe Danner) and a Jonathan Lipnickiesque son played by the next kid who will be in a million things until he hits puberty. The two predictably fall in love, and then his secret comes out, which causes her to think he’s a big creep, and so he has to win her back. Which he probably will. If I were a betting man, I would bet on them staying together. I like those odds.

Here’s my problem: when did it become okay to make this sort of movie about an Iraq War veteran? I think it really says something about the distance the American people have had from the two concurrent wars that this was even considered as a good idea. The problem is not that this is a pro-war movie or anti-war movie. It seems to consider the war as no more than a shorthand for character development. Why is Zach Efron earnest and tightlipped about his past? He was in the war. We’ve all seen war movies, we should understand that. But the war movies we have seen that have this attitude are World War II movies, movies that have been, as a rule, given a shimmering gleam of nostalgia. There was a recent article in The New Yorker about how each generation of film producers give their youth a yearning look back. This shouldn’t suggest that it’s a good idea to change history to make people seem more heroic than they really were, but the tradition is to look back in order to do it. Indeed, the entire plot device recalls another Nicholas Sparks adaptation—The Notebook—in which there is a brief combat interlude, an insulting scene in which a character has some canned dialogue before expiring, and then Ryan Gosling returns with the scars of war. And how did that character display his inner torment? Apparently by growing a beard. But we’re looking back at World War II, and since filmmakers have been making World War II romantic since Casablanca, okay, it’s hard to fault it.

To put it another way, could The Lucky One have been made in 1975 about Vietnam? It doesn’t seem like it would be very difficult to move the story. But something about placing The Lucky One’s scenario in the post-Vietnam era would seem icky, right? During the Vietnam War we as a nation were able to see the effects of the war on soldiers returning home, and a movie that would trivialize those effects would not be acceptable. And it is not as if this war has not caused significant trauma to soldiers. In Afghanistan there have been two very recent incidents that have shown how the difficult reality of war has affected our soldiers. The first was an incident where soldiers were videoed urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. The second, and much more serious incident, was the early March episode involving a soldier opening fire on civilians, killing 16.

If you think about war movies over the last few decades, the “war is hell” motif has been dominant. Movies like Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon redefined how Americans viewed the damaging aspects that warfare has on a modern psyche. What is interesting is the near across the board commercial failure of almost every movie that dealt with the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts. Just off the top of my head: Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Ellah, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Lions for Lambs, Green Zone, and Rendition. Maybe those movies were made and audiences were just not ready to see a movie about the war as it was happening.

As I made that list, I have to say I have only seen about half of them, and I didn’t see any in the theater. Also, it is not as if those movies were going for the same demographic as The Lucky One, but in a way that makes the war footage shown in the trailer even more cynical. It suggests that women seeing the trailer can tell potentially sluggish male counterparts that they might like The Lucky One because it is a “war movie” (This reminds me of a great Onion article from 2000 entitled “Area Girlfriend Still Hasn’t Seen Apocalypse Now”). This is almost as incomprehensible as a James Bond movie being pushed on a female audience over the enticing prospect of a “love” story. The marketing seems so poorly calculated it is almost insulting.

This is not to say that war is not an appropriate venue for a love story. However, when attempting something in that genre, it is best to be careful and respectful of the characters and their situations. One movie that is able to play that difficult high-wire act is the Vietnam era film Coming Home, by director Hal Ashby. The film dealt with a woman (Jane Fonda) who is married to a career soldier (Bruce Dern) who is deployed to Vietnam. While Dern is away, Fonda becomes close to another soldier (Jon Voight) who, due to a combat injury is now confined to a wheelchair. The two become romantically involved, but Voight, due to the nature of his wounds has become impotent. The two have a love that is genuine, but the war has left them incomplete. When Bruce Dern returns, he is physically sound, but it soon becomes clear that he is suffering from his wartime experiences all the same.

Depressed yet? What about Forrest Gump? That film, while not a traditional Vietnam film, does contain long stretches of narrative that deal with the lasting effects of the war. It also has a strong love story, and the two narratives do intermingle. Again, what saves this film from being tacky is the perspective. Forrest is changed by his experiences in the war. When he sees Jenny, it is as a changed person. Prior to the war it was easy to see Jenny as a more worldly person than Forrest. Afterwards, she just seemed lost.

Commercially, I understand how a film like The Lucky One could get made. It hits all the right notes of a successful—if ill-advised—romance. And I may be all wrong. I have not seen the film. It could be as thoughtful a look at a soldier returning home as a film like Stop-Loss or In the Valley of Ellah, but marketed to look like G.I. Jerry Maguire. But I’m pretty sure I’m right. And I’m pretty sure I’m disgusted.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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