No *#@!!* Navy's going to give some poor **!!@* kid eight years in the #@!* brig without me taking him out for the time of his *#@!!* life. – Tagline for The Last Detail
“Who’d he kill, chief?” Jack Nicholson asks, playing the salty, swashbuckling "Bad-Ass" Buddusky. The answer is no one. The answer is a kid stole (or tried to steal) $40 from a polio donation box and is being sent to prison for eight years and then dishonorably discharged. In The Last Detail, it’s Signalman 1st Class Billy L. "Badass" Buddusky (Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate 1st Class Richard "Mule" Mulhall’s (Otis Young) job to drag the poor son of a bitch from Norfolk, Virginia to the Portsmouth Naval Prison.
The two Navy “lifer’s” plan is to ship the kid off to prison as fast as they can and then enjoy a slow-boat of booze and debauchery on per diem getting back. But Meadows, the pathetically diffident eighteen-year-old thief, grows on them and Baddusky decides to show him one last good time before turning him in. The result is a blur of firsts for the kid, as the “Badass” gives Meadows his first beer, his first drunk, and his first lay. Baddusky doesn’t give a fuck, but tries to give Meadows one. He tries to teach the kid how to brawl, how to get angry, how to “have it the way you want it.” The movie has an intense sense of urgency in every raucous and mundane moment, as the clock ticks away to the moment when Meadows has to be turned over to the authorities, to when the joyride has to come to an end. The result is a hilarious and oddly charming week of recklessness with knock-out performances by all three lead characters, but Jack Nicholson’s foul-mouthed, truculent “Badass” sparkles with all the maniacal flare of a wild sailor on land.
Made in 1973, Nicholson had well over a dozen leading roles to his name, but was just beginning to make a name for himself. Rising to fame at the height of the New Hollywood movement, Nicholson came of status to pick and choose roles at a moment of incredible opportunity. Profanity codes and other film restrictions were getting looser. American filmmakers were experimenting with an adventurous blend of old Hollywood and European art house innovations. Nicholson turned down starring roles in The Great Gatsby, The Sting, and The Godfather, and instead chose films like The Last Detail.
The Last Detail was written by close friend and former acting classmate Robert Towne, who had helped with Nicholson’s own early directing project, Drive, He Said. The two would also collaborate on their next big venture, Chinatown. In fact, Towne’s screenplay for The Last Detail was actually completed three years earlier, but contained too much profanity for Columbia to green light the project. They kept trying to get Towne to tone down the language, producer Peter Gruber citing 342 “fucks” in the first seven minutes. "This is the way people talk when they're powerless to act,” Towne threw back, “they bitch.” It was only when Nicholson came on board, then Hollywood’s favorite beloved outlaw, that they went on with production. That, and by 1972, standards for foul language had relaxed enough to leave all hundreds of “fucks” in.
It’s exactly the powerlessness simmering beneath all the profanity that gives The Last Detail its immense power. Nicholson’s larger-than-life, near-manic Buddusky exemplifies perfectly the kind of stunted machoism and overcompensation for an otherwise powerless and blasé existence. He’s got a few days to show Meadows the time of his life before being locked up for eight years on petty theft charges. But Buddusky and Mulhall also only have a week of “shit detail” freedom before they’re back to the rigid monotony of military life. Even within their week of reckless freedom and anarchy, there’s an underlying sense of post-war disillusionment that sits in the silence between antics. They stumble upon a group of hippy Nichiren Shōshū Buddhists happily chanting and Buddusky watches, captivated, before stating, “Why does all of this make me feel so fucking bad?” The tension broiling beneath their understanding that its back to the barracks after this is their dependence on the system that traps them.
The cynical but straight-laced Mule spends half the movie bitching about his job, but in a moment of frustration explodes on Buddusky, calling the Navy the best thing that happened to him. “I consider myself in jeopardy with you man, understand? In jeopardy. This ain't no farewell party n' he ain't retirin'. Understand? He's a prisoner n' we're takin' 'im to the jailhouse. N' you have a tendency to forget that. You're a menace, man. You ain't no simple shit Bad-Ass, you're a motherfuckin' menace. But from now on, MAA can go piss up a rope! … You're a lifer like me! Navy's the best thing ever happened to me, n' I don't want'cha to fuck me up, y'understand?”
But as anxious as Mule feels about Buddusky’s cigar-chomping, pugnacity, he’s there at his side, talking pussy, drinking beer, and splitting the tab for Meadows’ whorehouse deflowering. And as much as they bitch and rail about the system, the tragedy is that they’re so deeply ingrained in that system that it never crosses their mind to stop the massive injustice they’re participating in. Their solution is to give the kid one great week before his eight-year prison sentence and dishonorable discharge, not to challenge the governmental callousness of the sentence given the (unsuccessful) crime. They’re just two guys doing their job, trying to carve out a little freedom and joy in their life, but ultimately bowing down to “The Man” they bitch about. In the final scene, Buddusy and Mule walk away, “Anchors Aweigh” playing in the background, while they bitch about the most mundane and trivial of problems - bureaucratic paperwork – and hope their orders come through by the time they get to Norfolk. The last detail, then, is a drink and a smoke and a forgetting of all the really big details. Because, as the movie shows, that’s part of the job, part of the shit detail.
More on The Last Detail:
Biography documentary on Jack Nicholson
“The Last Good Time we Ever Had: Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema,” by Noel King (2004)
New York Times review (1974)
Senses of Cinema review (2003)
Slant review (2013)
Biskind, Peter (1998) Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.