Simultaneously disciplined and impassioned, the TV movie Tribes--which also received a small theatrical release--examines how the Generation Gap complicated America's experience of the Vietnam War. Creating a simple conflict between characters who represent opposing ends of the political spectrum, the picture pits hard-driving drill instructor Drake (Darren McGavin) against hippie recruit Adrian (Jan-Michael Vincent). Initially determined to break down Adrian's resistance in order to instill other recruits with respect for military duty, Drake slowly peels back his opponent's layers and, as a result of that process, grows to respect the younger man's pacifist attitude.On the surface, this storyline may sound absurdly contrived--peacenik softens warmonger--but Tribes works because it approaches Drake's transformation with patience and respect. Instead of portraying the drill instructor as a bloodthirsty monster who unquestionably feeds the military machine with fresh meat, the filmmakers--director Joseph Sargent and writers Marvin Schwartz and Tracy Keenan Wynn--paint Drake as a complex man confronted with changing times. Adrian, meanwhile, is a compendium of counterculture signifiers (enigmatic silences, long hair, yoga meditation postures, etc.), so it's natural that Drake would find Adrian distasteful at first glance. Yet as the men wage their battle of wills--which Drake eventually learns is one-sided, since Adrian is, metaphorically speaking, making love not war--both characters develop empathy. Make no mistake, the filmmakers align themselves with Adrian's antiwar stance. Yet in avoiding the obvious play of making Drake a monster, the filmmakers open the door to a touching statement about the human capacity for change. In the world of Tribes, compassion is the most valuable commodity.
Even within the boundaries of a tight TV-movie budget, Sargent integrates feature-style flourishes that give Tribes a hint of poetry. The twee theme song succinctly articulates how America divided into antiwar and pro-war factions (key lyric: "tribes are gathering"), and crisp flashbacks are used to illustrate the gentle romantic vignettes that Adrian summons when centering himself during yoga. Better still, the flourishes complement otherwise straightforward storytelling, so the cinematic style echoes the initial gulf between Drake's rigid existence and Adrian's transcendent journey. The very different energies of the leading actors contribute to the effect, with McGavin incarnating man's-man irascibility and Vincent channeling mellow Age of Aquarius vibes. Everything good about Tribes converges in the ending, which appropriately--and somewhat movingly--encapsulates the way the principal characters alter each other's destinies.