The United States has suffered exactly zero combat casualties thus far in the just-ended(?) NATO air war over Yugoslavia. A generation and a half ago, in another war called Vietnam, we weren’t so lucky. In addition to the tens of thousands killed or wounded, hundreds more were captured and held as POW’s for up to seven unimaginable years. “Return With Honor” is their story.
The film opens with the on-screen vets’ self-deprecatingly ironic recollections of their early bravado to provide a brief history lesson about the war. Some of the documentary’s most harrowing moments, in fact, come when these aging soldiers – they could be our fathers, uncles, neighbors – describe their moment of capture while we watch the actual archival footage of it. As we listen to these tough yet haunted men recount their realization that they were no longer a Superpower’s prized hotshot warriors, but were instead helpless and hated prisoners, we see their younger selves on-screen and know what these guys are in for.
Using a well-balanced mixture of interviews, photographs, and more amazing archival footage, the film offers a harrowing portrait of the POW’s living conditions, daily routines, excruciating tortures, and their remarkable resilience and fortitude in the face of it all. We’re taught their subversive, forbidden “Tap-Tap” language, experience their sometimes hourly struggles not to break under the torment, or if they did, to break just a little. We’re reminded of the all too often forgotten traumas of their loved ones left in limbo back in the States. Finally, we’re with them in their wary jubilation at being set free at last.
There’re few surprises in Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders’ intense and compelling documentary, either in its content or in its undercurrent of calm, dignified patriotic fervor. The sole exception is that it doesn’t touch on the enduring, if fading POW-MIA controversy at all.
Yeah, the film’s a bit slow, but the way I figure it, these guys earned the extra fifteen minutes and then some. All in all, then, “Return With Honor” is a remarkable film; a must-see for every smarmy, know-it-all high school class in America. Is it a heart-tugging propaganda piece? In a way, I suppose. But then, after two “easy” wars in a row, now’s as good a time as any to remind people of what a real war can cost. At that, “Return With Honor” definitely succeeds.