Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)

(aka Dog Soldiers)


Karel Reisz's “Who'll Stop the Rain?” (aka “Dog Soldiers”) is one of the most under-appreciated films about the Vietnam War and its impact on both soldiers and civilians.  The movie is at once a particular chronicle of a divisive, tumultuous war, a complex morality drama, and a sharp character study, not to mention the superb performances of Nick Nolte, Michael Moriarty and particularly Tuesday Weld, forming one of the most intriguing triangles on American screen of the late 1970s.


Based on a bestseller by Robert Stone, the film was released in 1978, the same year as the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.  However, unlike those pictures, “Who'll Stop the Rain” was a commercial flop, dismissed by some critics as yet another expose about the insidious, poisonous effects of the Vietnam War.  The movie is also effective as a hard-edged adventure of couple on the run (from the law and from themselves), marked by superb character studies.


In this surreal tale, British director Reisz exposes the horrors of mental disturbance and emotional disintegration as direct results of the war.  John Converse (Michael Moriarty), a war correspondent in Vietnam, arranges with his serviceman Ray Hicks (Nolte) to smuggle a package of heroin by ship to his wife Marge (Weld), who lives in Oakland, California. 


The resourceful Ray, once a Marine and now working for the Merchant Marine, is expected to collect his reward through Marge. Ray succeeds in smuggling the package but finds out that Marge is totally ignorant about the deal, and moreover, herself impaired as a barbiturate addict. 


Later, it turns out that Converse and Ray have been framed by drug-trafficking thugs.  As quick-witted as he is agile, Ray turns the tables on the thugs, when they attack him and Marge in the Converses' modest residence, forcing the couple to escape to his own shack near L.A.  Then, upon return to his empty home, Converse is seized and tortured by two thugs, Danskin (Richard Masur) and Smitty (Ray Sharke), who working for the corrupt narcotics federal agent Antheil (Anthony Zerbe).

Ray becomes an obsessive avenger, trying to dispose of the drugs on his own account through a contact he knows but who fails him.  A victim of harder drugs, he then flees with Marge to a deserted mountainous hideout in New Mexico, which used to be a hippie community, but in the end, the couple is tracked down by Antheil and his henchmen as well as by Converse.


In the climax, a shootout organized by Ray, Antheil and his gang perish, while Ray, whose presence has remained undetected, is mortally wounded.  Converse and Marge manage to escape, but only after spilling the heroin to waste on the ground when they discover Ray's dead body.


One reason for the film's failure may be its harsh tone and indictment of the Vietnam War and those in charge, showing that the bitter disillusionment and even madness among the soldiers, which spread around and become contagious in the society at large, now defined by moral chaos, corrupt leadership and confusion.


Other detractors of the film pointed out the changes in the tale in its transfer from book to screen.  In Stone's novel, Marge is involved in the drug scene from the start and thus is a willing accomplice.  But in the film, she is more vulnerable and naive, and more suddenly pulled into the action.


In the film, opposites attract and the strong Ray falls for the weak Marge, but there is not enough explanation for this sudden infatuation and it remains unclear what exactly draws Ray to Marge and keeps his interest in her after she begins to degenerates.


Czech-born English-based Reisz, who had previously directed “Morgan” with Vanessa Redgrave, and “The Gambler,” chose for his second American film a couple-on-the-run adventure that's also effective as a moral parable, which he infuses with in-depth characterization, stressing the personal disarray, the growing governmental corruption and the effects of that most unpopular, divisive Vietnam war on American culture at large.