Director Jarvis Duncan erupted on the scene with his stylish 1979 thriller Veterans Day. In an expertly filmed opening flashback, we meet our protagonist Captain Troy Richards (played with intensity by Victor Crewes) deep in the heart of Vietnam. He’s flanked by some of his men: Sergeant Timothy Smith (Walt Wilson), Specialist David Douglas (Ben Thompkins) and Sergeant Charlie “Chuck” Petersen (Andrew Clive, giving an utterly heartbreaking performance). They’ve been ambushed by the Viet Cong and are taking heavy fire. This sequence is breathtaking, with Duncan filling the frame with as many explosions and spent ammunition as possible. A crackle comes through the radio; an air raid is coming. The men begin to make their way to a safe area when Chuck is sniped from behind and goes down. As Troy goes back for him, the first bomb drops and things start getting fuzzy. We see Troy being pulled away as Chuck is engulfed in smoke and debris and disappears.
We’re rocketed back to the present as Troy wakes up on the morning of Veterans Day, over two years after he left Chuck to die in the jungle. Troy’s wife Sharon (an overly cheery Meredith Baker) has breakfast cooked and on the table when he comes downstairs. She’s purposeful in her attitude because she knows today will be hard for Troy; it’s also Chuck’s birthday.
The scenes with Troy are filmed with very little flair or showmanship. Duncan deserves a lot of credit here, giving the scenes a loose, carefree vibe, never quite letting the audience know what kind of movie this will turn into.
Troy goes off to visit Chuck’s grave, but not before his wife can remind him of the Veterans Day parade that afternoon. He and Timothy and David are supposed to ride on a float with a few other guys and she doesn’t want him to be late. Crewes and Baker are great in their scenes together, though they only have a few throughout the film. Their later pairing in the comedy “Cluck of the Irish” gives them a bit more screen time, though in a much different capacity. Nonetheless, their relationship feels real and grounded, and you can tell Sharon is there to support Troy.
The looseness of the camerawork and direction is replaced by a very sure-handed and deliberate style as we see Troy walking across town to the cemetery. The camera tracks him from various vantage points, mostly rooftops, with Troy always far away in the frame, heading away from the camera. This continues for a few moments, giving us a good look at the town and its populace. As Troy moves into the town square, spying groups putting final touches on the floats, the camera stops inside the clock tower, lingering. Troy heads away from the camera and the long barrel of a rifle enters the frame, aiming at Troy’s back. A black gloved finger slips into the trigger guard and pulls the trigger. There’s a click but no shot. The gun isn’t loaded. The figure lowers the weapon and then begins lining up bullets on a small table.
This sequence is downright scary compared to the earlier moments of the film, the opening flashback aside. Duncan has an eye for detail and he focuses on the small things, like a loose thread hanging from the glove and the click of each bullet as it’s placed on the table. These details aren’t really important to the overall story, but they help maintain the tension of the moment.
Troy visit’s Chuck’s grave and talks out loud about how he wishes he could’ve saved him. Crewes is great in this scene and his monologue is beautifully written and really got the tears going (credit again goes to Duncan, also the film’s writer).
Troy visits Timothy and David and they have a few drinks in the local bar before heading over to the parade. They reminisce about Chuck and talk about life and their plans for the holidays. It’s a very real sequence and it almost feels like Duncan just turned on the cameras and let the men talk. It’s an excellent piece of improvisational film-making, if that’s truly what happened.
Eventually, the parade begins. And so does the shooting. Almost immediately, gunfire erupts from the clock tower. Dirt kicks up near the float that Troy is riding on. This sequence is absolute chaos, with several shots almost directly mirroring shots from the opening flashback. It’s a genius move on Duncan’s part and all of the extras acquit themselves well with running around and screaming.
Troy spots the location of the gunman and rushes into the clock tower. As he kicks in the door, he comes face to face with the madman and drops to his knees. By this point, especially with the amount of foreshadowing given throughout the film, it should come as no surprise as to who the gunman is, but if you really don’t want to know before you see the film, read no further.
Troy is staring directly at Chuck, but something’s off about him. His arm is metallic, robotic. One eye glows red. His jaw is solid metal. In another well-crafted flashback, we see what happened to Chuck and how he came to be here. This takes the movie into a whole new realm that definitely wasn’t expected, even if the reveal that Chuck was the gunman could be seen coming a mile away. While I won’t give away every detail, just know that in Jarvis Duncan’s universe, the Viet Cong possessed cyborg-building and brainwashing capabilities.
The film concludes in an unusual manner as well, with everyone actually living happily ever after. The power of love runs strong through this film, in the far-too-brief scenes between Troy and Susan, and in the finale, where Troy reminds Chuck that he’s still a man and he’s still in control of his life, no matter what Chuck might believe. This was a very pleasant surprise and actually made the movie more enjoyable.
Helped by Duncan’s steady, confident direction and some amazing performances, Veterans Day is a great film that will likely bring a tear to the eye of any movie lover, veteran or not.