David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, John Steiner, Massimo Vanni, Margi Evelyn Newton and Luciano Pigozzi.
Director Antonio Margheriti’s Vietnam piece is bound to be loved by some audiences and hated by others. This is simply not a film for all tastes. On the surface, it looks like cruel exploitation of a controversial war; exploiting Vietnam was certainly a risky move in 1980. Dig a little deeper, though, and “The Last Hunter” becomes a brutal allegory on the futility of warfare.
Margheriti tells a straightforward tale, admittedly ripping off “Apocalypse Now”: Captain Morris (David Warbeck) heads into Cambodia with a small band of soldiers on a mission to find and destroy an enemy radio station which is broadcasting disgusting anti-American propaganda. Along the way, he encounters many people and situations which point to the ultimate insanity of warfare.
Margheriti begins his tale with one of the best opening sequences ever put to film. Morris tries to relax in a Saigon bar, making conversation with another GI whom he’s never met. Soft music plays in the background, providing a perfect tempo for the dialog. It’s not long, however, before Morris realizes that he escape the realities of the war outside. The music stops abruptly as the tone changes from quiet to tense: Steve has been aggravated by the aforementioned GI. He shoots him in the head, and then turns the gun on himself. As if on key, enemy sappers attack the city, and the bar is destroyed; only Morris escapes. A first-time viewer may see this scene as unnecessary, but the characters and themes will become crucial to the plot as Morris moves closer and closer to his objective.
Margheriti establishes a mood, theme and setting in these first few minutes; renowned “genius” Spielberg takes nearly a half-hour of “Saving Private Ryan” to introduce his main characters and get to the point. Margheriti does it more effectively in four minutes with only two graphic deaths. Here, they’re personal, emotional and pointless; in “Pvt. Ryan”, hundreds of men are killed brutally, but we get the point after only a few minutes. Everything Spielberg does with his three hour piece, Margheriti does just a little bit better in about 90 minutes. The characters are established faster, the action grittier and the pace quicker. Margheriti lets his characters wander around, but never loses sight of his true theme; Spielberg’s characters fight and die in search of a theme and the audience leaves the feeling with some sort of emotional response, but can’t quite define it. Spielberg’s film was considered “groundbreaking” by critics in its portrayal of combat. Tactics, perhaps – but level of violence? No. Spielberg uses graphic violence without restraint, so much so that within five minutes we’ve become desensitized. In Margheriti’s film, we see a scene here, a slow-motion shot there – it’s quick, it’s shocking, and it’s burned into your memory. By the time “Pvt. Ryan” has ended, the graphic images have blurred into one big, disgusting mess.
With the mood established and the audience glued to the screen, Margheriti shifts his focus to the Cambodian jungle. Morris is escorted to the drop-off point by helicopter in yet another excellently shot sequence: Franco Micalazzi’s score comes out full force for just a few moments as the action builds, and then dies. Margheriti lets some great handheld camera action and excellent, fast-paced editing do the work. Shortly after touchdown, Morris hooks up with an American patrol, including George Washington (Tony King), Carlos (Bobby Rhodes) and photojournalist Jane Foster (the luscious Tisa Farrow). This scene will be followed by a number of quick, brutal action sequences: the discovery a rotting corpse and an ambush by a band of Viet Cong in a burned-out village. There is one slight lull in which Morris reaches his re-supply base, run by the unhinged Major Cash (John Steiner) and occupied by a band of dirty, unshaven and edgy American GIs who are harassed by sniper and mortar fire day in and day out. The pure insanity is hammered home as this raggedy band tries to rape Farrow’s character; in response, we are treated to a great sequence in which Massimo Vanni’s character is forced to run into the jungle under enemy fire to retrieve cocoanuts for Cash (John Steiner) as punishment.
The high point of this interlude is a Viet Cong raid on an underground American bunker complex, in which hordes of black-pajama-clad guerrillas emerge and a firefight ensues. For the most part, the American characters are drunk or stoned senseless and don’t seem to know what’s going on. This long sequence is shot in the dark with handheld cameras, features lots of cutting from action to reaction – all while a radio plays happy tunes in the background; as the assault ends, the propaganda announcer’s soothing voice encourages American soldiers to lay down their arms and cease a senseless struggle. Ironic, huh?
All of this builds to a pulsating surprise ending. Morris does find his radio station – the audience knows he will from the start; it’s no surprise in a film like this – but the voice of propaganda will come as a shock as all of the pieces laid out in the opening scenes and flashbacks come together. We’ve had some subtle hints and little suggestions as to who Morris is going to have to kill, but nobody will come to the conclusion until the character steps into frame. The result is a jaw-dropping scene with an outcome that goes completely against the norm. The final shot of the piece is one of confusion, awe and surprise – we never do get to find out what happens to an essential character. If the violence and pure insanity of most of the movie don’t shock you, the last few minutes surely will.
Some viewers will be turned off by Margheriti’s style. There are times when this plays like an exploitative horror film; it’s quite possibly the most graphic, profane and explicit war film I’ve seen to date. Slow-motion spurts of blood and rather graphic shots of dead bodies are definitely not for the squeamish; Margheriti coveys these sequences so casually that even the first time I watched this – having only seen polished (and overrated) gems such as “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill”, I wanted to shut the television off and dismiss this piece as pure trash. This it definitely is not; the location photography excellently conveys a feel for lush, yet foreboding Cambodian jungles.
Admittedly, “The Last Hunter” is not a perfect film: basic plot aspects are lifted directly from “Apocalypse Now” – Morris’ character is a take on Martin Sheen, while Major Cash and his army seem to be loosely based on Marlon Brando’s guerrilla force. Instead of a trek upriver in a small boat, we follow a mixed group of soldiers through the sweltering jungles. (Only here, they’re too busy dodging booby traps to discuss heavy issues of morality). More blatantly, a sequence depicting Morris’ imprisonment in an underwater bamboo cage reeks of “The Deer Hunter”. Some of the special effects scenes come up a bit below par for a 1980s film: watch for a dummy which gets flamed during the village skirmish; superimposed rocket bursts around a helicopter; and there are a few cheesy miniatures. (On the other hand, the slow motion explosions are incredibly realistic. I yet to see another film featuring so many well-shot gasoline fireballs).
These are only minor flaws. “The Last Hunter” is an anti-war gem which can be enjoyed by fans of Italian exploitation (Margheriti said that he wanted to shoot the film seriously; the producers forced him to throw in exploitative content to draw in fans of his successful horror works). Any serious war film fans that can make it through the opening without dismissing this as graphic trash will not be disappointed. It’s not often that a director can make a great action picture that’s still considered an anti-war piece.
It’s important to note that most video versions are severely edited; the Region 2 Vipco disc offers a beautiful widescreen presentation and is missing only one, inconsequential 30 second scene. Watch for yourself and make your own decision – don’t take my word for it.
RATING: 5 Bullets