The war they saw

Vietnam in HD, which aired on History in the U.S. in early November and is being distributed internationally by A+E Networks as Vietnam: Lost Films, brings many soldiers' stories to light.
November 1, 2011

In 1969, writer and TV critic Michael Arlen published a collection of essays about the impact that televised reports from the Vietnam War had on the American populace. It was titled The Living Room War, a phrase that would effectively encapsulate the war’s status as the first conflict to receive such in-depth TV coverage.

The living room war brought its share of horrifying moments to the folks at home, such as Morley Safer’s 1965 report for CBS that depicted Marines setting aflame thatched roofs of huts in Cam Ne village, or the infamous execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, captured by an NBC cameraman and an AP photog. Over the course of the war, the tone of coverage changed considerably, just as the mood of the American public did regarding the conflict. But while the news organizations had cameras trained to tell the story, so too did some of the soldiers.

Vietnam in HD, which aired on History in the U.S. in November and is being distributed internationally by A+E Networks as Vietnam: Lost Films, brings many of those soldiers’ stories to light. The six-hour series, produced by Lou Reda Productions, documents the Vietnam War in a similar fashion as the prodco’s 2009 series, WWII in HD, also for History. For both series, thousands of hours of uncensored footage were combed through to find clips that would detail every critical component of the conflicts and, once found, those clips were then upgraded to HD and edited to provide the narrative.

“It seemed to us that the Vietnam War, in a larger sense, from the beginning to the end of the war, had not had a really comprehensive treatment on television since the PBS documentary [1983's Vietnam: A Television History],” says Susan Werbe, executive producer for History of Vietnam in HD and VP of programming for the net. “The war was very controversial, people turned against it, and in some sense, we didn’t separate the war from the warriors. So this was an opportunity, in the same style that Lou Reda Productions developed for WWII in HD, to tell the story of Vietnam through the veterans’ experience, and to give them their due.”

Liz Reph, lead writer for the series and a producer at Lou Reda Productions, says the company gathered about 1,000 hours of footage for the series from various sources, including the National Archives, the Marine Corps Historical Center, the Army Heritage Museum and assorted Air Force museums. However, a good percentage – Reph estimates up to a third – came from the vets themselves.

“We were able to gather up well over 100 different sources of footage including 8mm or Super 8mm film that veterans filmed themselves while they were in Vietnam, while they were on R&R, or while they were home before or after they left for service,” says Reph.

“I think it’s very interesting to see the moments the soldiers themselves chose to film,” she adds. “That speaks to what Vietnam was for them – the moments where they’re with their buddies, or they’re in combat with the people they’re fighting next to, or they’re being regular 19-and 20-year-old kids hanging out on leave. You’re not seeing it through what the news cameras chose to film.”

Outside vendors transferred some of the film, while Lou Reda Productions’ in-house archive facilities took care of the 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm footage, using film scanners for frame-by-frame conversion.

While viewers will see some of the iconic moments from TV reports that they may recall being transfixed by at the time, they will also see moments that will undoubtedly bring the war home in a new way, wedded to first-person accounts from 13 individuals whose lives were forever changed by the conflict.

Recommendations for participants came from Lou Reda Productions’ various military contacts, the Library of Congress, and other veterans, says Reph. Those taking part include Karl Marlantes, a Marine whose unit engaged in battles in the A Shau and Da Krong Valleys and who later penned the 2010 novel Matterhorn; and Barry Romo, a Bronze Star-awarded infantryman who later joined the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Also featured in the series are Anne Purcell, a military wife whose husband, Benjamin, was a POW for five years; and Joe Galloway, war reporter for UPI who also received a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers at the battle of Ia Drang.

First-person interviews with the 13 featured individuals are intertwined with the footage, while assorted celebrities such as Adrian Grenier, Blair Underwood and Jennifer Love-Hewitt also provide voice-overs, scripted from interviews conducted with the 13, in a technique similar to that used in WWII in HD. Michael C. Hall (Dexter) narrates.

As part of the community outreach for the series, History is also joining with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Call for Photos, an initiative to collect photographs of each of the 58,272 men and women whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. The network hosted a series of events in New York City, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago to advance the collection of the more than 35,000 photos still needed.

Werbe and Reph say that like the Call for Photos project, Vietnam in HD aims to bring to light the faces behind the stories for present and future generations.

The series’ tagline, “It’s not the war we know, it’s the war they fought” effectively sums up the aim of Vietnam in HD‘s producers, says Werbe, in “letting the veterans tell their stories, and giving a new generation of viewers the history of this war. It’s part of the legacy of this country.”

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