Sunday 4 July 2021

Uncle Sam (1996)

Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: William Smith, David Shark Fralick, Leslie Neale, Matthew Flint, Anne Tremko, Tim Grimm, P. J. Soles, Thom McFadden, Zachary McLemore, Morgan Paull, Richard Cummings, Jr., Robert Forster, Christopher Ogden, Bo Hopkins, Timothy Bottoms and Isaac Hayes

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Some people apparently have an affinity for horror movies set on holidays. This one, which features an American soldier, killed in action in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, rising from his grave on Independence Day to murder his way through his living townsfolk who aren’t showing much patriotism, features a couple of names we’ve met already. The director is William Lustig, who brought so much fun to St. Patrick’s Day with Maniac Cop, and the first face we see is that of William Smith, who was blown up in his RV on Memorial Day in Memorial Valley Massacre. He’s here to be driven to a downed helicopter in Kuwait. Apparently it was shot down by friendly fire, leaving those on board burned up in the wreckage. “These things happen in war,” Smith tells his men in that patented half-growl that has served him so well in roles like these over decades, albeit not quite as far back as his child acting days in early forties films like The Ghost of Frankenstein or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s what happens next that doesn’t usually.

Smith, whose major has no name, orders a soldier into the helicopter to try to identify any of the bodies from dogtags. He does, but the charred corpse of Master Sergeant Sam Harper promptly comes to life, snaps the man’s neck, steals his handgun and empties it into him and through him into the major too. “Don’t be afraid,” he snarls, “It’s only friendly fire.” Then he relaxes back into death. Yeah, that’s unusual, but it only gets more unusual. Back home in the town of Twin Rivers, there’s a signed photo of Sam Harper on Jody Baker’s bedside table. It falls, apparently on its own, waking Jody, who promptly steps on the broken glass and cuts his foot, at least a couple of drops of his blood ending up on this picture of his literal Uncle Sam. It’s been three years, apparently, but Sam’s still in that helicopter, where his corpse may have just felt that connection. It’s surely no coincidence that he’s found immediately and Sgt. Twining shows up to give the news to Sam’s widow in person.

What’s telling here is the reaction. Harper was a hero, says Twining, eligible to be buried with full military honours. Yet we’re not getting that impression from his family. Louise Harper’s initial response is, “My God, he’s not alive?” Even his sister, Sally Baker, is hard pressed to say something positive, even though Jody apparently idolises him. Bringing back his body and laying it to rest isn’t remotely going to be the cathartic act we might expect. It’s like neither his sister nor his widow want him back in their house, even dead. “This’ll be a 4th of July we’ll never forget,” they foresee. There’s a real depth here, even though we don’t know quite where it might lead us. Next morning at school, Jody shows Sam’s medals to his class and it turns out that Mr. Crandall, who taught Sam and now teaches Jody, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Jody points out that Sam calls people like him cowards. He doesn’t, he emphasises, but Sam does, which is an important distinction even if it makes for an even more awkward class.

This has even more resonance today, because of the words used. Mr. Crandall diplomatically says that those who left the country to avoid being drafted considered it a “lesser evil” than following orders that they believed to be unjust. Jody sits back down and says to himself that, “When I’m grown up, I’m going in the army, just like Sam did,” then adds, “And I’ll do whatever the president says to do, because he knows better.” Uncle Sam came out in 1996, while Bill Clinton was successfully campaigning for re-election, so this may be a commentary on the fact that Clinton, the current Commander-in-Chief, had opposed the Vietnam War and had organised an anti-war event while studying abroad at Oxford. He didn’t dodge the draft per se, but he was never called up and that had been a frequent criticism during his previous presidential campaign. I’m writing twenty-four years on, when Donald Trump is president, a man who has also been criticised for avoiding service in Vietnam, through having his eligibility reclassified due to bone spurs.

With Independence Day celebrations usually including the most overt patriotism on the American calendar, the Stars and Stripes a constant visual at parades, carnivals, barbecues and other traditional 4th July events, it seems fair to use this horror movie to ask a seemingly straightforward question, namely what it means to be patriotic. That’s a massive question in America as I write, with an ongoing debate about whether patriotism means to be loyal to the country or to its president and whether one mandates the other. That’s neatly personified in the classroom here by Mr. Crandall believing that he was loyal to his country and not his president but Sam apparently holding the opposite view and Jody stuck in the middle. We wonder where the film will take him and us both and we soon realise that, as much as this is a slasher movie, it’s also a real coming of age drama for Jody. We have no doubt that he’s a good kid, but he’s already going through a tumultuous time, his worldview challenged from all sides, before the first death scene.

Certainly, while we wonder whether Sam could be both a hero and a bad man, the possibility of that is made crystal clear through other characters. Twining has been upstanding thus far, the steadfast bearer of bad news and willing support to the bereaved. Now we discover that he’s “batting .750” with the widows and that’s the precise reason he signed up for the job. We meet Ralph, Sally’s boyfriend. He’s played Honest Abe in the Independence Day parade for the last five years, but he’s really a lawyer who screws the government by helping corporations avoid paying taxes. “I’m just smarter than they are, Jody, that’s all.” These aren’t good men, any more than the morons in the cemetery spraypainting swastikas on gravestones and burning the American flag are good men. It’s when ashes from that flag float down into Sam’s open grave that he wakes up, climbs out of his coffin and wanders off to teach the unpatriotic a lesson, whether that be the cemetery yahoos or an Uncle Sam using large stilts to peep into girls’ bedrooms.

And outside any good guy vs. bad guy philosophy, he takes care of business in patriotic fashion. He spraypaints one of those idiots red, white and blue before burying him in his own grave and runs another one up the flagpole with the rope around his neck. And, quite frankly, there’s so much cheating, disrespect and outright corruption at every level of this town, from its congressman down to its sack race competitors, that there’s no shortage of worthy candidates for patriotic death at the hands of our Uncle Sam in his Uncle Sam suit. Many of them come to ironically appropriate ends too, like Lincoln being shot in public, and the body count adds up nicely from the slasher movie perspective. None of the victims are good people, or at least they’ve all done bad things, so we’re unable to feel too badly for any of them in slasher context, but we can’t forget that this particular killer is a hero in the eyes of the world that didn’t know him and he may believe that he’s still doing his patriotic duty, but he’s really a bad guy.

A lot of people found Uncle Sam confusing and unwilling to explain itself, as if slasher movies usually make sense, but the themes in play are clear to me. For one, it’s about good guys and bad guys and how that already hard to define boundary taps into patriotism and service. It’s telling that Jody firmly believes that, were Sam alive and present at the Twin Rivers Independence Day celebration, he would stop the killer. That’s not a statement about him not knowing what’s going on, it’s a statement about him seeing his uncle as a good guy not a bad guy. For another, it’s about victims, because everyone in this film is able to function in society but the ones who matter, when it comes down to it, are the damaged. Oddly, that’s not so much Louise Harper and Sally Baker, who we discover are both victims of Sam Harper, going back a long way. It’s Sgt. Jed Crowley and it’s Barry Cronin, who end up being easily the two most interesting characters in this film to me. It’s they who help Jody find a way to end what’s going on in Twin Rivers.

Crowley is very possibly the only good man we meet in the picture and he’s played by Isaac Hayes. He served his country in Korea, so he’s a good man in the traditional patriotic sense, though he lost both his entire unit and his right leg in the process. Clearly, he’s suffering from survivor’s guilt and there’s probably some PTSD in there too, but none of that stops him from being a good man in a town full of bad men. He takes Jody aside during Sam’s funeral because the boy wants to see his prosthetic leg and tries to talk him out of his dream of following his uncle into the forces. “Be a doctor. Save some lives,” he tells him. “Forget about killing.” Jody isn’t ready to listen, of course, but he gets there. Barry is a kid Jody’s age who was crippled a year earlier when his friends did something stupid with fireworks. Now he’s facially scarred, perhaps blind and certainly confined to a wheelchair. Yet, he has a strength that is more than just a will to go on; there’s something else in him that tends only to show up in horror movies. He knows things.

Independence Day is generally thought to be the commemoration of that moment when the thirteen British colonies decided to no longer be British, to forge a new nation, but that’s not strictly true. That moment happened, legally, two days earlier on 2nd July, as the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Lee Resolution, through which Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had proposed independence. What we know as Independence Day really commemorates the approval of the Declaration of Independence, which was a public statement that codified the intent behind what the Congress had already done. It had been prepared by the Committee of Five, which included two future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, along with Benjamin Franklin and a couple more notables who are less remembered today: Robert Livingston later negiotated the Louisiana Purchase, while Roger Sherman was the only man to sign all four of the crucial founding documents. It changed a lot over two days but it was approved on 4th July.

Nitpicking about historical details aside, what it means to most Americans today is independence and everything that springs forth from that, from the American Way to the American Dream and all the other things that make Americans American, even though an impressive array of them came much later, through the Constitution eleven years on, the Bill of Rights thirteen years on and a set of seventeen further amendments, up to and including the 27th, proposed in 1789 but not ratified until 1992, not to mention all of the other cultural, military and legislative changes that continue to shape the country. And it’s the notion that this country is still being shaped that leaps out at me here. Uncle Sam may be Jody’s coming of age story, but he’s the representation of the people of the United States within the picture. The biggest theme this film has is to ask those of us in the cheap seats if we should come of age too and if we’re ready for that and it’s summed up very nicely in a poem that William Smith wrote and recited over the end credits.

It begins “I am the marine on the border of Kuwait. I am the soldier; only God knows my fate. I am the sailor in a sea where I might die. I am the pilot breathing Hell from the sky.” It sounds patriotic, if not jingoistic, but it develops and it’s well worth reading. It’s a question to the people and their leaders, just as this film is. Neither preaches politically and neither takes a side, but both ask what it means to be an American and I hope everyone who watches Uncle Sam grasps that and thinks about it. After all, if being American is about doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult to do, then most of the characters in this picture aren’t really American at all and yet we might recognise quite a lot of them in society today, amongst our circle of friends or amongst our leaders. That’s a scary thought as we celebrate the independence of a country and the beginning of the definition of the principles behind it, just about as scary as the idea that an undead American soldier might come back to life and help purge us.

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