Tracks – Dennis Hopper’s Journey From And To Vietnam

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The Vietnam War spawned a unique movie genre. Previously, war films tended to show the conflicts as glorious crusades, with clean-cut All American heroes fighting for what was Right. The trauma of Nam, for both veterans and the nation as a whole, changed all that for years; it was only when Reagan became president, and encouraged America to once again see war as a macho game, that Nam could become a playground for action men like Stallone.

During the Seventies, Movies about Vietnam tended to fall into two distinct groups. Films which dealt with the conflict itself were relatively few – The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and the little known but devastating Physical Assault are prime examples. The larger group of films dealt with Consequences – mentally fucked up kids who returned home from the war, unable to readjust to normal life. Vietnam Vets became synonymous with mental instability in 1970s cinema. When a gunman went berserk in a movie, you could be sure that he was a Vet. When a serial killer started to kill off women, it was almost certain that he would be plagued by Nam flashbacks. Bizarre films like Cannibal Apocalypse even suggested that the trauma of Vietnam would result in an insatiable craving for human flesh.

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Falling in between these two groups is Henry Jaglom’s 1977 film Tracks – a quiet, thoughtful movie which is the missing link between How Sleep the Brave and Coming Home, and which fills in the plot holes which prevent The Deer Hunter from being a complete success. It  stars Dennis Hopper, giving arguably the finest performance of his career – a career that has been consistently coloured by the Vietnam war, either directly or indirectly. While Tracks and Apocalypse Now are clearly about the war, Nam is ingrained in many of Hopper’s films. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, he not only squares up against the ultimate Nam casualty psycho in the form of Bill Moseley’s Chop Top, but also seems like a crazed vet himself as the movie progresses; in Easy Rider and The Trip, Hopper was the face of the anti-war movement, and when he’s gunned down at the end of the former, the parallels with the Vietnam wars (both the conflict in Asia and the conflict between generations of American people) are only too obvious. Even later films like Colors seem to be influenced and tainted by memories of Nam, with the ghettos of Los Angeles standing in for the killing fields of Vietnam.

Tracks is unusual because it is so clearly about Vietnam, yet takes place entirely within the American heartland on one of those endless cross-country rail journeys that seem so alien to British viewers, who can complete even the longest trip in a single day. It also seems alien to see counter-culture rebel Hopper in full military uniform, looking almost cartoonly and uncomfortably smart as 1st Sgt Lack Falen. As the radio announcement at the film’s opening tells us, the war is finally over – Falen is coming home. But the radio is wrong – Falen’s war, like the internal wars of so many Vietnam vets, is far from over. It still rages inside him – a fact we almost take for granted after years of maladjusted Vets in countless movies; more pertinently though, Falen is still on duty. His war doesn’t end until he’s delivered a coffin carrying the body of one of his buddies to his home town for burial where, Falen constantly tells his fellow passengers, “he’s gonna have a band, he’s gonna have a parade.” We never believe such optimism – again, there is too much history, too many scenes of Vietnam vets skulking home, the unwelcome reminder of a war that everyone was trying to forget before it even ended, for us to expect a heroes welcome for Falen and his charge.

Tracks opens with a shot of Falen addressing an unseen passenger. “Do you think about your childhood often?” he asks. “I think about mine when the going gets rough.” By the end of his question, Hopper – and it is Hopper, not Falen – is looking directly at the camera, directly at us. He’s laying out the whole central theme of the film right there. Traumatised by the present, Falen is constantly reverting to the past. Throughout the film, he clings to ideas of a childhood which was somehow safer and easier (as most childhoods are); he listens to Forties dance tunes, moral boosting recordings from an earlier war that was only seen from the safety of Hollywood movies, in black and white. When we think of the second world war, we see it in monochrome – a bloodless, distant event. When we think of Nam, we see grainy, hand-held newsreel footage in lurid colours, napalmed children and dangerous, drug addled US troops out of control. Vietnam was the only war where the public saw reality. Earlier conflicts were distanced by time and technology, while later conflicts like the Gulf war were carefully staged managed by governments who knew only too well the impact of burning bodies on television viewers. Nam was there in all its inglory, beamed uncensored into living rooms across America and the world every night. So we can all relate to Falen’s retreat into what feels like a safer world. No matter that world war two was even bloodier than Vietnam in reality. The fantasy is what matters.

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Falen’s three day journey home is, in reality, his journey back to reality from the madness of war, and it’s not an easy one. He wanders the length of the train (and again for the sake of rail travellers in the UK – this train has spacious restaurant cars, bars, cabins etc.) in search of human contact. He flits from passenger to passenger, trying to start or join conversations, but he doesn’t know how to. He can’t fit in. In his stiff, straight uniform, he looks like an anomaly; even when he changes into street clothes, he still seems woefully out of place, a military stiff from a different age surrounded by swinging Seventies hipsters. Much of this is thanks to Hopper’s wonderful portrayal – a twitchy, sweaty performance that initially makes us feel sorry for him, and embarrassed for him as he nervously attempts to rejoin society.

Much of the dialogue in Tracks feels improvised, and the film has a documentary feel to it, using hand-held cameras and observational techniques. We catch snippets of empty conversation – talk about sex, chess, business, etc. The talk of normality. The film has an almost documentary feel during these early scenes, its deliberate banality making it more real than any stage-managed fly-on-the-wall docu-soap. The film presents a false sense of boredom – false because the viewer is never bored, yet feels as though nothing is happening. And in many ways, for the first thirty minutes of the film, nothing is – yet in many ways, everything important takes place in this opening section. We meet Falen and his fellow passengers, we learn about his final mission with the coffin, and we experience his sense of alienation. But unlike many films which hammer these points home to the viewer, Tracks presents them so subtly that we are barely aware of them. Only as the film progresses do they become important.

Tracks moves forward when Hopper and fellow passenger Mark, played by Dean Stockwell, put the moves on a couple of girls who have joined the train. Hopper and Stockwell are an interesting mix – Hopper the shy man in uniform, Stockwell the hairy, brightly dressed easy rider. While Mark schmoozes his way to romantic success, Falen is way out of his depth. He tells pretty hippie girl Stephanie (Taryn Powers) “I haven’t seen anything like you since I was sixteen. I’m not even sure that I saw it then.” She’s sufficiently interested in him to go back to his room, despite his painfully clumsy chat-up techniques, but when he comes on too strong (“let me show you how I like to kiss” she tells him after an over-enthusiastic petting session) she leaves. Falen’s desperation (for love? For connection?) has driven her away, and he starts to lose it. Slowly.

The next morning, Falen has a brief fling with an older female passenger after asking for shampoo (she washes his hair before surrendering to some intense, passionate and very real foreplay), but he still wants to connect with Stephanie. But his lack of connection to everyone is becoming more obvious. Things reach a head when Falen is again talking about his mission. “Why do you feel you have a monopoly on feeling sorry for yourself?” asks a black Korean war veteran as Falen explains that he’s escorting a coffin “with a black man in it” to him. The Korean vet is unimpressed. “You only have one, I had twenty one” he comments. But Falen is no longer listening, instead watching as Stephanie is harassed by another passenger, who then starts to assault her. Other passengers join in what soon becomes a gang-rape, and Falen pulls his gun. But of course, none of this has actually happened. It’s the first sign that his trip is rapidly becoming a bad one. Two days into the journey, fifty minutes into the film, and Falen’s sense of alienation gives way to mental instability.

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This hallucination represents a turning point in the film, much as Max Renn’s do in Videodrome. From this point onwards, we cannot trust what we see. We wonder how much is reality, and how much is false… and we begin to question what has already gone.

There is also an air of unreality about Falen’s quaintly touching developing relationship with Stephanie. It’s an oddly affecting, though clearly doomed affair that is old fashioned in its romance. Powers seems somehow out of time; even moreso as we watch the film today, her hippie look almost as dated as the Glen Miller that they listen to as they dance, in the final moment of lucid normality. After this touching interlude, it all comes crumbling down for Falen.

When MP’s board the train, he flips – he stashes his uniform in the toilet and runs naked through the train (a nude scene which still seems startling today, given the lack of male nudity in mainstream cinema) as he seeks to escape those who are hunting him. Only it’s not Falen they want. Mark bursts into his cabin and reveals himself as a political radical war protester. This revelation does little for Falen, who rejects his pleas for help. Mark, whose free speech is too much for the powers that be in the land of the free, is captured and taken away. The pushy real estate salesman who has been pushing land deals throughout the film is revealed as a part time government agent. Does any of this feel real?

Genuine or not, Falen’s obvious hallucinations get worse. “They know what you’ve done” sneers a waiter at one point. Fellow passengers warn him of impending danger. They deny knowledge of each other. Nothing feels right. Nothing feels real.

Falen and Stephanie take a day out of their journey to make love in a field – Stephanie giving him the “one nice thing” that his life is missing. It’s an idyllic scene – there’s no sound but the wind blowing. But mid-sex, Hopper loses control. He confesses to rejecting Mark’s pleas for help, claiming that it was impossible for him to do otherwise – “I’m on a very important mission. Guys like that have to be sacrificed.” Peacenik Stephanie is repulsed, and flees. Falen is finally alone. No lovers. No passengers. Just him and the coffin.

When he reaches the end of the line (and doesn’t that suddenly sound symbolic?), there is – surprise surprise – no welcoming committee. No parade, no band. Just a couple of embarrassed looking officials to handle the funeral. Biding his time until the burial, Falen wanders around town, even more out of place. Anonymous. Forgotten. He reverts to childhood again – visiting school rooms, an empty home. And there’s the realisation. Falen is supposedly returning his dead comrade home, but it’s he who has returned to his home town, a town that doesn’t care what has happened to him, where people will come out with glib comments like “I wish I could’ve been there” not knowing that everyone who was in Vietnam wanted to be anywhere but there. This is Falen’s old school, Falen’s old home. Falen is back in his spiritual home, and he’s brought Vietnam – his mental home – with him.

It’s never good to reveal the ending of a movie. It spoils the surprise – and it’s only an unexpected ending that is worth revealing – for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, even when, as is the case here, that ending is the best known part of the whole production.. But sometimes it has to be done. Tracks virgins beware: I’m about to reveal the ending.

Tracks ends in the cemetery. Falen stands over the coffin, alongside the dutiful, embarrassed looking officials. “He’s the biggest hero that’s ever been here. No-one showed up” he muses (Hopper’s the biggest hero that’s ever been there. No-one showed up). As the flag-draped coffin is lowered into the ground, he demands a moment alone. The embarrassed looking officials leave and Falen gazes into the grave. And finally cracks completely.

It’s one of cinema’s most powerful moments – a tour-de-force of acting, writing and controlled direction which, even seen out of context, packs a hell of a punch; within the context of Tracks, Hopper’s final, incoherent yet revelatory monologue is what finally confirms this film as one of the finest movies to emerge in the post-Easy Rider era of American independent cinema.

Falen moans: “I love… I love… I really love… I really do love… I love, I love and I hate, and I hate, and I hate, because I love… because I love I hate, because I love I hate, because I love I hate, because I love, because I love… YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!”

And then he jumps into the grave, opens up the coffin and reveals the secret which we suddenly realise we knew all along. There is no dead buddy, no hero, no great black man. The dead man is Falen, a small town boy who went to war and lost his mind. And now he’s home. “You wanna go to Nam?” he screams, “I’ll take you to Nam. I’ll take you there!”

He unwraps the tarpaulin, puts on the combat helmet and tools up with the guns ‘n’ ammo that the coffin actually, naturally contains. Then he leaps out of the grave, in search of the enemy – the people who have robbed him of everything without a care in the world – and sets out, ready to take the whole town to Nam…

DAVID FLINT