Reviewed by: Brett Willis
|Featuring||Michael Moriarty, Jeffrey Jones, Paul Le Mat, Stephen Davies, Lawrence Pressman|
|Director||Lionel Chetwynd, Yoram Globus, Menahem Golan|
This well-made Vietnam War POW film is set in Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi, from 1964-73 and is based on the experiences of American prisoners there, although it uses fictitious composite characters. There are no big stars and the acting is adequate although not Oscar-caliber. The film is, appropriately, story-driven rather than character-driven.
We meet Lt. Cmdr. Williamson (Michael Moriarty) onboard his aircraft carrier, being interviewed by the press. Next thing, he’s shot down and becomes one of the first American POWs in Vietnam. He’s pressured by the prison commander, Maj. Ngo Doc (Aki Aleong), to admit his “crimes” and take a submissive attitude; but he refuses. (Aleong also played a “bad guy” Asian officer in “Braddock: Missing in Action 3” and “Farewell to the King”.)
As more POWs arrive, Col. Cathcart (Lawrence Pressman, who looks and sounds here like a Texan version of Gene Hackman) becomes the Senior Ranking Officer. A high North Vietnamese priority is breaking the wills of the prisoners and letting them know who’s boss. For the most part, the prisoners effectively resist this, and devise numerous means of keeping in contact (the “tap code” etc.) even when they’re separated.
As in similar films such as “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, there’s a struggle of wills over whether the prisoners answer to their own SRO or to the prison commander. In other words, are the prisoners one body or just isolated individuals? When SRO Cathcart refuses to suspend U.S. military discipline, one POW is chosen at random for special torture; Cathcart, nude and shackled, must listen in the hallway as the other prisoner gets the “Room 18” treatment. Then it’s Cathrart’s turn in the room. After he’s been broken, SRO duty reverts to Williamson. In another attempt to disrupt unity, a Cuban officer (Michael Russo) is brought in to play the race card and try to divide the black and Hispanic prisoners from the whites.
Eventually there are so many POWs that they must be crowded together (which they don’t mind); and prison conditions improve over the years. There are little hints at how life and attitudes back home are changing. The things that later POWs say about hippies, war protesters, and people being “into themselves” make no sense to the earlier prisoners.
Content Warnings: The language is strong at times, with frequent use of f* and other profanity. There are several full-nude views of the POWs, always from the rear. The film makes the point of torture and occasional execution, without being too graphic.
Positive Content: Having lost most of the things they once took for granted, many of the POWs discover or rediscover faith in God. And they care for each other, working very hard to preserve unity and to memorize everyone’s names so no one can be “left behind” later.
President Reagan said that every American should see this film. I assume he meant those old enough to handle the mature theme elements; and if so, I agree.