Left Behind:

Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam POW

   1987 - 1994
Hanoi Hilton



1987 -1994

    The final phase of POW films came in 1987, during a time when filmmakers created documentary films and works based on true stories. As a backlash against the rash of B movie hero films, these works attempted to achieve an authentic and credible narrative. Two documentaries and two films based on true stories appeared. Lionel Chetwynd, the director of Hanoi Hilton hired numerous POWs as consultants and stated in the movie's jacket cover that he hoped his film would be a tribute to their sacrifice. Even though the torture and treatment of POWs was made public in press conferences, speeches and published autobiographies after their release in in 1973, most of the documentaries and film portraying this treatment did not arrive until this time period. The BBC documentary's expose of a possible government cover-up helped spur the Senate Select investigation.


Hanoi Hilton - 1987

   The director of Hanoi Hilton stated that the purpose in making Prisoner prays to God for strengththe film was "to pay tribute to their [POWs] sacrifice." The changed political atmosphere allowed for such a movie to be accepted as history. In fact, President Reagan stated that, "every American should see this powerful and moving film as a tribute to our POWs and as an exercise in sheer understanding
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Hanoi Hilton
of history" (Gruner 61). Hanoi Hilton painstakingly re-creates the infamous prison. The audience experiences the loneliness of isolated confinement, lack of food and the torture with ropes, electric shock and whips. The prison commander states the since the United States has not declared war on North Vietnam they are not required to abide by the Red Cross and Geneva Convention mandates on the lawful treatment of prisoners of war. One former prisoner Everett Alvarez attests on the movie's jacket cover, “It was real. They had taken me back".

   Michael Moriarty portrays the main character, pilot Patrick Williamson, who is shot down in 1964 and must endure nine years of solitary confinement. The central conflict in the film is between the brotherhood of the prisoners and the prison guards attempts to break them. Torture was used to prove absolute control over the captive, "reducing prisoners to captive objects trying to rewrite the narrative of American absolute power” (Bates 38-40). The lack of support the POWs feel is fed by nightly readings of statements from those opposed to the war in the United States. The Vietnamese commander remarks that, “The real war is in Berkeley, California, Cuban communist interrogator kills prisonerWashington D.C., in the cities of America; and what we do not win on the battlefield, your journalists will win for us on your very own doorstep” (Lanning 241). One scene creates a Jane Fonda journalist look alike who doesn't realize that she is a pawn in the North Vietnamese game of mental war. The segment ends by her hugging the Vietnamese commander and thanking him for his efforts. The meticulous detailing of the torture ensures that the audience will share in the prisoners' anger at the sadistic prison guards. The film never leaves Hanoi, never shows an American killing a Vietnamese and only contains one brief battle scene in the beginning. Senior ranking officer (SRO) who has been tortured falls into the arms of a new prisoner

    Hanoi Hilton achieves a sense of authenticity when contrasted to the the superhuman cartoonish characters discussed earlier. It also provides a more factual portrayal of the former prisoners plight. In the end, the prisoners of Hanoi Hilton say, "we won,"referring to the fact that the prisoners did not break. Metaphorically the statement means that America won when it brought the prisoners home and could win another battle if the any remaining POWs were returned.

In Love and War - 1987

book cover  Filmmakers based this made-for-television movie on James Stockdale's memoirs of the same title. The director sought for accuracy and authenticity. Commander Stockdale, the highest ranking officer in a prisonTV movie ad poster camp, spent eight years in captivity. His wife Sybil organized other POW wives to press President Nixon into denouncing the North Vietnamese treatment and torture of the prisoners. The making of the film reveals the American public's willingness to revisit the implausibility of Jane Fonda and other international newscasters who told Americans that the POWs were not being tortured. As in Hanoi Hilton, In Love and War shows the Vietnamese efforts to lower the prisoners' psychological strength by broadcasting American Senator Fulbright's statements against the war and Harrison Salisbury lauding the Vietcong. One Vietnamese guard tells Stockdale, "We will win the war on the streets of New York" (Lanning 251).

We Can Keep You Forever - The Story of MIA's - 1987

   This British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary takes its title from the oft-repeated threat "we can keep you forever" made by Vietnamese guards. Considering the fact that French prisoners were reportedly held over 13 years, US prisoners had reason to worry. In addition the film traces the history of abandoned American and British POWs from W.W.II, Korea, and Vietnam. The filmmakers document the Soviet Union's repeated pattern of keeping POWs in gulag archipelagos and work camps sent from their communist allies. Jerry Mooney who worked for the National Security Agency went public in We Can Keep You Forever for the first time with this information. In the few minutes of television time allotted to him, Mooney told his tale of POWs left for dead and men he had listed as `Moscow Bound.' This documentary's systematic presentation of evidence reached the attention of United States government officials. Vocal outcry over this film may have been one of the many reasons for the creation of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in the early 1990s. Lionheart, the BBC distributor in the United States, disclosed that "local station managers reported being telephoned and urged not to run the film in the national interest" (Stevenson & Stevenson 275).

Americans Abandoned - 1992

Adrian Cronauer narrates documentaryPilot captured   This documentary film from The American Defense Institute reveals how the United States government failed to retrieve POWs not only from the Vietnam War but also POWs kept by the Soviet Union from W.W.II. and the Korean War. Narrated by Adrian Cronauer, the disc jockey whose life was portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, this film provides extensive 1960's and 1970's footage from television news, testimony, and documentation. The film carefully constructs and convincingly argues a case for the theory that POWs were left in Vietnam.