The art of survival

Oscar winners Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders salute America's Vietnam War POWs in the awe-inspiring "Return With Honor."

Published August 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"You know, we live among some amazing people who, when asked to do something almost impossible, did it. And they honor us." That statement lodged in the minds of documentary filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders and led them to chronicle the experiences of fighter pilots shot down over North Vietnam and held prisoner in and around Hanoi.

The man who made that statement was Warren Langley, a 1965 graduate of the Air Force Academy. Two and a half years ago Langley flew from Chicago and showed up at Mock and Sanders' Santa Monica offices with a couple of fellow alumni. He was sporting long hair and Guatemalan friendship beads and handing out business cards that listed his occupation as "Wizard." (He is a computer/finance/math whiz: Six months later, he became president of the Pacific Stock Exchange.) Langley and his friends didn't discuss politics. They had seen Mock's "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" (which Sanders co-produced), a moving portrait of the woman who designed "the wall" of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. They thought the wife and husband who captured the soul-cleansing essence of Lin's art -- and won an Oscar for it -- could get the POWs' story out and get it right.

Their gamble paid off. "Return With Honor" is a nonfiction film with a sustained purity and potency few fictional Vietnam War films match. Mock has absorbed Lin's talent for cathartic forms that crystallize complex, painful experiences. Mock and Sanders' film, like the wall, has a knife-like lucidity that slices through sentimentality and leaves unadorned emotion in its wake.

As a rough-hewn vet says of the wall near the end of "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," "Return With Honor" makes memories spring to life. Yet this movie speaks with equal force to people who are too young to remember the war or those who were vehemently opposed to it. The POWs come off as matter-of-fact, unself-conscious and keenly intelligent patriots. Upholding their oath of duty and their code of conduct, they pushed thoughts of loved ones out of their minds (missing their families made them vulnerable) and stood up to lacerating punishments and heart-piercing deprivations. The movie isn't about their politics. It's about survival and transcendence. In the ecstasy of their release, and the composure, often bordering on serenity, in their interviews, the POWs convey the beauty of integrity.

A cadre of Air Force Academy alumni had already sponsored an oral chronicle of their schoolmates' POW experiences. These 39 bound volumes became Mock and Sanders' initial source material. When I talked to them before the movie's San Francisco premiere, Mock remembered, "You had to wonder, 'Who are these people?' Their voice was so deep and fundamental."

Mock and Sanders translated this collective voice into film. The result has electrified viewers in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. (With Tom Hanks' sponsorship, the movie is now rolling out nationally.)

Enduring protracted physical and psychological torture for up to eight years, these men learned everything about the methods of the enemy -- and themselves. In contemporary interviews, they recount their tests of body and spirit: the North Vietnamese rope treatment that strapped them into contortions and upped their pain to the point that they passed out; the information blackout that prevented them from learning of momentous events. Word of the moon landing leaked out only when they saw it on a postage stamp.

But the POWs also let us in on how they communicated -- through tapping, grunts, spits and sneezes. And they explain the regulations that maintained group discipline and pride. Mock and Sanders show how the oft-derided harshness of military training, including the hazing of underclassmen at the Academy, prepared these reluctant heroes for an agonizing crucible.

From the start, Mock and Sanders' approach meshed with the alumni's desire to make this saga work for a mass audience without adulterating it in any way. Says Sanders: "We knew it was very important to let these men tell their own stories. There would be no narration. And we wanted to make it as a theatrical movie; we didn't want to make it have anything to do with television, whether in length or in tone. We shot in Super 16, which blows up beautifully into 35 mm, and wide-screen and Dolby."

Starting pre-production in April 1997, the team confronted a daunting task of research and organization. They were trying to cover a huge subject in standard feature length and they had promised to complete their work in a year and a half, for the 25th anniversary of the men's return to the States. Mock plunged into the best books she could find on the POW experience, while Sanders hastened to get right into the filming of the interviews.

Out of roughly 500 survivors, they filmed 29 former POWs, basing their selections partly on who could fill in chapters of the story -- tales of escape and leadership, or of the temptation of taking early release (which the North Vietnamese offered for the purpose of propaganda). Mock says "two-thirds of them were anecdotally selected, based on research, based on reputation and based on hunch. Every one of them was as candid and articulate and funny and human as you see in the film -- it was interesting for a group to be like that."

Sanders explains that to be a fighter pilot, "You have to be superior mentally, physically, motivationally; you have to be a strong person. And that certainly helped them when they were shot down." But as Air Force ace Robbie Rissner testifies in the movie, for all their skill and training as a group, no individual could predict how he'd deal with terror and intimidation.

Mock and Sanders photographed the interviews elegantly and simply: "Against a black backdrop," says Sanders, in order "to equalize everybody, so you wouldn't be thinking of who lived in a nice house or what books he was reading or what pictures were on the wall." In addition, they used "high-frequency fluorescent lights that flicker so fast that they don't seem to flicker at all; they gave out no heat whatsoever and produce a very soft light." Without any explicit visual underlining, the men seem to radiate humanity.

More important, Sanders continued, he and Mock eschewed pre-interviews in hopes of capturing "the spontaneous reaction. If someone has told you something once, it's lost its edge. A lot of times people don't know what they're going to tell you; things come out that they haven't thought about for 20 or 30 years, or maybe never thought about. And it comes out fresh. Out of an hour and a half of filming you're hoping to get five or six powerful moments. On this film, in some cases, we got 15 or 20."

They guided the pilots into critical areas, but they set up their sessions (in Mock's words) less like journalism and more "like therapy. It was like, 'Take us through the experience of being young and idealistic as students and ending up in the Hanoi prisons, then tell us how you got through that.' We grew to understand what their frame of mind was, what they believed and what they thought was going to happen."

"Starting with how they got into flying," says Sanders. "And that was totally disarming -- all of them relaxed and started smiling, because flying was a joyous thing. They all were teenage boys who wanted to fly."

The audience feels disarmed, too, because the men are so lucid and composed -- not only when they talk of their hopes and dreams, but also when they describe despair. The movie contains a mind-boggling religious epiphany: It comes from Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton, who was shot down on July 18, 1965, and was a POW for seven years and seven months. Denton is famous for spelling out "torture" in Morse code with his eyelids when the North Vietnamese paraded him before cameras and newsmen. In a grueling session, unwilling to give in and spill military secrets, yet at the brink of total collapse, he overcame his captors by surrendering -- not to them, but to what he saw as God's will. In a moment of prayer, he felt "a blanket had been placed over me of warmth and comfort," and gained a confidence that "nothing could happen to me bad for the rest of my life."

Mock says she and Sanders didn't nudge Denton into that revelation: "We went into the same areas for all of them and they just took it to those spots that best expressed them. And it was pure gold."

Mock kept asking herself, "What's the drive that gives people the hope to do and to challenge and to live in these circumstances, rather than go in the other direction? After all, there were stories of people who gave up. The survivors say they were in a laboratory in which they saw human beings stripped of the essence of human behavior. They all say the body can take anything -- but the mind is what will kill you."

This history of soldiers behind bars has the coherence and the weight we usually associate with stories of jailed intellectuals. Indeed, when Ross Perot's onetime running mate, James Stockdale, then a Navy commander, signaled his wife Sybil about the conditions in Hanoi, he did it in a coded letter with a veiled reference to "Darkness at Noon" -- Arthur Koestler's tale of communist imprisonment.

To Mock, Stockdale is an emblematic character: "The idea that one of the few times you can write your wife, you put in this message about torture, using 'Darkness at Noon': It comes from a drive to continue to reach out and to figure out how you are going to live and how to do your duty and raise security issues. Talk to Stockdale about how he inspired his men and what it takes to survive, and he always says, 'There's no how-to statement. Study the humanities, specifically philosophy.' The philosopher he refers to is Epictetus, a stoic. Stoicism teaches that you gain tremendous self-worth and integrity and purpose doing that which you can control. You can control discipline; you can control being physically fit and spiritually and mentally strong. That's what Stockdale did so he could feel positive and proactive even in that situation."

To Mock, "there was an art to surviving as a POW." That's nowhere better illustrated than in the story of Navy Lt. John McGrath, who used his own blood to paint a picture of a stag on his cell wall -- the first time he'd painted in his life. As his body healed, he recharged his creative faculties. He spent the first weeks after his release depicting his prison travails in remarkably detailed drawings. "The first POW we actually met was him," says Sanders; "he lives right near the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And the idea that he had all these drawings! To get an artist to do all these would have been on the cheesy side, but McGrath preserved the moments."

Another coup came when they took advantage of the friendly relations between the United States and Vietnam to request archival footage from Hanoi. "We never expected there would be specific footage of the guys whom we had preselected and had interviewed way before we went looking for archival footage," says Mock. "But North Vietnam filmed that war in 35 mm black and white for propaganda reasons. They did the shoot-downs, the captures and jail. We gave them a shopping list, including the names of the guys. And the names popped up on the logs -- out of the 26 we used, there were shots of 14 of them in their 20s and 30s." Thanks to this (and the drawings and the forthright interviews), the audience's relationship with the documentary's subjects becomes palpably close.

During the assembly of the movie, Sanders grappled with the aesthetic component of "telling the truth" without false rhetoric or easy emotion. He struggled to strike the appropriate balance, not just as a documentary maker but as a filmmaker: "Stay on the archival footage for too long, and it's the History Channel; stay on the 'talking heads' too long and it would be some terrible PBS thing." He found "a clash of media really worked," including the mix of color and black-and-white newsreels: "If a lot of it was scratched, that just added flavor or seasoning and made it more real, because it was real."

He and Mock stitched and threaded subtle, expressive motifs, like the image of "the missing man formation" that fliers take after a plane is lost. They also used sophisticated film techniques -- like slow flash cuts to the captive fliers -- to bring audiences inside the pilots' mindscape. And they framed the tale with brief glimpses of students at today's academy.

"Without stepping on the POWs' stories," says Mock, "you can make some choices. Mine was that these men were symbolic of the ones who had come before and the ones who would come afterward. When they enrolled in the academy they were naive, young, idealistic. I think most of them felt, 'I get a free education and I get to fly.' So to me the film is also a cautionary tale about how you should think twice about what you're getting into -- and about how we, the government, should be careful about leading these precious people into war, because they believe we're going to do right by them."

Sanders recalls, "We showed the film at Sundance four times and it got four standing ovations. And during the comments afterward, many people stood up and said they were strong anti-Vietnam protesters and didn't regret that in any way. But they thanked us for making the film, because they saw a whole other side that they did not know about or think about. Some actually apologized to the Vietnam War veterans who were there, and not just to the POWs."

To Mock, the film's "redemptive" power comes from "a certain nonjudgmental quality in the storytelling -- you don't feel these men are judging you. They don't want you to feel guilty, and that frees you." What's even more surprising is the effect the film had on the men themselves and on their loved ones. "As part of their culture, they're not boastful," says Mock, "and they don't want to make it seem as if they're heroes. So their stories, even among their own families, are sometimes unknown. Kevin McManus is a guy who was married two weeks before he went over and came back six years later, and subsequently had seven kids. Four of his kids, now in their 20s, saw the film in Washington -- and they didn't know until they saw it on the screen that their dad had gone through this. They knew their dad was a POW, but they didn't know the details."

Is modesty the only reason the men don't talk about it? "They're almost all forward-looking people," Sanders surmises. "Some of them did write books, but they don't want to look back, nor are they professional lecturers. Moving forward is what they do. It also is still very painful."

According to Sanders, the POWs aren't bitter toward the North Vietnamese: "They understand that while we were bombing, the North Vietnamese would be angry at us. And, well, of course they don't like Jane Fonda, but they sort of understand the anti-war movement, too. When they came back their attitude was, 'Well that's why we were over there fighting, so people could protest and burn effigies of Johnson -- that's the difference between totalitarianism and democracy.'"

Many of them, says Mock, hope the movie "brings up the question of how we can create honor for the guys who served in South Vietnam. The POWs had a real homecoming, and it helped them. For once the government didn't put its tail between its legs, because everyone agreed the POWs should come home. But the soldiers in the South did what the government told them, and have not been honored. I think the wall was a first step, but it was a private effort to get that wall up; Reagan didn't even go to the opening."

The selfless comradeship of the impulse to honor veterans of the South pervades "Return With Honor." Sanders could have kissed Ed Mechenbier (a former Air Force flier) when he filmed him saying, "Wow, am I lucky. How many guys will never have this opportunity. How many guys did we leave behind, never got a chance to be a prisoner of war. What a great job -- beats the heck out of being killed in action. And I think that's one thing that all of us came away with. Not that we're heroes, we're nothing special. We're just lucky guys who happened to have the opportunity to serve in a very different circumstance. But we had that opportunity and others didn't, both in the South in the country and in the North in the air ... That's what this is all about. The people who never had a chance to come home."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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