On November 10, 1970, ABC brought the war in Vietnam home to the TV viewer with the Movie of the Week, Tribes. In it, a young and effective Jan-Michael Vincent is a hippie draftee who squares off with his Marine Corps D.I., played by a solid Darren McGavin in a performance that is part of a twenty year continuum extending from Jack Webb in his self-directed The D.I. (1957) to Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Ermey also plays a D.I. in Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978), one of the first movies about the Vietnam War to dramatize the futility and irony of that seemingly endless conflict.
In Tribes, Vincent is a pacifist recruit who refuses to bend to the will of his D.I., using his hippie wiles to create an alternate reality for himself and some of his fellow recruits. McGavin plays an essentially decent gunnery sergeant who tries to work with Vincent and whip him into shape. But he is frustrated by fellow gunny, Earl Holliman, who makes it his personal mission to break the spirit of the anti-establishment recruit, who he recognizes as a subversive threat to the basic training routine that has been the backbone of the Marine Corps for 190 years. In a terse ninety minutes, these three men square off until the story reaches its inevitably sad conclusion. “Tribes are gathering,” goes the movie’s theme song, which sounds like a lost song from Hair, but this is a hegira that Vincent will ultimately have to make on his own and the movie makes it clear that his journey will be a lonely one.
The movie is directed by Joseph Sergeant, a director mainly of TV movies who got the occasional shot at features. The highlight of his movie career is probably the original version of The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), which perfectly captures the downbeat zeitgeist of New York in the mid-seventies (along with Michael Winner’s Death Wish and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). Among his more notable TV movies are Amber Waves, a paean to the American heartland, and Warm Springs, the moving account of FDR’s battle with polio. Sergeant is not in the pantheon of great directors, but his work is always technically accomplished and his movies always have the virtue of being cleanly dramatized.
Tribes is a model of efficient movie-making as it and other MOWs were part of a creative assembly line that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the Hollywood studio production system in the thirties and forties. And yet, it stands out and rises above the pack because of the way it succinctly crystalizes a moment in time when the establishment seemed corrupt and played out, but the counter-culture no longer seemed to have all the answers. Tribes are gathering, yes, but what will happen then? The movie has no real answers, something soon to be borne out by the changing cultural landscape as the tribes of the sixties were replaced by the "Me Decade" of the seventies.