James Webb has a new mission in Vietnam -- to make a film out of his book Returning to the 'Fields of Fire'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An Hoa was totally American. Its tents housed Americans. Its mess halls fed Americans. Its guns killed for Americans. Its miles of barbed wire and concertina fenced Americans in, and Vietnamese of all bents out. An Hoa was a moment of total power, foreign to the brickdust soil. It sat like Troy on the bald red mounds.

James Webb, "Fields of Fire."

An Hoa, Vietnam -- The American presence in this valley has all but vanished, reclaimed by nature and the Vietnamese people.

Water buffalo graze among the sea of grass and baca plants. An old military road is just a sandy scar among the vegetation. Women stoop over the pockmarked airfield and spread their rice to dry. Laughing children pedal their bikes along the runway, wearing the red kerchiefs of the communist Young Pioneers.

More than two years ago, novelist and decorated Marine combat veteran James Webb stood on this dusty, scorching spot, the setting for his book "Fields of Fire." Scanning the misty blue mountains that rim the valley, he was overcome with what the Vietnamese call con ma -- "the ghosts."

He could almost see and hear the soldiers trudging along and choppers churning overhead, the "mechanical mules" darting around the red tents and sandbag bunkers. And he recalled that 100,000 men from both sides died in this area that once bore the names Henderson Hill and Football Island and the Arizona Valley.

That day he made a pledge: to be the first American to film a movie about the Vietnam War in the country where it happened.

"If I don't do anything else in my life,I want to make the book into a movie," said Mr. Webb, a former Navy secretary under President Reagan. "And I want to shoot it here."

Seated last week in his Arlington, Va., apartment with its panoramic view of Washington, the 1968 U.S. Naval Academy graduate sternly repeats the pledge, his fingers marking cadence on a coffee table with each word. Then he brightens.

"It's like the old Irish saying, 'How do you get over a fence you can't climb? Throw your hat over the other side," said the boyish, 48-year-old screenwriter, erupting in laughter. "OK, how am I going to do this?"

His best-selling 1978 novel, a gritty and powerful depiction of a Marine platoon at An Hoa, has been compared to the writing of Stephen Crane and James Jones.

He writes of the fear that rises in the throat of men on night patrol, the loyalty that causes soldiers to -- under heavy fire and save wounded comrades. And he tells of the less noble acts during the insanity of war: executing suspected Viet Cong, torching huts and wounding -- or "fragging" -- a despised sergeant.

Since that day in the An Hoa basin, Mr. Webb has drifted between the divergent worlds of Hollywood image making, Pentagon bureaucracy and Hanoi officialdom to make the book into a movie.

After countless meetings with the Ministry of Culture, the military, and people's committees in the provinces and the villages, Mr. Webb has received approval to film in An Hoa, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. He also has signed on with Giai Phong Film Studio in Ho Chi Minh City, whose duties will range from providing technical assistance to hiring Vietnamese actors.

The studio's film credits include "The Lover" and "The Scent of Green Papaya." Company employees include former Viet Cong snipers and propaganda filmmakers who shot at passing U.S. planes during the war.

Tran Thanh Hung, director of Giai Phong Film, who rose from young revolutionary to war cameraman, praised Mr. Webb's script at a true portrayal of soldiers in action.

"We are all ready to make James Webb's film," he said. "It depends on everything in the United States."

So far, communist Vietnam has proved to be the easier sell.

"The only problem I've had was with DOD [Department of Defense]," said Mr. Webb.

The former military service leader had hoped the Pentagon would offer equipment and soldiers, as well as military training for actors. Gen. Carl E. Mundy, commandant of the Marine Corps, signed off on the request early this year. The Corps has made "Fields of Fire" recommended reading.

But the Pentagon rejected any assistance. Top officials were troubled by the script's inclusion of less honorable acts, such as the executions and fragging. Moviegoers would be left with the perception that this is how Marines act under "duress," said Philip Strub, the Defense Department's special assistant for audiovisual. "This was presented as the norm," he said.

Mr. Webb was shocked and wrote a scathing letter to Mr. Strub. When it came to Vietnam, he wrote, it appeared the Pentagon would only support "sterile documentaries, or feature films that amount to nothing more than dishonest propaganda."

"The film doesn't really require anything" from the Pentagon, Mr. Webb said. "There are things that could happen to make it easier for us. All those things could be worked around."

But Hollywood was also cool to the idea, Mr. Webb said.

"One of the great problems is that there's just no one in Hollywood who emotionally connects with [Vietnam] in an honest way," he said. "There's a tendency in Hollywood to demean it or to say, 'Look, it's done, it doesn't work,' or 'It's time to move on.' This is the central experience of an entire generation."

"I think the minute you mention Vietnam, you get sort of a blank look," said Mr. Webb's agent, Guy McElwaine, of International Creative Management in Los Angeles, who is taking the script to studio executives. "Some of it may be that Vietnam is too fresh for people, the wound is still there."

Also, the commercial failure of Oliver Stone's recent Vietnam movie "Heaven and Earth" left some studios skittish about bankrolling another. "That's hurt us more than anything," Mr. Webb said.

While Mr. Stone has become one of Hollywood's major voices on the Vietnam War, with the films "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Heaven and Earth," Mr. Webb strongly disputes their general theme. The message, he says, is "America is cruel, and its soldiers are evil."

"You look at something like 'Forrest Gump' and 'The Deer Hunter,' " said Mr. Webb, pointing to two successful films that depict the war. "[The public] will look at it as long as you don't do it to dump on basic American people.

"The guy who's at the bowling alley -- you don't take that guy and make him an evil person by putting him in that environment," Mr. Webb continued. "You make him a conflicted person and bad things happen when people have guns. But that's not an evil person and that's a fine distinction.

After the initial skepticism about the topic, Mr. McElwaine said studios praised Mr. Webb's script. Moreover, Michael Cimino, director of "The Deer Hunter," a classic film about the Vietnam War, has signed on to the project.

"I have a couple of people who are interested, but they haven't written a check yet," said Mr. McElwaine, who hopes filming can start early next year. "I'm going to make this movie one way or another."

Unlike the book, the film version will begin and end in the Vietnam of today. A central character, Will Goodrich -- nicknamed "Senator" by his fellow Marines -- returns with his son.

The opening scene will be filmed at a Da Nang pagoda. Hundreds of Vietnamese, whose relatives fought for both sides, will assemble for a religious service, holding photos of their war dead. And the film's finale will center on Goodrich's mystical return to An Hoa.

The man who arrived in Vietnam as a warrior, hopes his return as a filmmaker will help bind up that nation's wounds.

"This will close the circle for everyone, including the Vietnamese," he said. "I just feel a responsibility to them. This isn't guilt, it's just responsibility. For me, the responsibility doesn't end when you leave the battlefields."

He has volunteered his time in the Washington area's Vietnamese community and he has returned to the country on seven extended trips, including a humanitarian mission to deliver prostheses to combatants on both sides.

While there may be no guilt, there are "conflicted" feelings. He meets with Communist officials and then sees the faces of former South Vietnamese officers, who endured years of hardships in re-education camps and still are treated as second-class citizens. Some are limbless beggars on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

The former Marine captain maintains an unshakable belief in America's failed effort to bring democracy to Vietnam. And he's certain there would have been a different outcome, had there been the political will to continue the fighting. "I have no doubt in my mind that we could have won the Vietnam War," he said.

But Mr. Webb believes that both he and the United States can do more for the country by forging closer ties and moving to heal the lingering trauma of war.

There is agreement on that point from a former adversary turned colleague, Tran Thanh Hung and others at Giai Phong Film Studio.

"The war is over," Mr. Tran said. "We're looking to the future."

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