David Carradine's Americana took twelve years to get distribution, and I can understand why. I don't think it's destined to make a whole lot of money. This isn't a reflection of the film's merits, but on the unfortunate realities of people's filmgoing habits. Any unusual film which doesn't trade in sex, violence, or raucous comedy is unlikely to make much money. Since nobody could figure out a way to get twelve year olds to flock en masse to see Americana, nobody wanted to distribute it.
Yet again, I am forced to wonder what other treasures are lying forgotten in Hollywood's vaults. Americana is a fine film, probably the best film yet made about a Vietnam veteran and an excellent evocation of its time and place, Middle America in the early seventies. Americana doesn't deal with vets beating up creeps for peace, like Billy Jack. Nor does it wallow in gooey sentimentality and cheap anti-militarism, like Coming Home. Nor does it pander to the dangerous fantasy that we really could have won the Vietnam War if we'd wanted to, so let's go back and blow up those gooks, like Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action. Nor does it deal with murky profundities and dubious metaphors, like The Deer Hunter. (The best of the lot, so far, in my opinion, but Cimino didn't have anything really interesting or truthful to say about Vietnam; view it as a film about friendship and community and its virtues are clearer.) Nor does Americana offer us TV's favorite, the Vietnam veteran as homicidal maniac, a truly insulting stereotype which still pops up now and then and was once a staple of cop shows. Americana instead gives us a low-key look at one veteran, a man who is obviously troubled but not in the phony, pat ways these other films present.
Carradine plays a veteran who wanders aimlessly into a small Kansas town. He sees a broken-down merry-go-round, and something clicks. He decides that he will fix that merry-go-round. The rest of the film deals with his efforts to do so. Carradine's character has come out of Vietnam with a need. The need is never articulated but is an obvious and overwhelming part of his psyche. The film doesn't specify precisely why he chooses this task. Perhaps he wishes to restore rather than destroy. Perhaps he wishes to verify his worth to himself. Perhaps he merely needs some form of activity to focus on. His motives aren't important. His sincerity and dedication are.
Originally, Carradine's self-appointed task meets with reactions ranging from bemusement to ridicule to sympathy. A local girl, played by Barbara Hershey during her earth mother period, is instantly fascinated. The mechanic who owns the local gas station, a veteran from an earlier period and a former drifter, befriends Carradine and gives him substantial aid. A few punks hanging around razzing Carradine seem of little importance. Gradually, however, Carradine is shown to have very different values than the citizens of the farming community, and a petty incident costs him dearly.
The best thing about Americana is that it never takes the cheap way out. Carradine doesn't go in for violent catharsis or sentimental reconciliations. Mistakes are hard to erase and people are what they are, not what you might like them to be. Carradine's character isn't a saint, either. He's a good man, but no superman. He can be awkward and unthinking. The character's main virtues are decency and persistence, while most Hollywood characters in this kind of position go in more for wrath and vengeance. Carradine suggests a man who has learned more from the Orient than fancy ways to beat people up. This is easily Carradine's most likable performance.
Except for Carradine and Hershey, the cast seems to be made up mainly of real small town people, and Carradine the director gets the usual results one sees from non-professional actors. Some of the supporting performances have an underlying truth almost impossible to get from professionals. Others are stiff and self-conscious. The fellow playing the garage mechanic, whose name I can't get hold of, is especially good, and might be a professional actor. A couple of the other Carradine brothers show up in bit parts. As for Hershey, her part is not very demanding, but she does well with what she's given. Her's is the sort of part which is almost completely a matter of the correct appearance. She looks right, and that is all the film asks of her. Hershey has been shown to better advantage in other films.
Carradine directs well. He's not flashy, but he doesn't make many mistakes. His decision to avoid flashbacks to Vietnam is particularly welcome. At times, his intentions are a bit unclear, but eventually things work themselves out. Technically, the film is acceptable but unexceptional. Again, there aren't major mistakes. Neither are there unusual contributions. The technical level suggests a modesty of ambition in keeping with the subject matter.
Americana is not the sort of film you see very often. It's a bit suggestive of a slightly upscale student film, from the days when more film students wanted to do something a little different rather than audition to make mad slasher and horny teenager movies. An unusual subject, an obvious love of the material, and a subdued and thoughtful handling make Americana worthwhile for those who like films directed at the mind rather than the gut. Missing in Action fans are advised to wait for Rambo: First Blood II (I still think they should have called it Second Blood), which looks to be more up that alley.
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