The Last Detail (1973)
Written by Robert E. Towne
Directed by Hal Ashby
The Last Detail chronicles the birth of a friendship that has to die. It’s a portrait of masculine camaraderie wounded by the artificial structures of authoritarianism. This is a tragedy where everyone physically lives, but spiritual dies because they are asked to do what is unnatural. It’s a quiet and profane road trip buddy film that meanders and wanders on its way to the final destination.
Two Navy lifers, Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned the shore patrol detail of escorting a sailor to the Naval Prison in Portsmouth, Virginia. The prisoner is Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), a kid with a case of kleptomania that got caught stealing forty bucks from a charity box. The charity turns out to be the pet project of the base commander’s wife. Meadows has been slapped with an outrageous eight years in the clink. Buddusky and Mulhall take pity on the kid and know they have a whole week to drop him off, so they take the long route. Along the way, they get Meadows drunk, feed him some fantastic Italian sausage sandwiches, sit on a New Age religious service, get him laid, and take a detour to see his mom. By the end, the two shore patrolmen see Meadows as a friend which makes their task all that harder.
The tension running throughout The Last Detail is that of duty vs. humanity, the thesis is that the two cannot coexist, we have to give in to one or the other. It’s crucial that both Buddusky and Mulhall are lifers, the former admitting he ended a marriage because he couldn’t settle and the latter addressing his limited options as a black man in America. The film smartly doesn’t get overly didactic but makes sure these details come during organic conversations between the men. There is a lot of sitting on trains and buses, even when they are waiting in the lounge of a brothel the men divulge information about past relationships.
When people cite Nicholson as a loud, bombastic actor, they often don’t realize this is where those choices started. Nicholson chose to play the character are real as he could, profanity sliding off his tongue in a natural way. Buddusky is a character who tells his comrades his nickname is “Badass,” but we wonder if that was given to him by friends or assigned by himself to create a specific image to others. The man makes bold proclamations about his sexual prowess with women. Yet, the one time we see him attempting to hit on a lady, he comes off as adolescently clumsy, yodeling to mimic oral copulation.
Buddusky has a complicated relationship with Meadows, becoming obsessed at one point with the young man’s passive nature. The older man believes that if Meadows had put up a stink when caught with the money, the commander would have backed down. We see this theory proven true in the third act when an officer at the Naval Prison tries to get Buddusky and Mulhall in trouble because no one signed their papers granting them shore patrol privileges like leaving the base. Buddusky pitches a fit and asks to see the XO, which causes the officer to meekly back down.
Buddusky sees in Meadows a seed of life about to be crushed out, an innocent who was raised in a dysfunctional home and sought a way out via the Navy. Meadows was too naive to understand the brutality he’d be forced to endure and adopt. Buddusky and Mulhall end the film with all the warmth of their friendship stripped away. Instead of making the return journey to Norfolk together, they coldly mumble about taking different routes, show the undercurrent of hostility towards each other, and separate. They both know “shit city” waits for them, the unending mire their duty, and the absence of life. Friendship is a fleeting element when orders can come out of nowhere and send you to the far corners of the Earth, even worse if you see your friends slaughtered in the name of war.