The execution of a North Vietnamese soldier, casually shot through the head at point-blank range, was only one of countless acts of violence committed on all sides of the Vietnam War, but that incident, captured on film, left an irrevocable scar on the public consciousness.
In the grim, message-laden "Soldier Boys," a "CBS Schoolbreak Special" airing today at 3 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8, that graphic image, shown in its entirety, gives a teen-age boy second thoughts about the dangerous war games he's playing.
Told in flashback-style, "Soldier Boys" opens with the stabbing of a high school macho bully by one of a trio of teen-age misfits. Jay (William McNamara), found kneeling over the body, is taken into custody, where he is interrogated by the police. James Earl Jones is the stern but compassionate detective, who isn't given much to do in Paul Cooper's script except to prompt Jay's narrative.
Jay and his friend Scott (Frank Whaley), humiliated by bully Vance (James G. MacDonald), meet up with "Strick" (Charlie Walsh), a disturbed older boy who is obsessed with war. Strick has been soldier-trained by his Vietnam-veteran uncle, a survivalist with a convenient hideaway filled with provisions--and weapons.
Seeing the conflict with Vance as a chance to use his skills, Strick begins training the younger boys in an elaborate plan of revenge.
Any film attempting to convey an anti-violence message through the portrayal of violence walks a fine line between responsibility and exploitation. Here, the heady, glamorous war games go on too long in the film's insular context.
Under Daniel Taplitz's direction, we see watermelons exploding during target practice on a deserted beach; field maneuvers with bayonets and knives in a deserted woods; close-ups of a mutilated chicken carcass and war-movie footage, real and fictional.
And where are all the adults? Doesn't anyone wonder why these class wimps suddenly become chic Rambo-clones in military fatigues and dark sunglasses?
Studies have shown that young people do have a fear of war, that they are more aware of headlines than many adults think. It isn't difficult to magnify those fears in children who are insecure.
When Strick convinces the boys that war is inevitable, he's stating what many people believe. A strong counter-argument is vital, yet we get only Jones' remark that Strick has a "warped" sense of the world. Final close-ups of the boys' shocked faces, covered artistically in camouflage paint, still leave most of the credibility on Strick's side.
Advisory to parents: Despite its afternoon air time, "Soldier Boys" is for older teens and adults. Messages of self-worth and peer pressure are obscured by the film's shock value. It is far too intense for younger children.