Saturday, January 23, 2016

CRACKER? Hanoi Hilton (1987)


                     A recent post on Face Book reminded me that I still had not posted my review of "Hanoi Hilton".  The post was about Jane Fonda and her horrible treatment of prisoners of war when she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War.  I am no fan of Jane Fonda.  My father flew an F-105 fighter-bomber in the war.  I lived in Japan for three years while he was doing this.  My father harbored a hatred for Hanoi Jane because of her support for the people he fought against.  He partially passed this on to me, but I never went to the extent of never watching a movie with her in it.  Still, seeing her sitting in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun whose purpose was to shoot down my dad is hard to forgive.  With that said, my extensive reading on the war tempers my view of her because the war was a mistake and I am not a blind patriot.  She certainly can be taken to task for her method of voicing her opinions.  The fact is that the post accused her of heinous actions that she did not commit.  There is a character in this movie that reenacts some of the calumnies.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is a prisoner of war movie about the infamous North Vietnamese prison.  It was directed by Lionel Chetwynd.  It came out the same year as “Full Metal Jacket”, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and “Hamburger Hill” and got lost in the wake of those other films.  It was an example of the backlash against the cynical, anti-grunt films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”.  All of the characters are fictional, but the movie purports to enlighten the audience about the mistreatment of American prisoners.  It covers the entire history of American internment at the Hoa Lo Prison.

                 The movie’s main character is a Lt. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) who gets shot down early in the war.  Before that, he is interviewed and proclaims that we are in Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese get their freedom.  The movie says nothing to contradict this belief.  When Williamson is captured, his co-pilot is shot in the head.  This movie is not going to show empathy for the North Vietnamese.  Williamson is taken to the Hanoi Hilton where he finds out that because there was no declaration of war, the Geneva Conventions do not apply.  He is a war criminal.  The first torture is a dry shave.  A variety is yet to come.  These include shock treatment, beatings, and sitting on a pile of bricks.  At one point a group of prisoners is marched through the streets of Hanoi and it becomes a gauntlet with civilians assaulting the Americans. 

                Williamson interacts with other prisoners who are all dealing with the dilemma of when and whether to answer the questions.  How much torture is enough to justify telling the torturers what they want to hear?  Unfortunately, some of the torture is to break the prisoners.  A guy is whipped for yelling when a rat crawls on him.  Another is killed because of an escape attempt.
Don't worry, Jane Fonda is coming to get us out

                The movie has two themes.  The captors are evil and manipulating the prisoners for propaganda purposes.  The commandant tells the prisoners that the media coverage of their confessions will help win the war.  The guards are hissable with the volume turned up to 11 with a Cuban interrogator who kills a Puerto Rican who refuses to betray the USA.  Equally loathsome are the liberal media.  A Jane Fonda type wants the men to apologize and ignores tales of mistreatment.  And don’t forget the home front stabbing the men in the back as they do their duty to their country.  At one point the guards pipe in coverage of hippies protesting.  A new prisoner tells the men that most Americans consider them to be fascists.

                “Hanoi Hilton” is the counterpoint to all those Vietnam War movies that cast aspersions on the American war effort and the men carrying it out.  Although from a different subgenre (POW film), it’s most close kindred soul is “Hamburger Hill”.  Hmmm, both have double H’s.  They both portray the Americans as simply doing their duty under difficult circumstances and being betrayed by the home front.  Having read extensively on the war, I can see both the hawkish viewpoint and the dove perspective.  There is a place for both among Vietnam War movies.  There is room for “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon”.  Needless to say with Hollywood being what it is on the political spectrum, there are quite a few more movies that are cynical toward the war.  It is a shame when a movie like “Hanoi Hilton” botches the attempt to balance the scale.  It takes a worthy subject and bludgeons it.

                It is no wonder the movie got lost in the 1987 box office duel.  It looks second tier.  The cast is B-list and is not memorable.  Moriarty was not a good choice for the lead.  He is too tepid in a role that could have used some emoting.  In fact, one surprise of the movie is the lack of scene-chewing, but sometimes the opposite can be almost as bad.  For a movie about mistreatment of prisoners, the movie is curiously flat.  This may be because most of the torture is implied.  The movie is not graphic.  Weirdly, Williamson does not seem to be terribly mistreated in his eight years in the camp.  In other words, Moriarty was given no chance for an Oscar campaign.

                The biggest flaw is the ham-handed steamrolling of its themes.  The movie is too anti-anti-war.  Jane Fonda is a cheap target and pushes buttons with the intended audience, but why not be factual in her depiction.  In fact, the decision to have all fictional characters was a perplexing and poor one.  Throwing in the hippies and a detestable Cuban was overreaching.  A documentary style film about the prison would have been better.  As it is, one is left to question how accurate the movie is in depicting the treatment.  A neutral viewer could easily watch this poorly made movie and blow it off as conservative propaganda.

                How historically accurate is it?  The Williamson character was probably based on Lt. Edward Alvarez, Jr.  He was the first American taken prisoner and spent almost the entire war in the Hoa Lo Prison.  The North Vietnamese did not honor the Geneva Conventions with the excuse that the Americans were war criminals fighting an illegal war of aggression.  The torture included rope bindings, iron foot stocks, beatings, and solitary confinement.  The movie does show a variety of methods, but is not graphic enough.  The gauntlet scene was based on the infamous “Hanoi March” in which prisoners were paraded down a Hanoi street for newsreels, but the crowd got out of hand and attacked not only the Americans but the guards.  The goal of the jailers was not so much to get military information as to get the men to make statements that could be used for propaganda purposes.  The men developed a code of honor that basically said that you should take as much pain as you could before you were justified in talking.  Almost every prisoner eventually broke and signed statements.  Most of which wer e fabrications.  Executions, torture, injury, and diseases took the lives of 65 prisoners.  Most of the deaths came in the period before 1969.  It was in that year that the Nixon Administration reversed policy and began to condemn the mistreatment of prisoners.  After this, treatment improved.  As far as the Jane Fonda character, Jane did interview some prisoners, but did not encourage them to apologize.  (P.S. to those who have read and swallowed the post about her actions in Hanoi, she did not turn over to the guards notes passed to her by prisoners.)

                "Hanoi Hilton" is not in the upper tier of Vietnam War movies.  If you want some knowledge about the treatment of American POWs, it is not without merit.  However, it could have been a lot better.  It is too simplistically pro-America.




  1. A while back I referenced a book (you should get it) on Vietnam war films by Michael Lee Lanning, a former platoon and company commander. Movies showing the American soldier in a bad light are overwhelmingly more common.

    For what it's worth, both Jane Fonda's father and brother did not approve of her actions.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation. And you should check out "Vietnam War Movies" by Jamie Russell. I am not surprised Henry Fonda did not support her, but Peter comes as a surprise.

    2. I once saw Peter Fonda interviewed and he was emphatic that Jane shouldn't have done what she did.

    3. I once saw Peter Fonda interviewed and he was emphatic that Jane shouldn't have done what she did.


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