Hanoi Hilton (1987)



Director:     Lionel Chetwynd. 

Starring:     Michael Moriarty (Williamson),  John Edwin Shaw (Mason),  Ken Wright (Kennedy),  Paul Le Mat (Earl Hubman),  David Soul (Oldham),  Stephen Davies (Miles),  Lawrence Pressman (Cathcart),  Doug Savant (Ashby),  David Anthony Smith (Gregory),  Jeffrey Jones (Fischer),  John Vargas (Oliviera),  Rick Fitts (Turner),  Scotty Sachs (Soles),  John Diehl (Murphy),  Jesse Dabson (Rasmussen).

American P.O.W.s' brutal treatment in North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.  And there's a couple of curse words. 

Gulf of Tonkin. Autumn 1964

An airplane lands on the aircraft carrier Hancock.  Lt. Commander Patrick Williamson does an interview for Life Magazine.  The journalist says:  there is a small but growing concern in Congress that we are getting in over our heads in southeast Asia.  Williamson says he thinks we should be here to help South Vietnam establish a country with similar values to our own.  But ultimately he works for the government and goes where they send him. 

Airplanes go out, drop bombs and some of them get shot down.  Williamson's plane gets shot down.  He parachutes to the ground.  The downed pilot walks in a crouched style along an irrigation canal to get to another pilot.  The other pilot's leg is broken.  Williamson tells him that the medi-vac helicopter will be here soon.  But it doesn't take long before they are caught by a man with an automatic weapon.  A woman disarms Williamson of his weapon.  The one with the automatic weapon kicks the downed pilot in his bad leg causing him extreme pain.  They decide to take Williamson with them but kill the crippled pilot with a shot to the head.  The woman takes the man's boots and weapon. 

Williamson is brought by truck to a prison facility made of concrete and looking like a bunker.  The American is brought to a room with pictures of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-Tung on the wall.  He is in Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi.  There is a short in the electrical connection for the lights and Williamson's interrogator Major Ngo Doc says it's a legacy of colonialism.  It's very hard to get French parts and they are very expensive. 

Williamson will only give his name, rank, serial number and date of birth.  He won't tell where he was shot down.  The Major tells him the situation as far as the North Vietnamese see it.  Since there is no declaration of war, they don't have to follow the Geneva Convention.  (A stroke of genius that USA President George W. Bush would appreciate!)  Therefore, Williamson is not a prisoner of war.  He is a criminal.  He reminds Williamson that their war with the French lasted a decade.  So Williamson might be here for several years.  And since Williamson won't talk at the moment, the Major gets out his file and reads off a great number of personal facts about him, his wife and two sons.  Married in 1954.  Home town Philadelphia.  Major Doc says Williamson will cooperate one way or the other. 

Williamson is thrown in a cell by himself.  He tries to calm himself by talking out loud, saying:  "O.k.  We can handle this."  At first he refuses to eat the disgusting food in the rat-infested prison.  His jailor tells him:  "No eat!  You bad!"  They put his feet in stocks build onto the bottom of the bed. 

Williamson is completely alone for quite awhile; around six months or so.  Then one day at the outdoors faucet where he washes up, he sees a scratched message in English.  He is very excited and he shouts:  "Hey!  Flier!  Navy!"  The guards rush to shut him up.  They put him back in his cell.  Williamson says to himself that if there is another Yank, they can both make it.  He forces down the disgusting food.

Autumn 1965. 

Major Doc tells Williamson they have decided to let him see some of his compatriots.  They put him in a cell with three other American military men.  Hubman says:  "Welcome to the bridal suite of the Hanoi Hilton."  Williamson says he is off the Hancock.  Hubman says he has been captive for four months.  Lt. junior grade Kennedy is off the Enterprise.  He has been a captive for six months.  The newest guy is marine Major Bill Oldham who has a wound in his right leg.  When Williamson shouts out to see if others are in the jail, the guards put him back in his cell alone. 

It does not take long before there are other Americans P.O.W.s.  Cathcart, an Air Force Colonel, arrives.  He quickly finds out that in the next cell on his right is Captain Miles, also of the Air Force.  On the other side is Williamson.  Cathcart is the Senior Ranking Officer (S.R.O.).  As such, he immediately starts setting up a military structure in the jail. They will not cooperate with the enemy.  They will honor the military ranking system.  Pick up everything you find and save it.  It could prove useful later. 

Miles is soon pegged by the guards as a "tough guy" and is put in a special cell isolated from the others.  Ashby comes in with a wounded arm.  He is instructed to never act contrite to the enemy.  Williamson discovers a huge nail.  He and others use the nail to loosen the transoms of the ventilation blinds over their doors.  (This way they can open the blinds and stick out their heads to see the other guys.)

Major Doc speaks with Cathcart, the SRO.  He says the Colonel had 20 kills in Korea during the war there.  He urges him to put his white man's arrogance aside.  He tells him that he will select one man on whom to inflict pain like the pain Cathcart has inflicted on his people with their war.  The relative newcomer Gregory screams about the rats he finds on him while he slept.  The guards come in, turn him face down on his bed and whip him with a huge belt.  Later he is taken to Room 18.  Here they torture Gregory.  He is hung up with ropes in various torture positions, is beaten and given electrical shocks to his body.  Major Doc then speaks with Cathcart again.  Cathcart is still very resistant.  Doc warns Cathcart that he himself could wind up in Room 18.   Then he will simply "disappear" for there or four years. 

Cathcart suspects he is going to Room 18 so he tells the men that Williamson will be the new SRO.  He wishes them good luck.  The guards bring Gregory back to his cell.  Williamson asks Gregory what did he say.  He replies that he told them whatever they wanted.  He couldn't hold out.   He is still so traumatized that he starts crying and then screaming.  The guards come in, grab him and take him out again. 

All the men are worried.  The guards have never been that brutal before.  Some men think that Gregory must have really antagonized them, but Gregory says he did not.  The new man Fischer comes in.  He sees Cathcart being dragged out of Room 18.  He is all black, blue and red.  Cathcart tells Fischer:  "They broke me.  Tell them they'll all break."  When he meets with the men Fischer tells that them he saw Cathcart, or what was left of him.  Fischer is a major in the 82nd Airborne but he was working for the Pentagon.  He was just on a helicopter tour of parts of Vietnam when the copter went down. 

Spring 1966.

The news is that the president ordered a slow down in the bombing.  This upsets the men because they think it prolongs their stay.  Over the loud speakers they hear the voices of some of their compatriots.  They says such things like:  I wish to admit my crime.  I have used cluster bombs and napalm.  Even Cathcart apologizes to the Vietnamese people.  But his speech is so full of English mistakes that it is obvious he is still resisting.  Guilt for talking is a real problem for some of the prisoners who were tortured.  But a better suggestion is that everyone who broke has to stay together and keep up the spirits of each other.

Major Doc brings in Major Ngiap, a pilot.  They talk to Hubman.  Hubman had served in the Korean War and is a "call-back".  As he told his fellow prisoners, he is not as gun-ho as them because he is not a career military man.  He was forced back into service.  His commitment to the war is very tenuous and Major Doc knows this.  What the Major wants to know from Hubman is how the radar of the A-6 aircraft pick out targets.  Hubman tells them that the radar is the same as the B-17.  Are they familiar with that plane?  Yes.  And the Vietnamese pilot confirms that Hubman's statement confirms Vietnamese intelligence information about the aircraft.  (Hubman, however, fibbed.)

One prisoner, named Bob, is really depressed.  Williamson does what he can to cheer him up.  He tells him:  "We're always with you Bob.  We say you name."  A black pilot arrives at the prison. 

Something different is going on.  Major Doc tells them that they are to be given an opportunity to atone.  If they refuse, it will be their heads.  He tells them their journalists will win for us, what they cannot win on the battlefield.  And the prisoners will help.  The journalist's name is Wendell Burke, from Program 21, Vietnam Resists.  American bomber pilot, take one.  The first question to the American pilot is if he knows that Lord Bertrand Russell has called for a world war tribunal.  The pilot is not cooperative with Burke.  So Burke has to sum up.  He refers to the pilot as a lonely man being re-educated by the humane and lenient treatment of his captors.   When the camera stops, Burke virtually yells at Major Doc, telling him never to bring him anymore pilots like the one he just interviewed.

The prisoners leave messages in various places for each other.  One message is hidden behind a loose brick.  It reads:  "Kennedy dead.  Something happening.  Miles. GBU."  (GBU = God Bless You.)

Major Doc paraphrases the words of Senator Fulbright of Arkansas who said that the Americans are fighting in Vietnam because the Asians are yellow in color.  Later he comes to the men to tell them that they have refused to cooperate with the journalist and shown no contrition for what they have done. So they will be "reunited" with their innocent victims.  So the prisoners are paraded down a street in Hanoi. The people shout curses at them.  A few start hitting the prisoners.  The men start running as fast as they can through the developing gauntlet of fists.  They joke about it when they get to the end of their "reunion". 

Winter 1969. 

Major Doc tells the men at a special dinner at a table that he has good news.  The prisoners are no longer of any use to them.  So he has another idea.  He offers them the possibility of early release from the prison.  Letters from home are used as bribes to help coax the men into cooperation.  They will receive the letters if they cooperate.  If they fully cooperate, they will get a trip home.   Cathcart gets upset, says:  "God bless you all!" and leaves. 

A Cuban soldier the men call Fidel is brought in as an interrogator. The prisoners are all curious about this fellow.  A mere sailor (not an officer) has been captured.  His name is Rasmussen.  He says he got too close to the edge of the flight deck and fell into the sea.  A recently arrived pilot tells the men that they plastered Haiphong harbor.  No food is going in and out.  He also says that back home the folks have just about had it. 

Oliviera, a Puerto Rican, goes before the Cuban interrogator.  The Cuban tells Oliviera that he should be ashamed.  He is no more than a Spanish-speaking nigger.  And back home they call the pilots criminals.  Oliviera is disgusted by the Cuban and rejects everything he says.  He asks what the Cuban is doing here in Hanoi.  Fidel says:  "This here is my internationalist duty."  The Cuban tries again saying to Olivera that he is offering him his freedom.  Oliviera spits in his face.  Fidel says: "Adios, Latino."  The guards take Oliviera out.

Rasmussen comes into the Cuban acting very nervous and very willing to cooperate.  How much of it is an act and how much is real is unknown.  He says he fell off his ship and acts so innocent and nervous that it makes Fidel laugh.  He goes light on Rasmussen. 

Gregory gets very upset over the news of massive demonstrations back home.  Other pilots try to tell him to take things more philosophically and not so seriously. 

The Cuban taunts Cathcart.  He tells him that SRO stands for "Sings right out!"  He says he's going to break him.  "It'll make those other assholes wise up." 

Williamson is put in irons for four days.  Gregory asks permission for Soles and him to escape.  The answer waits for the return of the SRO.  Tough guy Miles is brought to the Cuban.  Then Murphy is brought in.  The Cuban is in a particularly nasty mood.  He is going to teach the tough guy a lesson.  He puts his pistol to Murphy's head.  Miles screams that he can't kill Murphy because he's a confirmed POW.  Fidel shoots Murphy in the head.  Gregory is extremely upset.

Spring 1970. 

Rasmussen is chosen to cooperate with the enemy so he can be released early.  He is given the task of remembering 250 POW names of the men held in the prison.  They want to get word back to the military and their families of who is a captive.  Rasmussen sets the names to the tune of Old MacDonald had a farm.  The marine Major Oldham dies. 

Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden along with the former LBJ Attorney General Ramsay Clarke visit the prisoners.  (The real names are not used in the film.)   They are very naive and don't really recognize that they are being used.  Jane tells them that they are here to try and end the war.  She urges a prisoner to apologize to the women and children they bombed.  But the prisoner only wants to tell them that the food stinks.  Other prisoners mention torture and that "guys are getting killed down here."  Others tells the visitors that they are being used.  Hayden says they can handle the political meaning of the situation.  The guy covertly gives them the finger.  Hubman tells them that he himself asked the Vietnamese to go home.  They ask him if his country should be in this war.  Hubman tells them no.  The African-American pilots tells them:  "Why don't you shove it?"

Jane Fonda says to Major Doc:  "Obviously you are doing everything you can."  Only one man complained about the food.  Ashby, she foolishly says.  Major Doc announces that he will release three prisoners to them.  Jane and Tom have their pictures taken with Major Doc. 

Rasmussen and Hubman are two of the three chosen to leave.  The Cuban is also going home.  Hubman tries to say goodbye to the men but they are not interested.  Tough Guy spits at him.  Hubman asks:  "Am I supposed to die here?"  "For what?  For what?" 

During the day, the prisoners create a diversion and Gregory and Soles jump inside a truck.  At night they climb to the top of the prison wall and jump over. 

The two escapees are caught.  Fischer tries to intervene to divert Major Doc's wrath.  He says:  "They're just kids."  Soles is picked out and killed.  Fisher yells at Doc:  "You killed him!  You shit!"  Fischer taps out his farewell message to the men.  He is to be executed.  But something intervenes.  Major Doc comes to Fischer to tell him that his execution is to be delayed because the situation has changed.  President Ho Chi Minh has died.   When alone, Fischer looks to the sky and says:  "Thank you!" 

Winter 1970.

All the prisoners are gathered into the courtyard.  They are told that because their captors give them humane and lenient treatment, they will all be placed in one huge room.  Later Major Doc tells Williamson that he is being reassigned.  He failed to get them to cooperate.  Doc says he did what he had to do and the prisoners did what they had to do to survive.  "No," says Williamson.  "We won."

Summer 1971. 

A new guy comes in.  He meets Ashby who he has heard of.  They both are graduates of Greenwich High School.  He tells the guys that Ashby 's a legend at the school.  But, of course, most people call him a fascist now.  Fischer gets some bad news from his daughter.  His wife has divorced him.  Fischer goes ballistic. 

Winter 1972. 

Bombs are dropped around Hanoi.  The men watch the explosions.

Spring 1973.

At the airport all the prisoners are in nice blue jackets and dark trousers.  They are to go home today.  An American plane arrives.  The eyes of many of the men start to water.  A car picks ups three military officers and brings them to the prisoners.  One of the officers says to Williamson:  "Man, where have you guys been?"  The two men embrace.  Loud cheers go up from the men.  They are ecstatic.

From 1963 until the fall of Saigon in 1975, 3.4 million American men and women served in southeast Asia; of these 58,135 never returned.  Of the prisoners-of-war, 725 were repatriated, leaving 2,421 still unaccounted for. 


Good film.  Perhaps the film tried to tell too many stories rather than concentrate on a few and develop them more, but the stories themselves were interesting.  The film has a bit of a bitter tone.  The film reflects the POWs' resentment toward the anti-war demonstrators (with no mention of freedom of speech and the illegal nature of the war) and the feeling that they have about having been prevented from winning the Vietnam War by the hippies and the politicians.  The lesson of the importance of staying together and positive is emphasized in the film.   What is even more interesting at present is the Vietnamese argument that because no war was declared the prisoners were not POWs, but criminals.  Sounds familiar. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)