personally can remember only one film being shown in our company area
during our days in Bong Son. Maybe there were more after I left. Maybe
they were waiting for me to leave. I do know that due to our frequent
assignments with other units, often there weren’t enough men present
to make a proper audience and the films were simply forwarded to the
next unit on the distribution list.
But one afternoon in the dry season, we got the news that tonight
was to be “movie night” (as if it was a regular event). The only “dates”
available to us were the ones found in our C ration “date pudding”
– which wasn’t a pudding at all but a bread and was a major source
of heartburn. But like most acquired tastes, I became quite fond of
So with no dates available, everyone was forced to go “stag” - a term
that was fast losing currency even then.
The screen and projector was set up and I’d like to think that someone
was being thoughtful by the placement of the screen and projector
in relationship to the village. The soldier doing the set-up had the
same air of what used to be called an “audio-visual” student in high
school – which he undoubtedly was just a year or two before. All that
was missing was a jangling key ring hanging off his belt.
The evening was destined to be remembered though we didn’t know it
at the time. Everyone had heard the news. Even the ARVN detachment
of three armored personnel carriers alongside our unit had dropped
their tailgates to allow their families to see the screen from the
bullet-proof “comfort” of bench seating.
The American soldiers lay atop their bunkers or on the ground – some
of them dragging their leaking air mattresses out of their bunkers.
Most used their helmets to prop their heads up. The excitement was
minimal because to most troops it sounded like a medical movie. Smith
(the one from Maine) said it was a “PBS” movie (pearls before swine).
It was a fairly recent movie – having just been released the year
before. As expected, the catcalls were loud and frequent and were
often quite funny when judged by 1966 standards. There were boos whenever
Rod Steiger appeared – silence during the battle scenes – and appraisals
on the masculinity of the remaining male players. Comments about Ms.
Christie will not be included here, but they could be described as
being most favorable.
term “chick-flick” was not in use in 1966, but the audience would’ve
placed it firmly in that category had it been. The “ice palace” scene
turned out to be the most popular scene in the movie but not because
of the beauty or the cinematography.
When the first images of the ice-encrusted dacha appeared there was
a loud collective intake of breath – but not from the soldiers – many
of whom were familiar with similar scenes on their northern farmsteads.
No, the “huge sucking sound” came from party crashers. Unbeknownst
to us, the entire village (and probably several others) had been watching
the movie from outside our fence. Johnny
had probably sold them tickets. Hell, for all we knew, the local VC
were probably watching through their one pair of binoculars.
The GIs turned and saw the dumb-struck Vietnamese who had heard of
snow but had never seen it. The soldiers laughed at the Vietnamese
because they didn’t know they were there - and the Vietnamese laughed
at themselves for giving themselves away. Then the Americans laughed
at why the Vietnamese were laughing and the Vietnamese started laughing
that the Americans had realized why they were so stunned.
The hearty laughter of the Americans was baritone of a choir while
the Vietnamese provided the soprano section (it was indeed a chick-flick).
Watching a movie with a Vietnamese audience is great because there
are never crying babies. Vietnamese women never left home without
a pacifier (actually two).
As the moon set on the little sandbagged slum we called home, everyone
there - Asian, Black, Caucasian, felt more of a human connection than
ever before – thanks to a celluloid winter from a different time and
July 6, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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