Release Date(s)1989 (December 8, 2015)
Studio(s)Fries Entertainment/MGM/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: N/A
In the wake of Oliver Stone’s critical and commercial triumph with Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s return to the world’s screens with Full Metal Jacket, the late 1980s saw the release of a surprisingly large number of excellent and ambitious Vietnam War films inspired by Platoon’s success. Hamburger Hill, Off Limits, Hanoi Hilton, Gardens of Stone, Casualties of War, and Good Morning Vietnam are just a handful of the interesting pictures released between 1987 and 1989, a period that spawned the most concentrated dose of great Vietnam films since The Deer Hunter, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now appeared in the late 1970s. One of the best of the new crop of Vietnam movies, and certainly the most underrated, was The Siege of Firebase Gloria, a gritty, moving story of a recon patrol (headed by Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey) under attack on an isolated base with no sign of reinforcements. Filled with spectacular action, The Siege of Firebase Gloria was also contemplative and poignant, a precursor to Oliver Stone’s later Heaven and Earth – yet the movie was marketed as just a gung-ho exploitation film and has never really gotten the full respect it deserves.
The picture’s excellence is not a surprise given the director at the helm: Brian Trenchard-Smith. A supreme visual stylist admired by Quentin Tarantino and other cinephiles for his kinetic action direction, wicked sense of humor, and broad range of subject matter, Trenchard-Smith was part of the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s that also introduced George Miller, Peter Weir, and John Seale to world cinemas. A throwback to diverse storytellers of the Hollywood studio system like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming, Trenchard-Smith has directed over forty films across an astonishingly eclectic array of genres, from martial arts (The Man From Hong Kong) to romance (The Cabin) and a hard rock musical/action hybrid (the deliriously eccentric Stunt Rock). He has the rare ability to infuse even the most dubious commercial assignments with wit and a personal imprint – his work on entries in the Night of the Demons and Leprechaun horror franchises is loaded with sharp satire and a sense of formal ingenuity – and when Trenchard-Smith gets his hands on material worthy of his talents, he proves to be every bit as talented as the more critically esteemed directors with whom he came of age in Australia.
Such is the case with The Siege of Firebase Gloria, which is possibly the director’s masterpiece; in its combination of muscular action, political commitment, and undiluted emotional impact, it plays like the Vietnam version of Sam Fuller’s Korean War classic The Steel Helmet. Like Fuller, Trenchard-Smith has a great respect for multiple points of view and journalistic detail, and in The Siege of Firebase Gloria this yields insights into not only the psychology and day-to-day experience of the American soldier but also of the Vietcong – something that gives Trenchard-Smith’s movie a moral sophistication lacking in many Vietnam films with higher profiles. Also like Fuller, Trenchard-Smith has a ruthless sense of pace and narrative economy – compact dialogue and expressive gestures alternate with swiftly edited action sequences in a manner that enables the director to pack an impressive density of themes and tones into a tight 100-minute running time. Like Joe Dante, a director with whom he collaborates on the “Trailers From Hell” website, Trenchard-Smith began his career editing coming attractions, and the lessons he learned in the cutting room clearly stayed with him – in all his films there’s a nearly pathological fear of boring the audience that leads Trenchard-Smith to strip every extraneous element out of his stories. Yet this doesn’t mean emotional impact or narrative clarity are sacrificed; to the contrary, The Siege of Firebase Gloria has a gallery of fleshed-out characterizations and a propulsive plot (courtesy of screenwriters William Nagle and Tony Johnston, with a substantial rewrite by Ermey) in which every dramatic and philosophical issue that is raised is fully developed and paid off.
The movie also has dynamic visuals courtesy of cinematographer Kevan Lind, who served as a camera operator on Trenchard-Smith’s apocalyptic cult classic Dead End Drive In and would go on to work with the director on a remake of Sahara and other television work. Lind and Trenchard-Smith apply a wide array of influences to their canvas, borrowing not only from American war movies like Beach Red and Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders but also from Westerns (John Wayne’s The Alamo) and British historical adventures (especially Zulu). Remarkably, given the movie’s $1.6 million budget, The Siege of Firebase Gloria replicates the epic scope of those films with elaborately choreographed large-scale action sequences, but Lind’s work is equally fine in the more intimate scenes: when Ermey and his protégé have an emotional conversation about the human costs of the war and a rift in their own friendship, the power of the performances is underlined by textured night interior lighting that gives the moment a haunting, poetic quality one might not expect in a terse action film.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria has long been difficult to see aside from murky VHS copies and an obscure MGM Limited Edition pressing on DVD, and thus has never gotten the widespread appreciation it deserves. Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray marks a significant improvement over previous releases, boasting a terrific transfer that impeccably preserves the film’s striking palette of saturated greens, oranges, and browns and is consistently faithful to the contrast and grain of the movie’s theatrical prints. The stereo DTS-HD mix is excellent as well, with a clear, powerful balance between dialogue, effects, and Paul Schutze’s richly diverse score. The disc has no extras outside of an original theatrical trailer, but it’s essential viewing even in this bare-bones edition – as a long-overdue showcase for Trenchard-Smith’s finest work, it’s one of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year.
- Jim Hemphill