‘The Last Detail’ Is an Absurd Look at Military Justice
Shore patrol is a shitty detail
by MATTHEW GAULT
Military justice can often seem odd and harsh to civilian eyes. The U.S. Air Force and Army rely largely on dedicated police forces within their branches to maintain order and enforce the laws.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are a bit more complicated. The Last Detail is a film from 1973 about two guys forced into one of these shore patrols as they transport a convicted sailor to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine.
If this movie is anything to go by, it’s a shitty detail.
In addition to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Navy has masters-at-arms, who are enlisted sailors charged with enforcing the laws on ships and naval bases. The “M.A.s” maintain permanent security forces at sea and on land.
These naval policemen can press normal enlisted sailors and Marines into temporary assignments as cops. Shore patrol is one of those duties.
Sailors and Marines pressed into this job get a little law enforcement training, receive a baton and typically — though not always — accompany sailors on leave. Their goal is to keep their brethren from getting too rowdy, too drunk and generally being a nuisance when they’re in a port or otherwise away from the ship.
It’s like being the designated driver for an extended period of time. Unless you enjoy abusing authority, it’s an awful job.
But The Last Detail is great. It’s honest about military life in a way that most films weren’t in 1973.
It walks a fine line between comedy and drama that’s hard to manage. The result is a bittersweet tale about three guys plucked from their normal lives, forced to do something that sucks while making the best of it along the way.
Jack Nicholson plays Signalman 1st Class Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky. He’s a little drunk when the M.A. wakes him up in Naval Station Norfolk and asks him to transport a prisoner.
He doesn’t want to because he knows it’s going to suck, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. The M.A. also rousts Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Richard “Mule” Mulhall, a black sailor who threatens to hide from the detail but shows up anyway.
The two sailors must make the trip from Virginia to Maine in five days. The M.A. issues them sidearms, a daily allowance and explains the situation.
Seaman Laurence Meadows — played by a young Randy Quaid — tried to steal 40 bucks out of a polio charity box on base. The poor 18-year-old kid is getting a dishonorable discharge and eight years in the brig at Norfolk. That’s right, eight years for trying to steal 40 bucks.
Turns out the polio charity is the base commander’s wife’s favorite cause. The old man brought the hammer down on poor Meadows and punished him well beyond the limits of the law.
What follows is a road movie with three guys who’d rather be anywhere but where they are. The trip should only take about two days — it’s a 10 hour drive by car — but the Navy gave them five days to do it.
Buddusky and Mule plan to haul ass to Portsmouth, drop off the kid, pocket the per diem and enjoy some leisure time. But the two Shore Patrolmen get to talking to the kid and Buddusky does his best to give poor Meadows a good time before he goes to jail for eight years.
Early on in their trip, Meadows keeps lifting candy and other bits of food from every store and person he passes. Even in handcuffs, it’s obvious the kid can’t help himself.
When the part-time cops discover Meadows petty shoplifting, the kid breaks down and tells them he’s always done it and he can’t help himself. The worst, he says, is that he always steals stuff he doesn’t need.
He didn’t need the $40, he had plenty of money.
The Last Detail is an excellent portrayal of sailors at home during war time. It’s not preachy and it doesn’t make grand pronouncements about Vietnam.
The three sailors are just working class guys trying to make it in a rough world. Mule loves the Navy because it’s given him a career in a white man’s world.
There’s a great scene later in the film where the three are at a party with some hippie types and a radical young white man keeps pressing Mule on Nixon and Vietnam. Mule just rolls his eyes, acts polite and shrugs.
“The man says go,” he says. “You got to go.”
Buddusky loves the Navy because he’s an angry man who loves fighting and the sea. He constantly talks about the romance of the ocean, drinks a little too much and punches people at the drop of a hat.
Hell, that’s the reason the M.A. picked him for the detail in the first place. He knew Buddusky would mess up Meadows if the kid crossed him.
Hal Ashby directs the movie and he does an incredible job. This is the guy who gave the world Harold & Maude, Shampoo and Coming Home.
The Last Detail is a movie made by a director at the height of his powers and it’s a shame Ashby didn’t seem to make it out of the ’70s. He died in 1989, his career in shambles as a result of drug abuse and constant fights with studio executives.
In The Last Detail, Ashby fought with the executives over language. The movie is authentic, in large part, thanks to an incredible screenplay from Chinatown and Mad Men writer Robert Towne. Mule, Meadows and Buddusky talk like sailors and it’s filthy.
“You’re shitting me,” Mule tells the M.A. when he learns of Meadows’ sentence early in the film.
“I wouldn’t shit you,” the M.A. replies. “You’re my favorite turd.”
“The first seven minutes, there were 342 ‘fucks,’” film executive Peter Guber told Peter Biskind for his book about ’70s filmmaking.
“This was an opportunity to write Navy guys like they really talked,” screenwriter Towne told Biskind in the same book. “The head of the studio sat me down and said, ‘Bob, wouldn’t twenty “motherfuckers” be more effective than forty “motherfuckers”?’”
“I said, ‘No.’ This is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act — they bitch.”
There’s a great scene in a bus station bathroom where Buddusky picks a fight with a group of Marines. It’s foul and involves archaic cracker jack references that I had to ask a Marine buddy to explain to me.
If you watch the film, and you get there, ask a Marine to explain it to you if you can. It’ll lead to a good conversation.
According to my friend, it was an old joke he’d heard before and one that never bothered him.
“I always figured sailors had it bad enough being sailors, so I gave them what petty little insults they could muster up,” he said. “We used to call them squids, as if they had no spine.”
“They would call us trees, I guess because we were green. It wasn’t their best insult.”
When I told him that the sailors beat down the Marines in the bathroom, he laughed.
“A bunch of sailors kicking the ass of Marines in the bathroom,” he said. “What’s next, time traveling aircraft carriers?”
Throughout The Last Detail, Marines are the hard-nosed counterpoint to the working class sailors. They run the prison Meadows will stay in and Buddusky worries they’ll kick the crap out of he’s locked up.
“Takes a certain kind of sadistic temperament to be a Marine,” Buddusky says.
But that clash between the branches is just one small part of an amazing film that details a terrible and sometimes absurd part of military life — justice. It can be swift, brutal and unfeeling.
When it’s over, all you can do is shrug your shoulder and go back home.