February 2001/March 2001
Rendezvous With War Symposium
Selling The War Story: Hollywood Hits And Bestseller Lists
Vietnam Veterans of America teamed with the College of William and Mary
to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War by
sponsoring a three-day symposium on the war. Held April 6-8, 2000, Rendezvous
with War examined the war from many perspectives. This panel,
"Selling the War Story: Hollywood Hits and Bestseller Lists,"
examined the cultural aftershocks created by the war and the treatment of
the war by American mass culture.
Panelists included the writer and memoirist Philip Caputo, journalist
and writer Joe Galloway, filmmaker Pat Duncan, film technical adviser Russ
Thurman, and writer and journalist Wally Terry. The panel was moderated by
Marc Leepson, arts and books editor of The VVA Veteran.
Marc Leepson: I have been writing about Vietnam War books and films
for more than 20 years, and the thing that continues to astound me is the
depth and the breadth of this work. Iím talking about novels, memoirs,
oral histories, military histories, eyewitness accounts--not to mention
history and political analysis, which we are not even going to talk about
on this panel. And the films, virtually all of which were produced by
writers and filmmakers who served in the Vietnam War or were on the ground
there as observers.
VVA is the nationís only veterans service organization that supports
and encourages writers, directors, poets, and others who deal creatively
and artistically with the Vietnam War.
Last night, I was going over the list of the people that VVA has given
cultural awards to and it is almost a Whoís Who of late 20th
century American writers and filmmakers.
The list includes Tim OíBrien, who won the National Book Award;
Robert Allen Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize; Larry Heinemann, who also
won the National Book Award; and Philip Caputo. From the film community,
Oliver Stone, Dale Dye, Dennis Franz, Dana Delany, Dr. Haing Ngoir, and
Bill Broyles all received awards. Other writers include Linda Van Devanter,
Bruce Weigl, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Curry, David Willson, Tim Mahoney,
Bob Mason, Harry Summers, Gloria Emerson, Jack Fuller, John Clark Platt,
Winston Groom, Peter Arnett, Neil Sheehan, Joe Galloway, Gen. Hal Moore,
and Jack Smith.
Today we have five talented, accomplished men on this panel who have
produced memorable literary and film work based on and fed by their
experiences in the Vietnam War. All of these men already have been
introduced, except for Philip Caputo, who is a Pulitzer Prize writer who
has excelled in journalism and fiction. Heís written several great
novels and is best know for his Vietnam War memoir, A Rumor of War.
I would like each panelist to talk about the genesis of his first
literary or film work dealing with the Vietnam War. So, Phil, could you
tell us about how A Rumor of War came about?
Philip Caputo: I went to Vietnam with the first regular American
brigade that went into the war, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. We
arrived in March of 1965 when President Johnson decided to commit American
ground troops to the war. I was there until July of 1966. A little bit
more than half that time, I was a rifle platoon commander with the First
Battalion, Third Marines, and the First Battalion, First Marines. The rest
of the time I was a junior staff officer on battalion or regimental
When I left Vietnam, I knew that I had something that I wanted to say
about the war. I knew that I had a story to tell, and it gnawed at me for
quite a while. I actually began to write A Rumor of War when I was
still in the Marine Corps in the spring of 1967. But I really couldnít
get the book under way because I knew that the Vietnam War didnít fit
any of the paradigms that I was used to reading--Norman Mailerís Naked
and the Dead kind of story, or James Jonesís Thin Red Line,
or even Hemingwayís A Farewell to Arms. There was something very
anomalous and strange about that war.
I struggled with this for quite a while when I got out of the Marine
Corps in 1967. I went to Europe and stayed there for the better part of a
year. I think I was living out some sort of Hemingway fantasy, hanging out
in Paris and Spain. During this literary sojourn, I managed to blow every
dime that I had saved in the service trying to write this story, and I
wasnít able to get anywhere with it until I went to England.
I was staying in a cold, drafty British apartment. The guy who owned it
had several memoirs by British World War I officers Siegfred Sassoon and
Guy Chapman and poetry by Wilfred Owen. This spoke to me in a very real
way. Even though they were very different wars and even though World War I
made Vietnam look like a picnic, these writers spoke to me and I felt that
I had the right form. I wanted to write a memoir, not a novel, and I knew
that it would be eloquent in the way that the World War I stories were.
I thought I would be able to complete it in a couple or three years,
but it took me nine years to finish. The main reason was not because it
was so profound and wonderful, but because I was working for a living at
that time as a newspaperman and as a foreign correspondent--a job that
often entailed 12-hour days and extensive travel all over the world. And I
was raising a family at the same time. I could only work on this book in
my spare time.
But in 1975 I presented it to an agent in New York, and he presented it
to a couple of publishers who rejected it out of hand. Finally Holt--now
Henry Holt and Company, then Holt, Reinhart & Winston--bought the
book. Vietnam as a subject was anathema at that time. It was as if I had
written Lady Chatterleyís Lover in 1850. That was the reaction to
any kind of Vietnam literature. My editor, Marian Wood at Henry Holt, said
that she let the manuscript sit on her desk for almost a month before she
even read it. She was afraid to read it.
My wife and I were convinced that it would sell a couple of thousand
copies. I was quite astonished when it became a bestseller and was made
into a TV movie, and as Marc pointed out, itís still in print. It still
sells about 20,000 a year in paperback--all of which sort of astonishes
me, pleasantly so I might add.
Joe Galloway: Our book--Gen. Mooreís book and mine--We Were
Soldiers Once And Young, was born on the battlefield on the 16th of
November 1965. As we were pulling out, I grabbed my pack and my rifle, and
I went over to shake hands with Col. Moore and thank him for all that he
had done to open my eyes. I stood there, we looked at each other, and we
both wept. We shook hands, and we agreed right then that someday we would
do the book.
I knew that UPI would probably allow me perhaps a thousand words--maybe
twelve hundred if I wrote real well--to tell that story, and I knew that
that was not enough. So I stayed in touch with Col. Moore over the years.
In 1976, we talked again about the book.
A couple of years after the battle, I sat down and tried to write it as
a novel. I wrote three or four chapters. I didnít like it. I knew that
it was a true story, not a fictional one. I also knew that even if I wrote
the best thing since sliced bread, no one was going to publish a novel
about Vietnam in 1976.
A few years later I was sitting in my living room in Los Angeles
looking over the TV schedule, and I saw a movie on the schedule. It was
the sequel to American Graffiti. I thought that would be cool.
It picked up where the other movie left off with descriptions of the
characters. The geek with the glasses had been drafted, sent to Vietnam
with the First Cavalry Division, and was missing in action. The movie
picks up the stories at that point and all of a sudden this television in
my living room was full of Huey helicopters, and an air assault was going
down, and there were mortar rounds everywhere, and one of them lands right
on top of this kid and basically vaporizes him.
Iím sitting there shaking like a leaf, crying like a baby, and I donít
know whatís happening to me. I thought about it and I laid awake that
The next morning I got on the phone and called Hal Moore and said,
"Are you ready to do that book?" He said, "Yeah." I
flew to his home in Colorado the next day. I said, "How many of these
guys do we know where they are?" He said, "Maybe ten or
fifteen." I said, "Letís do a questionnaire, get started with
those, and start looking for the others."
First we had to find 250 guys, which in those years before CD-ROM
telephone directories was a chore. That was 1981. We worked for ten years
on the research, pretty steadily. In August of 1991 I took leave, brought
the General up, chained his leg to my dining room table, spread the
research over two rooms of my house, and we started writing.
We finished the book three days before Christmas that year and flew to
New York and handed it to our editor. He was a very fine man. As we placed
the manuscript on his desk, the General said, "We have brought you
the heart of the buffalo," and I regret to tell you that the book
editor didnít understand what he meant. It was a magnificent obsession.
Marc Leepson: Tell us how the title came about.
Joe Galloway: One day we got a call from Random House and they said
they had selected a title for the book: One Valley Too Far.
Russ Thurman: By God, that makes you want to stand up and salute.
Joe Galloway: I did not want to tell Gen. Moore, but I had to. His
response was, "Over my dead body." He said, "What do we do
to turn this around?" and I said, "Well, weíve got to get on
the train and go to New York."
We started off with the short list of about ten titles that we had
mulled over for months. One of them was simply, Soldiers Once. The
title is from the last line of an A.E. Housman poem about dead young
soldiers. Then we thought we could use the whole damn line: "We were
soldiers once and young." It resonated.
We walk into the office of the president of Random house, Harry Evans,
and heís there, and the chairman of the board is there, and the head of
graphics, and the head of design, and the senior editor. Evans says,
"We hear you donít like our title." I said, "Well, itís
not that we donít like your title, itís that we like ours so much
There was one woman in there who had read the manuscript. I watched her
face as I told them our title, and I saw a tear roll down her cheek. I
knew we had it. Evans turned around and looked at his assembled minions,
and he said, "Well, we can redesign the title page, canít we,
You have to fight them every step of the way. You have to know what it
is that you are doing, and you have to fight them because they have a tin
ear in New York in the publishing industry. I suspect that may be true in
Hollywood in the film industry, as well. Itís a struggle; itís a fight
every step of the way.
Pat Duncan: They donít have tin ears, they are deaf.
Joe Galloway: Two weeks ago in the Sunday L.A. Times Magazine,
they did a profile of the filmmaker Joe Roth. In the middle of this
profile, a guy who owns the movie rights to our book was discussing what
the title of the movie is going to be. And my jaw drops because they are
agreeing on The Lost Patrol. I told this to the General with great
trepidation. "What?" he said, "Whoís lost and what
Pat Duncan: Actually, I just had a meeting two weeks ago at Fox
where they wanted to do a remake of The Lost Patrol because they
heard Joe Roth wanted the title. Thatís the whole reason a movie gets
made: good title.
I didnít write until I was 30. I came back from Vietnam, did a whole
bunch of stuff, and decided that I wanted to write movies because I could
write better crap than the stuff I was seeing in the theaters. I still
feel that way.
I moved to L.A. in 1976 and there were a whole bunch of Vietnam scripts
floating around. Apocalypse Now and so on. They got made, some of
them. But, I thought they were all about the war and not about the
warrior. Iím kind of a blue-collar guy, and I wanted to write about the
guys I served with.
So I wrote a script called 84 Charlie MoPic, and nobody would
make it. It was kind of hard, because of the style, but nobody wanted to
do anything about Vietnam. It was a famous script in town. It was one of
those unproduced scripts everyone talked about. People would come up to me
and say, "Oh, Iíve read the script. Itís brilliant. Somebody
should make that into a movie." This would be a head of a studio. Iíd
said, "Why donít you make it a movie?" "Oh, no, the
public doesnít want to see that shit."
Two guys had pitched a series to HBO called Vietnam War Stories.
They wanted to do Rambo as a weekly series, and they wanted a token
vet. They just wanted some guy to kind of authenticate themselves and they
I threw out all their scripts and I said, "This is crap; this is
junk; this is a big lie. I wouldnít use this to wipe my dogís
ass." You know, I was diplomatic. I went and wrote some scripts and
then they decided to shoot in Savannah, Georgia, and they took everybody
My job was to rewrite the scripts, but I kept on giving excuses that I
was too busy so they had to ship me to Georgia to do the rewrites there. I
had long hair and I wore these stupid Hawaiian shirts, and Russ Thurman
was there as the technical adviser. They pitted us against each other.
They kept calling me and saying, "We got this gunny. When you see
him, heís going to get in your shit."
When I got to the Holiday Inn in Savannah, Russ and I looked at each
other and said, "Oh good, Iíve got an ally." And we took over
that entire series.
In fact, the second year, it was in my contract: the two producers had
nothing to do with the show. We felt an obligation to all the names on The
Wall and also to all the people we had served with to try and do it
right and to do as many different stories as possible. We did the first
nurse story; we did rear echelon stories; we did all sorts of stories. And
it became successful. The first year we were eligible, we won an Ace cable
award in every category we were eligible for.
The Ace Awards didnít amount to a lot, but they were important to us.
Russ was my date for the Ace Awards. He wore his Class A Marine Uniform.
What is that thing called?
Russ Thurman: My Dress Blues.
Pat Duncan: Thereís an Army-Marine thing going here that has been
going on for a long time.
Russ Thurman: Embarrassing.
Pat Duncan: We had fought this good fight. The week after we
finished shooting the series, we started shooting MoPic. We used
the same crew. We just moved over and did MoPic, which has had some
success with veterans. It got some really good reviews.
I was at the Sundance Film Festival, and this guy came up to me. He
said, "My wife and I saw your film the other day. Thatís my wife
over there. Sheís too shy to talk to you, and she was a nurse in
Vietnam. We have been married for 14 years and she has never said one word
about what happened to her over there. When we saw your movie, we went
back to our condo and we talked all night for the first time about what
she did there." Thatís when I knew that we had succeeded somehow.
That was the important thing.
I went to Hawaii for the Hawaiian Film Festival and the Pacific Rim
Festival. They had three films from filmmakers in Hanoi. And I got to see
three movies from the North Vietnamese point of view--remarkable films
actually, just stunning films. The cool part was, I got to talk with these
guys. I didnít spend time with anybody else except these filmmakers
because we had more in common than just about anybody else there except
for the veterans.
They took a copy of my film back to Vietnam with them. They wanted
everybody to see it because all they had seen were bootleg tapes of Rambo.
The funny thing is, they had a Rambo film, too. It was about these VC
fighting this helicopter that came over their village every day and just
strafed it. They got some Russian guy to play the American, and he
literally twirled his mustache and went, "Heh, heh, heh."
Their films were just like ours, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It
was a long journey and it still is. I have been trying to make other
Vietnam projects for a long time, but itís very hard to do Vietnam
Russ Thurman: In late 1970s I was a warrant officer at Camp Lejeune,
North Carolina, and I had gunpowder in my nostrils. I had served in
Vietnam. I had become a master sergeant in the Marines. I became a warrant
So there I am, harder than woodpecker lips, and Iím sitting in a
movie theater in Jacksonville, North Carolina. I was watching a Vietnam
movie called The Boys of Company C.
I went with a friend of mine, Dale Dye. Dale and I were sergeants
together in Vietnam. I met Dale in 1967. I was about 16 months in country,
and he shows up in our unit as the new guy. For new guys in most
professions and most certainly in Vietnam, you donít talk: you listen,
you shut your face, you learn. Dale didnít because he talks a lot. Since
I had 16 months in country--senior sergeant in the outfit--I punched him
out. We have been dear friends since. I was best man in his wedding.
We went to this movie and we both left vibrating. I have found that
most Vietnam movies are filled with hate, bigotry, and
dishonor--everything that I didnít experience. I have found no love, no
camaraderie, no brotherhood. They were all cartoon characters, laughable,
Rambos, weirdos. Every officer was inept; every artillery round fell
short; every black was lazy; every white guy was on drugs.
I was a Private First Class when I went to Vietnam. I saw more from a
very low level called mud. So this all kind of vibrated with me. Iím a
little bit passionate about the war; Iím a little bit passionate about
the guys I fought with. If the Vietnam War was all the things we have seen
in films--and some of them are good and some of them are very, very
bad--then that doesnít explain The Wall. If everybody hated each
other over there, why is The Wall still one of the most passionate
places to go?
I left the Marines in December of 1985, and I went to work as a
magazine editor. Dale kept pestering me about getting involved in these
movie things. He had done a weird movie. He had gone over to Soldier of
Fortune and was going to go to Hollywood to change things. We had both
talked about this for years, ranting and raving about all these weird
things going on. So he pestered me into taking this job with HBO, Vietnam
Now I donít know anything about how to make movies but I do know a
little bit about the Marines, and I know a little bit about military
service. I can outfit you and guarantee authenticity. Whatever it takes, I
can do it. He badgers me to take the job because heís going to the
Philippines to make a movie called Platoon.
I took the job and I thought they were the weirdest bunch of people I
had ever met in my life. You think they are weird, theyíre much worse. I
go to Savannah, and I started ranting and raving and everything. The
producer says, "You are just like a gunnery sergeant." I say,
"Thanks for the compliment." And that became my label.
I get the scripts and I am going, "Who wrote this trash?" I
changed things and sent it back. They kept talking about this Pat Duncan.
I said, "Well, where did this guy crawl out of?" and they said,
"He is a veteran." I said, "What war?" They wanted us
to fight so they could go out and get their job done making the TV series.
We met at the Holiday Inn. It took 30 seconds to look into this manís
eyes and know this man had walked in the valley of the shadow. We teamed
up and we kicked HBOís butt. I told them when I took on the job that I
donít care whether HBO executives like this thing. I donít care
whether you like it. I donít care whether the actors like it. I only
care about one thing--that the veterans in Butte, Montana; Biloxi,
Mississippi; and Bangor, Maine, like it.
They didnít like the idea that I wanted the actors for one measly day
to put them through a training course--one measly day. But I got them.
I took the actors and about fifty extras out into the swamps of
Georgia. Beautiful place to train. Youíve got cottonmouths,
rattlesnakes, mosquitoes the size of helicopters, and, boy, it was wet and
slimy. I loved it.
We developed some rules of engagement. One, nobody touches the actors,
nobody talks to them. I want them; they are mine for this period of time.
I will turn them over to the director at the end of the day. I explained
about the M-16 and trained them. I can take anybody and in about an hour,
teach him how to use an M-16. I donít care who you are, I can do it.
I became more of an emotional trainer. Itís not what you can do
physically, itís what up here that makes the difference. When the guy
steps in front of the camera, I want him to be believable.
We went for a little walk. I loved it when we crossed a canal and all
you could see were the M-16s poking out of the water. We sat for about 15
minutes--you donít move, you donít make any sounds, you donít do
anything. The faces of these guys were covered black with mosquitoes. When
they came back, they were different. They had not walked in the valley of
the shadow, but they had looked into the valley.
No actor has the right to put on the uniform of one of my brothers and
pretend to be one of my brothers without having paid some dues. HBO came
out with War Stories and most episodes reflect every bit of that.
Some of them go to a little astray, and thatís fine. But my crowning
work, I believe, was 84 Charlie MoPic.
Wallace Terry: After coming back from several weeks working on the
cover story for Time magazine about the Negro soldier, I was called
by an old friend from my Washington Post days who had moved over to
the publishing business, wanting to know if I could turn that cover story
into a book. I said, "Thatís impossible. You canít base a book on
a few weeks of reporting."
But a few months later I was off to Vietnam for a permanent assignment.
At the end of that two-year assignment, I made a deal with the bureau
chief that I would go into the field and do some interviewing for a
prospective book, and I would write a piece for him on the way out of the
country back to the States. As I traveled the length and breadth of the
battlefield, I interviewed black soldiers of all levels because this would
be the focus of my book--the black experience in Vietnam.
When the word got around that this black reporter was showing up, not
just one or two black guys would show but 10, 20, or 30, and they would
all want to talk at once. I had to switch over to a tape recorder from my
notebook and pen. I was recording essentially the first rap sessions to
come out of Vietnam, although at the time I didnít realize it.
At the same time, I was surveying the attitudes of black and white
troops for what I thought would be an important addition to my narrative
history--the first outside survey of the political, social, and racial
attitudes of our servicemen on the battlefield. When I got back to the
States, I published my findings in Time, and did a two-part series
with the New York Times, which they syndicated.
About the same time, I was being asked by Time to take a look at
the new black leadership that had emerged since I had been out of the
country. One of the people they wanted me to talk to was Bobby Seal, who
was incarcerated in San Francisco. I didnít know him nor did I know any
of the other Black Panther leaders.
When I interview him, I decided to take a couple of these tapes with
I did the same thing with Julian Bond, Whitney Young, and other black
leaders. Julian Bond said, "You ought to play this material for
Motown. They could turn this into a documentary recording." And thatís
just what happened. I contacted those folks out in California. If you
think those people are weird in the movie industry, wait until you get to
the record industry. They are 99.9 percent crooks, as I soon discovered.
In any case, I became a Motown recording star for all of seven minutes.
I appeared very briefly on Soul Train.
The record came out. It was called "Guess Who Is Coming
Home--Black Fighting Men Recorded Live In Vietnam," and it was the
lowest pressing in the history of RCA. It never sold, but it was the only
recording of this type that was produced out of the Vietnam experience. We
have hope that down the road it will become a CD--if not that, maybe it
will become part of a rap recording, which seems to be the only way to get
anything done anymore.
I went to the typewriter, and I finished this 600-page narrative. I
thought I had a surefire winner because I was picking through the
experiences of black solders, the two great issues of our time. The
Vietnam War, being our longest war, was the most divisive issue since the
Civil War. Through the eyes of the black soldier--Iím dealing with civil
I really thought I had a winner: How could I lose? Well, I will tell
you how I can lose. I could lose because I had taken the two worst
issues, not the two best issues: Vietnam, a war that everybody now hated,
and the only thing that they hated worse than that was black men with guns
who knew how to use them.
I was told nobody is buying Vietnam books anymore, and the manuscript
was shoved back in my face. I went to see a publisher and he told me the
same thing: "Nobody is buying Vietnam books. Theyíre not interested
in the black side of the story, especially that side of the
So I tried another publisher and I hear the same thing--ten rejections,
20 rejections. Two years go by, three years go by. It gets so bad that my
children go to bed at night saying, "Dear God, please find Daddy a
publisher because he is driving us nuts." Forty rejections, 50
rejections, 70--now I am being rejected twice by the same publisher.
After ten years, I had gone through over 100 publishers, 100
rejections. Finally, Ballantine Books said they would publish it, but I
had to understand they were a paperback house. I needed a hard-cover
Ballantine is part of the Random House complex, so I was taken around
the corner to meet an editor of Random House. I open the door and itís a
black guy, and Iím thinking, "I am really in high cotton now."
It turned out that heís from Yale University. Heís too smart. He doesnít
want my 600-page narrative that I have been carrying around for ten years.
He wants me to write an oral history. I didnít know what that was. I
thought it was an x-rated book of some sort.
He explained to me that Al Santoli had written a book called Everything
We Had, which was published by Random House and was successful. This
meant starting all over. I had started this back in 1969, now here we are
The whole process was to start all over again. I found guys that I had
known in Vietnam; there were also guys I knew along the way and there were
guys I had to go out and look for. I had to fill the cross-section of
experience in creating this tapestry that would represent not only the
black experience, but the American experience and the universal
The most important reaction that Iíve had to Bloods came in a
letter that I received from a Dutch reader who said that when he read the
story of Fred Cherry--a black pilot from Suffolk, Virginia, who was shot
down and captured and held for seven years in Hanoi--that he saw his own
experience. I knew I had achieved my first goal, which is to show the
When a Dutchman who was held by the Japanese in East Timor sees himself
in the experience of a black man with American forces in Hanoi, then I
felt that I had been successful--that I had done what I had always wanted
to do as a journalist and make America understand that there is nothing
about the black experience that is not first and foremost human and
universal. If we understand that, we can live with each other in a much
The book got published and itís been successful. It still gets read
here and there in college classes. It has inspired me to keep writing. Iím
hoping to finish a sequel next spring called Heroic Hearts: How the
Dream of Martin Luther King Came True on the Battlefields of Vietnam,
in which I will focus not only on blacks, but on everybody and how they
found their common humanity.
All of us want to see our books turned into something else. We had a
nice production done for Frontline called "The Bloods of
Nam." It was a one-hour documentary. We were very satisfied with it.
It won some awards; itís a classic production and Iím very proud of
We also did a radio adaptation for All Things Considered, which
also won awards. Then it was off to Hollywood to deal with the real
weirdos. We havenít had anything approaching my dreams and my hopes,
though we have talked to virtually everybody who thinks they might like to
see this film become a serious production. But, along the way one story
was adapted into a film called Dead Presidents. For me, itís a
dead movie. I think it was a disaster.
Russ Thurman: You do not go into these projects without paying a
price. In some ways all these things I have done in Hollywood were therapy
but they stirred up an awful lot of snakes that I had at parade rest for a
long time. My dear wife paid a price for my work in the movie business. I
mean physically. I was up patrolling the house a lot of times.
Unfortunately, those snakes are still crawling around.
Question: Why are African Americans portrayed so negatively in war
films or not shown in war films at all?
Pat Duncan: In War Stories I literally gave them a formula.
I said that there would be 20 percent Latinos, 40 percent blacks, and all
the Vietnamese would be played by Vietnamese--not Filipinos or Mexicans.
That cost us a lot of money. In Hollywood, if it says a doctor comes in
the room, the easiest thing for a casting department to do is go through
their portfolio and make it a middle-aged white male--all the time. This
is true for any role that isnít described in particular.
It was very difficult to find young Latino actors; there was a scarcity
of them then. And the Vietnamese: none of them were actors. We had to do
the best we could. I had an extra casting group that did nothing but cast
Itís very difficult. People are basically lazy, and they are trying
to save money.
You have to remember that with Hollywood--just like everywhere else on
the planet--90 percent of everything is crap. Just absolute crap, and
about 9 percent is decent, and 1 percent is really good. Thatís because
90 percent of the people working there arenít very good at their jobs.
The writers arenít very good, the directors arenít very good, the
casting people, and so on. They go the lazy route. They just donít take
the time or effort.
Joe Galloway: And they are not above distorting history to leave
the black man out. Pattonís famous speech, which George Scott did so
beautifully in that movie, was actually delivered to a black tank unit.
And when he says those lines, "When your kids ask you, ĎWhat did
you do in the war, Dad?í you donít want to have to say you shoveled
shit in Louisiana," was a direct reference to the 765th black tank
unit which trained in Louisiana. Thatís what they did for two years
until they finally were chiseled out of that hole and sent to combat at
their own request.
It would have been just as easy to have a black unit standing there,
but instead you saw a white unit.
Question: Have any of you seen a film that you felt really
portrayed the real Vietnam or the Vietnam that you witnessed?
Pat Duncan: I go around the country with MoPic, and I have
guys come to me constantly and say, "How come nobody has told my
story?" They always say, "I saw your movie but that is not what
it was like when I was there."
Vietnam was a turbulent period in general. Also, we went over there for
12 or 13 months or maybe a little longer, and the war changed before our
eyes. All the experiences were unique. There are as many stories as there
are veterans. There are thousands of books. I just tell people to write
Joe Galloway: Veterans demand reality. Veterans demand the truth as
they remember it and thatís not usually what Hollywood is about.
Pat Duncan: I think every veteran is fighting this odd mythology
that came out of the war: the ticking time-bomb vet. You know this guy, heís
a staple of movies and books.
I had a nurse we used as a technical advisor who called me one day in
tears. Some TV writers had called her and picked her brain. When the show
aired, she watched it. She got her whole family to watch the episode.
"Itís going to be about what I did in Vietnam."
And the episode was about this Vietnam nurse who had come back and was
having post-traumatic stress. Every time she saw a man in uniform she
became a prostitute. This is what they had done to her story and she was
in tears. Her whole family had watched this show that said every time she
saw a guy from Federal Express, she started seducing men. It was just
awful. I called up the writer and I said, "How could you do this to
this woman?" She said, "Itís just a TV show and we needed a
little hook." Thatís what it is to them. The Vietnam veteran is
just an easy dramatic device.
Marc Leepson: Philip, you wrote a book and a film was made out of
it. Can you address this issue of what they did to your book?
Philip Caputo: I thought that the TV film that they made of my book
was the best, most realistic film version of the war that I had seen up
until at least that day. I want to make two points.
The first point is that there were many Vietnam Wars, but the odd thing
about that war is that parts of it resembled the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Parts of it even resembled the Western Front in World War I, especially up
along the DMZ. Parts of it resembled the Indian Wars and the precursor war
in the Philippines in the early part of this century. So I think that
trying to say that there is a film or a book that captures the war is very
difficult to do because it was such a many-faceted experience. Whereas you
could take a book about World War I, and the Western Front was the Western
Front whether you were in Belgium, France, or on the German side.
As far as the film version of A Rumor of War, I did go through
the agonies of hell getting that right. CBS was very kind to me because
they did not give me script approval rights, but they did give me some
sort of unwritten moral authority. I actually kicked back the screenplay
six times. Not only was this a true story and my story, but it was a story
about all these guys I had served with--15 of whose names are on The
Wall in Washington. I felt that any real falsification of the
experience would have been a betrayal of the dead, which to me would be a
There were any number of problems with this film right up until
production. Because it was a TV movie, we couldnít afford to go to the
Philippines or Thailand. We went to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I
have to say that the director and the cameramen did a crackerjack job of
making it look like Vietnam. It was really interesting.
But, the producer of the film was just awful. He was cutting scenes out
of the movie for budget reasons as they were filming. He would call up
from California and say, "I want this scene taken out." By the
time he got through, we had taken out five scenes. The entire film would
have been utterly meaningless. It would have meant nothing. I would have
been a bunch of guys running around in the jungle shooting each other.
I called my agent and I said, "You call those guys and you tell
them I am withdrawing my name from this and they can call this thing
anything they want. They can call it Death in the Jungle. It is not
going to be called A Rumor of War. My name will not appear on
Brad Davis, the star of the movie who played me, went on strike. He
told them, "If these scenes are taken out of the film, I am not going
to work another day," and he went up to his room in the hotel. They
begged and pleaded and threatened him, and he said, "Go to
Sure enough, we got the scenes put back in and once it was done--once
the director was allowed to get out from under the money people--I think
that it turned out to be a fairly good film.
When I read in The Wall Street Journal that A Rumor of War
had been turned into a video I called the producer. This guy was a parody
and stereotype of the Hollywood producer. He actually smoked cigars and
called you "baby" regardless of your sex or sexual orientation.
So I call him and he says, "Phil, baby, what can I do for
you?" I said, "Well, Charlie, I see that A Rumor of War
is going to be on video and itís going to be released in 85 major
markets and sold in all these video stores, and I was wondering: It wasnít
in the contract--video didnít exist at the time--but what do I get out
of this?" And I will credit him with his honesty. He says,
"Phil, I got to be straight with you: not a fucking thing." That
was my first and last meeting with Hollywood.
Russ Thurman: I think Phil points out that you have got to be
passionate about what you are doing and you have got to hold them, just
like what Wally said. If I only spent twelve hours a day on the set, I got
over it. I mean you have to be in there and passionate and not let it go
and donít back up--they donít make them bigger, badder, and mean
enough. You have got to say, "This is the way it is going to
be." We had one scene in a thing called Separated that had
barbed wire. The stakes that you drive into the ground to hook the barbed
wire to had a very curious little hook to it. We found two thousand of
them in Montana and had them FedExed overnight in order to be there in the
morning to be driven in the ground before shooting started.
Pat Duncan: They said, "Canít we just stake it with some
wood?" and I said, "Well itís going to be a close-up."
They said, "Well there are all sort of stakes," and I said,
"Well this is the one we used in Vietnam." I donít want one
vet ever to be pulled out of this story because he is saying, "Oh,
look at that bogus stake you got there."
One day a director got out of hand, and I pulled him aside and said,
"Listen, Russ is a vet; Iím a vet; and this show is about 58,000
names on The Wall. Donít take any of this lightly." He kept
arguing with me, and I said, "And there is one other thing that you
have to think about: If you do it again, I will hit you."
He looked at me. I donít think anybody had ever gone up to this
director and said that. But, thatís how far we have to go. It took all
of our energy every day.
We were fighting constantly every day, all day long. You couldnít
turn your back. It was amazing what these people would try to do if you
just looked away for a second. And it was for a good reason. One day, they
called me into a meeting about some piddly little thing. I discussed it
with them logically and calmly and that didnít work. I told a few jokes
and said trust me and that didnít work. Finally I picked up a chair and
threw it at the blackboard, knocked it down, and broke it. They just
looked at me aghast and said, "Well, if itís that important to