A group of American soldiers (and one German guy, played, I believe, by one Robert Marius) are rescued from a Vietnamese jungle prison by American operative Cecil (Clive Wood). During exfiltration, the men are ordered to reclaim some important papers that were being transported in a now-downed helicopter. But the helicopter’s cargo may be more valuable than mere documents (okay, it’s gold). All of this is told in flashback to writer Christopher Hilton (Christopher Hilton, perhaps better known as a voice actor for such films as Five Deadly Venoms) by one of the survivors.
Romano Scavolini’s Dog Tags (aka Dogtags - Il Collare della Vergogna aka Platoon to Hell) is a film about the ugly truth of humanity. Like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, it frames this discussion through an observer/audience surrogate character who unveils this truth after the events. In that film, Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) reviews the footage left behind by the “victims” of the jungle slaughter as it’s reconstructed. In this film, Hilton interviews Tanoy, the only known survivor of the events from so long ago. Both films construct a truth from the evidence of the past, and in this sense, the films are about storytelling and about revealing said truth through storytelling. Dog Tags even structures its tale in acts (Prologue, Act One: The Facts, Act Two: The Getaway, Act Three: The Chase, and an Epilogue), plainly telling us that this story, though conveying truth, sticks to the framework of classic storytelling. It’s presented to us as a fiction in order to relate fact (it even gives us a quote from a United States Senate hearing about the preceding premise in general; whether these hearings happened or not, and whether this subject was actually discussed is inconsequential here [personally, I find it all very easy to believe, so mission accomplished], as it’s the intimation that it’s true which matters).
Hilton first comes to this particular story through a guy named Jack, a radio operator who was stationed in Nam at the time (whom we never see in this capacity, or if we do, he’s never identified to us in the film, and he plays no part in the plot outside of also being an observer). Tellingly, Jack has overdosed on heroin as the film opens, so we never get to see him in the present, either. What this does is informs us that what he encountered during his tour of duty was too much for him to deal with emotionally. To paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessup, he couldn’t handle the truth. Likewise, the characters in the film cannot handle what’s happening to them. This isn’t a Kelly’s Heroes type of War/Caper film. Many of the characters in Dog Tags die, and they die very badly. Primarily, they are picked off by booby-traps, of which there are tons in the film. In fact, I can think of very few direct interactions between the soldiers and any actual Viet Cong. The enemy is mainly faceless, absent in body, if not in spirit. The one exception I can recall is the scene where Glass (Peter Elich) is told to wade into the tall grass and get the Viet Cong skulking there. Faced with the situation of killing one with a machete, Glass hesitates, cracks, and then turns on his comrades. Like the jungle the men traipse through, the Viet Cong threat is ever present, overwhelming and surrounding the soldiers on all sides. There is no escape from the enemy in the same way that there is no escape from the jungle. Pushed to the brink, the men either die or go insane (often both).
If it wasn’t bad enough for the men to be stuck in a Viet Cong cage, it’s far, far worse for them in the open jungle. Things were bad in the cage. The men were at each other’s throats, but they survived. Once freed, things degenerate swiftly, and between the paranoia of the unseen adversary and the weariness of the soldiers being faced with another mission when they clearly aren’t up for it, the men become animals, become corrupted. Once the gold is discovered, the soldiers’ avarice shines through, and their humanity is lost completely. This is best exemplified by Roy (Baird Stafford) whose leg is injured by a booby trap hidden in a river. His leg becomes gangrene, and it has to be amputated as the infection spreads. The amputation scene displays the totality of the notion that this is a place which humanity has fled. As his fellow soldiers set to work on the leg, we get a shot from Roy’s POV. His companions’ faces are gaunt, feral, and sickly. They could as easily be preparing to remove his leg as his life. The contrast to this evaporation of humanity is Mina (Gigi Dueñas) and her family (including her brother Tanoy and her elderly father). The family are taken hostage by the soldiers out of fear that they’re in league with the Viet Cong. We are never told explicitly whether or not they are; it’s the tension of the situation that counts. At any rate, Mina services Roy with her hand as his health fails. She does this without a word, without a readable emotion on her face, but the empathy she feels for Roy in this circumstance is clear. While the men are losing their minds with anxiety and greed, Mina performs an act of kindness that is both compassionate and empty. Mina and her family have lived in these conditions far longer than the soldiers. They understand that this is the state of the world (and not just their localized world in a case of the specific highlighting the general), so a modicum of physical pleasure is all there is to make life bearable, and even then it’s as transitory and meaningless as the act itself.
I was surprised as hell when I watched Dog Tags. I had expected something along the lines of Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards or Bruno Mattei’s Strike Commando, essentially a loud, dumb, fun action film with a lot of explosions. And while there are a lot of explosions (and it should be said, they are large and extremely impressive) and a thin, gritty texture of exploitation in Dog Tags, the film maintains an utterly serious tone from start to finish. This is a grim, bleak, cynical film that reflects on its ugliness rather than revels in it, much of the runtime filled with strained, formidable silence. I won’t say that Scavolini’s film is as powerful or as slick as something along the lines of The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now, but I do think it deserves to be in the same conversation with them.
MVT: Scavolini does a remarkable job crafting tension in almost every moment of the film while doing it on a believable scale for a War picture.
Make or Break: The first booby-trap that’s tripped comes swiftly, unheralded, and it delineates the stakes of the film for both the characters and the audience.