“A Duck, a Soldier, and a Prince Walk Into a Bar”
A rare occurrence happened in 1986; the Razzies awarded two films as the Worst Picture of the year: Howard the Duck and Under the Cherry Moon. These two films shared the top prize and the Academy Awards named Platoon the Best Picture of the year. Now, at first glance these three films may seem completely different, but they are in fact all very personal projects that share many things in common. So, let’s take a look back and explore the stories of deer hunters, duck hunters, and women hunters.
UNDER THE CHERRY MOON & HOWARD THE DUCK and PLATOON
Under the Cherry Moon – “Believe it or not, the film is well put together, each scene memorable in its own way and a climax that might make you cry.” – Robin (Tyro-2), IMDb.com
Howard the Duck – “The jokes are terrible, the dialogue sub-par, the plot laughable. But you know what, you’ll laugh you a$$ off.” – iota92587, IMDb.com
Platoon – “War movies of the past, even the greatest ones, seem like crane shots by comparison; “Platoon” is at ground zero.” Sheila Benson, Times Film Critic
Following the success of Purple Rain, sex shooter Prince makes his directorial debut by starring in the emotionally erotic Under the Cherry Moon. Filmed in color then transferred to black and white to give it a more professional feel to it, it opens with the narrator declaring “Once upon a time in France there lived a bad boy named Christopher Tracy.” Taking advantage of rich women in clubs by wooing them with his piercing piano skills then escorting them to bed, Christopher and his companion Tricky make this a regular routine. But how can one not be infatuated with Christopher as he wears his sparkling black and white outfits one can only imagine are in fact red or purple or raspberry colored. During the opening credits, we see the bad boy performing one of his rituals by having Tricky pass notes between Christopher and a seductive woman in white.
Following the success of Razzie winner Rambo: First Blood Part II, real life war veteran Oliver Stone decided to make a film about the horrors of Vietnam as well. Charlie Sheen stars as rifle shooter Chris Taylor, a newcomer to the war. Now, Howard the Duck has a song in his film called ‘Howard the Duck’ and Christopher Tracy has a song in his film called ‘Christopher Tracy,’ but unfortunately Chris Taylor does not have a song called Chris Taylor. Because of this dilemma, since you won’t have the catchy tunes in your head to separate Christopher from Chris, from now on Chris Taylor will still be referenced as Chris and Christopher Tracy will be known as The Artist Formerly Known as Christopher Tracy, or “The Artist” for short. Anyway, throughout Platoon, Chris narrates as he writes letters home to his grandmother, who I’m assuming is not as seductive as the woman in white, but we never see grandma so we’ll never know. Though The Artist fools with the ladies because he’s in need of the money, Chris on the other hand is need of independence. In fact, when asked by his fellow soldiers how he ended up in this war, to their surprise he tells them he dropped out of college and volunteered. “I wasn’t learning anything. I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids get away with it?” Gradually, as he encounters the horrific battles, Chris begins his new education.
Ending the success of George Lucas and Star Wars, Willard Huyck made his directorial finale with Howard the Duck. Based off the Marvel comic, the title character Howard is a Duck who lives on a duck planet. After coming home to his duck apartment, watching some duck television, and reading Playduck, a giant earthquake occurs and Howard is whisked away from his planet and goes through the galaxy to land on Earth.
Now, before I continue I must mention something important. I have the DVDs of Under the Cherry Moon and Platoon to watch and review, however, that is not the case with Howard the Duck. Instead, I have my VHS copy of the film I recorded off TV back in the late `80s, commercials and all. So, you may not be getting the true brilliance of this film through my thoughts. Just imagine it’s like one of George Lucas’s earlier films, like Star Wars 1977 instead of Star wars 1997 or Star Wars 2011. Anyway, back to the film.
Like Under the Cherry Moon and Platoon, this too has a narration at the beginning. No, it’s not the WXIX Cincinnati’s “A hero unlike any other. Move over Casanova, back off Rambo. From Chuck Norris to Chuck Berry, this rock and roll animal is here to play. George Lucas presents in the outrageous adventures of Howard the Duck. A debut network event, coming up next!” No, instead the narrator explains that in the cosmos, “what is, what was, and what will be start here with the words: In the beginning there was Howard the Duck”. I think I prefer the former narration.
A common theme in all three films is traveling. The Artist traveled to Paris to make money, Chris traveled to Vietnam to find himself, and Howard traveled to Cleve Land against his will and he just wants to return to his duck planet. On each character’s journey he meets someone important who perhaps even gives him a reason to stay.
The Artist’s reason for staying comes from somewhere he least expected. No, it’s not Tricky, even though for most of the film we hope the two will give in to their passions and get together. Instead The Artist finds it in his most recent prey, the rich heiress Mary Sharon played by the beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas. And the critically acclaimed actress makes quite the debut performance on screen by flashing the crowd and playing a drum solo. After her first minute on screen there was no question that she would be around for a long time. The Artist and Tricky manage to sneak themselves into Mary’s 21st birthday party and they attempt their next game. However, Mary catches on to their scheme and won’t be fooled so easily. But one must pay close attention to this scene because at times both The Artist and Mary’s backs are to the camera and it’s tough to guess who’s who.
Shortly after Howard’s arrival to Earth, he gets into some trouble with some local ruffians who are hanging out outside the local club. Performing at the club is Beverly, lead singer of the band Cherry Bomb, which cannot just be a coincidence. While it is important to note that Howard the Duck is the first live action Marvel film, it should also be noted that it is the first live action version of the animated series Jem, renamed Beverly here. Beverly is played by Lea Thompson, hot off her success in Back to the Future. Unfortunately, the first Back to the Future film took place in 1985 and before, so Lea didn’t know how the reaction to Howard the Duck would be. This is why she signed up for the sequels so she could go back to 1955 before Howard the Duck happened. After Beverly performs, she walks in the alley and the gang attacks her, too. Luckily, Howard’s quack-fu kicks in and he saves her. So begins their relationship. We soon learn that like Chris, Howard too was educated but decided to drop med school so he could see the world and become his own duck and maybe even work in the music industry. Instead he ended up getting a job working in advertising. He then impresses Beverly with his piano skills. You know, if Howard wanted, he could just sleep with her that night and then steal all of her money, then maybe he could have a chance of getting back home. Howard really should have been paying attention to the 80s. Whenever I watch this VHS and the commercials come up, every single commercial in the 80s had a jingle to it. Howard could have combined his advertising skills and his musical passion and made a fortune.
Meanwhile, Chris has a tough time adjusting to Vietnam. Stationed “somewhere near the Cambodian border”, it reminded me of the “small village” in Inchon and the horror Jacqueline Bisset had to face. And while The Artist is allowed to sleep on his job, Chris the soldier isn’t, and though he passed the baton to the next soldier to keep watch for the enemy so he can take a nap, the new guard fell asleep as well and Chris was blamed. Even though he made some enemies within his platoon after that incident, he managed to stumble upon a group of the platoon who listen to music and get high. This alone gives Chris a reason to stay. Entering the group’s den, a fellow soldier announces that the old Chris has been shot and now they have the new resurrected Chris. The power of Shirley MacLaine has that effect on people, too bad Chris’s new life is still as a Vietnam soldier and not a Wall Street hot shot. Among this group is the Christ-like figure Sgt. Elias, played by Willem Dafoe who probably took this role to prepare him to be Christ a couple years later. Throughout the film, Chris finds a friend in Elias who helps him get through the rough patches of his early days in ‘Nam.
Though she still plays hard to get, The Artist manages to get together with Mary, despite her father’s objections. The relationship takes time and much of their love for each other blossoms through visually without much dialogue. But luckily, like Chris’s letters to his grandma expressing his feelings, The Artist’s feelings are narrated as well, except this time through song and dance. Okay, Chris, we know someone once wrote “Hell is the impossibility of reason”, but I’ll probably forget that because it doesn’t flow as nicely as “She had the cutest ass he’d ever seen.”
Meanwhile, after a bit of a fight with Beverly, Howard returns and rescues her from her pathetic manager. The manager and his friend, played by Richard Edson, give into to Howards demand and let the duck be her new manager. And Edson was so scared of Howard’s threat of space rabies that he left Cleveland and joined the platoon with Chris. Though Edson didn’t catch space rabies or malaria, he did die from a Vietnamese booby trap.
Beverly introduces Howard to her science friend Phil Blumburtt played by Tim Robbins. Because we know Robbins is capable of perfect accents thanks to his Oscar-winning Bostonian role in Mystic River, we see an early example of his abilities with an impersonation of Donald Duck as he tries to communicate with Howard. Though Phil and Howard never really hit it off, Phil’s supervisor Dr. Walter Jenning, played by Emperor Joseph II himself Jeffrey Jones, is able to fill him in on how he came to Earth. Now, we return to my VHS dilemma. Since I’ve had this videotape recorded, right as Dr. Jenning is about to begin his explanation of Howard’s existence, the tape cuts to black and literally comes back right as he finishes. So for the past 25 years or so I’ve never known why Howard came to Earth. Well, there it is. Similarly, Chris tends to wonder why he came to Vietnam and can never really find an answer.
Each film has a distinct villain. In Under the Cherry Moon, Mary’s father is determined to end her relationship with The Artist because he insists she marries a rich man who has been chosen for her. In Platoon, Sgt. Barnes is a man who has been in Vietnam so long, he has become almost maniacal, so much so that many in the platoon have compared him to Captain Ahab. And in the final act of Howard the Duck, an alien has inhabited Dr. Jenning and he begins to transform into the Dark Overlord. While some of their intentions may be different, an angry father stopping his daughter from marrying the one she loves to an evil creature from the universe planning to invade Earth, they have some similarities.
Each film has the protagonist rescue a female character, some more valiant than others. During the raid of a village, Chris comes upon several soldiers raping a young woman (luckily they didn’t have a garden hose). He furiously stops the incident, crying out that they have no right, that she’s a human being. Mary’s father takes her with him so she can marry the always talked about but never seen Jonathan. The Artist gets in his little black and white Corvette to save her. And in Howard the Duck, the possessed Dr. Jenning kidnaps Beverly and takes her to a lab to fulfill his dastardly deeds. In order to rescue Beverly, Howard and Phil take off in a small plane. You know, Platoon opened with the soldiers exiting the aircraft when they arrived to Vietnam, and when The Artist was off to meet Mary at the climax of the film he was saving her from getting on a plane. Along with these plus the flights in Bolero, Out of Africa and Rambo: First Blood Part II, it looks like airplane scenes are taking over funeral scenes in award winning films.
After a ghastly ordeal with the natives, Barnes kills a villager and Elias threatens him with a court martial. Soon an ambush takes place, and when the two sergeants are alone, Barnes shoots Elias and leaves him for dead. As the platoon evacuates in a helicopter, Chris catches a glimpse of Elias fleeing on foot as the enemy shoots him to death. The final image of Elias dying is incredibly emotional. The image is very similar to the finale of Under the Cherry Moon. When The Artist rides a boat to meet with Mary, her father chases after him with his two goons. The father orders them to fire on The Artist and right as he rushes to Mary’s arms, he is shot to death. The shot of The Artist falling to his death is as equally devastating as Elias’s.
In Howard the Duck, as Dr. Jenning transforms into the Dark Overlord, he starts getting powers, including the ability to shoot lasers from his eyes. Near the end of the film, Dr. Jenning’s eyes glow as he tries to kill Howard. Now, if I was Howard and I knew the world was coming to the end I would have just grabbed Beverly, put on some tunes, and partied like it’s 1999. But that’s just me. At the conclusion of Platoon, during a battle, an air strike is ordered. With Chris and Barnes still in the perimeter, Barnes filled with rage, prepares to kill Chris with a shovel. Preparing for his death, Chris stares into Barnes’ glowing red eyes, but luckily the strike prevents his demise. And because Under the Cherry Moon is in black and white, we don’t get a Schindler’s List type moment with a red eye, but the closest we get is The Artist giving quite the Bela Lugosi glare earlier in the film.
Now, though I was able to make some connections with Mary’s father and Sgt. Barnes and Dr. Jenning, I won’t pretend to know how to compare the final reveal of the Dark Overlord, a giant scorpion-like monster with a giant jaw filled with ferocious teeth. Perhaps the Dark Overlord represents the monster within us all. After all, at the conclusion of Platoon, Chris declares “We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” If only Chris had known, they didn’t need to shoot each other with their weapons they needed to get shot with a neutron disintegrator in order to release the enemy within each other.
During the end credits of Under the Cherry Moon, The Artist sings another song, this time in the clouds as Mary listens while grieving his death. And during the end credits of Howard the Duck, Howard, Beverly, and the rest of Cherry Bomb perform the title track “Howard the Duck” as the packed audience cheers. The only real dancing in Platoon is when Chris starts firing at the foot of a one-legged villager demanding he dance for him. Chris was probably just upset that he never got the chance to see moves like The Artist or Howard. Tsk, tsk, Platoon, you should have taken a cue from these two films. Chris should have taken off his green beret, put on a raspberry one, gone to the wrecka stow, picked up some Sam Cooke, and he could have been shaking his DuckTale feathers and Twistin’ the Night Away with the rest of Oliver’s stoners.
[author image=”https://fbcdn-sphotos-a-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-frc1/t1/55_534157521904_4130_n.jpg” ]Jeff spends too much time watching movies, but when he’s not watching them, he helps make them by working in the grip and electric department. Some would say he chose this profession because of the thrill of being on set and helping create art, but the real reason is most G&E don’t need to wear pants. Along with being a film nerd, Jeff enjoys riding his bike everywhere around the Southern California and watching his friends perform improv.[/author]