It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The war essentially ended for these men when they were captured, and a new chapter began, of personal test. They were so cut off from the world that they learned of the moon landing only by seeing a Neil Armstrong postage stamp. Their lives were bounded by stone walls and controlled by their captors, who devised methods of torture so refined that "you'd sell your mother down the river in a minute." And yet the men endured more than it is possible to comprehend. It is interesting that we hear little hate or anger in their voices; as professional soldiers, they value a certain stoicism. To be captured was a risk of war. To "return with honor" was their goal, and one defines it: "To be able to say you didn't do anything you'd be ashamed to tell your children." Of course, that did not include napalming civilians and poisoning crops--because in the rules of war mass violence is sanctioned by both sides, and only personal violence, such as torture, is condemned.
The Hanoi Hilton, we learn, has a symbolic history. It was built by the French during the colonial era, to hold disobedient Vietnamese subjects, then used by the Viet Cong to hold Americans. Leg clamps were bolted to the beds, and one witness says, "You could look at this place and hear the screams of 50 years." The Viet Cong torturers had refined methods, including a "rope trick" in which prisoners were bound in positions of excruciating pain. Their minds were worked on by morale- crushing video programs showing U.S. anti-war rallies and congressional speeches. "We will win this war on the streets of New York," their captors told them after one show. In a sense, they did.
The ingenuity of the prisoners is astonishing. They devised a code of taps to communicate through cell walls, developing friendships with prisoners they had never seen. Put in a propaganda film, Comdr. Jeremiah Denton blinked out the word "torture" in Morse Code with his eyelids. A fellow prisoner held his middle fingers to send an even more universal code. Lt. John McGrath drew on his cell wall with his own blood and pus; after being freed, he drew everything he remembered. Seaman Douglas Hegdahl memorized the names of 268 fellow prisoners.
"Return With Honor" was directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders. Mock's "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" is a 1994 Oscar-winning documentary about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the young woman who designed it. After seeing it, two former prisoners told Mock they had a story to be told. This film tells it simply and directly, without spin or flash, with no narration--just the voices of the men themselves, as they talk against a plain background. There is footage of the Hanoi Hilton as it is today (the screams in a way still echoing) and footage of the men at the time, taken by the Viet Cong and showing, for example, Hanoi mobs cursing them during a march through the city.
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