A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 2001/November 2001

Arts of War

BY MARC LEEPSON

 

War Letters: A TV Documentary that Follows in Giant Footsteps

Back in 1988, documentary filmmaker Bill Couturie brought together an all-star Hollywood cast to read letters written from the Vietnam War in his powerful and moving documentary, Dear America. That gut-wrenching 90-minute movie filled with stark in-country images remains one of the best Vietnam War documentaries and is a tribute to the men and women who served in that conflict. It was first shown on HBO and later went into limited theatrical release. Everywhere it went, Dear America garnered high accolades.

War Letters, a 60-minute documentary that will air on Sunday, November 11, on PBS-TV's "American Experience" series, follows in Dear America's large footsteps. War Letters, like Dear America, has no narrator and no star subjects, contains a mixture of home movies and archival war footage, and features a roster of top-level actors reading letters written by American fighting men and women and their loved ones at home. The difference is that War Letters, produced by Robert Kenner, covers three centuries of American conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War, including the Vietnam War. It is as powerful as its predecessor.

The documentary is based on letters compiled by Andrew Carroll's Legacy Project. Some 200 of those letters are featured in Carroll's recently published book, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (Scribner). Carroll culled them from some 50,000 letters he received after a Dear Abby column ran an item about his work on Veterans Day 1998. None of the letters had been published or otherwise publicized before.

"The legacy of America's veterans is their service to the nation," the 31-year-old Carroll said. "Ours is to preserve their stories and share them with generations to come."

His book and the documentary do that--in spades. So does the War Letters web site, which contains excerpts from letters featured in the film, information about the letter writers, preservation tips for your family's old letters, and much more. Go to www.pbs.org/amex/warletters


DEDICATING SOLDIERS

Cyril R. "Rick" Rescorla was among the thousands who perished at the World Trade Center September 11. Rescorla, the security chief for the financial giant Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, was a Vietnam veteran who served with distinction as a First Cav platoon leader during the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. A photograph of Rescorla in the heat of battle graces the cover of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, the seminal book about that engagement by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. It now appears that the upcoming film version of Soldiers--due to hit the mulitplexes next Memorial Day--will be dedicated to Rick Rescorla.

"General Moore, who was about the best battalion commander who ever lived, said that Rick was the best platoon leader he ever saw," Randall Wallace, the film's director, said in late September. "He probably saved about three thousand lives in the World Trade Center. But he stayed to get all his people back, and the building came down while he was bringing out people in wheelchairs. I have to say that he died the way he would have wanted to go: being a hero."

Wallace already is garnering raves for the upcoming film, which he is making as a tribute to those who served in the Vietnam War.


HEARTS: THE MOVIE

Two years ago in Hearts in Atlantis noted scary writer Stephen King dealt with the Vietnam War draft and with seriously unstable Vietnam veterans--thank you very much. That book was an amalgam of three tenuously connected short stories, a novella, and a novel called "Low Men in Yellow Coats," a fantasy-horror tale set in 1960.

The new film of the same name, starring the great Anthony Hopkins, focuses only on "Low Men" and the final very short story, "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," which takes that story to the present time. That means that the film's creator, the novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, All the President's Men, et al.), opted not to deal with King's themes of draft avoidance and mentally unbalanced Nam vets. That's a good thing.


THE LAST CASTLE

The Last Castle is a curious movie. Simultaneously sappy and stirring, it is an amalgam of cartoonish situations and characters involved in serious, thought-provoking moral dilemmas. It's hard to tell the villains from the heroes in this bombastic thriller/drama, which stars hard-eyed Robert Redford as a three star Army general who is sent to a military prison overseen by a borderline psychotic warden, chillingly portrayed by James (Tony Soprano) Gandolfini.

Redford's character served with honor in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars and was held for six years in the Hanoi Hilton. But he later messed up badly and went to prison and while there, commanded a violent inmate rebellion. So, is he a good guy or a bad guy?

The filmmaker/director Rod Lurie (West Point, 1984) and screenwriters David Scarpa and Graham Yost clearly lean toward sainthood. They conveniently gloss over the death and destruction he engineers. The bad guy is Gandolfini, a narrow-minded careerist who has never seen combat. There must be a lesson in there someplace.   


NAMES AND FACES

VVA Chapter 451 in Baltimore is sponsoring Operation Remember, a worthy effort to try to obtain photographs of the 1,046 men who gave their lives in the Vietnam War and whose names are engraved on the Maryland Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The photos will be posted on the Maryland Vietnam Veterans Memorial web site and displayed at the memorial on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Once it is completed, the collection will be donated to the Maryland State Archives.

To obtain the form for submitting a photo or for more information about Operation Remember, contact Chapter 451, 6401 Beckley St., Baltimore, MD 21224-6502; 410-633-0857; or visit the chapter's website: www.vva451.org or e-mail mailbag@vva451.org

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, meanwhile, has launched its nationwide "Put a Face with a Name" program. Co-sponsored by Kinko's (the duplicating company), the program allows anyone to use Kinko's computers to post a photo of remembrance to the online Virtual Wall free of charge. To find out more, go to the newly launched website www.kinkos.com/thevirtualwall The goal is to have a digital photo of each of the 58,226 men and women whose name is on The Wall.


PHIL LESH AND HEP C

Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh found out in 1986 that he had what was then a little-known, unidentified liver disease--what we now know is hepatitis C. He remained in good health until 1995, but in 1998 was close to death. His life was saved by a liver transplant in December of that year.

Since then, Lesh has become an activist on hepatitis C, a serious health concern of Vietnam veterans. Lesh has opened an on-line hep C discussion group, promoted blood donation drives in the San Francisco Bay area, supported research through his Unbroken Chain Foundation, and puts on benefit concerts. Go to www.phillesh.net to find out more.


ARTS IN BRIEF

The second issue of the revitalized Viet Nam War Generation Journal is out. It contains a stunning array of top-notch fiction, essays, memoirs, poetry, reviews, and interviews. The contributors include co-editors David Willson and Bruce Solheim, the novelist D.S. Lliteras, university professors Edward Palmer, William J. Searle, and Tony Williams, and former Vietnam War Army nurse Mary Reynolds Powell. For info on this ambitious and worthy endeavor, write: 23630 201st Ave., Maple Valley, WA 98038 or visit www.vwarjournal.com


Tim O'Brien has two brilliant short stories in the nation's two top popular literary magazines: The New Yorker and Esquire. "Too Skinny," a powerful story that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans, is the fiction feature in the September 10 New Yorker. The biting "Little People," which focuses on the misadventures of a young woman involved in antiwar activities in Minneapolis in 1969, is featured in the October issue of Esquire.


The U.S. Army has chosen Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, to be the site of the proposed National Army Museum. Belvoir, located about fifteen miles south of the nation's capital, was chosen in September after decades of indecision about where to place the facility. As envisioned, the $100-million museum will sit on a 30-acre site in the sprawling base. It would contain a conference center, research and preservation facilities, thousands of artifacts from every American conflict, and an IMAX theater. The money for the museum will be raised primarily through corporate and private donations.


Matt Dillon, the actor, has just finished directing his first film, tentatively titled Under the Banyan Trees, in--of all places--Cambodia. Dillon also wrote the script for the film, which he calls an "atmospheric thriller" set in post-Killing Fields Cambodia. The film, which stars James Caan and Gerard Depardieu, will be released early next year, possibly retitled City of Ghosts.


The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University will hold its fourth large-scale triennial Vietnam Symposium April 11-13, 2002. The center is soliciting proposals for papers to be presented at the conference, which will be held in Lubbock. The papers may cover any topic relating to Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, or to the involvement in the Vietnam War by this country or any other nation. All points of view are welcomed, including veterans affairs.

Submit your one-page outline proposal to James Reckner, the director of the Vietnam Center. His contact information is: The Vietnam Center, Texas Tech University, Box 4105, Lubbock, TX 79409-1045; phone: 806-742-3742; fax: 806-742-8664; e-mail: vietnam.center@ttu.edu And please mention you heard about it in these pages.


If you are a woman who lives in Maine and served in the U.S. military, you have the opportunity to contribute to the Maine Women Veterans Oral History Project. The idea is to collect women veterans' stories from World War II to the present. It is a collaborative effort between the University of Maine and the Maine Commission on Women Veterans. If you'd like to participate, contact University of Maine history department research associate Carol Toner at 207-581-3147.■

   


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