War Movie Mondays: ‘The Hanoi Hilton’

This week’s pick is from the wonderful world of Cannon Pictures with the 1987 feature The Hanoi Hilton. It was directed by Lionel Chetwynd and tells the story of downed American airmen who suffered greatly at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison.

The film stars Michael Moriarty (LCDR Williamson USN), Paul Le Mat (Capt. Earl Hubman USAF), David Soul (Major Oldham USMC), Lawrence Pressman (Col. Cathcart USAF), Doug Savant (Lt. Ashby USAF), Jeffrey Jones (Maj. Fischer, USA), Jesse Dabson (Seaman Rasmussen USN), and John Diehl (Capt. Murphy USAF).

The film opens in the fall of 1964 where U.S. warships are patrolling the waters off of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin which is where the events leading up to the war happened. Michael Moriarty plays Cmdr. Williamson who is a Navy aviator who is being interviewed by the press who are trying to determine if American involvement in this police action is what’s needed.

Williamson declares that it is the duty of America to lend a hand to whomever requires its assistance and that they are there at the request of the South Vietnamese government, and at the request of President Lyndon Johnson. Williamson also adds that it is the right of all nations to determine their own existence, and that Communism must be stopped by all freedom loving peoples in the world.

This was what became known as the famous “domino theory” which stated that if one country in a hemisphere succumbed to Communism, others would fall along side it. That was one of the major arguments for American involvement in southeast Asia during this crucial time during the Cold War.

On a routine mission, Williamson’s F-4 Phantom fighter is shot down and he is taken prisoner by the Vietcong who have executed his navigator. Williamson is taken to Hanoi where he is introduced to Maj. Ngo Doc (Aki Aleong) who is impressed by the actions of Williamson who stands at attention when the Major enters the room. The Major asks Williamson what outfit he’s with and what his mission was. Williamson only repeats his name, rank, serial number to every question asked him. The Major laughs and ridicules Williamson who is following the rules of the Geneva Convention in which prisoners of war are only to state their name, rank, and serial number.

The Major grows tired of Williamson and tells him that he is not a prisoner, but a criminal whose government has not legally declared war on North Vietnam. Major Ngo Doc tells Williamson that when the United States declares a legal war, he will be given the rights of any POW in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Major Doc says that their war of independence against the French lasted for more than ten years, and that it will be some time before a prisoner exchange will occur for Americans caught on the wrong side of the DMZ.

Williamson’s non co-operation lands him in three years isolation for refusing to give up any further information. Williamson is taken to a cell where he sees the timeline of a French prisoner who languished in that cell as far back as the early 1950s. Williamson tries to convince himself that he can hack it and that its only a matter of time before he is to be released. Williamson’s nine year ordeal has only just begun.

After nearly a year of being in isolation, Maj. Doc rewards Williamson for his good behavior by allowing him to be billeted with a few other American prisoners. In one scene prior, Williamson discovers at a wash basin the etching of a name and date by an American flier who is also in the prison. He yells out to the flier and is immediately silenced by a guard. Williamson smiles and realizes that he is not alone after all. He is then taken to a cell where he meets Capt. Hubman (Le Mat), Maj. Oldham (Soul), and one other flier who all breakdown and embrace one another through the camaraderie as American servicemen.

Other pilots of other branches begin pouring into the “Hanoi Hilton” (dubbed by the servicemen who are all checked in there) and swear to never abandon the chain of command, and to always have an SRO (senior ranking officer) at all times, even if one is removed from that position. Col. Cathcart (Pressman) is the SRO who communicates with other prisoners in their cells by the use of Morse Code on the walls. Through strict military protocol and the hope to one day be released from this nightmare of torture and conformity, gives each man the strength to perceiver and not give in even if tortured.

The film is very well played by all the actors assembled in the film such as Moriarty, Jones, Le Mat, and Soul. Other standouts include Stephen Davies as Capt. Robert Miles, John Vargas as Oliviera, and Jesse Dabson as a young Navy recruit (Rasmussen) who is one of the youngest in the prison and is designated as the “record keeper” of all American POWs in the prison. He remembers all two hundred plus men through an association of the song Old MacDonald’s Farm.

As the war escalated and more guests arrive at the Hanoi Hilton, it becomes apparent to their captors that many of the men can’t be broken, even with the arrival of a sadistic Cuban officer who beats and threatens the Americans with death. The Cuban hopes to break Williamson and if he is broken, it will destroy the morale of all the other prisoners. The film’s conclusion is an emotional one for the men who survived their captivity and returned home.

For many of their fellow inmates who failed to see the day of their freedom, their names are never forgotten. The Hanoi Hilton opened on a very select amount of screens in the spring of 1987 and was given some praise for its accuracy and depictions of those who were imprisoned for several years. It gained a significant cult following by many ex-servicemen who claimed the film was very accurate and brilliantly acted.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when American journalists are allowed to film the prisoners and ask them to apologize to the peace loving people of Vietnam, and that their part in it should allow for some type of closure. The servicemen are appalled and outraged at this smoke and mirrors presentation put on by the North Vietnamese to gain sympathy through the international media.

The prisoners try to convince their fellow countrymen that they are being manipulated and conned by the Vietnamese that their imprisonment is humane and just. In actual footage from such interviews an American flier blinked in Morse Code “tortured” on camera which was noticed by viewers who watched it on television.

The Hanoi Hilton is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.

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