Winter Soldier Review
“I can’t really say why we did it. Maybe because we were taught to hate them.”
Winter Soldier is an incendiary document with a power to shock and move that has not faded over time. It’s a documentary about the events of January/February 1971 when 125 Vietnam Veterans – calling themselves ‘Vietnam Veterans Against The War’ - gathered in a Detroit hotel for three days to offer testimony about what they saw and did in Vietnam, in the hope of bringing an end to the war. The film was made by a collective of roughly 18 anonymous filmmakers called “Winterfilm”, some of them directors who have since made some very interesting work such as Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple) which is released by Criterion this month. The popular media tended to ignore the proceedings which is why this film is so incredibly valuable.
I’ve seen a lot of very graphic horror films in my time, some of them notorious - Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left and so on. But I think Winter Soldier is one of the most genuinely distressing films I have ever seen because it is a string of accounts of appallingly brutal acts which have the sting of reality about them because they are coming to us from the mouths of people who were involved in them. The film begins with an account of a Vietnamese woman disembowelled and skinned by an American soldier and continues with stories of sexual mutilation, torture, burnings, random killing, gassing, rape and decapitation. An innocent woman is stripped, shot in the breasts, has an entrenching tool inserted between her legs and is still alive, begging for water. In any other context, it would be prurient and gratuitous. But here it’s presented in such an agonised, matter-of-fact manner that it more than satisfies any unhealthy curiosity in the first ten minutes and starts to get simply sickening. You start to realise that Vietnam was hell on earth where human life was cheaper than shit. Witness after witness tells us that killing and torture were daily occurrences – murder being a proof of courage for the terribly sad American kids stranded in a foreign country without any moral compass – and that atrocities were not only tolerated, they were encouraged. Questions about whether the people killed were in the Vietcong were easily resolved – basically, anyone dead was VC or a VC sympathiser. The general atmosphere appears to have been chaotic, no-one really knowing who was where or what was going on. Statistics are quickly shown to be ridiculous – one helicopter pilot tells us that prisoners were always counted after they landed in case any of them were thrown out of the transport on the way. ‘Efficiency’ meant simply killing as many people as possible and competitions between colonels led to invented death counts. I’d always suspected that Vietnam was a mess but I didn’t realise it was quite this ridiculously screwed-up.
Any lingering doubts about the veracity of what we see are overcome when the photos start to arrive. There’s one photo in particular – a smiling soldier holding a mutilated dead Vietnamese soldier – which is so reminiscent of recent notorious photos that a gulf of thirty years is suddenly bridged and we realise that what happened in South-East Asia is still with us in the 21st Century. There are soldiers standing over piles of dead bodies which look like something out of the Holocaust. Every image is given due weight, often enhanced by what we’re hearing behind it. It becomes clear that civilians were considered fair game and the images provide more than ample evidence of the sheer numbers of people involved. Every time you think you’ve seen the worst, something more horrible turns up.
The grainy, black and white appearance of the film is initially a bit difficult to come to terms with. It was made on a very low budget, using 16MM and it looks like it. The inserts of photos are often in colour and the disjunction between the interviews and the photos renders the latter all the more alarming. But the insistence of the men’s testimony, their eloquence and deep sadness is engrossing and the more they talk, the more you feel you are learning about what happened in Vietnam. As much as you think you know from films and newsreel footage, it’s a different matter hearing it from the mouths of the soldiers. Even those witnesses who won’t give any “blood stories” are expressive in their refusal to speak about what they saw and did. Their presence on the stage is enough to speak for them.
It strikes me that these men are heroes. They’re not uncomplicated heroes, nor do they step fully formed from the pages of a book of fairy tales. Many of them have seen horrible things and done nothing to stop them. Some of them have done things of unspeakable violence. But their heroism lies in their willingness to rediscover their humanity in the face of horror. In telling what they have seen and done and trying to place it in some moral context, it seems to me that they are doing a extraordinarily courageous thing and it’s a million miles away from the banal hippie anti-militaristic platitudes of the familiar anti-war movement. These men have been to hell and they have come out again to warn us of the terror lying within. It’s a detailed study of how brutality dehumanises both victim and perpetrator. As one of the men says, “You gotta start man, you gotta start some place… we can stop this fucking hatred…” The overall effect is profoundly moving.
The question is, why is this film so obscure? It was premiered in 1972 and had a strong reaction at Cannes but it appears that after a few TV showings on public television it simply disappeared. I hadn’t heard of it until its release was announced earlier this year and three viewings later I am absolutely staggered that I haven’t had the chance to see it before. There are a lot of very good films about Vietnam– Emilio De Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig for example and, more recently, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War – but the gut impact of Winter Soldier is something else entirely. Its visual simplicity works for it since we’re not distracted by fancy editing or self-conscious camerawork. Occasionally, the testimony is counterpointed by reaction shots, but the things you remember are the faces of the men – open, sincere, sometimes agonised but usually resigned until afterwards when you can sense relief and cathartic release. It all seems so long ago but the subject remains completely relevant to this day and perhaps more relevant than ever in view of events in Iraq. It’s not merely about the war, its about racism as well – there’s a riveting scene where a black soldier admonishes the organisers of the conference for ignoring the ways in which the treatment of the Vietnamese reflects the ways that blacks have been treated in America for centuries. The film is a reminder that Vietnam was part of one of the most violent and troubled eras in Western history. If you can bear true, unstinting horror then the film is absolutely essential viewing. Anyone who thinks they know the truth about Vietnam owes it to themselves – and the astoundingly brave men in the film – to watch Winter Solider.
I owe Milliarium Zero a huge debt of gratitude for giving me the chance to see Winter Soldier, one of the two or three best films I’ve watched this year. Their Region 0 DVD presentation is exemplary, presenting the film very well and offering some valuable extra features.
The film looks about as good as is possible for a film made on second-hand film stock which was begged or borrowed from wherever it could be found. There’s remarkably little extraneous damage and it would appear that the flaws in the image are characteristic of the original film. The grainy monochrome images have a sharp edge of truth which a slicker film might have dulled and they reflect the edge-of-the-seat manner in which the film was made. The audio is a little scratchy and hiss is prevalent but the voices of the soldiers are always clear and that’s what matters.
The extras are very pleasing. They begin with an 18 minute discussion about the film from twelve members of the collective who break their anonymity to reflect on the experience. It’s fascinating, largely because the film was made in such a different way from most movies. They also provide some insight into why the film has been so hard to see for the past thirty years.
“Seasoned Veteran: The Journey of a Winter Soldier” is a substantial 40 minute documentary from 2002 which traces the story of Scott Camil, one of the soldiers from the main feature. It was made by a Florida film student called Michael Kirschbaum and is a remarkably confident piece of work. Scott Camil is interviewed in 2002 talking about his experiences before, during and after the war. It’s a very valuable addition to Winter Soldier and it’s heartening to see that Camil is still as eloquent as he was thirty years ago. The film looks pretty good for a DV production with film inserts.
Two short films are also included, both of which include lengthy testimony from the Winter Soldier hearings; “Americal Division” and “First Marine Division”. Although both are more of the same, the discussions of My-Lai and Calley in the first short is historically fascinating. Effectively, both shorts function as ‘deleted scenes’, although some footage is repeated from the main feature, and if you find the main documentary interesting then these are well worth watching, although the testimony is, if anything, even more horrific. These short films were used by the Vietnam Veterans Against The War group as part of their campaigning.
We also get an extensive stills gallery, an audio recording of Graham Nash singing “Oh Camil!”, a song about Scott Camil, and the theatrical trailer for the film’s US release in 2005.
Finally, and of particular historical value, there is a DVD-Rom archive, “The Winter Soldier Files” which includes a vast array of documents from the three-day hearing. It would take a very strong nerve to read all of these but I’ve looked through half of them and read things I don’t think I’ll ever forget. There’s also some rather depressing material about how attempts were made to discredit the testimony of the veterans.
French and German subtitles are offered for the film and English closed captions are also available.
Winter Soldier is one of the most remarkable documentaries I’ve ever seen and this DVD is absolutely indispensable. Definitely recommended.