Uncommon Valor (1983)

Uncommon ValorHere’s a trivia question for you. Are there more movies about the Vietnam War, or more movies about rescuing Vietnam War POWs? With the Rambo movies, the Missing in Action flicks and others, there were plenty of the latter. Lost in the shuffle at times is an underrated war film from 1983, Uncommon Valor.

It’s 1982 and after 10 years of one frustrating roadblock after another, retired U.S. Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) has finally had a breakthrough. His son, Frank, was captured in Vietnam in 1972 and has been missing in action ever since. Rhodes finally has been able to gain military intelligence that his son — and other missing Americans — are being held at a prison camp in Laos. Assembling a small team of specialists, including several members from Frank’s old unit, Rhodes begins to plan a dangerous mission into Laos to rescue the long missing Americans. The odds are stacked heavily against him, but for Rhodes, it’s been too long. Something needs to be done.

Where Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action movies are basically thinly-veiled excuses for Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to kill people in a variety of gruesome fashions, ‘Valor’ goes for a more straightforward, no frills approach. It’s the better for it. It doesn’t try too hard to pander to viewers, simply laying things out and going from there. Director Ted Kotcheff turns in a good one here, a film audiences went out to see in droves in 1983.

So if you’re new to movies, Gene Hackman is the Man. He’s always awesome, always able to play a variety of characters. His Col. Rhodes is the glue of ‘Valor,’ a career military man who’s tortured by the memory of his son. Is he alive? Dead? Why is nothing being done to bring him — and other prisoners — home? It’s a subtle part, mostly underplayed, as he holds his team together, all in hopes of them working together to accomplish something truly worthwhile. The sacrifice involved, well, that becomes the issue. Like in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ is it worth to save a life if it costs several more to get the job done? A solid leading part for Hackman.

In the men-on-a-mission angle, ‘Valor’ borrows from The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven and many others. Assemble the team, train them and unleash them on their mission. If the recipe ain’t broke, why fix it? Right?!? There are some cool parts amongst the team, including Wilkes (Fred Ward), the hand-to-hand combat specialist and tunnel rat, Blaster (Reb Brown), the explosives expert, Sailor (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), the burned out fighter, Scott (Patrick Swayze), the weapons trainer, Johnson (Harold Sylvester) and Charts (Tim Thomerson), the helicopter pilots, Jiang (Kwan Hi Lim, a Hawaii Five-O regular), a black market operator and trail guide, and Lai Fun (Alice Lau), Jiang’s more than capable daughter. A fun, oddball, rag-tag group to fill out the team!

I’ve always been a fan of this one. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it doesn’t need to. ‘Valor’ gets its message across without being heavy-handed in its delivery, especially as we get to know these Vietnam vets and the struggles they’re going through. A potentially suicidal mission into Laos? Yeah, maybe that’s the redemption they need, or at least some sort of closure. The forming of the team and the training sequences are excellent, but the best is saved for the chaotic attack on the POW camp in the final act. A big twist in the final minutes, as well as some surprises with who makes it out and who doesn’t.

Not a classic, but an excellent flick, especially its unsettling, almost wordless opening sequence set in 1972 Vietnam. Also look for Robert Stack as MacPherson, Rhodes’ payroll and financial backer who’s also hoping to reunite with his son, also believed to be a POW in Laos. Well worth tracking down/watching.

Uncommon Valor (1983): ***/****

 

 

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The Green Berets (1968)

green_berets_postOne of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.

As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.

I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.

The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.

Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.

The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.

Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.

Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.

Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!

 The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****