Strange wars make strange war movies. "Go Tell the Spartans," which is about Vietnam, is a confusing mixture of unfortunate heroics, suspended humanity, muddled hopes and fears, bewildered soldiers and futile military tactics. It has, in other words, a certain authenticity.
This historical strength is, however, at war with dramatic principles. Realism in itself is nothing if it does not tell us something about reality. And showing a lot of pointless activity is not enough to make a point - even about pointlessness.
Nevertheless, the failure here is an interesting one, caused by an intellectual refusal to simplify.
There are excellent scenes and moments, in particular the one from which the superb title is taken. (The novel on which the film was based was called "Incident at Muc Wa.") Asked to establish a presence on a site long ago lost by the French, the American "advisors" discover a pathetic French graveyard dominated by a quotation from Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae: "Go Tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by/That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
Burt Lancaster does a creditable job as an aging major doing his best at an impossible job, the impossibility of which is simply not his department. There are wonderful moments as he smiles over the scandal that put a dead end to his career, shares drinks with a luxuriously set up Vietnamese military bureaucrat and shakes his head equally over a would-be Patton of a second lieutenant and a new Army psychologist.
If the film had modestly tried to be a character study set against the war, instead of attempting to characterize the entire war, it might have succeeded in capturing a small part of that war.
GO TELL THE SPARTANS: AMC Carrolton 6, Fair City Mall, Herndon, Hybla Valley, K-B Flower, K-B Studio, Rockville Mall, Rolling Valley and Towne Centre.