I’ve noticed a theme running through many of the films of the 1970s. Characters talk a lot about authenticity and consistently take actions on the margins that feel right for them, but they ultimately lack the power to do anything significant. These characters use authenticity as an adornment, something to make bad situations more tolerable. Sometimes they even feel in control, but ultimately, they are locked inside Max Weber’s Iron Cage.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hal Ashby’s 1973 film “The Last Detail” starring Jack Nicholson. Written by Robert Towne in 1970, the movie sat on the shelf for three years because the studio, Columbia Pictures, wanted the heavy profanity toned down, fearing the movie would receive an X rating. The filmmakers stood their ground and standards evolved pretty rapidly in three years, easing Columbia’s fears. At the time, “The Last Detail” held the record for the most uses of the word ‘fuck’ in a film, but it probably no longer ranks in the top 100 in that category.
The plot of “The Last Detail” is simple — two Navy lifers, Billy Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mule Mughals (played by Otis Young) are assigned a shore patrol detail to escort Larry Meadows (played by Randy Quaid) from Norfolk Navy Yard to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. They are enticed into the detail by a very generous per diem and a full week to complete the task.
Buddusky and Mughals originally plan to take Meadows up to Portsmouth as directly and quickly as possible, then use the time and money for a slow, fun filled trek back to Virginia. But when they get to meet Meadows and learn more about his outrageous eight year sentence for unsuccessfully attempting to steal $40 from a polio charity box, they begin to alter their plans.
The film is basically a picaresque journey up the east coast, introducing the sad, unlucky 19 year old to a little life before he begins his prison term. They get him drunk in Washington, D.C., try to visit his mom in Camden, N.J., come into contact with Buddhist chanters and hippie young women in New York City, then eventually seek out a prostitute for him in Boston.
The tone of the film is highly defiant and there’s are lots of little lessons that Nicholson’s ”Badass” passes on, attempting to shape the young sailor into a more authentic person. They pick a fight with a group of Marines for no good reason, just to introduce a little violence into the Anima Possessed Meadows. They shape him into a character who even tries to escape their guard in Boston, with no luck.
Meadows is a character doomed to suffer the consequences of a military commander making an example of him. Buddusky and Mulhall are chosen for this mission not for their rock solid commitment to following the rules, but because they are Navy lifers and will not do anything to jeopardize their careers. So they use the little power they have to carry out orders in the most roundabout, “authentic” manner that they know.
In the end, they still carry out their orders and Meadows isn’t even given a moment to leave the movie with some sense of accomplishment or wisdom, he’s just silently escorted up the stairs to a new life behind bars. There he will likely learn how to become a career criminal and likely a substance abuser, the life as he knew it very likely over.
“The Last Detail” was a box office bomb upon its original release, but Columbia repackaged it months later as a ribald comedy and the movie took off. Those who remember it fondly think of it as something of an “Animal House” for the Navy, glossing over the film’s offhand, but rather terrifying ending.
This is a glimpse at what was happening in the 1970s. Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign had affected the culture deeply. Longer prison sentences were seen as a reasonable reaction to the rise in crime and the “lawlessness” all around. Never mind that Nixon used that word as a cudgel against war protestors and others fighting for social justice, lock them all up if that helped restore order.
Yet order was not restored, chaos was rampant. Crime rates weren’t being brought under control, they were spiraling higher. The criminal justice system was becoming systemically unjust, and the “crime” at the center of “The Last Detail” is a perfect example. Audiences at the time were numb to the movie’s central idea that, no matter how much playing around the rules Buddusky and Mulhall could do, they were essential pieces of an authority structure destroying a life.
The truth is that these men weren’t actually powerless. They could have conspired to lose Meadows in a crowd or helped him escape to Canada. They were free human beings who could have acted to thwart an injustice. In the end, their acts of authenticity were meaningless and the ultimate example of inauthenticity. They had become the caricatures that Nietzsche described as the Last Man.
Buddusky gives some tongue in cheek monologues to a woman during the NY party scenes where he waxes philosophic about life on the sea. Nietzsche would argue that one should not romanticize the sea, but try to become a sea that overcomes the evils of the world:
Everything superhuman appears to man as illness and madness. You have to be a sea to absorb a dirty stream without getting dirty.
My guess is that Robert Towne and Hal Ashby — maybe even Jack Nicholson — believe this Nietzschean ethos and intended the audience to see these characters as deficient failures. The audience, however, was ready for a different interpretation, one that cast them as 1970s anti-heroes who rejected justice as naive and fully embraced a nihilist ethos that we’re all fucked eventually, so we might as well have a good time on our way to hell.