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Doctor Zhivago in Vietnam
Or
The Night the War was Forgotten

By John Troesser
I 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 it.

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.


The 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 place.


July 6, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
More Columns by John Troesser
Relate Topics: Columns | WWII | WWI | Texas
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