With the words of support for South Vietnam expressed by Michael Moriarty’s Lt. Comdr. Pat Williamson, The Hanoi Hilton (1987) points up the idealistic nature of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Truth to tell, disgusting as communism is, I myself do not know whether our military intervention in Vietnam was a good idea since no direct threat to the U.S. came from North Vietnam as in fact it did from Saddam Hussein, prior to the Iraq War, when he ordered his soldiers to fire at coalition planes in the Iraqi no-fly zones. Lionel Chetwynd’s film is right, however, to condemn sympathy and support for the Vietnamese commies, such as that which issues from the Jane Fonda-like celebrity who visits Hanoi. Chetwynd’s anti-communism gives his pro-Vietnam War stance every bit of life it has.
The Hanoi Hilton pays homage to the American POWs of the “Hanoi Hilton”—that is, the awful Hoa Lo Prison where John McCain was confined, where men were tortured until they “broke.” They break here, for all their patriotism. In the movie’s fascinating final scene, the highest ranking captive, Colonel Cathcart (Lawrence Pressman), is revealed to be a man now insensible after years of isolation and suffering. The commies broke his mind. Chetwynd both wrote and directed Hilton, and there is never a dull moment. Plenty of fine acting goes on and some crackling dialogue is supplied. There are also a few ill-advised words, though: Says one POW, “the greater the darkness, the greater the possibility of light.” Unless he’s talking about the hereafter, this is usually false. How great was the possibility of light when Hitler started murdering the Jews?
This the work of a genuine right-winger is hardly without its faults. Chetwynd’s soldiers are a little too much alike and too predictable in their behavior. For one thing, they all seem respectful of religion, and how believable is that? All the same, I like The Hanoi Hilton. Though its script is obvious, it has dramatic punch, and it’s moving. Never to be deprecated is how, again, it reminds us of that Vietnam War idealism.