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‘The Last Detail’: How Hal Ashby’s 1973 Navy movie gave me a portal into my Pops’ past

The film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid turns 50 this year

Otis Young, Randy Quaid, and Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail."Columbia Pictures

“This movie really captures what it felt like to be in the Navy.”

When I rented “The Last Detail” from the video store and brought it home, that’s what my Pops told me. The movie, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Dec. 12, spoke to him in one of the ways a great movie should; it offered him an empathetic entry point into the story. Quite possibly, it also validated his own experiences.

I don’t know if Pops was commenting on his time in the service, or whether it was meant to be a positive or negative statement. I never asked. Pops is a Vietnam veteran — he’d left the Navy a few years before “The Last Detail” premiered. If you’ve ever known a vet, you know that you don’t bring up their war. Sometimes, however, they bring their memories to you, casually in conversations about other things.

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And so, this seemingly inconsequential tidbit about a movie I was about to watch in our VCR offered me, at 17 years old, a small portal into Pops’ past. A detail, if you will — and, thankfully, not the last one.

Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail."Columbia Pictures

The reason this description about the Navy sticks with me is that, after watching “The Last Detail” that first time, I was mad! This movie made me so angry. I thought it was brilliant, and to this day it earns its stripes for Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance (he got an Oscar nomination for it). But I was incensed and heartbroken by its downer ending, and I wondered what exactly about this film “felt like the Navy” to my Pops.

As befitting art of the Nixon era, “The Last Detail” is an anti-establishment picture directed by the very anti-establishment Hal Ashby. Ashby won the Oscar for editing “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) before helming “The Landlord” (1970) and “Harold and Maude” (1971), two very unconventional films about people on the fringes of society.

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Ashby, who was himself a bohemian, didn’t care if he gave the producers of “The Last Details” agita. According to Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Ashby got arrested for possession of weed, while scouting locations in Canada, which almost got him fired before a frame of film had been shot.

Robert Towne’s screenplay, adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel, was so profane that it freaked out Columbia Pictures. The language shouldn’t have been surprising; this is a film about sailors. Hell, Nicholson’s character, Billy Buddusky, was nicknamed “Badass,” which you could at least say in a PG-rated movie. Ultimately, the very R-rated “The Last Detail” featured 65 instances of the F-word and its variants, a record at the time.

As with any anti-establishment movie, from Nicholson’s own “Easy Rider” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Cool Hand Luke,” the establishment always wins. Nobody said life was fair, and many movies of the 1970s echo that sentiment.

The title uses “detail” in its military meaning; that is, a particular assignment. Signalman First Class “Badass” Buddusky and Gunner’s Mate First Class “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), two lifers in the Navy, have been assigned to Shore Patrol, or, to use Buddusky’s words “[the bleeperbleepin’] Shore Patrol.”

Randy Quaid, Otis Young, and Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail"Columbia Pictures

Their detail is to transport 18-year-old court-martialed felon Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, in his only Oscar-nominated role) from Norfolk, Va., to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. Meadows’s crime: He attempted to steal 40 bucks from a charity run by a bigwig officer’s wife. That’s $277.18 in 2023 dollars. For this minor crime, he’s sentenced to eight years in Portsmouth.

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Buddusky and Mulhall know the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but orders are orders and life isn’t fair. And yet, this virginal Meadows kid is so naïve and soft-spoken that the lifers decide to show him a good time and toughen him up on the way to the brig. They plan to get him lewd, screwed, and tattooed.

Comic mayhem, bouts of boozing, numerous fights, and plenty of foul language ensue. As an added bonus, Buddusky teaches Meadows a bit of semaphore. (I once asked my Pops about the flag-based signal language after seeing it on a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and he gave me a similar lesson.)

At this point, “The Last Detail” becomes a road movie, with stops in Washington, D.C., and Boston. The hometown of the Globe is where we meet a sex worker played by Carol Kane in a hilariously realistic deflowering scene. Through these adventures, Meadows becomes more confident, and the trio form a bond — of course, it’s one that can’t be sustained.

“He don’t stand a chance in Portsmouth, you know,” Buddusky tells Mulhall as they near the end of the journey. “I don’t want to hear about it,” Mulhall responds with resignation. “Let’s get this over with.”

While they’re having this discussion, Meadows tries to escape, and it’s here where the viewer feels really conflicted. We want Meadows to get away; and under normal circumstances, Mulhall and Buddusky would probably want that, too. But orders are orders, and life isn’t fair.

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Otis Young, Jack Nicholson, and Randy Quaid in "The Last Detail."Columbia Pictures

The final scene of “The Last Detail” is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. It’s also a quintessential 1970s movie ending. The senior officers deliver Meadows to prison, only to be abused by a Marine officer for their troubles. “It takes a certain kind of a sadistic temperament to be a Marine,” Buddusky tells Mulhall.

Watching Ashby’s film now, I think I understood what my Pops was trying to tell me. When you’re in the service, your job is to follow orders — even the ones that curdle your conscience and break your soul. “The Last Detail” shows the camaraderie between sailors and the good times, but it’s also brutally honest about what it means to be in the service, and how you still have to live with yourself when what you’re commanded to do just doesn’t sit well with your moral compass. Nicholson, Quaid, and Young powerfully convey that to the viewer.

The elation I experienced during the road-trip section of “The Last Detail,” combined with that dull pain in the pit of my gut at the end — that’s the feeling my Pops must have meant.


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.