War Movie Mondays: ‘Go Tell the Spartans’

This week’s pick takes us to ‘Nam with Go Tell the Spartans (1978) which shows the first ever encounter among American forces and the Viet Cong before major American involvement in Vietnam took place. Director Ted Post adapts Daniel Ford’s book “Incident at Muc Wa” and turns it into one of the most brutally honest war films ever made.

In 1964, only a few hundred American personnel deemed as “military advisers” aided their South Vietnamese allies. These advisory commands were stationed in lone outposts in the countryside. Their mission: to observe and report enemy activity in their spheres of influence. Burt Lancaster stars as Major Asa Barker, a seasoned American officer who heads a small squad of American troops and a handful of Vietnamese rice paddy farmers turned militiamen.

Barker’s command is situated near the Cambodian border which was a major battle ground some years earlier during the French-Indo China War (1946-54). Barker is isolated in the jungle w/o any logistical support. Many of the weapons used in the film are old, outdated weapons like M1A1 sub-machine guns from World War II and Korea, and Springfield M1 Carbine rifles also leftover from America’s previous wars.

Barker’s force consists of the inexperienced Corporal Courcey (Craig Wasson), the unhappy Sgt. Oleonowski (John Goldsmith), and the idealistic glory seekers Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger) and Captain Olivettie (Marc “the Beastmaster” Singer) who have come to see if they can prove themselves. Sgt. “Ole” Oleonowski and Major Barker have known one another since Korea, and Barker is pleased to have an experienced NCO as a member of his unit.

Barker is interested in Cpl. Courcey because he is college educated, yet volunteered to become an advisor in Vietnam.Barker is in this situation because he slept with a General’s wife and is now living out the rest of his command in the middle of a hostile jungle.

One of Barker’s intel officers tells him that the Viet Cong have been slowly moving into the area and maybe planning a big offensive against their outpost. Barker informs his Psy-ops (phycological warfare expert) that the Viet Minh (Cong) haven’t been in the area for over ten years since the French were ousted from Vietnam after the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu.

Nevertheless, Barker’s intel officer tells him that there is a strong possibility of an attack, but where? Barker sends Courcey, Hamilton, Oleonowski, and militia, run by the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Cpl. “Cowboy” (Evan Kim) to set up a defensive outpost at the nearby village, Muc Wa.

Lt. Hamilton is eager to prove himself in combat and Sgt. Oleonowski tries to lend his expertise as to the setting up of a defensive pocket around the abandoned village. When night approaches, the Viet Cong attack the small garrison and casualties result. Lt. Hamilton is struck down and dies while giving command to Sgt. Oleonowski. By morning, Sgt. Oleonowski commits suicide due to his inability to cope with the situation at hand, and refusing to take command.

Barker learns of the incident and requests that his commanding officer, General Harnitz (Dolph Sweet) send regular troops to help defend Muc Wa. Due to military politics and Harnitz’s refusal to request what few combat troops there currently were in the country, leaves Barker as the only relief for his troops in the field.

Barker flies into the battle aboard a supply helicopter with re-enforcments. By the end of the battle, all but Courcey are dead and Courcey locks eyes with a Viet Cong soldier he had seen back at the American base. Courcey tells the VC that “I’m going home Charlie.” The once idealistic Courcey is now just as cynical as the Sgt. was and now knows the futility of a war that hasn’t even begun.

Go Tell the Spartans was a rousing hit with many critics and audiences alike who were trying to put the horrors of Vietnam behind them. Such films as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, which came out the same year, also met huge box office success. Many critics hailed Go Tell the Spartans as a war film which was the most realistic portrayal of combat that had ever been shown on screen. Burt Lancaster agreed to do the film because he believed in the subject matter and also put a considerable amount of his own money up to help Ted Post complete the film on time and under budget.

Go Tell the Spartans is a different type of Vietnam War movie because it was released before many average Americans even knew the conflict existed. Unlike Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket which show the horrors of later battles as the war¬†escalated to new heights of insanity, Go Tell the Spartans shows us a dress rehearsal of America’s decade long involvement in one of its most unpopular wars.

Go Tell the Spartans is available on DVD through Warner Bros./HBO Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

  • Doug Barnett
    May 4, 2010 at 8:34 am

    I have always enjoyed this film because it shows another grittier side of Nam that most people never really know. Most individuals never realized that we had advisors there since Eisenhower. My old man was a veteran of Korea and we used to watch all these movies together and he would mostly tear them apart for all their inaccuracies, Go Tell the Spartans was a movie that he really loved and always said that its depiction was frightening really, that and he was a huge Burt Lancaster fan as well. Lol. Thanks so much for your post. Look forward to any feedback at anytime.

    Doug Barnett

  • Oldpilot
    May 4, 2010 at 5:21 am

    Many thanks for the review of Go Tell the Spartans, which as I recall was made on a budget of $2 million in the California “jungle” near Santa Barbara. The entire film had to be re-dubbed in the studio because it turned out that there was an amusement park nearby, and the rumble of the roller-coaster sounded like helicopters coming to the rescue even when there weren’t supposed to be any helicopters. Another result of the low budget was the Vietnamese extras–they really were Vietnamese extras, refugees who were hired on the street in Los Angeles.

    But you know–there were actually 20,000 Americans in Vietnam in 1964. To be sure, a lot of them were staff officers, including as I recall 20 generals. Indeed, there were as many generals knocking about as there were permanent, full-time reporters covering the war.

    Blue skies! — Dan Ford

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