Two filmmakers struck gold last year in film vaults in Hanoi. But the value of their find didn't hit home until several months later, when they were back in Santa Monica beginning to piece together "Return With Honor," a documentary about what it was like to be a POW in Vietnam.
As they carefully screened the propaganda footage taken by the North Vietnamese, they found images that exactly matched the stories the American pilots had told the Academy Award-winning filmmakers--from the shoot-downs and captures to the POWs being paraded through the streets as trophies. In all, they uncovered historical footage of 13 of the 30 prisoners of war they interviewed.
"We didn't realize until we got in the editing room what we were looking at," said Terry Sanders, who produced and directed the film with his partner, Freida Lee Mock. "We said, 'Holy cow, there's Tom McNish, who has just been shot down.' We had Ron Bliss in an interview saying he's wandering around with a hole in his T-shirt, wounded in the head, and there he is, being led around with a hole in his T-shirt."
The footage from the Ministry of Culture and Information in Vietnam--about half of it previously unreleased--is woven together with interviews with the former POWs and five of their wives in "Return With Honor," which was completed around the time of the 25th anniversary of the release and homecoming of 462 POWs held in Vietnam.
The film will be screened tonight at a Veterans Day benefit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for L.A. Vets, which runs programs for homeless veterans. In January, the 102-minute documentary will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival before opening in theaters by April, Sanders said.
Five of the POWs featured in the film will be in the audience tonight, including McNish, who was a 24-year-old U.S. Air Force lieutenant when he was shot down in September 1966. He calls the documentary "by far the best portrayal of what the experience was like."
Mike McGrath, a former Navy lieutenant who spent almost six years in captivity and who also will attend the benefit, said "Return With Honor" accomplishes its mission. "It won't be a blockbuster, a Bruce Willis-type movie," he said, noting that the film "explains a lot of the deep feelings and our sense of duty, what was required of us."
The film takes its name from the strict code of conduct the POWs lived by. Their goal was to return with their honor intact, having fulfilled their patriotic duty no matter what the personal cost. Near the end of their captivity, some the POWs formed what they called the Fourth Allied POW Wing; "Return With Honor" was their official motto.
'An Amazing Story That Should Be Shared'
The idea for the film began with a gift made by three 1965 graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy at their 30-year reunion. They had collected the oral histories of 39 academy graduates who had been POWs and presented bound copies of them to the school.
"They felt this was an amazing story that should be shared in a much wider way," Sanders said. They sought out the pair of filmmakers, he said, because of their 1995 documentary, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," about the architect and sculptor who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That film won an Oscar for best feature documentary.
Recalled Sanders: "They said, 'All we want is for you to tell the truth.' "
Sanders and Mock have been making documentaries together through their Santa Monica-based American Film Foundation for more than 20 years. Mock has directed a number of films on the arts and humanities, including biographies of Neil Simon and Benny Goodman. As a student at UCLA, Sanders made "A Time Out of War" in 1954, an antiwar short story that won an Academy Award for best two-reel short subject. It was the first student film to win an Oscar.
With the oral histories as their starting point and a grant from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation, the filmmakers set out to tell the story of these pilots whose "love of flying ultimately led them to being in a prison cell," Sanders said. The $1-million film took them a year to make.
Sanders emphasizes that the documentary doesn't rehash the Vietnam War debate. "We shouldn't have been there. That's not up for discussion. They [the POWs] didn't go into war to do anything more than what they thought was right. That's what we wanted to show." He considers the final product "a patriotic antiwar film."
About a third of the subjects are high-profile POWs--Everett Alvarez, the first pilot shot down; senior-ranking officers James Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton, who blinked out "torture" in Morse code with his eyes when put on display for the world's cameras; John McCain, a Navy lieutenant commander who like Denton, came home to become a U.S. senator; (McCain is now a Republican senator from Arizona, Denton is a former Republican senator from Alabama); and Douglas Peterson, now the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.