This weekend, Peter Weir graces us with The Way Back, a tale of daring escape by prisoners of war. In due fashion this week’s Listicle salutes the soldier in film. From comedy to adventure to stark, sobering drama, soldiers have faced a great deal on the movie screen.
The story is set in the spring of 1969 in the northwest corner of the country then known as South Vietnam. It revolves around a mountain named Matterhorn, a 5,000 plus foot peak so steep in some areas that ropes are required to scale it. The Marines face other obstacles also. At night it is so cold and wet that hypothermia is a problem. Much of the terrain is carpeted with leech-infested triple canopy rain forest, its undergrowth so thick as to require slashing through with machetes.
Giap had lost several family members to the rigors of French colonial rule, including his wife who was arrested and died in a French prison. A model of cool, methodical persistence, Giap was not goaded or tricked into a rash counterattack on Dien Bien Phu. He patiently assembled his forces, digging gun positions in the forested slopes overlooking the French defenses and amassing a huge supply of ammunition carried by thousands of porters through the jungle. Then on March 13, 1954, Giap struck at Dien Bien Phu, capturing several key strong-points and pounding the air strip so that supply planes could no longer land. The base aero-terrestre had become a death trap.
Given the political vacuum in the South, a Communist takeover of all of Vietnam within two years, or even less, seemed unavoidable. Beyond vague ideas of somehow rallying the Vietnamese in the South and contingency plans for creating stay-behind agents to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Vietminh, the U.S. had little idea of how to prevent a complete Communist take-over.
Whether amputating a shrapnel-torn limb or performing an emergency appendectomy, Dr. Tram proved to be remarkably adept. The diary entry for 8 April, 1968 reads, “Operated on one case of appendicitis without adequate anesthesia. I had only a few meager vials of Novocain to give the soldier, but he never groaned once during the entire procedure. He just kept smiling, to encourage me.”
In Lieutenant Morris’ words, “We moved into the woods and within minutes all hell broke loose.” The jungle erupted in a tremendous roar as Chinese Claymores bellowed out thousands of steel pellets and tracer rounds from heavy machine guns seared through tree leaves and elephant grass.