The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

A Nelson DeMille's Word of Honor
Comes to the Small Screen

BY MARC LEEPSON

Nelson DeMille knows how to tell a story. A former 1st Cav LT, DeMille has been turning out best-selling thrillers for two decades. The list includes The General's Daughter, Plum Island, The Lion's Game, and his most recent, Up Country. His gripping 1985 novel, Word of Honor, has been turned into a worthy two-hour film that had its premiere on Saturday, December 6, on the TNT cable network. TNT will rebroadcast the film five additional times in December.

Word of Honor 's plot is intriguing: A magazine article comes out, telling of a massacre by American troops that took place in 1972 in Vietnam - a massacre that almost puts My Lai to shame. Millions of Americans read about how a squad of 1st Cavalry Division troops stormed into a South Vietnamese hospital and indiscriminately slaughtered all the nurses, doctors, and patients, including nuns and infants.

The article's notoriety pushes the Army into action. Ben Tyson, the platoon's commanding lieutenant, is recalled to active duty and court-martialed. He is accused of murdering one of his men and allowing the massacre to take place. If convicted, he could face a firing squad.

There's more. The Army is out to redress the mistakes it made prosecuting Lt. William Calley in the My Lai trial and goes after him with a vengeance. The former grunts who did the killing are given immunity from prosecution. The Army sets its sights on Tyson, an upwardly mobile business executive. Tyson faces an extremely uphill battle trying to clear his name.

Don Johnson does a fine job as present-day Ben Tyson. Johnson is no stranger to Vietnam veteran roles, having played the ultra hip Miami cop, Sonny Crockett, on Miami Vice back in the mid-eighties. Johnson invests Tyson with moral strength, as well as with vulnerability, making him a conflicted - and believable - character. Arliss Howard almost steals the show as Tyson's wise, low-key defense attorney. Howard, who played Private Cowboy in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, gives his character depth - and a very believable southern accent.

The always excellent John Heard - who gave a memorable performance as a disabled Vietnam vet in the underrated 1981 film, Cutter's Way - -does excellent work as Tyson's disaffected former medic who spills the story to the media. Jeanne Tripplehorn makes an effective Army prosecutor, and Sharon Lawrence holds her own in the role of Tyson's glamorous, younger wife. In a fitting bit of casting, Don Johnson's son Jesse shows up as the young LT Tyson.

Director Robert Markowitz is up to the task. He starts off with a version of the horrible in-country incident and then builds the tension slowly. Markowitz handles the Vietnam War scenes well. They pass the realism test - for the most part. There is one problem in that department, though. Two of the guys in the platoon have laughably long hair - much longer than any GI outside of a LURP team ever sported in the war zone.

Word of Honor is an entertaining, well-made movie with fine acting and a plot that asks difficult questions and does not provide any easy answers.

VIETNAM WAR EXPRESSIONISM

VVA member Helen White, who served as a nurse with the 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon in 1969-70, began painting in the winter of 2002. That's when she was housebound in her Missouri home by severe winter weather and a case of PTSD. An accomplished quilter, she made that first painting on cardboard with fabric paint, the only materials available. After completing three more paintings in the same medium, White started working in acrylics on canvas. Her subjects came directly from her experiences in Vietnam and her difficulties in adjusting to life back home.

It wasn't long before people noticed the work. Helen White's first show, called Vietnam Nurse Art, opened in September at Cottey College in Nevada; her second came in November at the Portales, New Mexico, public library. Her painting, The Thousand Yard Stare, is in the collection of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and All Used Up is on display at the Women in Military Service for America Museum in Arlington, Virginia. White's new book, Lipstick and A Smile (Bell Books), which contains both her words and her art, was published in late November.

"No one is bored looking at my paintings," White, who worked at VA hospitals at Fort Campbell and Fort Leavenworth after coming home from Vietnam, told us. At the Cottey College show, she said, "people cried when they looked at them." The work is done in a dark style reminiscent of German Expressionism and at least one critic has likened White's work to Edward Munch's often-reproduced The Scream.

"I've decided to call what I do 'US Expressionism,' '' White told us. "Labels are labels. As a psych nurse, I know there is much more than labels. However, this is one label I'm proud of."

To see more of Helen White's work, go to www.artkc.com

POW PHOTO EXHIBIT

The Library of Congress's ongoing Veterans History Project, which is part of its American Folklife Center, is featuring a photography exhibit called Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later by writer Taylor Baldwin Kiland and photographer Jamie Howren Quinn. The exhibit was part of an educational program aimed at young people and families that took place at the historic Decatur House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., November 15. It will be repeated January 10. In addition to the exhibit's photos and text, a special program includes talks by former Vietnam War POWs.

The Veterans History Project was created by Congress to collect and preserve the memories of living veterans and those who served in support of them. The project works through more than 780 partners across the country to conduct and collect oral histories. In addition to interviews, the project has accumulated more than 26,000 letters, photographs, and written memoirs. To read or listen to personal accounts of wartime experiences on line, go to www.loc.gov/warstories

ARTS IN BRIEF

"I'm not comfortable talking about it at all." With those words, Vietnam veteran Clarence Sasser, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire, reluctantly tells the story of what happened to him on January 10, 1968, in the moving 90-minute documentary, American Valor, which was aired on Veterans Day on PBS stations nationwide. During a vicious firefight in Ding Tuong Province during which he exposed himself to enemy fire, Sasser was shot in both legs. Unable to walk, he continued to treat his wounded comrades for five hours.

American Valor, narrated by Brian Dennehy and co-produced by Lionel (Hanoi Hilton, et al.) Chetwynd, uses present-day interviews, war-time news footage, and still photos to tell the stories of Medal of Honor recipients from the Civil War to Somalia. In addition to Sasser, the Vietnam War MOH recipients profiled include Donald Dix, Wesley Fox, Jack Jacobs, and Leo Thorsness. The program is available on videocassette and DVD through PBS Home Video. For info, call 800-PLAY-PBS.

In the Shadow of the Blade, a documentary that looks at the present-day travels of a Vietnam War UH-1H Huey helicopter, had its world premier November 7 in Austin, Texas. Produced by Arrowhead Films, the film examines the impact the visit of the helicopter had on Vietnam veterans and their families. The film is scheduled to be released on video next year, along with a book and a soundtrack. For more info, go to www.intheshadowoftheblade.com or e-mail cfries@arrowheadfilms.com

Shelley F. Griffith's moving song, "Beyond the Wall," is available on CD. Griffith, a medical doctor in Athens, Tennessee, wrote the song, he told us, "as a tribute to the soldiers who didn't survive the Vietnam conflict." The CD, he said, "is for all the men and women who have served, and now serve our country." Click here for a free download. For more info, e-mail shelgrif@usit.net

Rick Whitaker, who served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam in 1970-71, has produced his Vietnam War memoir, Tears in the Rain: Understanding the Vietnam Experience, electronically. It's available at www.farmersmarketonline.com/books.htm

   

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