Although precious few fiction films were made about the Vietnam War while it was still raging, the late ’70s produced a number of thoughtful pictures about the war’s history, impact, and legacy. Yet not all such movies were created equal. Compared to the other 1978 releases Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, for instance, Go Tell the Spartans feels old-fashioned, stylized, and even obsolete. After all, the picture is set in 1964, when U.S. involvement in Indochina was still limited to “military advisors,” so the whole film unfolds as a warning about the dangers and pointlessness of an expanded American role. Had this picture been made in the late ’60s, when the underlying material originated—Daniel Ford’s novel Incident at Muc Wa was published in 1967—Go Tell the Spartans could have been politically incendiary. Arriving three years after the end of the Vietnam War, the picture is elegiac but also something of an unnecessary told-ya-so lecture. This is not to say that Go Tell the Spartans is a weak picture. Quite to the contrary, it’s a brisk and powerful tragedy laced with dark humor and deep pathos. But timing is everything, and the moment for Go Tell the Spartans to influence public opinion passed long before the film was made.
In any event, Burt Lancaster stars as Major Asa Barker, a lifelong Army man tasked with supervising military advisors in a violent section of South Vietnam. Barker is a cigar-chomping cynic who hates authority, and Lancaster invests the role with an endearing stripe of amused world-weariness. When Barker is ordered to establish a garrison around a seemingly insignificant village called Muc Wa, he sends a group of losers and misfits under the command of inexperienced Lieutenant Hamilton (Joe Unger). Also in the Muc Wa detachment are Sgt. Obleonowski (Johathan Goldsmith), an experienced NCO who’s struggling with battle fatigue, and Corporal Courcey (Craig Wasson), a principled draftee whose naïveté about military conflict fascinates Barker. The soldiers’ tenure in Muc Wa is fraught with unexpected hardships, and it soon becomes clear the village is dead center in the path of a massive North Vietnamese invasion force. Thus, the Army’s entanglement in Muc Wa becomes a metaphor representing America’s involvement in Vietnam—an unwinnable fight against an unstoppable enemy in unfamiliar terrain.
Were it not for the script’s plentiful jokes, many of which Lancaster delivers with sublime charm, Go Tell the Spartans would feel impossibly schematic and strident. Further, much of the film is TV-sized instead of feature-sized, with director Ted Post obviously inhibited by a tight budget. Happily, interesting performances compensates for the meager production values: In addition to character actors David Clennon, Clyde Kusatsu, James Hong, and Dolph Sweet (all of whom deliver their usual crisp work), supporting players including Goldsmith, Watson, and Marc Singer contribute impassioned portrayals that underscore the film’s theme of war’s terrible human cost.
Go Tell the Spartans: GROOVY