The year is 1973. The American Solider (played by David Carradine, who also directed) has just been discharged from Vietnam and is now hitchhiking across an America that he no longer understands. When he reaches a small town in Kansas, he stumbles across a run-down carousel sitting in an overgrown field. The Soldier decided to spend the night camping in the field and, the next morning, he sets out to rebuild the old merry-go-round.
No one in town can understand why the Soldier is doing what he is doing. The local teenagers harass him while a silent and beautiful girl in a white dress (played by Carradine’s then-partner, Barbara Hershey) brings him a toolbox but runs away whenever the Soldier tries to speak with her. Some of the older townspeople, led by gas station owner Mike (Michael Greene), help the Soldier by giving him odd jobs and deals on equipment and tools. But, when the Soldier refuses to attend a weekly cockfight, both Mike and eventually the entire town turns against him.
Even with the community refusing to help, the Soldier continues his work. Finally, the Soldier needs only one last piece to complete the restoration. Mike agrees to give it to him on the condition that the Soldier first fight a dog.
Based on the 1948 novel, The Perfect Round, Americana was a passion project for both David Carradine and Barbara Hershey. They first learned of the book and its story in 1969. Four years later, using the money that he made starring in Kung Fu, Carradine purchased the rights to the novel and set out to the bring the story to the screen. As producer, director, editor, and star, Carradine had complete artistic control over the project. This was both a blessing and a curse because Carradine spent a total of 8 years editing his film. It then took another two years for Americana to finally be picked up by a distributor, Crown International Pictures. Ten years after filming began, Americana was finally released in 1983. Carradine was shooting new scenes up until two weeks before the film’s release, which explains why the Soldier suddenly and dramatically ages an hour into the completed movie.
Americana may be strange but it’s not bad. In some ways, it reminded me of what First Blood would have been like if, instead of going on a rampage, Rambo had taken the Sheriff’s advice and moved on to the next town. It has its share of pretentious moments but the overall story, about a man who, having seen so much destruction in Vietnam, now just wants to build something good, shines through. Even if her character never makes sense, Barbara Hershey is stunningly beautiful and Carradine is effectively low-key as the Soldier. Even Americana‘s controversial ending works as a statement about sacrifice. Much like the characters played by John Wayne in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Soldier’s role is to defend and improve a society that has no place for him inside of it.
If Americana had been released in 1973, it probably would have been ahead of its time. Few people wanted to talk about Vietnam, much less go to a movie that was a metaphor for the entire conflict. When Americana was was released in 1983, people were more interested in refighting the war and achieving victory with Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris and had little interest in Carradine’s more thoughtful approach. Americana got pushed into obscurity but David Carradine’s vision of post-war America is still worth watching.