Tour of Duty Seaon 1 on DVD

Monday, 14 November 2011 05:35

Tour of Duty is a thrilling and thought-provoking American TV series along the lines of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It concerns a fictional army company’s year-long stretch in the Vietnam War. The year is 1967, and Bravo Company is sent on an assortment of deadly missions to try to overcome the Viet Cong (VC), North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and allied Communist forces, who in turn are trying to defeat the government in South Vietnam.

Bravo Company is led by the inexperienced Lieutenant Goldman (Stephen Caffrey), under whom is Sergeant Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox – St Elsewhere), a rugged veteran with three tours already under his belt. The rest of the company is made up of seven or eight ‘cherries’, regular cast members with guest stars joining them on individual episodes. Their CO is Captain Wallace (Kevin Conroy – the voice of animated Batman since the early ‘90s). Over the course of 21 episodes in this, the first of three seasons, the soldiers are really put through the grinder, testing their physical and mental abilities to the very limit.

Tour of Duty Season 1 makes it to DVD with soundtrack intact

Made between 1987 and 1990, the series covers a wide range of issues and sortie types, delivering a surprisingly stimulating variety of storylines. Racism, alcohol and drug abuse, religion and politics are all thrown into the mix, and the writing is kept very accessible to prevent the goings-on becoming overwhelming. Naturally, human qualities such as courage, respect, trust, loyalty, friendship and honour are part and parcel of the setup, and most episodes involve moral dilemmas that force the audience to consider what they would have done in the same dire circumstances.

Some of the episodes are extremely hard-hitting and leave the audience reeling, but there is also plenty of humour to prevent the whole endeavour becoming too dark and depressing. An elderly Vietnamese lady gives two soldiers a battering when they try to steal her goat, and a cheeky pig is chased through a village after it seizes some rations.

The series is impressively even-handed and sometimes gives us the VC perspective, be it Vietnamese soldiers crying over the crumpled corpses of their loved ones, or conscripted doctors struggling with orders to kill their US prisoner of war patients. Caught in the middle are Buddhist monks and non-partisan villagers who are turfed out of their homes by one side or the other and often slaughtered by stray gunfire and bombs.

Time and again we are told that the Westerners are helping the locals out with better crops, technology or education, but at the same time one wonders if ulterior motives are behind the good deeds.

The American troops are hardly painted as whiter than white, and even those soldiers who generally mean well and try to do ‘the right thing’ are susceptible to occasional and very human mistakes, especially in the heat of battle. All of the soldiers experience fear, doubt and indecision when their mission objectives appear to fly in the face of common sense. The chain of command is ignored on numerous occasions. Life back home is sometimes depicted as being just as bad as on the front, and reports of riots and poverty encourage troops to favour sticking with their army buddies rather than return home.

Each character is different; for example, Baker (Eric Bruskotter – “Starship Troopers”) is a blond ‘gentle giant’ who is not the most quick-witted of men but is big-hearted and more courageous than most. Horn (Joshua D. Maurer – “Gettysburg”) is a deep-thinking pacifist who initially refuses to fight and thus has the radio foisted on him. Taylor (Miguel A Núñez Jr – “Scooby Doo”) is a black American with a criminal past and a deep suspicion of his white commanding officers, but ultimately his loyalty and dedication shine through.

Many of the characters develop in interesting directions, assuming they last more than a single episode (the similarities to Star Trek’s fabled ‘red shirts’ are plain to see!). For example, the black members of Bravo Company are forced to take sides when several extremely racist soldiers join their ranks. Both black and white characters are shown to have very ugly sides to their personalities, the whites treating their black brothers like lowlife cannon fodder, and the blacks over-reacting to the extent that all ‘honkies’ are their enemies and are trying to suppress them.

The action is an excellent blend of tense stakeouts and stealth missions, encounters with devious traps (tripwires linked to claymore mines, concealed pits of spikes, poisoned bamboo sticks) which may or may not go off when meddled with, and blazing gun battles in the dense jungle. One cannot help but be impressed by the VC guerrilla tactics in the face of a technologically superior opposition. Extensive tunnels, camouflage and knowledge of the terrain are employed to excellent and deadly effect.

Although the DVD picture quality looks quite heavily compressed and lacks definition (five episodes to a disc is pushing it a bit), the series looks very lavish with masses of location shooting in the jungle and green plains, with picturesque mountains looming in the background. Hawaii proves to be a compelling double for Vietnam. Swooping helicopters are ever-present and each episode involves plenty explosive shoot-outs.

The original series soundtrack has finally been reinstated (the older US box set apparently suffered from a lack of atmosphere without it), including the great choice of title music - “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones. A superb mixture of classic rock & roll and blues songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum and The Animals are joined by some typical but fitting ‘80s TV synth compositions. Panpipes are an interesting lead instrument but they work even though the setting is not South America!

Fans of Spielberg’s military films and series should definitely seek Tour of Duty out. It is excellently acted, excitingly directed and very atmospheric. Just do not get too attached to any of the characters because you genuinely fear that none of them will survive from one episode to the next, which is very rare for a TV series.

The special features of this set include:

  • All 21 Uncut Original Episodes
  • Brand New “Making of” Documentary 'The Story of Tour Of Duty' Part 1 (55 mins) featuring Cast and Crew
  • Character Biographies
  • Original Cast Biographies
  • Original Crew Biographies
  • Action Stills
  • Behind The Scenes Stills
  • Publicity Stills
  • Poster and Lobby Card Galleries
  • Synopses
  • Glossary of Tour of Duty Military Terms

“Tour of Duty – The Complete First Season” (1987) is out now, courtesy of Fabulous Films. The  five disc box set has a running time of 1063 minutes approx, carries a ‘15’ certificate and retails for £49.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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