YOU COULD brush past these middle-aged men in the street and have no idea what they endured for their country.
"Return With Honor" puts things right. Filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, who also made the Academy Award-winning "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," have gathered emotionally compelling testimonials from former prisoners of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," who were captured by the North Vietnamese and lived to tell the tale.
The interviewees include Ev Alvarez, first pilot shot down in Vietnam (in 1964), Jim Stockdale, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jerry Denton and Robbie Risner, who were the de facto leaders among the prisoners. But it also spends time with less-famous others who suffered no less.
Knowing specifically about the brutality they suffered is important because, when these American air pilots fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese, the enemy became real specific. Specific every day, for as many as seven or eight years. All the training, patriotism, religious faith and courage in the world could not withstand the unyielding torture, sensory deprivation and emotional brutality faced by these men. It wasn't a matter of whether they could resist the abuse; it was a matter of how long it would take before they actively contemplated suicide.
"Pain may cleanse," recalls 1st Lt. Leroy Stutz, a tough, no-nonsense raconteur. "But by God it also hurts. And I'm telling you, when your shoulders rotate in the sockets and you're hanging there and you cry and you bleed and you pray and you scream, and when you scream all they do is pick up the dirty rag and stick it in your mouth, so they don't have to listen to you . . ."
Too much? "Too much" was not an option for Stutz and other "guests" of the prison, which the French originally built for their Vietnamese prisoners. As days of agony bled into months and then years, the downed fliers soon wondered whether it wouldn't have been better to have died with their burning planes.
Their cells, which they rarely left, were aflame with the unrelenting Vietnamese heat. As time trudged on, they measured the passing of time in Christmases. When they weren't being interrogated and tortured, their minds worked overtime, remembering better times or memorizing the names of their fellow soldiers, so no one would be forgotten. They exercised whenever possible. They composed poetry for the loved ones they might never see again. And they communicated with fellow POWs they had never seen by means of a tap code alphabet.
The code comprised five groups of letters, headed by A, B, C, D and E. One tap represented A, two taps meant B and so on. The second tap or series of taps would refer to F, G, H and the rest.
"The building sounded like a den of runaway woodpeckers," says one former prisoner.
"Return With Honor" intercuts its present-day interviews with horrible images of the past -- surely an apt reflection of the psychological landscapes of these men. We see their mature, healthy faces, now, as they recount horrific anecdotes. We see them as young pilots before their imprisonment, young, proud and brimming with patriotism. But we also see their faces after the suffering, as they are led through streets full of cursing, spitting Vietnamese, or paraded before news cameras -- unable to express what is really happening to them.
This movie, financed by a grant from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation, wraps these men in admiration and heartfelt appreciation. And it spends time with the wives, who speak of the frustrations they had persuading the government to keep the POW issue on their front burners.
But the film does not ask the men about their lives today. Do they sleep through the night? What is the effect on their families since their return? Is it possible to purge ghosts like that? What is the totality of their suffering? This movie creates a coherent beginning, middle and end, in which soldiers go to war, suffer and return safely to the bosoms of their family, and it closes the story there. But then again, it would be inhuman not to salve the wounds with a triumphant finale and shots of the glorious skies which compelled these young men in the first place.
RETURN WITH HONOR (Unrated, 102 minutes) -- Contains disturbing, graphic anecdotes. At the Cineplex Odeon Foundry and Cinema Arts Theatre, Fairfax.