It is the early forties in the United States and the nation has entered the Second World War, but for budding marine Marion Hedgepeth (Jan-Michael Vincent), he will never see action and neither will most of the rejects who make up his squad. On the training ground, he can barely tell his left from his right, and when his drill sergeant orders him to be more angry, to go out and get into a fight so he can be in a more combative frame of mind appropriate to what his country is asking of him, Marion says he's just not pissed off enough at anyone. So it's not a surprise that he gets sent back home as a so-called "Baby Blue Marine" thanks to the uniform the army make the rejects wear...
But that's not the end of the story, which came across as if the Preston Sturges comedy from actual wartime, Hail the Conquering Hero, had been remade as a romantic drama, except this effort seemed far less subversive and daring due to how mild the whole tone was. If anything, it had something to say about the Vietnam War and how those who never went, in spite of being called up, were treated, which could have been pretty sharp if the Hedge character had been a conscientious objector, but then the rest of the plot would have taken a very different path if he had been more political, and director John Hancock was aiming for the heartstrings over the head.
That was not to say that there were some provocative issues raised, but they were far from confrontational in their presentation. What happens is that Marion is on his way home, and stops at a bar while he's waiting for the train to take him back. He gets to talking with a Marine, one who has served in the Pacific rather than being too pathetic to fight as Marion is, and draws out the harrowing story of how war actually is, bringing out the film's theme of bringing heroism into question, or the popular concept of it anyway. The Marine, incidentally, was played by Richard Gere, here sporting a shock of white hair to underline how the conflict has changed him, and after he gets Hedge drunk he promptly knocks him out and steals his uniform.
So after we have left the war hero who couldn't face being sent back to the Pacific and found his own route out of it, we have to regard Marion who naturally has to put on the Marine's uniform that has been left behind. He then discovers people react to him very differently, and there's a view of the ordinary folks who support wars because they feel it's their patriotic duty as being somewhat unworldy at best, and complete idiots at worst. This film is too gentle to be so disparaging, but it does remain convinced that the gung ho opinions that send young men to fight for their country are not anything but damaging. Therefore Hedge becomes a hero in the movie's eyes for different reasons to the one that the public see him as.
Put on a uniform, says Baby Blue Marine, and people will treat you with some kind of respect, either that or they'll get aggressive towards you, and so the army reject ends up in a small town in America's heartland where he meets diner waitress Rose (Glynnis O'Connor) who at first takes a shine to him due to what he is wearing. He finds the locals want to buy him lunch, invite him into their homes, and ask him to attend football games, something he is happy to go along with, not because he is malicious or exploitative, but because he doesn't wish to let them down and shatter their illusions. Vincent is well cast here, as his character is essentially a nice guy who gets in over his head, and the actor's straightforward style suits that very well, but after a while you'll wish the film was more fired up about its subject matter. It ends with three Japanese-Americans escaping from a nearby internment camp and a lesson to be learned by the locals about who the enemy really was, but it's too pat and sentimentally constructed to be truly effective. An interesting failure - but it is interesting. Music by Fred Karlin.
Born in Kansas City, Hancock worked as a theatre director throughout the 60s before receiving an Oscar nomination in 1970 for his short film Sticky My Fingers... Fleet My Feet. His feature debut, Let's Scare Jessica To Death, was an effective slice of horror, while subsequent films, such as Bang the Drum Slowly (featuring a young Robert De Niro) and Weeds were sensitively made dramas.