More American Graffiti is an uneven, needlessly slapstick, overly sentimental, preachy, shameless attempt to sell a soundtrack all the while riding the George Lucas cash tidal wave after Star Wars. It’s also the best movie ever made about the Vietnam War.
George Lucas, the executive producer of the sequel to his 1973 smash hit American Graffiti isn’t exactly his sequels greatest cheerleader. In 1979 the only Lucas sequel anyone was interested in was the one to Star Wars, which nearly three years later had yet to arrive. Lucas rarely mentions More American Graffiti, except to mock it only “made ten cents.”
Regardless of box office, More American Graffiti takes a unique approach to a continuing story that’s not only artistic, but all together tragically endearing. The film brings back all the characters from the original (with the notable exception of Richard Dreyfuss’ character Curt) and is set on four successive New Years Eves, 1964, 65, 66, and 67.
Like its predecessor each story takes place in space of a single day and is cleverly interwoven in a deliberately non-linear fashion to unfold each inevitable conclusion. The same conclusions set up at the end of the original film by using high school yearbook photos of the characters as title cards with the sometimes-grim descriptions of their fates, are used as the blue print for the sequel. It’s not unique to watch a film one already knows the ending of and still be entertained.
Titanic won Best Picture doing it. Better Call Saul, the “prequel” to the wildly successful TV show Breaking Bad follows the same formula as well. Most people watching the show are enjoying it with a sense of melancholy knowing it doesn’t end well. That being said, of the four New Years Eve’s in More American Graffiti there is none better at breaking your heart than the one taking place in Vietnam in 1965.
Director Bill Norton, does triple duty on More in writing, directing, and appeasing the most powerful executive producer in Hollywood (Lucas) who hand picked him for the job. Norton uses a clever device to shoot each year in a different style and film stock. This gives each day a unique feel and look which helps tell the story in a stylistic, albeit film school way. 1965 is shot entirely in 16mm using a hand held camera. Not only does this give the battle sequences a herky-jerky frenetic energy, it gives the scenes back at the base the same look the Vietnam war was sent to America’s homes in, on television. Lucas personally shot some of the handheld 65 scenes to help with the authenticity.
It’s easy to dismiss More American Graffiti as not being a Vietnam War film especially as there were several other high profile star packed Vietnam War films around the same time. 1978’s Best Picture The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola’s long awaited Apocalypse Now to name a few. More American Graffiti, a film primarily sold as a comedy, doesn’t seem to fit in that cannon.
Normally that would be true except for one thing: “Terry the Toad” played by the brilliantly underrated Charles Martin Smith.
Charles Martin Smith is an actor, director, and producer, most commonly remembered for his witty turn as the accountant member of The Untouchables from the 1987 Brian De Palma classic. At only 18 he created the role of “Terry the Toad” Fields, the lovably unlucky nerd in the original American Graffiti from 1973.
When American Graffiti first previewed for an audience up in San Francisco it was Terry’s fumbling arrival on a Vespa out of control that sent the test crowd into hysterics. That scooter lurch was an actual flub by Smith who really did lose control. Lucas loved the honesty of the moment and wisely decided to keep it in the movie. Lucas knew he had a hit on his hands and the box office agreed giving him the industry cred to spend the next four years creating the original Star Wars.
Terry, with his thick glasses and over slicked hair, is the loveable punching bag for his group of friends who rather cruelly refer to him as “Toad” due to his appearance. Terry spends most of the first film attempting to romance Candy Clark’s character Debbie, a girl so amazingly out of his league you cringe knowing it will go south at any minute. Terry is pure comic relief even though the audience spends a lot of time laughing at him instead of with him.
So having Terry be the character who ends up bravely fighting in Vietnam is without a doubt the least Hollywood thing ever. Despite the title card anchor weighing down the sequels narrative, it’s still surprising Charles Martin Smith is the actor used for the Vietnam scenes. Paul Le Mat’s too cool for school character John Milner, Ron Howard’s all American Steve, and the bad boy race villain Bob Falfa played by the newly minted box office king Harrison Ford (who returns in More for an uncredited cameo), were way more obvious choices to send into war.
And for a producer like Lucas who famously changed large narrative themes to his Star Wars franchise, swapping the fate of Terry the Toad’s title card is something people might not even notice.
But Lucas and Norton sent Terry to Vietnam anyway.
For this reason alone, More American Graffiti should be elevated to the same status bestowed kitchen sink Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Given this is a sequel we’ve had an entire film to get to know Terry as a poor geek going from girls to a guns. Watching Terry’s fate unfold slowly interspaced throughout the film is like watching a sick loved one slip away. This is especially sad after having fell in love with him in the first film. More doesn’t have the same thrilling battle scenes of many of the other Vietnam films but it does keep you focused on Terry’s journey as if his choices are your own.
Terry spends much of his time in Vietnam desperately trying to get sent home. His soldier arc is someplace between Yossarian in Catch-22 and Klinger from M.A.S.H. In an attempt to self inflict a flesh wound with a rigged up rifle, Terry inadvertently gets shot at by his fellow soldiers.
Miraculously unharmed, he ends up drawing the ire of his Major played by the wonderfully sadistic Richard Bradford. Bradford’s Major Creech has it out for Terry putting him on “shit duty” by literally making him clean latrines when he’s not under the constant peril of battle. Look out for a young Delroy Lindo as a Sergeant tormenting Terry at the behest of the awful Creech.
Creech’s hatred for Terry is mutual. Although Terry’s attempts to get sent home are played for laughs it shows the unashamed disillusionment he felt about Vietnam.
Shame and pride are for suckers, which is all the more reason to be concerned when Terry, and his best friend/door gunner, Joe Young (played by the extraordinary Bo Hopkins reprising his character from the original,) are assigned a gung ho new pilot, Sinclair, played by Jim Houghton.
Sinclair is a hotshot helicopter pilot fresh out of the world with a rulebook mentality that almost gets them killed. It doesn’t take Sinclair long to realize Terry is the better soldier and listening to him is a good idea especially when he saves his life after being shot down on a riverbank.
In saving Sinclair, Terry shows his bravery, strength, and cunning especially as he has to trick the cowardly Creech into not leaving them behind during a firefight. Charles Martin Smith clearly worked out for his role and spends a lot of the movie with his shirt off making him as unlikely a stud as he is a hero.
The most heartbreaking scene in the entire movie and the reason, in my opinion, More American Graffiti is the best film made about the Vietnam War, occurs before they’re shot down in what would normally be considered throwaway conversation between Terry and Joe. Joe informs Terry when they get back to the world he intends on making him an “honorary member of the Pharaohs,” without having to go through the whole “blood initiation.” He tells Terry they should open a used car dealership together adding, “you sell em, we steal em!” For this scene to work in full context one must watch the original film to understand what an amazing thing Joe has offered.
In the original American Graffiti, Joe and his street gang spend most of the entire film terrorizing/hazing Curt played by Richard Dreyfuss. They would never spend a second with a guy like Terry back home. It’s unclear if they even really know him in the first film, let alone be best friends. It’s inferred Joe and Terry bonded in Vietnam when they discover they’re from the same hometown and become unlikely friends in war. It’s Terry’s reaction, played with brilliant nuance by Charles Martin Smith, that devastates. He smiles and acts enthusiastic and says “great!” If this “offer” by Joe was made before they went to war it would be the biggest thing to ever happen to Terry, even bigger than his ill fated date with Debbie in the first movie.
But here, in a helicopter heading into battle zone, it means truly nothing. But Terry still smiles, and he lies. He lies not because he isn’t pleased with Joe’s offer, or because he knows Joe’s not completely serious, he lies because Terry is a good person and Joe still needs to hear it. Joe still needs to be important and that’s how friends make you feel. Terry’s lie is subtle and its kind. All of this happens moments before Joe is killed.
The original title card and the one used at the end of both films reads: Terry Fields was reported missing in action near An Loc in December of 1965.
So we know poor Terry doesn’t make it, or does he?
Although the filmmakers give you a very positive and comedic spin on how Terry really survives by pulling a fast one on Major Creech (using a poop gag no less) it cannot be reasonably believed he’s alive.
At the end of the 1965 segment Terry successfully fakes his own death, and dressed in a loud Hawaiian shirt, heads off alone through the jungle with the hopes of hiking his way to Europe presumably where he will lay low for the rest of his life. There, away from all his loved ones who think he’s dead, Terry will start anew!
No. Terry’s dead. He stepped on a tripwire, got killed by the Viet Cong, or simply died from exposure. Lucas and Norton delivered a Butch and Sundance ending without ever realizing it with Terry the Toad. What’s even worse is the explanation of Terry’s “death” given to his family, most assuredly by the cruel Major Creech, labeling his fate “missing in action.” Creech saw the latrine explode, the whole base did, why did they lie to Terry’s family? Was Creech so full of useless pride he needed to cover up the fact a latrine was infiltrated on his base, on his watch, that covered him and a visiting congressmen in shit? So it would seem. Terry may have been unlucky in love, he may have been unlucky at life, but his compassion and humanity are hauntingly beautiful. Vietnam was a tough war. More American Graffiti gave us a character we grew to love and then they took him from us.
Although the rest of the film doesn’t provide the same emotional punch as the 1965 segment it is still very powerful especially when Terry is referred to in other segments in the past tense. This serves to further remind you’re watching a dead man walking.
Marvel Netflix buffs will love seeing an early Scott Glenn (Stick from Daredevil/The Defenders) performance as well as the aforementioned Harrison Ford in an early post Star Wars turn. Coincidentally both Glenn and Ford did small parts in Apocalypse Now as well the same year.
It’s also worth mentioning Cindy Williams reprisal of Laurie as a housewife fighting for liberation who gets caught up in a campus protest is wonderful. Like Terry, she exhibits a strength we never knew she had.
More American Graffiti is definitely worth a second look especially as a companion to the original movie. It provides a landscape of American naïveté, sorrow, and beauty through a narrow looking glass of 1960’s hindsight history.