This may be a problematic film for those, like myself, who view the Vietnam war as having been an avoidable calamity, though the makers of Return With Honor have largely depoliticized their story in a manner that asks us to set aside the old contentions. And so, though one may not share a belief in the patriotic cant – or for that matter their abiding belief in prayer – which is a defining context for many of the POWs profiled here, the way the film stays focused on the horrible minutiae of imprisonment, torture and attempted escape arouses a primal fascination about how people endure in extreme situations.
The film intercuts among the stories of more than 20 fighter pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam during the mid-’60s, many of whom remained POWs until the Paris peace accords of 1973 – for some, as long as seven or eight years. Most of them were kept in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a huge prison made of stone which was originally built by the French as an instrument of colonial enforcement. The prisoners were kept isolated from each other in small cells with a concrete slab to sleep on. This misery was frequently interrupted by sessions of torture, often involving the binding of the prisoner with ropes in a manner to ensure maximum joint dislocation. Eventually, the prisoner would "talk," though generally he had nothing of importance to say.
To fight the disorienting effects of isolation, the prisoners developed a code and tapped it insistently on the walls to maintain human contact. Since the prison was located in the center of Hanoi, escape was pointless; a few attempts were made, with disastrous results. Though many of the details related here are painfully grim, it’s all told in an unsensational manner – these were men who were involved in the tedious business of surviving at the most stripped-down level of existence.
As an homage to human resiliency, this is a well-made and effectively moving documentary. And though there’s much more to say about Vietnam, that would be another film.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.