Just when you think all the basic Vietnam stories have been told, helmer Thomas Michael Donnelly puts a new spin on America’s lost cause by viewing it from a female angle. Striving for mythic levels — although there’s plenty of scary grit to it — “A Soldier’s Sweetheart” taps into an aspect of warfare that transcends gender. Subject, then, is a difficult one, but extremely well-mounted pic could resonate with women if Paramount can find a way to package it for theatrical release; in the wake of Spielberg’s femme-less “Saving Private Ryan,” there could be an appetite for this strikingly honest look at women and war. Made for eventual Showtime slots, pic stands to lose much of its considerable power on the small screen.
Originally called “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” after a story by Tim O’Brien, pic introduces us — via flashbacks narrated by the cynical Rat (Kiefer Sutherland) — to a motley crew of army medics stationed on a verdant hillside in war-torn Vietnam. With all their officers killed or pushed on to more pressing matters, the enlisted men of the Song Tra Bong (a place, not a tune) live a relatively loose, MASH-like existence, with long periods of peaceful freedom broken by unimaginably grisly work on mangled GIs ‘coptered in straight from battle.
During one of the quiet spells, Rat’s pal Fossie (Skeet Ulrich) hears about a similarly isolated unit that pooled its resources to import a good-time girl. He takes this to heart and sets black-market wheels in motion. But instead of a Saigon hooker, the eventual arrival is Fossie’s hometown g.f., the teenage Marianne (Georgina Cates). Naturally, the other men are shocked by the presence of such a milk-fed innocent. And with this lamblike creature exploring the compound in her parade of skimpy, pastel-colored outfits, they’re disturbed in other ways, too. Instead of their Shangri-La devolving into a “Lord of the Flies”-type situation, however, the group finds its humanity refreshed by the unexpected visitor from way back home.
Even as the boys in green are softened by the young woman’s presence, she starts going through a curious transformation: Given a crack at small-arms fire and instant triage in the blood-spattered field hospital, Marianne finds herself drawn to the carnality of it all. She develops a tendency to wander into the countryside to explore nature (potentially dangerous, like her own), and also befriends a group of fearsome Green Berets, or Greenies, as they’re called by Rat’s intimidated crowd.
Naturally, this personality shift rattles her guy, who’s soon angling to send her home, even as she goes deeper into the idea of war. After she joins the Greenies on an all-night patrol, Fossie flips, and so do their roles, with the sensitive soldier wondering if his increasingly tough mate will come back alive.
Some viewers will find Marianne’s arc too big to follow, and indeed, the story doesn’t demand that she be quite so soft and pretty at the start, considering that she’ll be knee-deep in mud and blood by the end. Still, she’s convincingly played by Cates, here sporting a solid Yank accent, a svelte figure and a tan — making her unrecognizable from the pudgy, pasty-faced Brit who stumbled amusingly through “An Awfully Big Adventure.” Ulrich helps by reading much subtle information into his essentially passive role.
The real standout, though, is Sutherland; his beautifully balanced dance of tension and restraint makes this some of the best, most thoughtful work he’s done. The kicker is that Rat is quietly in love with Marianne, despite his hardened view of her Nam experience.
In Donnelly’s previous Showtime effort, “The Garden of Redemption,” likewise a war drama (it’s part of a proposed trilogy for the cabler), his helming collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. But here he keeps his eye on the ball, with magic slipping into the realism — aided by lush New Zealand settings — just enough to suggest that the narrative can be viewed as fable more than fact. His allusions to related pics, especially “Lost Horizon” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” are appropriate without being overly pointed.
Donnelly’s also good with the talent, allowing some lesser characters to display their own rhythms. Particularly notable are the fast-talking, hustle-minded Eddie (Daniel London) and the group’s token black, the egregiously nicknamed Shoeshine (Larry Gilliard Jr.), who manage to carve out identities with relatively little screen time.