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Bye Bye, Navy

The Last Detail

Plot Overview

First we hear the sound of drums, then we see a squad of sailors marching along at the Fifth Naval District Head­quarters in Norfolk, Virginia. A plaintive ship horn sounds in the distance, and we see one sailor hustle past them through a fire door to go rouse Signal­man 1st Class Billy 'Bad Ass' Bud­dusky (Jack Nichol­son) to report to the Chief Master-at-Arms (Clifton James.) 'Bad Ass' Bud­dusky is thinking maybe his sea assignment orders have arrived, but he fears the worst (“I ain't going on no shit detail.”) Next comes Gunner's Mate 1st Class Richard 'Mule' Mul­hall (Otis Young) for the same detail. They're assigned as Chasers to escort a prisoner Sea­man Laurence 'Larry' M. Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Ports­mouth Naval Prison, New Hamp­shire, by bus and by train via Washington DC, New York City and Boston.

These characters have each been profoundly influenced by a woman (or two) in his past. 'Bad Ass' fled the domesticating influence of his briefly held wife who had boring career ambitions for him. He left her and joined the Navy (as a “lifer.”) 'Mule' joined the Navy as a viable career option for a Black man at the time to impress his mother whom he supports—he's a lifer, too. Meadows had suffered neglect from his mom, so he developed klepto­mania to fill the void (“I'm always stealing junk I don't need.”) When he was caught lifting the charity box for the favorite cause of the Commander's old lady, she used her influence to have a harsh sentence imposed. On the way to prison a couple unlikely dames will come out of the wood­work to give him some merciful mothering.

These are sailors with a few extra days to complete their detail and the government's per diems to cover their expenses. They are not above enjoying them­selves on the way. You can get an idea of what happens just by considering their (nick-)names: a 'mule' and an 'ass' cavorting in the Meadows. The meadow's their meal ticket, but at the end of the day, they're likely to relieve themselves and/or defecate on it, making their Meadow look like ..it.


Author Michael Olson has made the following observation about “This church” being “weird. There are more of them in Boston than you might think” (139). Our three sailors encounter one on their journeys (“Hold it down. I think we're in a church”) that practices chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in front of an altar called a Gohonzon. Don't worry if you've never heard of one. In the authoritative children's book, In a People House, listing all the items one might find there, no mention is made of a Gohonzon. Their chanting is supposed to awaken one's enlightened nature, but they use it more for materialism. Meadows takes it up and soon has motherly ally take him home and chant with him at her Gohonzon so he'll avoid imprisonment.

Eventually their journey about over, they have themselves an impromptu snowy picnic where they somberly munch hot dogs sans (forgotten) buns before the prisoner must be surrendered. Meadows is not cuffed having given his word not to try to escape, and as he chants softly, ignored, off by him­self, some­thing snaps. I'm reminded of the verse, (Prov. 17:1) “Better is a dry morsel, and quietness there­with, than an house full of sacri­fices with strife.” The note in my Jewish Study Bible reads:

lit. ‘a house full of sacrifices of strife.’ When people took an animal to the Temple as a sacrifice, they brought most of the meat back home for feasting. Better a crust of bread than a luxurious banquet at which there is quarreling.

Meadows's chanting was mostly for material gain, judging by his temporary kingly life­style on the road, but when it came to his ultimate liberty, he was at odds with his two companions whose Navy careers would be cut short if they failed to deliver him. Better he just munch those wieners w/o buns and be on the same page than make a break for it and have to fight.

The same could be applied to a lot of spiritual endeavors in our ordinary church life: any­thing from praying to Bible study. What matters a fancy prayer if it conflicts with the interests of some of those present? As for Bible study, the King James Version is like the hot dog with­out a (forgotten) bun for the unpalatable old terms it uses, which original meaning we've all but forgotten, but if we're all on the same page with it, we're better off than with fancier versions that some of the members find objectionable for their modern words that have acquired through the centuries foolishly applied senses, like Meadows picking up all kinds of junk he doesn't need.

Production Values

“The Last Detail” (1973) was directed by Hal Ashby. Its screenplay was written by Robert Towne, based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel, The Last Detail. It stars Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young. Jack Nicholson delivers the kind of performance he's now famous for. Young works well as his side­kick. Quaid shines in his own right. Clifton James is brilliant as an MAA.

MPAA rated it R. Conversations saturated with cursing add to the authenticity of sailors, I suppose. There's also a sex scene in it, and partial nudity. “The Last Detail” has excellent photography that makes for comfortable viewing. It's also very realistic, both with situations and characters (who are very believable and sympathetic.) The way Navy and Marine officers are portrayed elicited approval from the vets in my film class. The music was a mixture of military and upbeat.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I found the plot easy to follow, the cursing hard to ignore (there was so much of it), and the characters hard not to like. It would be more a recruitment film for the Navy than for the Marines who get the worse of it, military life not being for every­one. The sema­phore lessons were cool, though. Some of the situations were funny, but the film itself is heavier on drama. It does mock one religion a bit, but I think it implied that any religion could qualify if the shoe fit. Some would consider the movie sexist, because they wouldn't see the women represented in the military as they are today, but I think that is more than counter­balanced by the decisive power the commander's wife exercised in having a hapless young recruit incarcerated for a minor infraction. I enjoyed the movie, but my reader will have to sort out the pros and cons for himself.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action flick. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Average special effects. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh. New York: Oxford University Press. New Jewish Publication Society 2nd ed. of 1999. Print.

Olson, Michael. Strange Flesh. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.