By John H. Foote
17. STAND BY MEN (1986)
Stephen King, by the mid-eighties, was the undisputed master of horror in literary circles and more and more his books were made into films. Some of them were very good – Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980) and The Dead Zone (1983) – while others, based on excellent material, were dreadful. Christine (1983) was a huge missed opportunity about a haunted car, Salem’s Lot (1979) was a TV film, ruined by making the vampire of the book into a monster, and so many others were just not very good. Sadly both Christine and Salem’s Lot are among his finest and most terrifying books. One can hope for a remake sometime. Though best known as a writer of horror, some of King’s best work has been in the genre of non-horror, and the films made from those books and stories are among the best of the King based films.
Rob Reiner, best known as Mike “Meathead” Stivic, the much put-upon son in law of iconic Archie Bunker on the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family, had started directing films in the eighties, with his faux documentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) earning a great deal of critical acclaim. With the studios seeking him out, he decided to make a film out of a short story of King’s The Body, which was retitled Stand by Me and chronicled the events of a weekend when four misfit friends walk through the forest to find a dead body, that of a young boy, their age, likely hit by a train.
With breathtaking purity, Reiner captured what it was to be a young boy just before high school when, like it or not, friends would be separated, put into classes based on their intellect and grades, to determine whether or not they were college bound. For every young boy seeing the film, it rang of truth, the intensity of the friendships, the fact you would die for your buddies if you had to do so, was captured with astounding clarity. Reiner and screenwriter Reynold Gideon captured the essence of what it was to be 12 in a small town, your friends your entire world.
The gang is made up of Gordie (Will Wheaton), a thoughtful young lad dealing with the death a year ago of his much loved older brother, Denny, portrayed winningly by John Cusack; Chris (River Phoenix), son of a criminal and likely to turn out to be one, though he is intelligent and sensitive; Vern (Jerry O’Connell), an overweight young kid, the butt of most of the jokes, but loved by all just the same; and Teddy (Cory Feldman), emotionally damaged, abused by his father though he spends more time celebrating his father’s war heroism than he does slagging him. The boys get together, smoke (however poorly), curse with remarkable ability, and spend new ways of insulting one another’s mother, the ultimate insult to deliver. They talk of girls a bit, movies more often, and TV quite often, and are typical boys of the time, the late fifties. President Kennedy has not yet been assassinated, so the America of the time is filled with hope, prosperity, and good will. War films and TV shows, and westerns dominated both film and television and the boys are avid watchers of both, which impacts their dialogue and game playing.
Stand by Me once again let Hollywood know that nostalgia sells. Old songs populate the lovely soundtrack, references to Have Gun Will Travel on TV, Pez candy, and food to feed four could cost under four dollars.
The story is bookended by a melancholy Richard Dreyfuss, who we learn is portraying a grown-up Gordie who went on to become a writer (his dream) and he has just learned that one of the gang, his best friend Chris, has been killed in a fast food store. Sitting in front of his computer, he taps out, I am assuming, the story we are about to experience. Living in the small town of Castle Rock, near the end of the fifties, their story unfolds.
The story opens with the boys cussing good naturedly in the tree house when Vern arrives, forgetting the password, but with bigger news. He asks the others if they want to see a dead body, and they are silently enthralled. For a few days now Ray Brower has been missing and assumed dead, but the police have not found his body. While listening to his older brother tell a friend about the body and its location, Vern figures they can get to it before his brother’s crew and be famous. What none of them count on is the menacing and obviously dangerous bully Ace Merrill, portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland as a thug fearless to do murder in the small town. The four younger boys agree to camp out in the forest and head to see the body, making arrangements to sleep at each other’s house or hide what they are doing.
They head home, pack, and meet up on the railroad tracks which go through the forest. Chris has brought along cigarettes for them all and a surprise – a loaded pistol – which will come in handier than they could have imagined. The boys follow the tracks, enjoying the day, talking about things that mattered only to 12-year-old boys in the fifties. Kids were not so aware of sex as they became in the seventies through today, so there is not a lot of sex talk.
Hearing a train coming on the tracks they move off, except Teddy who decides he is going to dodge it, meaning he will allow the train as close as possible before jumping. The boys are concerned because Teddy is unstable, and it might be like him to not jump, thinking himself invincible. He stands firm as the train comes closer until Chris fearing for Teddy’s life pulls him off the tracks, enraging Teddy. But the rage never lasts long and soon they are friends again, on their way to find Roy Brower’s damaged body.
Realizing they have to eat before the sun goes down, they pool their meagre amounts of money and send Gordie to pick up food, but first they must get through the junk yard, guarded by a legendary dog known as Chopper. Gordie gets through but on the way back, encounters Chopper and the junk man. The dog chases Gordie, who runs for the fence, screaming bloody murder, only to turn and see Chopper, a small dog of mixed breeding trying to play with him. The junk man comes over and threatens to tell their parents, but Teddy cracks wise to him, bringing about an insult about Teddy’s father near burning his ear off. Teddy explodes in anger wanting to climb over the fence and attack the man, but the boys hold him back, and they move on. His friends console him, but Teddy deep in his heart knows what the junk man said about his father was true. Despite being a war hero who stormed Normandy, the war unhinged him, and he abused his son. No question.
The boys set up camp and cook their hot dogs and swig their colas, ending the meal with a smoke because nothing ends a good meal like a good smoke, says Chris. They ask Gordie to tell one of his stories, and he obliges but Teddy thinks it ends poorly, not violent enough for him.
The boys move on through the woods, each seeming to confront something in their life that is tormenting them. Gordie deals with his parents not loving him like they did his magical brother Denny, who he knew loved him. Denny always celebrated his little brother’s stories, but his parents shrug them off. Chris knows he will never get out of the town, that he will end up a criminal like the rest of his family, while Vern will always be the fat loser people pick on. Teddy is already damaged from the abuse his father rained on him, and far too broken to really ever be healed with serious psychiatric help.
They finally arrive at the body, eyes wide open forever, staring off into the great unknown, open to raindrops to fall into, or leaves to cover. The boys have just arrived when Ace Merrill and his crew show up and they demand the younger kids leave the area so they can claim discovery to the body. They refuse and Chris stands up to Ace, leaving the older boy to pull a switchblade and threaten to cut the throat of Chris. Closer the blade gets, ever closer until a gunshot explodes in the air, bringing a freeze to all action.
Gordie has the pistol Chris brought along and he is pointing the gun directly at Ace, demanding the older boys leave. Ace tries to intimidate Gordie, even mentioning his brother, but Gordie refuses to back down. When Ace asks if Gordie thinks he can take all three of them, he smiles, cocks the gun and replies, “No Ace…just you.” That startles Ace, who is not used to having people, younger boys, stand up to him. Bested, defeated, he tells Gordie, “This is big time baby …” a threat telling the younger lad he will get him for this.
They return to town, feeling older, wiser, having matured in some strange way, the time away altering them forever, seeing the lifeless body of the dead boy, that could have been them, pounding home that we live once, best to make the best of our lives. An anonymous call is placed to the police and newspaper as to the whereabouts of the body, no one takes credit, no one gets their picture in the paper. Knowing that their friendships will never survive high school, the grown Gordie tells us Chris defied the odds and enrolled in college, and though it was tough, he fought and worked hard, eventually becoming a lawyer. A few days earlier there had been an argument in a fast food store and Chris, now grown, stepped in to help and was stabbed, dying almost at once. With his sons waiting to go to the beach, he types in the last sentence of his story, “I never had any friends like the ones I did when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Vern ended up with a family driving a forklift at the lumber yard in Castle Rock, while Teddy worked odd jobs in and around the town, struggling his way through life, spending some time in prison.
The film struck a chord with young and old men alike, leading to much rumination about our friends. The people I was closest with, still, remain my college crew. Danny, the two Kevins, Ian, and Sharon, who I suppose, truth be told we all were in love with. We were acting students, thoughts on being the next Brando or Jane Fonda, and we connected deep, the most intense friendships I have had in my life. We connected deeply, intimately and never it just became stronger through the years as we watched one another marry, divorce in some cases, have children, enjoy success in our careers and three of us became widowers. When my wife was dying they were there with me, when Danny lost Megan, I heled him and when Kevin lost Irene we were with him. I have never loved a group of people as deeply and completely as I do this group; they are forever part of me, wedged deep in my soul.
The performances of the young actors in this film are iconic and have been since the film’s release. There is a haunting wisdom to the performance of doomed River Phoenix as Chris, made all the more remarkable by the death of the young actor in 1993 of a drug overdose. Like James Dean, Phoenix is now forever youthful in all of his work, and as the time has passed that sense has deepened. Phoenix was a wonderful actor, his performances truthful, authentic, and each showing greater depth with the passing years. This was among his best work, his beautiful performance in Running on Empty (1988) his best, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Five years later the young actor was dead. Such a tragic and devastating loss, one that brings agony to his brother Joaquin and his many fans to this day.
Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell were each outstanding in their roles, Wheaton particularly good. In a supporting role as the evil Ace Merrill, Kiefer Sutherland was a revelation, a twisted, vile bully who was headed to a career of murder and mayhem. Speaking softly, but with a vicious fury in his eyes, Sutherland was terrifying, the nightmare of every 12-year-old to ever cross his path. He was the boogey man incarnate, a monster. Even his own friends are frightened of what Ace might do to them should they disagree with him, such is his power over them. He is genuinely stunned when Gordie stands up to him, armed or not, and when he slinks away, defeated, he makes a threat that Gordie knows he will follow through. In the book, he does indeed find Gordie and beats him within an inch of his life, the revenge of “cheap dime store hood” as Gordie calls him.
For a few years Rob Reiner was among the finest and most successful directors in Hollywood, his films both money makers and popular with the critics. He was nominated three times for the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director – for this film, When Harry Met Sally (1989) and for arguably his best film A Few Good Men (1992), for which he enjoyed great success and a Best Picture nomination from the Academy. After the success of his romantic comedy The American President (1995), he began to fall out of favor with audiences, and his films grew weaker. The Bucket List (2010) with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman might have had greater strength had they switched roles, showing them in roles in which we had not often seen them. Instead Reiner took no risk, and cast them in safe roles, so unlike him.
Stand by Me (1986) remains for me the height of his fine career and his finest film. It stands as one of the great Stephen King adaptations and brought other screenwriters and directors to King’s non-horror works. From the opening frame through to the burnished glow of the scenes in the past in Castle Rock, Reiner sweeps us into the magic of the past.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was directed and written by unknown director Frank Darabont and has become beloved, one of the finest films ever made, and is very highly regarded in academic circles. Five years later he guided Tom Hanks and Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile (1999), another fine film based on a King work. Though a two-time Directors Guild nominee, like Reiner, he was never a nominee for an Oscar as Best Director.
Watching Stand by Me I was struck by how the film holds up, does not seem dated, and the themes are as relevant today as they ever were. It is a lovely film, authentic and the kind of film we call perfection. As the credits roll, Ben E. King comes on the soundtrack to sing his mournful ballad, Stand by Me, and for me, the tears flow freely.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.