I Was a Soldier Review

Despite a career now spanning 50 years Michael Grigsby is currently represented on DVD in the UK by only two shorts, Enginemen (1959) and Tomorrow’s Saturday (1962), both found on the BFI’s excellent Free Cinema compilation. Whilst other luminaries of that movement find the vast majority of their output ably handled on disc – Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz – Grigsby has been unfortunately left out. But then, one feature-length drama aside, he’s always worked within the documentary form and predominantly for television. This disc of I Was a Soldier therefore serves as a minor corrective and as with the Free Cinema set was produced, in part, by Christophe Dupin, albeit for the French label Doriane Films. Nonetheless we find it English-friendly release (the French subtitling being optional) and as such should be eagerly sought out by anyone with an interest in the documentary movement, British or otherwise.

Made for Granada in 1970, I Was a Soldier was one of the few titles to deal explicitly with the Vietnam War at the time. Cinema had offered up John Wayne’s misguidedly hawkish The Green Berets and the likes of MASH which took a more allusive approach, whilst of the documentary works only John Pilger’s The Quiet Mutiny (made for World in Action), Emile de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig and Winter Soldier stand out as essential. Indeed, the Vietnam veteran – the focus of I Was a Soldier - was a barely touched subject, certainly in terms of fiction, though this would soon change towards the end of the decade courtesy of such disparate works as Coming Home, First Blood and the second half of The Deer Hunter. (1970 would also see the release of Joseph Strick’s documentary short Interviews with My Lai Veterans, yet this remains a little-seen despite winning an Academy Award.) As a result it’s hard to imagine the impact this film would have made on its initial transmission, partially because nowadays we have become inundated with images of the veteran – now cinematic shorthand for comic or psychopathic figures – and also understand that these men didn’t return to their homeland with “hail the conquering hero” ticker-tape parades and the like; they simply came home and had to deal with it, often by themselves.

It’s this isolation that strikes you most when watching I Was a Soldier. Grigsby interviewed three young men from the small one-street Texan town of Menard – David, Dennis and Lemarr – and it’s these three figures who occupy the screentime. Bringing to mind the lyricism that made Enginemen such a standout, I Was a Soldier is happy simply to take in the atmosphere of this Texan landscape and watch these men as they drive, fish or combat their thoughts in front of the camera. Yet despite the warm climate, it’s their coldness which stands out – the emptiness and loneliness behind their eyes – at continual odds with the seemingly idyllic settings in which they live. However, Grigsby’s stance is compassionate rather than objective: he’s there to gain some understanding of his subjects, for us to comprehend just how it must feel to readjust after such clearly hellish wartime experiences.

What we witness then are three people clearly marked by their time in Vietnam. Whilst one may be “just grateful [he] made it back”, this is little in comparison to the sense of loss he now feels, the nightmares he must cope with, the readjustment of his instincts so that he doesn’t react when a 4th of July firecracker goes off in the street. The stories of dreaming in Vietnamese, the fears of sleepwalking with a gun in your hand, the reconciliation with having been through “two years [in which] you didn’t live” all stand out so vividly – and this without the recourse to war stories which may have seemed the more obvious subject. (One comments: “It was a bad part of my life and I don’t wanna talk about it.”) Of course, the fact that Grigsby was able to get so close and gain such trust is integral to I Was a Soldier’s power. David, Dennis and Lemarr may not always be forthcoming or fully engaged with the camera (as Grigsby notes in his introduction, oftentimes it’s the eyes which do the talking, their very lack of genuine engagement), but they are always open and they are matter-of-fact. Of course, the pain of their experiences clearly prevents them from saying exactly what is on their minds, if indeed they could articulate such thoughts, yet the honesty shines through and can be at times be heartbreaking.

This separation from the Vietnam War itself also allows I Was a Soldier to remain just as relevant today. As the title and a brief sequence of silent black and white library footage suggests, it’s about soldiering not so much a specific war. And yet still the fact of readjustment and settling back into a community or a family remains barely explored by filmmakers today. To refer to Grigsby’s commentary again, his impetus to make this film came about because even though Vietnam was covered throughout the media, he never felt that he knew or understood the people involved, the everyday soldiers. Such compassion means that I Was a Soldier can also be read as anti-war – that “two years you didn’t live” comment, another in which it’s noted how only those with family serving in wartime actually care about them – but never in a manner that’s detrimental to those involved. For all the comparisons, connections and interpretations you can make, ultimately it’s these three figures of David, Dennis and Lemarr who stick with you, haunted by their experiences and situation, and just striving to cope.

The Disc

I Was a Soldier is coded Region 0 and comes in the PAL format, with optional French subtitles (of the yellow variety) on both the main feature and all of the extras. Both picture and soundtrack are showing clear signs of age, but nothing that proves overly detrimental – dialogue remains audible throughout and the image retains it crispness beneath the instances of damage and the colours are especially vivid (I'm informed that the film was sourced an old Beta SP, the only copy currently in existence, that was predominantly orange before any restoration work was undertaken). Interestingly we also retain the “ad caps” of that initial transmission, whilst original formats are similarly maintained, meaning an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and mono sound. Of course, the fact that this disc marks the first instance many will get to see the film, either for the first time or since its broadcast in 1970, no doubt makes up for any flaws in the presentation and as such they will be easily overlooked by those looking forward to chance of owning just a little more Grigsby on disc.

Furthermore, given that this is likely to be Doriane Film’s main audience, the presence of Grigsby’s 1998 documentary short The Score (made in conjunction with the BBC and the Arts Council) is another reason for celebration. Focussing on a match between Sheffield United and Wolves at Bramall Lane, this piece is a minor delight. Told without dialogue, with only captured sounds and Paul Englishby’s score (adapting various football chants) on the soundtrack, it is told entirely from the fans’ point of view: at no point do we even see a kick of the ball. Another documentary short, Gravel and Stones from 2007, also makes an appearance, in this instance owing to Grigsby’s presence as one of its producers. (The film was directed by Edward Hofman and Ben Hollins.) Unfortunately, the fact that only French subtitles are available prevents me from making any clear judgements as to its quality, though it is clearly a bedfellow to I Am a Soldier. Beginning with various western media reports on the civil war in Cambodia, it goes on to interviews its victims, once again offering the perspective of the everyday as opposed to the bigger picture.

Finally we have the introduction by Grigsby focussing specifically on I Was a Soldier. He takes us through its production, how he initially wanted to follow an actual patrol out in Vietnam before Granada swiftly vetoed the idea and how the film, he feels, cemented his style with its use of long takes and silence, a technique completely at odds with the documentary methods of the day. He now sees it as a key work in his development and, of course, it’s hard to disagree.

The disc also offers an animated bilingual filmography for Grigsby, though the English translation is sadly blighted by various typos, plus promos for Doriane Films’ other releases of UK films.

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