Stephen Hunter, former film critic for the Washington Post and creator of the Bob Lee Swagger novels reviews BRAVO!
Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor: A Tour of Hell in a Small Space
BY STEPHEN HUNTER
We live in an age obnoxious in its corruption of the ancient genre of documentary film. The profusion of cable channels with their insatiable need for product has largely diluted the field with reports from Area 51, speculations on ancient aliens, and re-creations of the Battle of Gettysburg with twenty-five extras. Thus, it’s a privilege and an honor to come across a work as disciplined and rigorous as Ken and Betty Rodgers’s Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor. No recreations, no ancient aliens, no saucers.
Just a tour of hell in a very small space, among young men in the prime of life hammered by the existential fury of war. Theirs wasn’t to question why, theirs was do nothing–and die, too many of them. The film is a two-hour examination of the ordeal of the siege at the Marine Operation Base at Khe Sanh from January through July of 1968. The focus is on Bravo-1-26, a Marine infantry company that was on the bull’s-eye for the worst seventy-seven days of the siege, during which life consisted primarily of two endeavors: digging and praying.
The Rodgerses really aren’t interested in history. They provide no voice of authority in the film, no god of context who sets things up geopolitically or even tactically. No pointy-heads or critics explain in front of animated maps the movements of the units, the terrain, the consternation of the policy people ten thousand miles away, the press coverage. Nobody second-guesses or explains, from the safety of a paneled den, what Ken Pipes, Bravo’s CO, should have done. Instead the filmmakers simply let the boys speak. The Rodgerses are noble witnesses who have committed to recording this all-but-forgotten aspect of that all-but-forgotten time and place. And they know enough to turn on the camera and shut up. So the film finds its rhythm in the excellent editing of John Nutt, which juxtaposes the recollection of several Bravo survivors, men and officers, with archival film.
The men are now all middle-aged, wearing the comfortable padding of the good life in the country they fought so hard for. (You will think, as I did: Boy, if anyone ever earned the right to comfort, it was these guys.) As they talk, a narrative emerges, and the Rodgerses and Nutt cut away to mostly grainy film, as well as to the extraordinary photojournalism from the siege by David Douglas Duncan and Robert Ellison. The record reveals much that has been forgotten, if it was ever noted in the first place: the squalor of the installation itself–it looked like a large urban garbage dump by siege’s end–and the feel of the thunder of the incoming.
Other samples of the combat experience emerge, without emotional underlining: the endless fatigue, the endless labor (sandbags had to be filled and stacked each day, human waste had to be burned, supplies had to be offloaded and stockpiled) and the hideousness of what small pieces of heated supersonic metal and vast energy waves of percussion can do to human flesh. The directors also make clever usage of sound; occasionally, the screen goes dark, and all we hear is the sound of bombardment, a living symphony of mayhem, as recorded on site by an enterprising Marine historical officer.
In general, the movie progresses chronologically, its first concern the arrival of the grunts to the site itself and their initial bewilderment at the intensity and complexity of the situation. It follows through long periods of consistent bombardment, the loss of a large patrol, and could be said to “climax”–the word implies melodrama, but the film is defiantly anti-melodramatic–in Bravo’s assault outside the wire late in the siege of a section of NVA trenchline. The arrival, in July of 1968, of a relief force, effectively ending the siege, is not treated as a triumph but a relief.
The tone is modest, severe, and utterly melancholic.
Regardless of one’s position on the politics and the policy that made this episode seem inevitable, one can only wonder at the toughness, the love, and the deep sense of comradeship that got the young Marines–most were twenty or younger–through the ordeal. But no bugles are played, no drums are beaten. The men themselves are now, as they were then, quietly magnificent. No Rambos here, no bravado or warrior zeal.
Most break down at one point or another, and request that the camera be shut down while they compose themselves. Even now, years later, the loss of so many friends and the harrowing nature of the dread that crushed against them are still written vividly on their faces. These are the things that never go away, that we expect our fighters to bear up under. It is pleasing to report that most seem to have done well, and ultimately rejoined and contributed to society. That’s the only happy ending the movie provides.
To call Khe Sanh a “battle” is somewhat misleading. The idea, just like the French plan in 1954, was to expose a large unit to enemy attack, under the assumption that it would prove so tempting that the enemy would soon arrive. The second part of the assumption was that the Marines, with their superior firepower and discipline, would destroy the attacking force and break the back and ultimately the morale of the human waves in the wire. But, as at Dien Bien Phu, the enemy never came. Instead, the NVA lay back and assaulted by mortar, rocket, artillery, and sniper fire.
Only that one time, late in the engagement, did Bravo emerge from the wire and engage North Vietnamese regulars in a brief but bloody attack, vividly recalled here by all who participated.
Still, at the grunt level, the experience was mostly about the play of right-time/right place dynamics, as most of the survivors recollect a moment or seventeen when they went into the hole on the right instead on the left and in the next second the hole on the left was obliterated by a shell. They were all–to cite a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War II–refugees from the law of averages.
The base’s umbilical was resupply by air. Some of the most horrifying moments in Bravo! portray the intensity of arrival and exit, as the C130s hit the runaway in mid-bombardment, spew men and material without ever really coming to a halt, then crank into a 180 at the end of the runway and take off again, all amid bursting shells. Nobody who arrived or departed in that fashion ever forgot it, and the graveyard of burned fuselages and sundered wings that became the central architectural feature of the otherwise low-lying bunker city is an image of war at its fiercest.
A more historically oriented film might cover those brave pilots, as well as the fighter-bomber jocks who slathered the low-lying surrounding hills with napalm and contributed significantly to prevent Khe Sanh from becoming an American Dien Bien Phu, as well as the B-52s that turned much of the outlying jungle to mulch. Such a film might interview someone over the rank of O-3, might even provide a map that would locate Khe Sahn in country and suggest why the war’s managers considered it a good strategy. To their credit, the Rodgerses don’t care. It’s immaterial.
This is a grunt film that looks at history from over the lip of the trench. To watch it is to think: Where did we get such men?
Stephen Hunter was chief film critic for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. He is author of the Bob Lee Swagger novels.
Stephen Hunter’s review of BRAVO! is reprinted here with permission from the July/August 2012 issue of The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of the Vietnam Veterans of America.