By Jerry Chandler
The Vietnam War had an interesting effect on the Hollywood and smaller studio systems of the 1970s and 1980s. War movies had been a staple of American cinema for about as long as there had been an American cinema, and most of the mainstream war movies had for the longest time a large “Rah, Rah, Sis-Boom-Bah” factor about them. They would occasionally try to slip a ‘look at the horrors of war’ moment into some of them- typically with the death of a beloved character played by a major name actor –but they were largely focused on looking at war as a heroic endeavor that turned men into heroes and heroes into legends. They were the types of films that made young kids want to go out and play soldier with their friends and “die” in a blaze of glory and honor.
Then the Vietnam War hit and a lot of that got turned upside down. America was coming off a war it hadn’t won. Two wars actually, because right before Vietnam there was Korea. Technically, America didn’t really lose either war, but creating films around a war where the ultimate best chant for audiences coming out of theaters could be “We Didn’t Lose” didn’t have the same vibe as being able to declare victory and a world saved from evil by the end of the film. There were no films like The Fighting Seabees to be made where a lead character played by a popular actor could die and it was still okay in the end because he sacrificed himself for the ultimate greater good of the winning war effort.
In the wake of Vietnam, the nature of the American war film changed. Even films being made about WWII started changing how they portrayed war and the effects of war on soldiers. But when Hollywood starting making films about Vietnam? Gone were films like Mister Roberts or To Hell and Back, because Hollywood was now making films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. For a time, the war film became the intensely haunting examination of how war destroys man in more ways and more places than just on the battlefield. Even when larger studios geared a film to be more action oriented, there was still a strong focus on the toll the war took on the men who fought it. It’s gotten lost on many thanks to the sequels, but even First Blood was largely centered around how the war had changed and destroyed John Rambo and crew. Some smaller studios might still go the exploitation route, but many still tried to do films with the themes these other films had. Some of them actually worked fairly well. Then there were the films like Ruckus.
1980’s Ruckus was writer/director Max Kleven’s attempt to do a film around a damaged Vietnam vet who gets harassed by the locals and has to ultimately fight for his survival thanks to the local good old boys deciding he needs to be taught his place. While the movie predated First Blood by two years, it came out eight years after the release of the novel and studios had been trying to put together a film version of the novel for almost the entire ten years it took to finally get it to the big screen. During that time, early scripts were written and passed around and it became more and more of a buzz property. While I’ve never seen a direct admission of this, anyone who watches both Ruckus and First Blood will immediately notice the many similarities in the story and the character concepts. Where the films don’t have something in common is in the overall quality of the filmmaking.
First and foremost, this was a much lower budgeted smaller studio affair. The budget to give it all the visual bells and whistles of First Blood and that film’s action scenes just wasn’t there. There also wasn’t the budget to attract any larger Hollywood names to the project. Most of the roles went to lesser character actors and, well, much lesser skilled actors. Actually, many of the supporting roles went to people who were primarily stunt men by trade, not actors. This was a deliberate act by Max Kleven, and there was a reason for it.
Ruckus was Max Kleven’s first credit (of very few credits) as a writer or a director. He did have some experience as a second unit director before taking on Ruckus as a project, but the experience doesn’t really show on film. The one place where his experience did shine was from his primary filmmaking career. Kleven had started out his time in Hollywood as a stunt man on 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days and transitioned to being a stunt coordinator by 1970’s Cotton Comes to Harlem. In between his start as a stunt man and his taking the helm of Ruckus, he’d worked as either a stunt man or the stunt coordinator on an impressive array of television and movie projects. That skill absolutely came across in the film, because he and Ruckus stunt coordinator Walter Scott actually pull of some very nice action, fight, and stunt moments compared to what was seen in many of the lower budgeted films of this nature from that era of low budget filmmaking.
The story for Ruckus was fairly simple, and most of the major plot points and character introductions are presented as early as possible in order to launch the film into its more action based portions. Dirk Benedict- he of Battlestar Galactica fame -plays Kyle Hanson, a Vietnam vet who returned home traumatized and unable to integrate back into society. When we first see him at the beginning of the film, he appears to have become a homeless drifter who owns nothing more than the clothing he’s wearing. Hanson shambles into the tiny, out of the way town of Madoc and heads for the first roadside quick eats place he sees.
In this opening scene, we are literally given almost everything we need to know about anyone and everyone in the film and meet almost all of our primary players. Hanson goes up to the order window and requests a burger. When the girl at the window asks him how he wants it, he answers that he wants it raw. This gets a few odd looks from everyone. Of course, he was already getting those looks due to looking like he’d been bathing and doing his laundry in mud.
The locals are all eating their lunches when he arrives, and they start making fun of Hanson as he sits on the ground and begins to eat. At first it’s just in the form of verbal harassment. They make comments about his appearance and odor, and one of the top dog locals, an older vet himself, proclaims when asked about him that Hanson didn’t look like someone who ever served but rather bought the jacket he’s wearing at a secondhand surplus shop. Then they start throwing their trash at the trashcan; deliberately missing it in order to hit Hanson with it.
This comes to an abrupt end when Sam Bellows (Ben Johnson) pulls up with his daughter Jenny Bellows (Linda Blair) with him. A few exchanges between the locals make it clear that Sam bellows is “the Boss” in the town, being both its richest man and the major employer of almost everyone in the town. This also makes Jenny the prize catch for some of the more eligible locals to aspire to catching, but there’s a problem with that.
Jenny is Sam’s daughter-in-law. Sam’s son went off to Vietnam to fight the war and became one of the war’s many MIA. Not truly knowing if he’s alive or dead, neither of them have been able to move on. As Jenny gets their food, Sam tries to talk to Hanson to ask him if he knew his son. Hanson continues to eat, ignoring Sam’s existence before getting up and walking away. Sam waves the older vet, nicknamed Sarge, over to him and asks him to try to talk to Hanson before giving him $10 to give to Hanson for his troubles. Sarge again expresses doubt that Hanson was ever in the military and adds that even if he was the odds of him knowing Sam’s boy are slim. Sam insists and Sarge takes the money and gathers his boys up to go talk to Hanson as Jenny comes back to the car and the two of them leave.
Sarge and his crew drive down the road and park their vehicles on the far end of a bridge Hanson walking over. They meet him close to the midpoint and stop him. However, they quickly show their intent is to teach him a lesson for the “disrespect” he showed Bellows. Hanson largely ignores them as he did with Bellows, but then they put their hands on him. At that point, he flips out and tears them apart.
Hanson begins to leaves the bridge and Sarge and his crew begin to pull themselves together. They get one of the boys back into the town proper to get medical attention and tell the Sherriff that Hanson just went crazy for no reason and attacked them all. This gets the local lawmen into the hunt, and, as you’ll know if you saw First Blood, that doesn’t go well for the local lawmen.
Hanson goes into the woods and turns the hunters into the hunted with the help of a makeshift bow and quickly made arrows. While beating the snot out of the locals, he comes across Jenny’s home and sees her in the yard. He goes into her home and tells her he never knew her husband. She offers him some food and sits with him for a bit until the others show up outside. Hanson starts to slip out the back before he’s discovered and Jenny tries to get him to stay. In their discussion, he says he can’t stay because they might like him up. He can handle men with guns hunting him, but he can’t handle being locked up. That line (of course) sets something up for later.
From there the film gets, well, odd. We get the story path one would expect with a showdown between Hanson and Sarge and his crew, but we also get a middle point that works for the story while not fully working for the watchability of the film. Hanson and Jenny begin to form a relationship and we see him begin to form a bond with her and her son. This leads Hanson to start to heal emotionally and come out of his shell during this arc, so, of course, this is when Jenny’s wannabee paramour gets some of Sarge’s crew together, grabs Hanson, and locks him up to try to torture him. We see flashbacks letting us know what happened to Hanson in Vietnam before we see the results of making him relive it. It doesn’t go well for the locals.
The movie rushes to its conclusion from there, and it involves a fair number of things blowing up; just with lower budgeted explosions. It also ends a tad less bloody and downbeat than First Blood would a couple of years later.
Ruckus was an attempt to cash in on a specific genre of film from that era, as well as an attempt by Dirk Benedict to break away from the type of character roles that projects like Chopper One, Sssssss, Battlestar Galactica, Scavenger Hunt, and others were quickly stereotyping him into; especially after the pop culture success of Battlestar Galactica. It failed on both counts by neither becoming a popular or critical success nor by heading Benedict away from roles in projects like Underground Aces and Body Slam as the same character type he was finding himself typecast into.
But it did manage to become something of a cult favorite over the years. It had the right combination of sincerity, schlock value, and unintentional camp to be watchable enough to attract a loyal following. The film has only seen limited release on DVD, but once the film fell out of print the DVD price skyrocketed. Why? Because somehow this film continues to find new fans; perhaps deservedly so.
Ruckus was a strange little product of its time, and an oddly enjoyable one. It has a few moments (largely in the scenes showing the growing relationship between Benedict and Blair’s characters) that are almost cringe worthy bad to watch and many of the characters scream of being mindlessly created, cardboard cutout stereotypes, but it’s still kind of mindlessly enjoyable in its way. In many ways, Ruckus, despite being released first, also often feels like a third or fourth rate rip-off of First Blood. But if you can get past these things- as well as suffer through the overly schmaltzy, painfully sung theme song unscathed -there’s a lot in Ruckus that’s just mindlessly enjoyable to sit down and watch for a spell. Plus, well, it’s kind of fun to see Dirk Benedict stretch his acting talents to play a character like Kyle Hanson; even if the performance proves why he should never have been cast to play a character like Kyle Hanson.
Ruckus is available from online sellers on DVD for an arm and a leg. At this point, you should probably just watch it on YouTube or some other streaming service. Here’s the trailer.
Now, just for laughs, here’s the trailer where they tried to make it look The Dukes of Hazzard. I can only imagine what people who saw it based on this trailer were thinking halfway through the film.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.