Twenty plain-spoken former POWs methodically recall their trials and triumphs in "Return With Honor," a no-frills documentary about American pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Though the movie often deals with horrific subject matter, for the most part it reflects the disciplined, dispassionate demeanor of the airmen themselves.
They had to die inside, said one, if they were to survive their captors' torture and the Viet Cong's medieval prisons without dishonoring themselves or their imprisoned brethren. Naturally, many of the men revert to that benumbed emotional state while revisiting those dark days.
Footage from North Vietnamese archives illustrates their accounts of the squalid conditions inside the Hanoi Hilton, which some POWs called home for more than eight years, while Lt. Mike McGrath's realistic drawings provide even more graphic documentation of the hardships of day-to-day life. What a contrast between the young men who stare proudly into the future from family photos and these bruised and starved souls.
Older and humbler now, most recall how highly they regarded themselves when they took to the heavens. They talk about pushing the envelope, of playing their jet fighters like fine violins. Strong and cocky top guns, they compared themselves to knights of the Round Table, John Wayne and Superman. Then they fell from the sky and, as Air Force Lt. Ed Mechenbier, puts it, "All of a sudden you're not Sir Lancelot. What a change in status."
Directed by Oscar-winners Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders ("Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision"), the film ends with the POWs returning to embrace their families. Tears of joy are shed, bands play and children run into the arms of the fathers many have forgotten or are seeing for the first time. Even Hanoi Jane would get a lump in her throat.
Return With Honor (102 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry and the Cinema Arts Fairfax), is not rated but contains disturbing anecdotes.