“Go Tell the Spartans” is a Vietnam War film released in 1978 (the same year as “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter”). It was directed by Ted Post and is based on the novel Incident at Muc Wa by Daniel Ford. The movie was shot in California with a shoe-string budget. It is set in South Vietnam in 1964 during the period when the U.S. was still in an advisory role. “In 1964, the war in Vietnam was still a little one – confused and far away.”
Maj. Barker (Burt Lancaster) is in command of a base at Panang. Barker is a war-weary veteran of WWII and Korea who is just putting in time. He is cynical and not interested in “playing the game”. His executive officer Capt. Olivetti (Marc Singer) is ambitious and hoping to advance his career by earning a Combat Infantry Badge. (They thought small back then.) They command a motley group of ARVN and peasant farmers (who he refers to as “gooks”). They get some help (whether they want it or not) from some new arrivals. Barker interviews each as a form of character background. Sgt. “Oleo” Oleonowski (Jonathan Goldsmith) is a tightly-wound veteran who has served well under Barker in the past. Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger) is a shavetail who wants to “see the elephant”. Cpl. Abraham Lincoln (Dennis Howard) is a drug addicted medic. He is put rooming with the alcoholic Oleo. (At least in “Platoon” the dopers and drunks were segregated.) Cpl. Courcey (Craig Wasson) is a draftee who volunteered for combat in Vietnam. Barker is irritated, yet intrigued by Courcey.
Gen. Harnitz arrives to order Barker to establish an outpost at Muc Wa. Muc Wa had been a French outpost that was wiped out in 1954. Harnitz’s rationale is that since the French lost Muc Wa and lost the war, logically if the U.S. wants to win the war, we have to hold Muc Wa. When Barker points out that the site is not strategically important, Hartnitz counters: “I don’t give a shit what the actual conditions are, the book says do it”. He also mentions that just because the French were defeated there means nothing because we are the USA - we don’t lose.
Barker sends a motley crew of Americans, ARVN, and some militiamen to rebuild and garrison Muc Wa. Hamilton is suffering from dysentery and unsure of command, so Oleo is actually calling the shots (not that unrealistic for Vietnam). Courcey is turning out to be a bleeding heart liberal and insists on befriending a refugee family and bringing them inside the wire. Their Vietnamese guide Cowboy (Evan Kim) claims they are Cong. How can you know? Muc Wa includes an old French cemetery with a placard that reads: “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we remain here in obedience to their orders.” There are 302 French buried there. (What a coincidence – there were 300 Spartans killed at Thermopylae.)
The unit sends out patrols and lays ambushes at night. Lt. Hamilton gets killed trying to rescue one of Oleo’s men. Oleo snaps over this and commits suicide. Meanwhile, back at the base, Barker is assigned a nerd who will manage the “Incident Flow Priority Indicator”. This MacNamaraish scheme will determine which outpost is statistically most likely to come under attack. Barker is skeptical, but when Muc Wa rises to the red level, he takes steps to avoid disaster. He sends his glory-seeking exec to take command. To work up a relief convoy, he has to wheel and deal with the local South Vietnamese commander. He bribes him with howitzer shells. When asked if the U.S. might ask for the rounds back, Barker correctly points out that the U.S. never asks for anything back.
A human wave night attack is barely defeated by the Muc Wa defenders. It’s fairly good action and the body count is high. It helps when you don’t have to reload. They fire mortars that land ten yards away. More is coming and so is Barker until Hartnitz turns around his convoy because the book now says to cut your losses over an unimportant outpost. He does want the white guys evacuated so Barker choppers in. When Courcey learns that the ARVN, militiamen, and refugees are on their own, he refuses to abandon them. He’s a good American. Guess who stays behind with him when the chopper leaves?
The movie is distinctly low budget (Lancaster put up $150,000 to finish production) and that is the main reason it got lost in the glut of 1978 Vietnam War movies. It has a made-for-TV feel for it. This is emphasized by the soundtrack. Filmed in California, Muc Wa does not look like it is in a jungle setting. The cast (other than Lancaster) is low rent and it shows in the acting. If it was not for Lancaster being great, the movie would not even be a blip. He has one of his best performances. He is totally comfortable in the role and perfectly portrays a veteran officer whose career was blunted by a sexual transgression (which he describes comically at length). Because of that weakness for “pudenda” (as he quaintly calls it), he is forced to take orders from lesser men like Hartnitz. He also does not give a crap and is not beyond threatening a general if necessary. The rest of the acting sometimes drifts into terrible. Howard, in particular, gets to play high and sing the Gettysburg Address from a tower until a mortar round thankfully shuts him up, but does not kill him. Boo.
The film tries hard to show how we were nuts to get stuck in Vietnam. It is the rare Vietnam movie that is set in the advisory period. Part of the reason it did not make a splash in 1978 had to be that audiences did not want to know how screwed up Vietnam was before we even started fighting. The movie is very anti-war and it is not a feel good movie. It is sincere and it deserves credit for being pretty realistic. For instance, aside from Courcey (who is depicted as a naïve chump – the family turns out to be Cong), all the Americans look down on the Vietnamese people. They are referred to as “slopes” and “gooks”.
The book was written by a war correspondent who was in South Vietnam in 1964. He later wrote a nonfiction account of America's early involvement in the war. The movie is substantially different than the novel mainly in the characters. Most significantly, screen writer Wendall Mayes beefed up the Barker role to attract a big name and it lured the 65 year old Lancaster. In the book, Barker is like an office manager doing his job with little enthusiasm. There is no druggie medic. Olivetti is more of a womanizing jerk who is full of himself. Hardnetz is a buffoon who is obsessed with doing things by the book and there is no back-story creating dysfunction between him and Barker. Barker is cowed by him which is very different than in the movie.
The book is much more female-friendly and Mayes’ decision to remove two major characters is puzzling. A radical journalist named Rebecca goes all the way to Vietnam to try to reconnect with Courcey (and to be hit on by Olivetti). Granted, this is ridiculous, but we do get the hippie outlook and some unrequited romance. The other female is a sexy teenage girl (called “Butterfly”) in the refugee family who Ski (as Oleo is called in the book) marries and gets pregnant. They shack up (literally) at Muc Wa. This relationship starts creepy and ends sweetly. In the movie, Oleonowski is totally against allowing the family into the outpost.
The main character in the novel is Courcey. He is much more multi-dimensional than in the movie. He does start off quoting from the book in his opening interview with Barker in the movie and he does sympathize with his Vietnamese charges. In the book, he grows into leadership and becomes a good warrior. He is the actual commander of Muc Wa and gradually comes to feel possessive.
The novel has the luxury of going into more detail. The time frame is much longer. Muc Wa does not even exist when they arrive and they have to build it from the ground up. The outpost is much larger than in the movie. In fact, the Viet Cong capture half of it before the climactic battle. Ski has time to develop a relationship with Butterfly. Courcey has time to develop a relationship with an elderly militiaman called Corporal Old Man.
The book is more satirical than the movie. For instance, Gen. Hartnetz visits Muc Wa and Barker orders them to stage an attack to show off the defenses. Courcey takes a unit out into the bush, but they do not do the show assault because a larger Viet Cong unit happens along and attacks the outpost. Hilarious.
The book and movie make a good pair. They are both low budget, but sincere. Neither are great, but they are worth experiencing.
BOOK = B
MOVIE = B