Saturday, March 22, 2014

MARCH MADNESS 2014: Vietnam War Movies


                This year’s March Madness tournament is to determine the best Vietnam War movie.  In order to fairly judge the competitors, I limited the field to movies that have some combat in them.  This left out films like “Coming Home” and other mainly home front films.  Some other logical choices like “Rumor of War” were left out because I have no easy, legal access to them.  The seeding is based on their Rotten Tomatoes rating.  If they are too obscure to have a rating, I used my best judgment to seed them.  Here is the bracket:

1 -   Hamburger Hill

16 -  Under Heavy Fire

9 -   Go Tell the Spartans

8 -   Bat-21

4 -   The Deer Hunter

13 -  The Green Berets

12 -  Siege of Firebase Gloria

5 -    Platoon

5 -   Apocalypse Now

15 – The Tunnel Rats

10 -  We Were Soldiers

7 -    84 Charlie Mopic

3 -   Full Metal Jacket

14 -  Platoon Leader

11 -  Boys in Company C

6 -    Casualties of War

As usual, each matchup is divided into four quarters with each quarter being a different category where the film is judged on a scale of 1-10.  By the way, to prepare for the tournament I read the excellent book “Red Thunder, Black Lightning” by Eric Bergerud.  It is a study of the experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam concentrating on the 25th Infantry Division (the unit portrayed in “Platoon”).  There is a lot of oral history in it.  I also watched “The Anderson Platoon” documentary.  Although I have read extensively on Vietnam War fiction and nonfiction, I wanted to be on as solid ground as possible in analyzing how realistic the movies are.

Let the tournament begin and may the best film win!

Bat-21  (9)  vs.  Go Tell the Spartans  (8)


                “Bat-21” is based on the true story of the rescue of a downed SAM countermeasure expert in the closing days of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  It is essentially a two actor movie with Gene Hackman playing Lt. Col. Hambleton and Danny Glover playing FAC Lt. Clark.  When Hambleton parachutes into enemy territory, Clark in his Skymaster (a propeller plane used for forward air control) maintains contact with him and aids in his rescue.  The two leads are their usual dependable selves although the characters are stock.  Hambleton is the REMF who wants a taste of action and Clark is the underappreciated, but dedicated trooper.  Jerry Reed has a good turn as Clark’s commanding officer who has to juggle common sense caution with the desire to turn Clark loose.  The rest of the cast is adequate with a grating performance by David Grant as Clark’s dauntless search and rescue chopper buddy.  B

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is a fictional tale of American military advisers in 1964.  A squad of Americans are ordered to take a small force of ARVN and local militia to garrison a supposedly strategic outpost in the middle of enemy territory.  The acting is a mixed bag.  A 65 year old Burt Lancaster, who was fully invested in the project (literally), has one of his best performances as the weary and cynical Lt. Col. Barker.  He dominates the movie.  The rest of the cast is an ensemble of thought-they-would-bes.  The performances vary from cringe-inducing to sincere, but forgettable.  Craig Wasson does a much better job one year removed from “The Boys in Company C” as the idealistic draftee that goes native.  C 


Bat-21                                    8                             

Go Tell the Spartans           7


                “Bat-21” is based on the remarkably resource intense, but wasteful rescue of Lt. Col. Hambleton.  The plot is very predictable.  You never doubt Hambleton will survive and Clark will be responsible for his rescue almost singlehandedly.  There is a character that is dead meat from the moment he enters.  The movie features the tired old trope of the brass holding back the seasoned vet (Clark).  Although surprisingly accurate in spots, the movie has the feel of implausibility throughout.  It has some good action and lots of low budget pyrotechnics.  The plot is obviously designed to evoke admiration for the spirit of American soldiers and does not question the war.  C

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is based on a novel entitled “Incident at Muc Wa”.  Although fictional, the plot fits American involvement in Vietnam in 1964.  The plot is cynical and anti-war.  Of course, in 1978 hindsight was easy, but the plot does accurately reflect the quagmire we were entering.  The ending is predictable, but the route to get there is not.  The movie deftly juggles the headquarters scenes with the scenes at the outpost.  B


Bat-21                                    15

Go Tell the Spartans            15

                “Bat-21” has a surprising amount of action considering it is basically a rescue movie.  For example, Hambleton is forced to kill a civilian.  The big set piece involves two helicopters and a “deserted” ville that is laying in wait for them.  We get the unique view of a chopper dropping mines, which figure in the death of a main character, of course.  Much of the combat consists of air strikes by a Skymaster firing rockets and two F-5s (doing a poor imitation of F-4 Phantoms) dropping bombs they clearly do not have.  With that said, the film is much more a study of search and rescue than a film about combat in Vietnam.  D

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is low budget so the combat reflects this.  It does have more action than most Vietnam War movies.  There are a couple of night patrols that result in ambushes.  There is a big night assault by the Viet Cong on the outpost that expends a lot of blanks and explosions.  Air support is brought in.  It was too dark for me to tell if the fighters were actually carrying bombs.  The battle results in the usual extremely high percentage of dead to simply wounded.  There is also a melee as the survivors try to break out of the surrounded outpost.  C


Bat-21                                    21

Go Tell the Spartans            22

                For a movie based on a true story that is packed with the potential to be a great movie, “Bat-21” fumbles the premise by throwing in the usual Hollywood bull crap.  In order to concentrate on the relationship between Hambleton and Clark (which in reality did not exist), the movie gets overly melodramatic and features long dialogues presumably to give the enemy time to zero in on the transmissions.  Surprisingly, the movie tones down the effort to rescue Hambleton.  In reality, the military went to extraordinary measures to rescue downed air men and his is a classic case.  C

                “Go Tell the Spartans” is the most realistic take on the military advisers’ stage of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  The characters may be stereotypes, but the scenario is true to the hair-pulling nature of the war.  For example, Barker has to bribe a corrupt ARVN general to get artillery support.  His commanding officer orders him to garrison an untenable location, confident that Americans can’t lose.  The movie is excellent in depicting the confusion of who the enemy was.  There is even a humorous dig at the McNamara-inspired use of statistics to determine enemy intentions.  The downbeat ending is realistic considering the situation.  B


Bat – 21                                28

Go Tell the Spartans          30

            This was an interesting matchup between two movies set at opposite ends of the American experience in Vietnam.  The tone is also totally the opposite.  “Bat-21” is extolling the spirit of the American warrior and the comradeship of our soldiers.  Its central theme is how we would do almost anything to rescue our own.  It is an optimistic film.  “Go Tell the Spartans” has a cynical, we should have known better attitude.  Considering the nature of the war, it is more true to the war than “Bat-21”.  Simply put, “Go Tell the Spartans” is a better and certainly more important Vietnam War movie.


  1. Go Tell the Spartans is definitely an important movie, that deserves to be seen by more people. You are right that much of the cast is not really up to their roles but its portrayal of the over-confidence that led the Americans into the Vietnam War is spot on.

  2. It reminds me of 84 Charlie Mopic as a forgotten gem. Except GTS has a major star in it and yet still is virtually unknown. It is easily in the top ten Vietnam War movies. I have to say that I slightly criticize it for making it seem like we should have known during the military adviser period that the war was hopeless. This is a bit of hindsight. It is easy to look back and make fun of the attitude that America could not possibly be beat, but that hubris was actually appropriate for the time and circumstances. It was wrong, but understandable.

  3. I saw Bat 21 again last night on one of the movie channels. Yes, accurate in spots, especially when Hambleton has to kill a civilian. A chilling scene.

    The Danny Glover character was fictional. There were several spotter planes involved.

    By the way, a stereotype is always based on reality.

    1. That might be true for stereotypes, but the reason they have a bad reputation is the repetitiveness of them and the lack of originality by using them in the plot


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.