"With flowers and my love both never to come back ... It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black". So sings the man whose throbbing song marks the film's end, merciless lyrics to describe thematically a story that is as wrenching as it is mesmerizing.
There are no villains in this film, only heroic victims. The villains are all off-screen, comfy behind mahogany desks, or dressed for success and giving shrill speeches about how maintaining peace requires war. Strange logic.
First it's boot camp, a dreary prospect at best, for an ordinary group of young American men. Here, a sadistic drill Sargent, in colorful language, barks out orders and insults straight from Hades. It's do or die, almost literally, for our greenhorns. It's an ordeal of blackness from which some may never recover. Still, the grunts learn a valuable lesson; namely, that life is mostly physical, not mental. It's a lesson some ivory tower college professors never learn.
But then it's on to an even blacker black ... Vietnam. Combat scenes are rendered believable by effective visuals and terrific sound effects: pounding percussion, amplified sounds of equipment and footsteps across explosive debris, and an always present, ever-so-subtle ... echo. Potent and torturous, these scenes convey a Zen-like immediacy, an impending sense of doom. And then at film's end, those lyrics ...
Composed of two, barely overlapping, parts, the script's structure is a bit unorthodox. But the film works, owing to an intensity that never lets up. R. Lee Ermey is of course terrific as the harsh drillmaster. Casting of the young lions is okay, though a tad weak in one or two cases. Insertion of pop songs of the era works well, to amplify the cultural disconnect between a war-torn Vietnam and an indifferent America.
Like reading a history book, watching an occasional war movie is good for the soul. It puts one's problems in perspective. For that reason, this particular war movie is better than most. It's riveting, intense. And the sense of impending blackness hovers ever present over the story's heroic victims, like the sword of Damocles.