In January 1968, American moviegoers embraced big-screen fantasies, flocking to see The Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later the same year, action fans lined up to see John Wayne in The Green Berets, a big budget extravaganza designed to convince American audiences all was well in the Vietnam conflict. In 1979, the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds turned an unflinching camera lens on how bad things had been in the Vietnam War, but even those opposed to the conflict later conceded Hearts and Minds' anti-war thesis was ham-fisted.
Now, nearly a half-century after the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh (kay-SAWN), which is remembered as one of the most brutal assaults during the Vietnam War, Idaho co-producers Ken and Betty Rodgers have crafted Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, a documentary so viscerally charged, it leaves a battle scar of its own—on the soul. The new feature-length doc has already been heralded at film festivals across the United States, was recently made available for sale on DVD ($19.95 at bravotheproject.com) and, best yet, Bravo! will be showcased in a free Veterans Day screening Wednesday, Nov. 11—followed by a panel discussion—at Boise State University as part of the university's weeklong salute to Idaho veterans.
In the opening frames of Bravo!, three critical declarations splash across the screen: "This is not a pro-war film," reads the first; "This is not an anti-war film," reads the second and "This is a film about what happened," reads the third screen.
So begins the story of the Battle of Khe Sanh, a siege almost too unbearable to imagine, and the survivors of the battle, who were members of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of the 26th U.S. Marine Regiment. These survivors serve as guides through much of Bravo!, recounting their actions and thoughts of what happened during 77 days in early 1968.
"I looked around and realized that these soldiers were all really young children," says John Cicala, a U.S Navy corpsmen assigned as medical personnel to the platoon (grateful Marines fondly called him "Doc"). "Only a few months earlier, these boys were probably sitting at breakfast tables back home with their mom and dad and now, here they were at this historic Battle of Khe Sanh. And how those boys performed in the battle was..." Cicala takes a long breath before finishing his thought. "Well, it was unbelievable."
Too many of those boys never returned to their breakfast tables back home. For two-and-a-half months, the determined group of nearly 6,000 young U.S. Marines did their best to hold out against a force of nearly 20,000 North Vietnamese Army soldiers.
"In that first platoon, there were maybe three or four that were high-school graduates," said Peter Weiss, who arrived in Vietnam when he was 23 years old. "Most of the guys were high-school dropouts, and about half of them had come into the Marines through the court system because they had some kind of trouble."
One by one, the survivors of Bravo company describe the circumstances that led them to the Marines and, ultimately, to Vietnam.
"I wasn't doing very well in school," says one. "I was in trouble with my family and my school," says another. "I was lost." "I was on my own."
"The age of those kids always amazed me," says Cicala. "I was the second oldest guy there, and I was only 21."
What follows in Bravo! is a chronicle of how these boys were ordered, time and again, into impossible firefights against the NVA, and how the young Americans continuously went back into harm's way, dodging constant gunfire and shrapnel, so they could retrieve scores of the dead or wounded.
"I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, we're not going to survive this,'" says one of the survivors. "Little did I know that it would go on for 77 days."
Survive they did and Ken, one of the lucky few to return to the U.S, would become a sheep herder, cattle rancher, accountant, real estate broker, teacher, screenwriter and filmmaker. He and Betty, a lifelong photographer, reached out to Rodgers' band of brothers to capture their story on film and ultimately create a documentary good enough to rival that of any veteran filmmaker.
"They can't really prepare you for combat," Ken says near the end of Bravo! "They can get you into shape. They can get you to pay attention. They can get you to do as you're told. But they really can't get you to prepare for something like what we went through."