Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
Director: Ted Post.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Maj. Asa Barker), Craig Wasson (Cpl. Courcey), Jonathan Goldsmith (Sgt. Oleonowski), Marc Singer (Capt. Olivetti), Joe Unger (Lt. Hamilton), Dennis Howard (Cpl. Abraham Lincoln), David Clennon (Lt. Finley Wattsberg), Evan C. Kim (Cowboy), John Megna (Cpl. Ackley), Hilly Hicks (Signalman Toffer), Dolph Sweet (Gen. Harnitz), Clyde Kusatsu (Col. Minh), James Hong (The Old Man), Denice Kumagai (Butterfly), Tad Horino (One-eyed man).
Based on Daniel Ford's novel "Incident at Muc Wa."
Lancaster as Major Asa Barker is a tough U.S. military advisor in Vietnam in 1964. At the abandoned French outpost of Muc Wa, he gathers together a platoon of untried American soldiers and some Vietnamese mercenaries. Seeing obvious parallels with the fate of the French in Vietnam, his doubts about U.S. involvement grow as he becomes more deeply involved in his assignment.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. Several curse words are in the report.
In 1954 the French lost (in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu) their war to keep their Indo-China colonies and those colonies became North and South Vietnam.
Then the North aided a rebellion in the South and the US sent in "Military Advisors" to help South Vietnam fight the Communists.
In 1964, the war in Vietnam was still a little one – confused and faraway.
Major Barker sees the South Vietnamese Sgt. "Cowboy" using water torture to question a suspected Viet Cong man. He is disgusted and stops the torture. But then Cowboy punches the guy in the stomach a couple of times. Again the Major has to yell: "Stop it!"
He goes into his headquarters: Military Assistance Advisory Group; Team Seven. The Major gets an order from General Harnitz. They want him to write a complete position paper on the Muc Wa hamlet. Barker is not looking forward to the assignment. So he decides to run it off the top of his head to his assistant Captain Olivetti. He tells Olivetti to write that Muc Wa has a population of 200 people; the village is very poor; and they suffer through a severe drought.
The new recruits have arrived. The Major is skeptical of their usefulness but he has to interview them and give them their assignments. Southerner Raymond Hamilton, 2nd Lieutenant, reports to the Major. Barker tells him that they have no slots for second lieutenants. So Hamilton tells the Major to sent him to the field (combat). O.k., so the guys got some gumption.
The next man to report is Sergeant Oleonowski (known as Oleo). He is an old friend of the Major. They served together in the war in Korea. The Major is happy to see the Sergeant. After the Sergeant leaves, the Major tells the Captain to assign him a light duty, saying the man is burnt out psychologically. He adds: "Let him rest."
The next man to report is actually named Abraham Lincoln and he can recite the Gettysburg Address. He is followed by a college graduate, Corporal Stephen Courcey. The Major can't get over that Courcey says he's a draftee who volunteered for Vietnam. He keeps asking Courcey why he is in Vietnam. Courcey tells him that if he had to be in the army he wanted to serve with the best. The Major is still very skeptical. This is especially true since volunteering for Vietnam means an extra six months of army service on top of the regular amount of service.
The Major has Lt. Hamilton and Cpl. Courcey do a study of how many mosquito bites they receive in a 30 second period of time. The first count is 23. Sgt. Oleo bunks with a fellow smoking hash.
A helicopter lands. It's General Harnitz. He asks Barker about his position paper on Muc Wa. He tells Barker that Muc Wa has not had any inhabitants since 1953. Harnitz then tells Barker to reoccupy Muc Wa and garrison it. Hamilton will be in command there. He will take Cowboy and Oleo, Cpl. Ackley and Lincoln, as well as Courcey. Barker tells them that there are no Charlies (nickname from Victor Charlie spelling aid indicating the Viet Cong, VC) in 50 miles of the place, but just to be sure he will send some South Vietnamese mercenary fighters with them. Cowboy yells: "Sat Cong!" which means "kill communists". The men load onto two trucks and, led by a jeep, they head for Muc Wa.
The convoy has to stop for a road block. They suspect that the road block has been mined by the Viet Cong. Cowboy checks it out and finds it wired. He reports back to Hamilton. Suddenly the road block explodes. The men start shooting. Cowboy finds one lone combatant who probably was the detonator of the bomb. Hamilton thinks they will take him as a prisoner, but Cowboy kills the man. This upsets Hamilton greatly and he shouts a couple of times that Cowboy is crazy. Hamilton then throws up. Once recovered he assigns Courcey with some men to guard their rear, staying 100 yards behind them.
Barker is informed abut the roadblock and he tells the Captain that the obstacle was new. This starts him thinking. Later a psychological war specialist named Wattsberg reports to the Major. His job is to do a lot of calculations to try to predict which settlements are in the greatest danger of being attacked. He has a three color system of keeping score. This all disturbs Barker and so he gives Wattsberg a hard time, only partly in jest..
The men arrive at Muc Wa. It is uninhabited as the General said. Muc Wa was the site of an old French defensive position. The men take over the old fortifications. A helicopter arrives with supplies for the men. Courcey gets the assignment of counting all the graves of the French dead in the cemetery. He comes up with a little over 300 graves. Over the cemetery entrance is a sign that says: "Stranger when you find us lying her, go tell the Spartans we obeyed their orders." This refers to the Battle of Thermopylae where a group of only 300 Spartans defended a path against thousands of Persian soldiers attacking Greece.
Cowboy goes on patrol with Courcey and his men. He tells the men to shoot first and then ask questions, but Courcey tells him to tell the men to look first. They come across some peasant families who look scared. To calm them Courcey gives them some chocolate. Cowboy warns him that they are Viet Cong sympathizers, but Courcey rejects this. He takes them back to camp as "refugees". Major Barker reports that he is going to Panang for some R&R (rest and relaxation).
One night at Muc Wa old Abe Lincoln is stinking drunk. He climbs the observation tower. Up there he starts carrying on at the top of his lungs just as the mortar shells start landing in camp. A shell hits the tower and down goes Lincoln with the tower. Courcey is somewhat of a hero because he uses a hand grenade to destroy the Viet Cong mortar position and crew. The Corporal is amazed when he sees that one of the Viet Cong dead is just a girl.
Barker receives a message from Muc Wa that twelve rounds of mortar fire landed at the base. A young girl with the refugees takes a liking to Courcey. Barker tells the Captain about his not being promoted above major. He says he was stopped by "booze and pussy". He screwed the General's wife and the General caught them at it. Along with him was the President of the United States. The psychological war specialist says that Muc Wa is in danger.
At Muc Wa on patrol Sgt. Oleo gets into a tough situation. Courcey and some men go out to help him. Hamilton goes out with them. Oleo's men flee to the other side of a stream to get to Courcey while being chased by the Viet Cong. A flare lights up the place and they see that one of Oleo's men has been left behind. Hamilton, who believes in never asking his men to do something he wouldn't do himself, decides to go to the man's aid. Oleo insists that Hamilton not go, but Hamilton goes anyway. When he gets to the man he finds him dead. The 2nd Lt. tries to make it back across the stream but is shot in the back and killed.
Gen. Harnitz wants to scold Barker saying the fighting at Muc Wa proves the need for the position paper on that hamlet. But the Major tells him that the Cong moved in on Muc War because they knew it was a weak point once it was reoccupied. Barker requests some support, but the only way he can get any reserves is if he makes a deal with the South Vietnamese Col. Minh. The Major is not too happy about having to operate this way.
There are two dead at Muc Wa. And Sgt. Oleo is out of it. Crocey tries to help him but the man raves that he is tired of all the "dinks". He then tells Courcey to leave him alone: "I've hat it." This shocks Courcey and he leaves without saying a word. As Courcey walks away he hears a shot. Oleo has shot and killed himself.
Captain Olivetti wants to be promoted so he wants to take command at Muc Wa. Barker agrees to let him go, but he says about Oleo's death: "The two-bit war wasn't worth it! Or that kid Hamilton!" His final piece of advice to the Captain is: "Don't be a hero!" A helicopter will take the Captain to Muc Wa.
Barker learns that no additional troops will be sent to him. There are rumors of a possible coup in Saigon and they insist on having all their forces at their command. So Barker goes straight to speak to Col. Minh. When the Viet Cong attack and start to overrun the fortifications at Muc Wa, he wants the Colonel to shell Muc Wa with everything they have in artillery. In return, Barker will make sure the Colonel gets 500 artillery shells by air and 1,000 more by truck. He says that Minh can keep any shells left over from the bombardment. The corrupt Colonel agrees to the plan.
Captain Olivetti is at Muc Wa. He looks over the refugees for a short while. Suddenly Courcey reports in that Charlie is moving west along the river. At Muc Wa they start a mortar attack on a group of Viet Cong in the area. Courcey and his men start running back to Muc Wa. An old man among the soldiers is wounded.
Barker tries to get some air support for Muc Wa where they now face the 507th Viet Cong battalion. But the Major can only report that all planes are grounded because of the possible coup. Then the Major decides to use his own channels of influence to get some air support. He sends a message to General Harnitz threatening to shoot off the man's balls if he didn't get air support. The General's aide wants to have the Major court-martialed, but Harnitz just laughs, saying he and the Major go way back.
Muc Wa gets some support from helicopters. The soldiers at Muc Wa send a star shell up to help the helicopters find their position. The pilots see the flare and zero in for the attack. The men on the ground are extremely relieved and happy. Nevertheless, a fire fight breaks out. They are able to repulse the first wave of attack, but then have to hurry to another gate in the fortifications to prevent an end run by Charlie.
In the morning Barker and some of his men head out to Muc Wa in a convoy. They are stopped by a helicopter. The report is that more than 1,000 Viet Cong are headed to Muc Wa. And Gen. Harnitz says there will be no reinforcements. He is going to pull the guys out of there.
The helicopter lands at Muc Wa to take out only the Americans. Captian Olivetti tells Cowboy to tell his crew that they cannot go. They have to escort the "refugees" out of Muc Wa. The Americans get onboard except for Courcey who refuses to abandon the soldiers and the refugees. Barker yells at him: "Get your ass on that ship!" But Courcey will not budge. So the Major decides to stay behind too. Barker tells the men to spike the mortars and machine guns. And now Barker wants the truth from Courcey: "What the fuck are you doing in Nam?" An officer kicked the barrack's dog so Courcey kicked the officer, a Brigadier General. His punishment was to go to Vietnam. Courcey adds that he also just wanted to see what a war is like.
Barker and Courcey hear shooting and run to investigate. Cowboy and his men have shot the refugees. The Americans are angry as hell, but Cowboy keeps telling them to check: "They Cong!" And sure enough the "refugees" were smuggling weapons out of the fortifications area. But the young girl that likes Courcey is missing from the dead. The order is given to find her. Courcey prepares the fortifications to be exploded. As they leave, the explosions go off in the fortifications. They head through the French graveyard. The other soldiers could not find the missing girl.
Cowboy is send ahead of the group to check for Viet Cong. He sees nothing. But as he walks back to the men he is shot in the back and killed. All hell breaks out. The missing girl is with the Viet Cong helping them. Courcey is wounded slightly and Barker helps him. They find a defensive position and prepare for an assault. When the Major lays on his stomach we can see he has received a bullet wound in the back. As he readies himself for battle, he loses strength and starts to die. His last words are: "Oh, shit." He dies.
The old South Vietnamese man helps put Courcey in a secluded spot to help with his survival. In the morning Courcey crawls over to the body of the old man. He is dead. Courcey hobbles around to see what happened to his people. Most of the men are found nude, including the Major. Courcey walks through the old French graveyard. He sees an old and one-eyed Viet Cong man who lifts his rifle to kill him. Courcey just stands there. But the old man just lets his rifle drop to the ground. Courcey shouts to the old man: "I'm going home, Charlie. If they'll let me."
He starts slowly hobbling out of Muc Wa.
Good movie. It shows that early on a skeptic could tell that there were serious problems facing any attempt to "save" the South Vietnamese. Major Barker and his small group of men were stranded in a place of no significance. The guys weren't doing much of anything, until the General decides out of nowhere with no evidence of enemy anywhere in the area to refortify an old French defensive position. Putting the men there attracts the Viet Cong to the place. Now in harm's way, the men can't get any reinforcements. So it seems the Major's men are just going to have to be sacrificed for nothing. In order to try to get some help, he has to do business with a corrupt South Vietnamese Colonel. He pays for artillery support (which he never gets) with the promise of 1,500 artillery shells for the Colonel. The Major has to make compromises and cut corners to get the support he and his men need. Major Barker also realizes the heavy support among the Vietnamese for the Viet Cong. No wonder the conditions in Vietnam make the old man even more a cynic and skeptic about the army and his country.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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