Hearts and Minds. Rainbow Pictures, 1975. Quite good.
In the Year of the Pig. Turin Films Corp., 1968. Pretty good, but with a bit of left-wing bias.
Inside the Vietnam War. National Geographic Channel. A three-hour documentary, first broadcast in 2008. Has quite a lot of interviews with veterans, mostly ones with a pro-war viewpoint. The portion at which I have looked closely, dealing with the year 1968, seriously underestimates the number of Americans killed during the Tet Offensive, and greatly exaggerates the extent to which President Johnson turned against the use of military force in Vietnam, as a result of the Tet Offensive.
Last Days in Vietnam. American Experience Films/PBS, 2015. Produced and directed by Rory Kennedy. Most of the film is devoted to the evacuation of Americans and Vietnamese in April 1975, and that part is very good. But the introductory sections, describing the way the situation in South Vietnam had developed from 1973 to 1975, are preposterously inaccurate. The documentary conveys a clear impression that there had been no North Vietnamese troops in South vietnam in 1974, because the North Vietnamese were terrified of President Richard Nixon. But Nixon resigned as president in August 1974, and North Vietnamese forces invaded South Vietnam, moving from north to south, beginning in March 1975. In fact Communist forces, most of them North Vietnamese, had controlled much of South Vietnam for years.
Time of the Locust. Short; not a full feature-length film.
La 317e section. A platoon of Laotian troops under a French lieutenant, in a very bad situation in northern Indochina in 1954. Said to be very good. Filmed in Cambodia in 1964, directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer, who had written the novel on which it was based (see Fiction
"Uncle Ho and Uncle Sam" episode of the series Investigative Reports, A&E Television Network, (1995?). Includes interviews with a suprising number of men who worked with OSS in Vietnam in 1945, and some 1945 documentary footage.
Vietnam: A Television History was a series of thirteen one-hour programs produced by
WGBH TV (Boston) for the Public Broadcasting Service, first broadcast in the autumn of
1983. The first major effort to summarize the war on television. The
makers of this series deserved praise not only for their presentation of a greater range
of Vietnamese viewpoints than could usually be seen on American television during the war,
but also for their willingness to reach conclusions, implicitly and explicitly. WGBH
allowed most of the talking to be done by people involved in the action--some via
interviews done for the series, and others via old film footage. This was necessary both
to avoid total boredom and because of the need to establish credibility with the
audience. However, the narration which tied the interview and newsfilm clips together did
not hesitate to insert crucial facts and even conclusions. Some episodes cast the
United States in a bad light, notably the one
which carefully examined the way the Johnson
administration misled the Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. Others cast the
Communists in a bad light, notably the one which analysed the dictatorship, corruption,
inefficiency, and miserable poverty that had afflicted Vietnam since 1975. Both of these
pictures were true; neither could properly be called biased.
A revised version was produced in 1997. This was abridged from thirteen episodes to eleven; the first two episodes of the original version ["Roots of a War" and "The First Vietnam War (1946-1954)"] were combined into one, and the last episode ("Legacies") was omitted. Full transcripts of the 1997 version are available on a PBS web site.
Steven Cohen, ed., Vietnam: Anthology and Guide to a Television History. New York: Knopf, 1983. xl, 466 pp. A collection of documents and essays designed to accompany the WGBH series Vietnam: A Televison History.
"The Vietnam War," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Florentine Films/PBS, 2017. A ten-part documentary series. Inevitably, some aspects of this series are better than others. The sections dealing with early friction between American journalists and American officials (1962), with the crucial battle of Binh Gia (December 1964 to January 1965), with Le Duan's role in Communist policymaking, and with the actual experience of combat seem especially strong. The weakest section deals with the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Nothing is said about who controlled how much of southern Vietnam during the First Indochina War. The "State of Vietnam" and "Vietnamese National Army," created to allow the French to claim that they were fighting the Viet Minh in alliance with Vietnamese organizations, not simply fighting a colonial war, are never mentioned. One cannot understand how the First Indochina War led into the second (the Vietnam War) without looking at these organizations, since the State of Vietnam later became the Republic of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese National Army became the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
We Were Soldiers. 2001. The story of the 1/7 Cavalry and the battle at
Landing Zone X-Ray, November 14-16, 1965; this battle was one portion of the Battle of
the Ia Drang Valley. Mel Gibson plays Colonel Harold Moore, the battalion commander. The
film is based on the book We Were Soldiers, Once . . . And Young, by Harold Moore and
Joseph Galloway (page numbers below are from my copy of the 1993 HarperCollins edition; I
believe the page numbers were different in the 1992 Random House edition).
Given the media hype about how realistic this film was, I was startled at how inaccurate it turned out to be, when I finally saw it. It is quite bad on the beginning and end of the battle, though considerably better on the middle.
The action starts with Col. Moore being informed one day that the enemy had hit the American camp at Plei Me the previous night ("last night"), but had then withdrawn from the attack on Plei Me without having inflicted any casualties. Colonel Moore was shown on a map the location to which the PAVN force had withdrawn; on the map this looked to me like "Chu Prong" and was clearly what is generally known as the Chu Pong Massif. Col. Moore was told to take his battalion, the 1/7 Cavalry, and attack that enemy force; the impression is conveyed that he started transporting troops into Landing Zone X-Ray soon thereafter—either the same day or the following day.
The attack on Plei Me had not been a matter of a few hours on a single night, it lasted six days, from the evening of October 19, 1965, until the evening of October 25. The attackers had inflicted significant casualties during the battle. Most of the casualties were not American; they were CIDG troops defending the camp, or ARVN troops ambushed while coming to its relief. But at least five U.S. military personnel had been killed in the battle—one on the ground, and four in a helicopter that was shot down while taking off from Plei Me during the battle.
For several weeks after the Battle of Plei Me, various units of the Air Cavalry hunted the PAVN forces involved in various areas. It was not until November 13 that Moore was told to head for the vicinity of the Chu Pong. The following morning, November 14, he picked Landing Zone X-Ray as the place, and began landing his troops there.
Col. Moore, in the film, talks in terms of being able to carry sixty men into the landing zone in the first lift. In fact he got almost eighty men in the first lift, and over eighty in the second lift for a combined total of "160-plus" (Moore & Galloway p. 73). The film shows the combat breaking out when only the first lift was on the ground, presumably sixty men according to Moore's previous statement. In fact, the combat did not begin until after three lifts, probably over 240 men, were on the ground. The pattern of understating the size of the American force continues to the end of the film. Reinforcements are shown coming in by helicopter only, and they appear to be simply reinforcements for Moore's battalion. One never sees another battalion commander on the ground at X-Ray, and when Moore and his battalion leave, they are shown leaving the landing zone empty. The film totally omits a battalion, the 2/5 Cavalry, that marched in overland, arriving around noon on the second day, and was still there after Moore and his battalion had left.
Shortly after they landed, Moore's troops captured a prisoner. In the film, the prisoner says the PAVN has 4,000 troops on the mountain overlooking the landing zone. According to Moore's book, the prisoner said the PAVN had three battalions there, which according to Moore would have come to "more than 1,600 men" (Moore & Galloway, p. 73).
What is startling about these distortions is that they were so gratuitous. Moore really was badly outnumbered when the combat began, enough so a film using the real numbers would have had no trouble presenting an image of heroic American struggle against great odds. Instead of using the real numbers, this film chose to understate the size of Moore's force at the moment the first shots were fired by a factor of four, while exaggerating the size of the PAVN force in the immediate vicinity by more than a factor of two.
The PAVN on the mountain overlooking the landing zone have a quite roomy underground tunnel complex in the film, big enough so that infantry units are shown running through tunnels heading for exits to the surface, to attack Moore's force. We do not see how many underground rooms filled with troops there are, we simply see that when the commander (in the actual battle he was Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, and the rank tabs I saw on the actor in the film seem consistent with this) orders an attack, troops stream through the tunnels and out doorways onto the surface, to go and carry out the attack. The first time we see men running through a tunnel, it is low enough to they have to run with their heads hunched down, and about three feet wide, perhaps a bit more. But the tunnels seem to grow as the movie goes on; toward the end, we once see a Vietnamese running along, with about a foot of clearance between the top of his head and the roof of the tunnel, and about a foot of clearance between each of his elbows and the side walls. There are no fighting bunkers, only an underground command center, underground rooms to hold troops, and tunnels to connect these with one another and with the surface. (I am not deducing the absence of fighting bunkers only from the fact that none are visible; the lack of such fighting bunkers is made clear by a PAVN officer's comment, late in the film, about the defenselessness of the command center.) While Lt. Col. An did have an underground command center, I doubt he had extensive underground quarters for troops, and I am sure the the tunnels through which men moved would not have been so generous in their dimensions as those shown in the later sections of the film.
There does not seem to be any significant amount of fixed-wing air support in the first few hours, in the film. Air support does not become copious until a "Broken Arrow" is declared, early on the second day. The "Broken Arrow" is something that Colonel Moore declares after intense inner struggle, and is treated as a matter of desperation; it means his unit is being overrun. In fact significant air support had begun earlier on the first day than the film suggested. A "Broken Arrow" was not as extreme a matter as the film suggested—it meant that an American unit was in danger of being overrun, not that it was actually being overrun—and Colonel Moore didn't need to declare it because a lower-ranking officer did so, without needing to go through any inner struggle, because a "Broken Arrow" was not a big enough deal to require inner struggle, or to require that he consult the colonel before declaring it (Moore & Galloway 175).
In the film, things are looking desperate on the morning of the third day, with a serious danger the Americans, short of ammunition, may be about to be overrun. Moore orders a bayonet charge. This is bullshit, surely inspired by Colonel Chamberlain's desperate bayonet charge at the end of battle for Little Round Top, on the second day at Gettysburg. By dawn of the third day at X-Ray, the Americans, reinforced and with plenty of ammunition, were no longer in danger of being overrun. There was an advance on the morning of the third day, with bayonets fixed, but this was a matter of extending the perimeter at a time when the U.S. force had grown considerably larger than it had been in the early stages of the battle, so it made sense to extend the perimeter. It was not the act of desperation portrayed in the film.
A considerable amount of documentary film footage from the collections of the National Archives has recently been made available on DVD through Amazon.com. There is some Vietnam-related material, and there will be more in the future. The best way I know to search is to choose the product category "DVD" on the amazon.com web site, and then enter "National Archives" in the search field.
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Copyright © 1996, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, Edwin E. Moise. This document may be reproduced only by permission. Revised August 10, 2018.