The Last Detail is a 1973 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby and starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young, with a screenplay adapted by Robert Towne from a 1970 novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan. The film became known for its frequent use of profanity. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Jack Nicholson; Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Randy Quaid; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Robert Towne.
The Navy the Navy still doesn’t want us to see
Jack Nicholson is a performer with the rare ability to completely immerse himself in a chosen role and convince the audience of the stark reality of his performance. Playing Navy Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky in Hal Ashby’s 1973 film rendition of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, “The Last Detail” is a sterling example of that uncommon talent. Rough-edged but understanding, crude but compassionate, Buddusky and fellow “lifer” Gunner’s Mate First Class “Mule” Mulhall (skillfully portrayed by Otis Young) are “detailed” as armed Shore Patrol guards to escort a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Va. to a naval prison in Portsmouth, NH in order to serve an eight-year sentence after being convicted at a court-martial of petty theft.
The five-day journey northward is an adventure for all three. Sympathizing with Meadows’s plight, apprised of his utter naivete and realizing his sentence far exceeds the severity of the offense, Buddusky and Mulhall conduct their version of a cram course in traditional male rights of passage–ranging from a drunken spree in Washington, D.C. to duking it out with Marines in New York City and getting their charge sexually initiated with a Boston prostitute–if for no other reason than to give him some taste of what he will not be experiencing for a long time and to teach him in some small way to assert himself as an individual.
Darryl Ponicsan’s novel (which hit the racks at practically the same time the film had been released–the book’s ending is quite different and, to me, is much less believable than the film’s) was initially hailed as a polemic against what many believed was the cold indifference of the military establishment. However, since that time, it has been judged more a compelling “slice of life” drama about the complexities of everyday human behavior and how it is shaped by our own decisions and by entities beyond our immediate purview. And, more importantly, it forces us to think about how our ever-more-complicated society is increasingly unable to find ways to help its young people constructively mark transition into adulthood.
“The Last Detail” is a sadly overlooked but superb blend of pathos, ribald bittersweet humor, hard-edged ’70s realism and insightful and subtle human drama, one that brashly and subtly brought back many personal memories of my Navy hitch and a work that says something to all of us by merely focusing upon a small “detail” of a sadly overlooked and unappreciated decade that was alternately (and simultaneously) bleak yet hopeful.
They don’t seem to make movies like this anymore, do they?
Author: MisterWhiplash from United States
22 February 2003
While the question is a bit rhetorical, I do mean it- you don’t see that many movies made anymore like this, The Last Detail by Hal Ashby (Being There) and Robert Towne (later to write another Nicholson gem, Chinatown), where the story is just a baseline to the characters studied in subtle and not so subtle ways. It even grows on the viewer if seen multiple times, where what seems to be dragging on is loaded with nuance. There’s a level of existentialism to it: how free are Buddusky and Mulhall, or their choices? Probably not much at all, at least not any more or less than the doomed Meadows. But this is not the only method of Ashby on the material, there are also superlative performances from Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and a newcomer at the time, Randy Quaid.
Nicholson and Young play Buddusky (Bad-ass), and Mulhouse (Mule), who are assigned “chicken-s*** detail”, to transport petty thief Quaid, sent up for eight years in a naval brig. On the way up the Eastern seaboard, the three stop in Washington, New York, and Boston, and the two try to show the youngster a good time before imprisonment. Probably one of the most under-looked pictures of the 1970’s, though one of the more note-worthy, especially for it’s attitude delivered ten-fold by Nicholson’s Cannes winning Buddusky, and Towne script. A scene in a bar in Washington and a scene at a Nichiren Shosu meeting steal the lot, though there’s plenty to look for. It’s one of my favorite tragic-comic sleepers, and one of Ashby’s best.
A masterfully written and directed film
Author: greg from Greg S
20 November 2003
I read somebody’s comment that this film isn’t “deep.” I think that viewer missed a whole layer of the story. you have to keep in mind that this was written and produced during the vietnam war and released during the early months of Watergate.
The story is about these two working class sailors, who are completely disenfranchised, just “doing their job.” They’re good guys but in the end, don’t lift a finger to stop a massive injustice. They don’t even take the time to think about it, because they feel there’s nothing they can do about it. They pay lip services to how wrong things are about the situation, but in the end they do what “the man” says and they’re just as much to blame for the problem as the commanding officers above them.
Through the course of the film, the sailors meet a lot of “chatting class” folks who are mad at Nixon and discussing politics, and they meet Hari Krishnas who are chanting to change things, but nobody is really taking any ACTION. Everyone is pissed off at the injustice of the world but nobody does anything about it. It’s about inaction. And that inaction slowly boils up in the main characters and turns into anger that brings the film to a sad end. (It’s one of those great stories that gets you pissed off at the injustice in the world…)
Having said all that, on a more tangible level, the performances and scripting are full of emotion and Nicholson’s and Quaid’s performance are amazing and hilarious to watch. But this isn’t really a comedy in the end…more tragic really (with some good laughs along the way).
Two bawdy, tough looking navy lifers – “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, and “Mule” Mulhall – are commissioned to escort a young pilferer named Meadows to the brig in Portsmouth. Meadows is not much of a thief. Indeed, in his late teens, he is not much of a man at all. His great crime was to try to steal forty dollars from the admiral’s wife’s pet charity. For this, he’s been sentenced to eight years behind bars. At first, Buddusky and Mulhall view the journey as a paid vacation, but their holiday spirits are quickly depressed by the prisoner, who looks prepared to break into tears at any moment. And he has the lowest self-image imaginable. Buddusky gets it into his head to give Meadows a good time and teach him a bit about getting on in the world. Lesson one: Don’t take every card life deals you. Next, he teaches Meadows to drink, and, as a coup de grace, finds a nice young whore to instruct him in lovemaking. Mule, who worries aloud about his own position with military authority, seems pleased … Written by alfiehitchie