The Siege Of Firebase Gloria

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Wings Hauser, R. Lee Ermey, Robert Arevalo

A number of years ago when I was a teenager, my mother one day brought home a book for me to read. It was The Joy Of Stress, written by a doctor by the name of Peter G. Hanson. I remember picking up the book and reading the introduction to it, where Doctor Hanson exclaimed something to the effect of, "Stress can be wonderful." Though I remember reading the rest of the book (though today I can't recall most of what I read), I have to admit that statement by Hanson in the introduction kind of prejudiced me against the rest of the book. Stress can be wonderful? I thought that was a lot of bull. Being a teenager, I was going through a number of stressful situations, and all that stress was far from pleasing for me (probably why my mother got me that book.) But as I got older and with every passing year leaving my teenage years farther behind, I started to learn that yes, some stress can be good for you. Out of all places, I got a big lesson about useful stress from the world of B movies. For example, when I read the memoirs of movie producer Samuel Z. Arkoff (who was once the head of American-International Pictures), he stated that he needed at least one crisis a day to help keep his blood flowing, and he could get it through his job making movies. It was one big reason why he kept working in the motion picture industry right up to his death at the age of eighty-three. And I have personally found that the world of B-movies has helped keep me healthy. What I do for this web site, researching movies and subsequently writing reviews for them while facing a deadline definitely keeps up my mental health. It's also a lot of fun doing all that work, so yes, there definitely can be some joy in stress.

I've managed to find joyful stress in other areas of my life as well. The job where I earn money to support myself does involve a lot of work and sweat, but it's work that I know I can do well and gives me great satisfaction at the end of the day. But that's not to say that every stressful job has given me joyful stress. In my lifetime, I have had some jobs that have almost broken me. It could have been worse, though - there are some jobs that by all appearances are so stressful that I don't know how the people in them manage to handle all the responsibilities and requirements. Maybe the ultimate kind of stressful job is some kind of position in the military. Right after signing an agreement for several years of service, you are put through hell. You first have to go through basic training, and while I could handle having to get up at six A.M. every morning (I get up only thirty minutes later in my private life), there would still be hours of back-breaking work each day, while at the same time a hostile drill instructor would scream in my ear that I am the worst recruit he has ever seen. (I dare not tell him that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.) Once basic training is over, it's not clear sailing from then on - you might be called into battle, and it's here that I have a gut feeling that I would truly fall apart. The potential stresses on being in the battlefield are endless. You might be in a situation where bullets and bombs are going off all around you, with no possible way of escaping. You would have to fight back, most probably in a way that you would have to kill somebody. How do you handle having to kill another human being? For that matter, you might even be killed yourself, which would be the ultimate kind of stressful situation.

There's no doubt about it - I would make a pretty terrible soldier. So I can't help but be in awe about the millions of people who through the centuries have both been in the military and have been in battle and have managed to get out unscathed. This in part explains why when I come The Siege Of Firebase Gloriaacross a war movie, I often have a special interest. I want to get a clue as to how soldiers handle so much stress there on the battlefield should, heaven forbid, I get drafted and get sent into a foxhole. But there is also that B-movie side of me that can appreciate these war movies for their entertainment value. These two reasons explain why I was interested in watching The Siege Of Firebase Gloria when I came across a copy, but there was a third reason as well. Researching the movie before watching it, what I read made it sound a lot like Eye Of The Eagle 3, a war movie that I really enjoyed for its action. Both movies came out the same year, so it doesn't appear one ripped off the other, instead being one of those strange coincidences that just increased my curiosity. The events of the movie take place during the war in Vietnam, specifically in the country in 1968 during the Tet Offensive. Two American Marines, Corporal Di Nardo (Hauser, The Art Of Dying) and Sergeant Major Hafner (Ermey, Full Metal Jacket), are in the Vietnamese countryside when they come under attack. Against all odds, they make it to Firebase Gloria, an American outpost. Upon seeing that the commander of the base has more or less gone insane, Hafner takes it upon himself to overpower the commander and take leadership over the remaining men in the base. And just in time - nearby, a Viet Cong commander named Cao Van (Arevalo) is determined with his troops to either take over the base or wipe it completely off the map. However, under the command of Hafner, the troops of Firebase Gloria manage to stand their ground and repel attack after attack. But the question comes up as to how long Hafner and his men can keep control of the base or even just their lives.

Just before watching The Siege Of Firebase Gloria, I wondered if it would share one specific aspect that practically every other Vietnam War movie has, that being its politics. Those politics being, of course, having a negative view of the American involvement. While there were certainly a large number of legitimate arguments against the American involvement, people forget that the Vietnam War was complex, so much so that another side could be argued. (Take the fact that about two million Vietnamese felt it necessary to flee the country after the Americans pulled out, for instance.) As it turns out, the movie's opinion of the American involvement is a balanced one. The movie shows that the Viet Cong were a force that would commit atrocities like killing whole villages of people who were friendly to the Americans, or kill wounded American soldiers and the medical staff that were treating the wounded. On the other hand, the American soldiers are seen shooting wounded V.C. troops after one skirmish, showing that they too at times would commit atrocities. Though there is more criticizing the top American brass controlling the Vietnam War than with the soldiers on the field. Early in the movie when Di Nardo and Hafner try to report a massacred village, it doesn't make any difference to their unseen superiors. Nor does the top brass seem to care that much about supplying Firebase Gloria with extra men and supplies when it starts to be attacked. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the way the top American brass was controlling the war - treating it more as a "police action" than allowing American troops to go all out in full force - made winning the war a futile idea.

The movie's balanced viewpoint of the American involvement also extends to the two individual lead American soldiers played by Ermey and Hauser. If you have seen Full Metal Jacket, you probably would have guessed that there's a hard streak to Ermey's character, and you would be right. He certainly tosses around words like "gook" to describe the enemy, and is extremely rigid with his troops for the most part. But he occasionally shows some compassion, like in an early scene where he rescues a wounded soldier, and even occasionally shows a sense of humor like when he tells a solider that they'll protect the base like it was "your daughter's cherry." Thanks also to Ermey's take-charge performance, you'll see that this man is the right one for this job despite his flaws. Hauser, on the other hand, gives his character a lot more vulnerability. He gets visibly upset on several occasions, enough to get a little reckless at times. But he too has a softer side, most notably with the young orphaned Vietnamese child he comes across on the battlefield and protects. But he also has a sadistic side, like in one scene where he freely tortures a captured wounded prisoner over the protests of a witnessing nurse at the firebase. He too is a balanced character, and Hauser's performance is good enough to make us believe that this individual could have all these multiple sides to him. Somewhat disappointing, however, is when it comes to the Viet Cong commander Cao Van. There's nothing wrong with actor Arevalo's performance; in fact, he successfully shows with his often dejected tone that his character realizes that he and his men are being used by the North Vietnamese brass in Hanoi, and that soon the Viet Cong will disappear. However, I would have liked to have seen this character not only make more appearances, but have more to say. It would have been very interesting to learn more about his viewpoint on the entire war as well as his background.

The Siege Of Firebase Gloria would have been better (as well as more balanced on its viewpoint) had the writers fleshed out the Cao Van character some more, but that does not mean that the movie is not worth a look. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith (Dead End Drive-In) brings in enough spark through the entire package so that any bumps along the journey are hardly noticeable. It's a very good-looking movie, for one thing. The backdrop (the movie was shot in the Philippines) looks authentic, and the various sets also come across as the real thing, most notably Firebase Gloria itself. However, the area where Trenchard-Smith really excels in is with the movie's action sequences. He gets one prime ingredient just right, an essential ingredient that is missing from a lot of other (and more expensive) war movies - a feeling of chaos during battle. When bullets are flying and explosions are happening right around you, I don't imagine things would go smoothly for anyone, and this movie proves that. Trenchard-Smith throws in dozens of extras in the battles, and seemingly each extra has been especially coached to be fighting for their life in a way that's different from the other extras. This visible chaos and struggle certainly makes every battle extremely exciting and riveting, but Trenchard-Smith also throws in enough brutality in the fighting so that we in the audience can see that warfare in real life is serious business and not at all fun. Indeed, hundreds of bodies eventually pile up, more than enough that part of me was kind of relieved when the end credits started to roll. I was glad to have seen the movie and I would strongly recommend it, but the hard edge coming from all those hundreds of onscreen killing didn't exactly make me gung ho to immediately watch the movie again, at least for quite some time.

(Posted July 18, 2021)

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See also: Eye Of The Eagle 3, P.O.W. The Escape, Self Defense