27 September 2010

Good Guys Wear Black

United States - 1977
Director - Ted Post
HBO Video, 198?, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 36 minutes

We're talking, golden boy here: this is Chuck looking his film finest and on an upward trajectory, not yet fully tarnished by the stigma of culture war. Hot cars, fast women, tight leather and a strawberry blond moustache; it almost seemed as if Chuck might go on to have an actual “acting” career. If only he had been able set aside his marrow-deep bitterness about the 1970 death of his brother Wieland who was killed in action in Vietnam. I suppose it was still fresh in his mind in ‘77, and it was certainly fresh in the minds of the nation as it attempted (or not depending on your point of view) to come to terms with ten years of death and waste.

The MIA and POW peace negotiations at the end of Vietnam were for Good Guys Wear Black, the turning point of American dignity at the end of a bitter and unnecessary defeat. As the legend popular among Chuck Norris’ particular demographic would have it, the common G.I. was the primary victim of Vietnam. Answering the call of his country, he was sent to a overseas to save democracy and get shot at, but much worse, when he returned, he became a victim of domestic politics. Villainized by the citizenry who either thought he was a babykiller or just wanted to forget he existed, and treated by the politicians who had used him as a pawn in their dominoes and developmentalism power game, he had been robbed of his dignity and his masculinity. The myth of Soldier was dead.

In Good Guys Wear Black Norris plays John T. Booker a veteran of the Black Tigers, a Special Forces unit sent into the jungle during the Paris Peace negotiations in 1973. Ostensibly their mission was to rescue P.O.W.’s, but as soon as they hit the ground it became evident that they were a ruse. The betrayal of the Black Tigers, who were promptly shot to pieces, functions as Norris’ blunt assertion that both the fighting men on the ground, and the P.O.W.s were hung out to dry by the Nixon administration, sacrificed in a political shell-game.

Years later in his civilian life as one of the few survivors of the Black Tigers, Booker is the embodiment of redemption. He works as a professor of history who teaches a class about the Vietnam War, literally divulging the “truth” to his students. In his spare time he also recharges the masculinity and all-Americanism of the Viet-vet trope by racing expensive sports cars and seducing women, using the same terminology to refer to both. Vietnam vets in Norris’ world are neither fools nor beaten men, and it only remains for him to physically avenge his comrades. When some of them begin turning up murdered, Booker joins forces with a chainsmoking CIA man to discover why and who wants to “silence” the experiential “truth” of the veterans. This really amounts to having a series of heated conversations with minor politicians, but in order to make it interesting the next 45 minutes are a James Bond espionage action story complete with cheesy fake beards and “exotic” locations.

Norris speaking the truth in a snowsuit and with Soon-Tek Oh who is wearing a disguise. Norris then kicks him to death through the windscreen of his speeding car.

Good Guys Wear Black is Norris’s attempt to punch and kick his way through a simulacrum of Nixon-era politicos and lay blame at the doorstep of Government. The trail leads to a longwinded booze-soaked down-and-out congressman Edgar Harolds (undoubtedly based on J. William Fulbright) who explains over a glass of breakfast scotch why maintaining the myth of American power required duping the public into expending vast amounts of blood and treasure. Harold’s outspoken guilty conscience and drunkenness have robbed his opinion of any official respectability however, and all he can do is point Booker toward up and coming Secretary of State nominee Conrad Morgan. Like his real life analogue Henry Kissinger, Morgan negotiated the secret deal that ended the war, hanging the Black Tigers out to dry but ensuring the President’s reelection as a “peace-maker.” (Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize and Nixon predictably won in ’72.) Confronted with Booker’s accusations, Morgan counters with a dose of remorseless realpolitik, leaving Booker/Norris little choice but to resort to his trademark hands-on approach to problem solving.

By illuminating the extent of betrayal that occurred at the top levels of U.S. government, Norris hopes to restore the dignity of the average soldier while leaving the war itself unaddressed. The Black Tigers are Norris’ cypher for all soldiers. In their only combat scene they express the full range of soldierly sentiment, from outright fear to reluctance to a sense of patriotic duty. This last is Norris himself of course, whose vindication of the “experiential truth” of all G.I.s through the use of soldierly violence back home reinvigorates the heroic masculine ideal (Booker is smart, strong, attractive and righteous). By illustrating that any breaches of ethics (i.e. My Lai etc.) took place at an individual level, Good Guys dismisses the notion that Vietnam as a whole was part of a systematic immorality. He differentiates the political parties; describing the Democrats (Harolds) as weak-willed and hypocritical, and the Republicans (Morgan) as heartless and secretive, but in both cases deceitful. By indicting them both in the dishonorable conduct of the war he asserts that in contrast the Black Tiger’s “cause was just,” thus parroting a frequent claim of the patriotic right wing.

If you are interested in some of the actual history behind these events check out The Trials of Henry Kissinger, The Fog of War and In The Year of the Pig.

I love this shot near the end of the movie: We observe Booker and his CIA pal Murray Suanders (Lloyd Haynes) (left) listening to Morgan's explanations. The camera looks through an open shelf with John F. Kennedy (just below Suanders) and Lyndon B. Johnson mugs bookending the whole tableau. Gee, whose fault is all this?

I think the tagline on this poster is very prophetic. "Why is everyone trying to kill this man?" Of course they're referring to Booker, but if you consider that the popular image of the Vietnam veteran in the late 70's was that of a criminal, a lowlife or a nutcase; Booker was none of those. They may as well be asking why everyone is trying to kill the "real" veteran, the normal guy, whom of course, Booker represents.

A nice Dutch VHS cover from Rolfens DVD

No comments: