The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
June/July 2005
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

Unknown Soldier:
An Emotionally Charged HBO Documentary

 

BY MARC LEEPSON

No one who served in the Vietnam War has to be reminded of the ongoing personal legacy of that conflict. Even with the lapse of more than three decades, the emotional aftereffects of the war remain an immutable part of the lives of Vietnam veterans, their families, and their closest friends. John Hulme’s riveting, emotionally charged documentary, Unknown Soldier: Searching for a Father, which had its debut on HBO on Memorial Day, May 30, reminds us once again of the Vietnam War’s powerful, tenacious hold on the psyches of those intimately involved with it.

John Hulme, 36, was three weeks old on June 30, 1969, when his father, 22-year-old Marine Lt. Jack Hulme, was killed in a rocket attack in Quang Tri Province. The first-time filmmaker’s mother, Ellen, was devastated by the death of her college sweetheart. That is not surprising. But what is surprising is how Jack Hulme’s death continued to weigh heavily on his widow into the 21st century. That fact is at the center of John Hulme’s moving 90-minute documentary, which tells the life story of his father through interviews with his family, friends, and Marine buddies, and through the letters (and audiotapes) Jack and Ellen exchanged while he was in Vietnam.

In making his first documentary, John Hulme traveled extensively over a three-year period. He interviewed his father’s college friends and Marine Corps buddies. He made many trips to Providence, Rhode Island, his father’s hometown, to do extensive interviews with his own grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. John Hulme’s grandfather and grandmother—who were in their nineties and who died after the film was completed in 2004—provide many of the details of Jack Hulme’s childhood and adolescence. Their son was a friendly, outgoing, football star who met his wife-to-be at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He was Catholic; she was Jewish. But the difference in the religions meant nothing to Jack and Ellen who, by all accounts, were very much in love.

Jack Hulme also had a burning desire to join the Marines and serve his country, fostered in large part by his extremely patriotic father. Jack Hulme joined ROTC at Bridgeport in the late 1960s on a college campus that was slowly turning against the war. And, as Vietnam veterans know only too well, many of those in the antiwar movement back then blamed the warrior for that war. That fact is borne out when we learn that some members of the audience at his college graduation walked out in protest over Jack’s wearing of his Marine ROTC uniform.

The young Marine lieutenant went to Vietnam as gung ho as he could be. But his letters show that he slowly became disillusioned with the war and was counting the days until he could return home to his wife and infant son. That day never came, of course, and this personal, apolitical film hones in on how Jack Hulme’s death resonates today.

In doing so, John Hulme sculpts a loving portrait of his father. He also convinces his mother to make a pilgrimage with him to Vietnam, where her story has a happy ending. As has been the case for countless Vietnam veterans who lost comrades in the war, as well as for sons, daughters, and wives of Americans who perished in the war, the visit to present-day Vietnam proved to be an emotional tonic for Jack Hulme’s widow.

The camera catches it all; you can see it in Ellen Hulme’s body language as she is charmed by the friendship of everyday Vietnamese, especially the small children she encounters. Her burden is almost literally lifted off her shoulders. That’s a priceless gift bestowed on a war widow by her son and it provides a very special moment in a very special documentary. For more info about the film, go to www.hbo.com/docs/programs/unknownsoldier and www.unknownsoldiermovie.com

FAITHFUL FAITH

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the former Vietnam War POW, published a more-than-decent autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, in 1999. Although he was running for the Republican presidential nomination at the time, McCain, and his co-author Mark Salter, the long-time chief of staff of his Senate office, did not produce a typical campaign biography. McCain’s best-selling book, instead, concentrated on the lives of his Navy admiral father and grandfather and on his five years of hell as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

On Memorial Day, A&E presented a docu-dramatic version of Faith of My Fathers, directed by Peter Markle—who directed, among many other films, the 1988 Nam War rescue flick, BAT 21 (which also was based on a true story). Markle and William Bingham wrote the screenplay. The film is true to the basic outline of McCain’s book in that it pays tribute to his grandfather and father, John McCain, Sr., and John “Jack” McCain, Jr., both of whom were four-star admirals, and focuses on Sen. McCain’s POW experience.

Steely-eyed Scott Glenn nearly steals the show as Jack McCain. Shawn Hatosy does a credible job as the main character. The Hanoi Hilton scenes are eerily realistic. Overall, the film packs a strong emotional punch.

NAM FILMS 101

I have only one big complaint about the AMC documentary Hollywood Vietnam, an hour-long anecdotal history of Vietnam War films, which also aired on Memorial Day: The producers did on-camera interviews with a slew of articulate folks who know their Nam movies including Vietnam veterans Sen. Chuck Hagel, Lee Ermey, Ron Kovic, VVA founder Bobby Muller, and former Sen. Max Clelland—but they never contacted a guy who’s seen them all and written extensively about them since the early 1980s, your arts editor.

Still, without my help, producer and director Robert Stone did a creditable job. Stone uses his talking heads, along with clips from the films, to take a look at the history of the genre. He goes over some two dozen films and examines, among other things, how they reflected the nation’s attitude about the war and about the men and women who fought in Vietnam.

The always-entertaining Ermey provides inside-baseball stories about several films he worked on, including Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The actor Matthew Modine, who played the lead character in that strange and tense drama, also offers his thoughts on Kubrick’s unique brand of filmmaking. Kovic testifies about Oliver Stone’s adaptation of his memoir Born on the Fourth of July. Jerome Hellman, who produced Coming Home, has some insightful things to say about the evolving nature of Vietnam War films.

One other negative for me was the bombastic John Milius, who co-wrote Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and directed the fairly awful Flight of the Intruder. Milius offers nothing remotely new and little of substance in his comments about the war and its cinematic legacy.

ARTS IN BRIEF

This just in: Tom Laughlin, the man who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Billy Jack (1971) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)—the saga of a heroic Native American Vietnam veteran—is planning a 21st century sequel. Laughlin, who is 73, says his new Billy Jack movie will be a very political film. It will take on multi-national corporations, drugs, and the religious right. For more info, go to—where else?— www.billyjack.com


The people who run StoryCorps, the national non-profit effort to help Americans record each other’s stories in sound, are looking for Vietnam veterans to take part in their nationwide program. Since May, StoryCorps has set up its mobile “StoryBooths” throughout the country, and is making three-week stops in many cities and towns. If you’d like more info, call 800-850-4406 or go to www.storycorps.net

The Memorial Day Writers’ Project held its 12th annual reading on the Mall
near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day. Vietnam veterans and others came by to listen or participate, as folks read their prose, poetry, and stories.


The municipality of Castellfollit de la Rocha in Garrotxa County in Spain may be the planet’s most unlikely venue for a Vietnam War museum. But that town in Girona Province has one. You can pay a virtual visit at www.museodevietnam.com It helps if you read Spanish.


Vietnam veteran Terrance Powers of Ballston, New York, has collaborated with John Mrowka on a CD of Powers’ Vietnam War poetry put to Mrowka’s music. For more info on “Nam Suite,” email Mrowka at tatanka9@localnet.com


Frank Wagner’s CD Home Is Where You Dig It, which contains five original patriotic songs as well as “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America,” is dedicated to the nine men from C and D Companies, 1st Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, who died on Hill 942 on March 3, 1968. To find out more, go to www.thesingingservant.com

   

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