The Ballad Of Andy Crocker

Director: George McCowan   
Lee Majors, Joey Heatherton, Jimmy Dean

While there may be a lot of beautiful things to observe and experience in this world, at the same time there are a lot of bad and ugly things most of us try to avoid. One thing that often can be uncomfortable to experience is stereotypes. To be fair, not all stereotypes can cause discomfort. Take the character of The Sea Captain in the television show The Simpsons. I seriously doubt any real sea captains would be offended by this character, and I don't think that non-sailors are offended by the character as well. Sure, the character likes saying "Arrrr" and has a beard, but these stereotypes are pretty gentle in nature, not mean-spirited. Also, this character is palatable in part because he's a likable character, and more importantly we have seen plenty of images of real sea captains. I will admit, however, that amusing stereotypes like that are the exception rather than the rule, at least to me. Most stereotypes I come across seem rather cruel in nature. Jealousy seems to be one motivation for some stereotypes, such as when scientists and other intelligent people are depicted. These smart people are often shown to be nerdy in their behavior and dress. Another source for a number of stereotypes is when a war is declared. I remember when studying the first World War in high school, being shown a British propaganda poster depicting "The Huns" as people who would chop off the arms of innocent children. That was bad, but it was nothing compared to what went on in World War II, since media exposure had increased significantly. Let me provide a link to a notorious Bugs Bunny cartoon to show you an example of stereotypes coming out of war. (WARNING - Not safe for work, and offensive to boot!)

One of the most notorious stereotypes that has come out of war is how the typical Vietnam veteran has been depicted. You probably know at least some of the many negative ways he has been depicted. They show him as frequently having nightmares, and other similar depictions showing him to have an unstable mind. They show him as homeless, a child killer, divorced, and other bad depictions I could go on with for some time. But is any of that realistic? From what I have found in my research, the answer for the most part is no. In the book Vietnam At The Movies, written by Vietnam vet Michael Lee Lanning, he brings up several studies that show the average Vietnam vet is in good shape. In a 1980 Harris survey, 91% of vets surveyed stated they were glad they served their country, and 74% enjoyed their time in the service. When asked if the United States had taken unfair advantage of them, 80% strongly disagreed. Also, a March 1985 Washington Post survey found that Vietnam vets, compared to nonveterans of the same age, were more likely to have gone to college, more likely to own a home, and more likely to earn more that $30,000 a year. Other studies have shown equally interesting facts, like that 75% of Vietnam vets were volunteers when in World War II, only 34% of soldiers were volunteers. The Department of Labor in 1982 revealed that at least 90% of Vietnam vets had a job. The Bureau of Justice concluded after a study that Vietnam vets were less likely than nonveterans to be in prison. The National Academy of Sciences found that only 20% of Vietnam vets had emotional problems upon return, compared to 25% of World War II soldiers.

I'm sure that those facts will surprise a lot of people who have seen countless movies over the years that depict Vietnam veterans more or less as losers. The obvious question that comes out of that fact is: Just why have so many movies been made that portray Vietnam veterans in a negative fashion? The Ballad Of Andy CrockerI think the answer to that comes in several parts. First, there is the fact that around the time of the Vietnam war, Hollywood was being shaken up. Older people in the industry were being phased out, and younger people were replacing them. These younger people, like the hippies of the era, were mostly against the Vietnam war, and they used their position of power to criticize the Vietnam war, often using Vietnam vets as a way to express their criticizm. Then as time went on, and after plenty of movies demonizing the Vietnam veteran, subsequent new young people entering the industry would continue the negative depictions. After seeing it so many times before entering the movie business, they concluded the negativity was true, and continued it themselves. This explains why positive and/or sympathetic depictions are few and far between. The Ballad Of Andy Crocker is one of the few Vietnam veteran movies to have some sympathy for its character. Lee Majors plays the title figure (no, not the ballad, dum-dum), a soldier in Vietnam who is wounded in the first few minutes of the movie. Andy is given a medal and sent back to the States, and he makes his way back to his Texan hometown, intent on continuing where his life was three years earlier before he was in the army.

But when Andy reaches his hometown, bit by bit he starts to realize that things have changed dramatically since he left. He knew from a letter three months ago from his girlfriend Lisa (Heatherton) that she wanted to date other men, but he soon finds out she is now married. Andy also discovers that the money-making motorcycle business he left has been run into the ground by his incompetent partner. Andy is determined to retake Lisa and build his business back to its old glory, but he learns that it's a long road.... when you're on your own. That's the setup for many downbeat situations Andy soon finds himself in. If I were to give you a list of the various crap that's flung on Andy as he tries to get control of his life, you would probably guess from the sound of them that he slowly becomes more angry, more hurtful, and possibly dangerous. But as I said before, the movie has some sympathy for his character, enough so that his character never does become the deranged lunatic other Vietnam vet movies of the era had. His character is a quiet one for the most part. Even when he confronts his disloyal girlfriend or his incompetent business partner, he never raises his voice very much or reacts violently to what he's told. It's true that he gets into one physical confrontation late in the movie, but it's a confrontation that comes from the great stress he's suffered from over the past few days, and he seems to later regret the violence and not want to do it again. We can tell that he's basically a nice guy, and viewers will want him to succeed in his various aims.

However, the movie does not portray him in a completely one-sided positive fashion. In fact, studying his character carefully, one will see that for some of Andy's problems, Andy just has himself to blame. We learn that he never graduated from high school, dropping out early in the game. And while his business associate may have been incompetent, what we see of Andy's business dealings once he's back from Vietnam strongly hint that he himself is not much better as a businessman as his partner. But flaws such as these actually make it easier for the audience to like Andy. He's not perfect, just like us. This makes him more real, and easier to embrace than a character who is completely perfect in every way. Andy is definitely a more sympathetic Vietnam vet than most other such characters in TV and movies of this period (and later on.) Although Andy does come across a few people on his travels that are glad to see him and care about him, screenwriter Stuart Margolin ("Angel" from The Rockford Files) increases the sympathy for Andy by making many of the characters in the movie that he encounters a pretty unlikable bunch of folks. Interestingly, these encounters with these unlikable characters manage not to seem repeats of the same old "kick the vet while he's down" scenes we see in countless other films and TV shows. Margolin makes the conversations pretty believable (he clearly has a good ear for dialogue that's simple but believable), and director George McCowan (Murder On Flight 502) adds some flair by staging a few scenes in an unexpected way. One of Andy's business deals takes place on a skeet shooting range, where the repeated rifle fire creates a stressful feeling in the air. An earlier scene, with Andy confronting his former girlfriend, is intercut with the visions of a daydream Andy is having at that very same moment.

The Ballad Of Andy Crocker also deserves credit for having an ending that, while not having the extreme cynicism (such as ending the movie with a death or a suicide) of many other movies dealing with Vietnam veterans, does end on a note that feels realistic and not jazzed up to have Andy have all his problems resolved in an extremely positive way. I felt satisfied with this ending after investing my time in observing this character and all his problems, and I think most other viewers will think the same way. While I am recommending this movie, I feel I should point out several things in the movie that prevented it from reaching its full potential. One of the biggest flaws the movie has is that it is obviously padded. Although the movie only runs about 74 minutes long, there are still some lengthy scenes where what happens has no consequence for the character of Andy. When he gets back to the States in the first few minutes of the movie, for example, he quickly gets involved in a house party that a hippie invites him to. The scene seems to have no purpose except to show that a lot of hippies didn't like people in the military - not exactly a big revelation, even in 1969. Near the end, there's a chase sequence (complete with wildly inappropriate fiddle and banjo music) that seems out of a Burt Reynolds movie. What's really odd about scenes like those serving only as padding is the fact that there are some unresolved issues in the movie. Andy's relationship with his ex-girlfriend, for one thing, is forgotten long before the movie ends. And why doesn't Andy ever think of contacting Veterans Affairs, which could have helped with some of his problems? I honestly had to wonder why the makers of this movie didn't just finish writing about those unresolved issues instead of creating new scenes that don't seem to serve much of a purpose. Still, my interest was more or less kept up throughout, mainly to see how this character would end up. I would like to see a movie character like this again, though hopefully in a tighter and more well-told story.

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See also: Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Chino, Dr. Cook's Garden