On Eagles' Wings

Saving the war at home: Return With Honor

Return With Honor
U Film Society, starts Friday

War movies provoke fighting words. Take the Tom Hanks vehicle Saving Private Ryan, for instance: In these pages, critics who were, well, critical of the film inspired no small amount of acrimony. (Letter writers took rhetorical aim at their mothers and body parts, among other things.) Elsewhere, and more recently, even a rave review of Return With Honor--a Hanks-sponsored war documentary--incited opposition. "We were right to protest [the Vietnam War]," gushed Salon columnist Anne Lamott. "But Return With Honor has humbled me before the heroism of our military." Such contrition did not assuage one reader. "Lamott is a liar," wrote Richard B. Higgins. "Her actions...led directly to thousands of American deaths and injuries....Where was she when it really counted?" All of which is simply to say that American wars continue to rouse visceral emotions and profound disagreement, Vietnam not the least.

Still, you wouldn't know it from watching Return With Honor, a "Be All That You Can Be"-style documentary that seems destined to serve military PR duty. Whereas American fighter pilots who recount their memories of imprisonment in North Vietnam do so here in modest and moving detail, documentarians Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders (who also made Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision) inflate the survivors' stories to the mythical proportions that jingoism demands. Patriotism doesn't permit multiple perspectives, so while the filmmakers punctuate the veterans' testimony with rare newsreel footage from North Vietnamese archives, there is no corresponding treatment of the war from any standpoint other than the prisoners'. And from the cells where POWs suffered, the war naturally seemed a clear-cut contest between captors and captives.

Presenting the war from that intense, narrow scope, Mock and Sanders effectively strip away any and all context, offering the voices of POWs without interpretation or even in comparison to the words of other veterans. Those who protested the war are shown in clips but have no opportunity to comment; in fact, John Wayne gets more screen time here. The film does move outside of Vietnam to reveal the prisoners' families, thus giving a welcome domestic perspective on the war. But this range is limited, as the North Vietnamese are made to resemble brainwashed Communists, all the war protesters appear as traitors, and the rest of us are brave.

But perhaps it's more telling to report that Boeing funded the movie. No wonder Return With Honor opens with swooping planes, billowing cotton clouds, crashing chords, and the pilots' odes to their war machines. ("This big, heavy machine [was] an extension of my will," remembers one, while another recalls with fondness the thrust at his command.) The POWs' more chilling accounts of war are sandwiched in a package revering today's U.S. Air Force Academy, suggesting that the military itself is the intended hero of this story. And God, we are given to understand, is on our team. Hence the Academy's Cadet Chorale plays Greek chorus at the film's beginning and end, singing fervent hymns to the Lord as First Pilot (e.g., "He will raise you up on eagles' wings...").

Fitting, then, that the pilots describe falling from the skies as falling from grace. As Lt. Ron Bliss says of his capture, he went from being a "proud, vainglorious peacock" to being a naked, cowering captive. Particularly at times like these, Return With Honor reads as a religious parable about sacrifice and redemption, revolving around torture and resistance: Tales of medieval racks, meat hooks, manacles, crippling isolation, and a technique that the men called "the Vietnamese rope trick" are all leavened by the prisoners' clandestine camaraderie. Communicating by sweeping, spitting, coughing, and tapping was, according to Lt. Tom McNish, "our one major victory."

Nonetheless, consensus-mongering reviewers weigh Return With Honor as a national triumph, claiming that by avoiding messy issues about the war's purpose, the film transcends ideology and politics. "Vietnam was a long time ago," Time sighed. "The rage is all but gone." Apparently, the Vietnam script has been rewritten with a happy ending--while, offscreen, the conversation is far from over.

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