For many film-goers, Nick Nolte is an actor of acquired appreciation. Since the mid-1970s, his critics thought he had always been more or less the same, a dull, raspy voice big tough guy, with a minimal range of characterization. But if you look closer, Nolte is a performer of quite a variety of emotional intensity, from the quietly sublime to the intensely obsessive. This can be seen in his better performances as artist Lionel Dobie in Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons,” or as journalist Russell Price in Roger Spottiswoode’s “Under Fire” and as coach and teacher, Tom Wingo in Barbra Streisand’s “Prince of Tides.”
After a not too impressive early lead in Peter Yates’ adaptation of Peter Benchley’s “The Deep” (1977), Nolte’s breakthrough role came in this week’s hidden gem “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978). The film is directed by British filmmaker Karel Reisz, who made only a handful of films in his career but was one of the most important founding members of the realistic British New Wave, so-called “kitchen sink” movement of the early 1960s.
His gritty adaptation of Robert Stone’s novel Vietnam war-era tale, “Dog Soldiers,” was quickly renamed “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and also starred Michael Moriarty and Tuesday Weld. The film takes its title from a 1970 Creedence Clear Water Revival song by John Fogerty, which addresses the endless malaise of thoughtful, good men throughout the ages.
This film is not a war film, though; it is more concerned with the effects of the war on those who participated in it. Still, it somehow got lost in the shadows of the popular Viet Nam War films of the late 1970s, like “Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Reisz knew the tragedies of war from a very personal perspective. As a native Czechoslovakian Jew, he was rescued as a young boy and spirited away to Great Britain in 1939, and, by war’s end, both of his parents died at Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” adapted by the book’s author and co-screenwriter Judith Rascoe, focuses on two disillusioned Americans, John Converse, a bewildered journalist (Moriarty), and Ray Hicks (Nolte), a Vietnam veteran, who are living aimlessly and are about to head home after the war. When they get involved in smuggling heroin from Vietnam, they quickly get in over their heads with US drug thugs and DEA agents. The film becomes a tale of outlaws on the run from the law.
The film begins with both Converse and Hicks still in Vietnam. Writing a letter home, Converse notes, “I have no more cheap morals to draw from all this death” as images of the atrocities of war flash in his thoughts. Hicks is a merchant marine who will deliver a package of Asian heroin to Converse’s wife, Marge, in Oakland. By the time Ray arrives stateside, drug dealers are on to Converse and Hick’s dealings.
After an initial confrontation in the Bay area with a pair of violent thugs named Smitty and Danskin, Ray and Marge head out to Los Angeles, after she leaves her young daughter with her parents. They plan to dump the drugs on a dealer named Eddie, who services wealthy clients with the finest. Meanwhile, John finally arrives from Vietnam and begins searching for his wife and child. A man pretending to be a federal agent named Antheil (Anthony Zerbe) threatens John, holding him in custody to get access to the drugs.
Marge and Ray escape the troubles they face in LA and eventually head further south to New Mexico to an abandoned commune. It is here the story shows the despondent mother on the run, who’s fighting drug addiction, nearly at the end of her rope. Weld effectively displays a tender and vulnerable side of her character’s personality, and Nolte’s Ray begins to show a caring and protective nature, as he begins to develop intimate feelings for the troubled woman. The natural chemistry that evolves between Nolte and Weld is often heartfelt and genuinely honest.
Troubles approach a climax on a New Mexico mountainside when John and his captors confront the pair in a violent showdown.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a compelling, much-overlooked film that wasn’t a box office success in its time. But according to Nolte’s autobiography, he didn’t care because he was so proud of his work in it and honored to work with such an excellent director as Reisz.