Top positive review
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Much, much better than you'd think from some reviews
on 16 August 2012
Since I visited Vietnam a few years ago on holiday I've been fascinated by the Vietnam War (which was raging when I was a youngster, but which I never took much notice of at the time - it was just THERE, on the news every night, in the background, like wallpaper). When I was there I went into, and was astonished by, the tunnels at Cu Chi, and so naturally, when I discovered the existence of this film, I decided to give it a go, despite some decidedly iffy reviews.
Did I make the right decision? Yes, most definitely.
It's not a perfect film, but then it's got the disadvantage of competing against the memory and reputation of "Apocalypse Now" and a whole raft of other films made with bigger budgets and more PR support. One needs to take this into account when judging it.
I think the worst thing about it is the uncertainty of tone which dominates the beginning of the film. There is a fairly amateurish attempt, for the first twenty minutes or so, at establishing character and tone which seems to have little to do with the tunnels in question, and which had me looking at my watch and debating whether or not to write it off and give it to a charity shop. However, after this it picks up. The men of the platoon assigned to deal with the tunnels of Cu Chi come to life once they start descending into the blackness and terror that await them.
The scenes dealing with action in the tunnels are remarkably effective. One gets a real sense of what it must have been like in those dark, cramped, airless tunnels, lit only by the uncertain light of candles or hand-held torches, filled with booby traps, and with the ever-present chance of bumping into the VC at any moment. The fight scenes are uncompromising and bitterly realistic; there are no happy endings for the heroes of either side (and one of the strengths of this film is that it shows the VC being as human, fallible, heroic and above all as REAL as the Americans, not just faceless cyphers to be shot up or bombed as they are in most other 'Nam films), and you come away with the feeling that you've just seen what it might have really been like - at least I did, though having been down the real thing (albeit sanitised for tourists) probably helped.
My only gripes, apart from the ones already mentioned, are rather like those of some other reviewers in that they tend towards the pedantic. We see VC/NVA soldiers wearing tin helmets - I always thought they wore either pith-helmets or no headgear at all (but maybe I'm wrong about this). Also, most of the young Vietnamese men have beards and moustaches - I never saw a young man with any facial hair at all when I was in Vietnam, and I've never seen a photo of a VC or NVA combatant, dead or alive, with any facial hair either - facial hair seems to be a preserve of the elderly in Vietnam. And finally, if what I've read is correct, the real tunnel rats were all volunteers, selected for their aptitude - what we see in this film is, apparently, a platoon of ordinary grunts just plucked out of the air and shoved down the tunnels willy-nilly, whether they like it or not. With all due respect to military discipline, this wasn't the kind of job that you could force just any old Tom, Dick or Harry to do - if ever there was a time and place that you needed volunteers for a dangerous job, this was it.
So, a remarkably good film, caveats notwithstanding, that deserves a better hearing than it's got so far (I've given it four rather than five stars purely because of the reservations mentioned above). Live dangerously and give it a go.