|© 2005-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Made by a group of filmmakers (including Barbara Kopple), who
worked in anonymity as WinterFilm Collective, WINTER SOLDIER was
a scathing motion picture that can be looked upon as a real
"documentary," in that it provides a record of an event that otherwise
would have been relegated to written history.
From January 31 to February 2, 1971, an antiwar group known as
the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) invited members of all
branches of the US military to Detroit, Michigan where more than 100
men were encouraged to testify about the atrocities they witnessed
and/or committed in Vietnam. The event was intended to build on the
increasing antiwar sentiment that was rocking the country. Many
journalists covered the event and a transcript was entered into the
Congressional Record in April of the same year.
The movie makers had hoped to further publicize the event, but
the material was too controversial for a mainstream release.
WINTER SOLDIER played at film festivals like Cannes and Berlin, and
it did receive a one-week engagement in New York City and even a
one-time showing on NYC's local public television station (as a
last-minute replacement program with virtually no publicity), but mostly
it went unseen. Over thirty years later in 2005, WINTER SOLDIER
received a limited art-house release with a DVD release in June
2006. Not having seen the film on its brief re-release, I finally caught
up with it and watched it on (appropriately enough) Memorial Day
For those who were not alive at the time or with a faulty
knowledge of history, the growing antiwar sentiment that had
developed in the late 1960s came to a head in 1969 with the
revelation of the My Lai massacre of the previous year. Lt. William
Calley was charged with premeditated murder and went to trial in
November 1969. He was convicted on March 29, 1971 and two days
later was sentenced to life in prison. On the day of his sentencing,
VVAW had arranged to hold the media event known as the "Winter
Soldier Investigation." (The name comes from a quote from Thomas
Paine's pamphlet The Crisis dated December 23, 1776: "These are
the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine
patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he
that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.")
The purpose of the Investigation, sparked in part by Calley's trial,
was to demonstrate that U.S. foreign policy was leading to the
commission of war crimes. As one of the participating veterans, Donald
Dzagulones, stated: "we held that if Calley were responsible, so
were his superiors up the chain of command — even to the president.
The causes of My Lai and the brutality of the Vietnam War were rooted
in the policies of our government as executed by our military
The film, which features a blink and you might miss it appearance
by John Kerry who was actively involved in VVAW, is a searing
document. It is not easy to watch -- the testimony given details horrific
events. There is also obvious pain that the men offering the tales are
experiencing. Some choke back tears, other break down, some simply
cannot find the words, and others refuse to speak about what occurred.
Of course, watching the film and thinking about the Abu Ghraib
scandals as well as reports of the atrocities committed at Haditha in
Iraq in November 2005. As George Bernard Shaw wrote: "We learn from
history that we learn nothing from history."
The DVD transfer retains all the scratchiness and sound pops from
the original black and white feature. (We learn thanks to a roundtable
discussion of the filmmakers that obtaining film stock was difficult and
that some was even acquired from the makers of pornographic
features.) There are three short films, including two culled from the
original material and released before the final print of
WINTER SOLDIER was made. The third, SEASONED VETERAN:
JOURNEY OF A WINTER SOLDIER, profiles the life of one of the
original movie's intriguing and articulate figures, Scott Camil of the 1st
Marine Division. Camil, a decorated veteran, went on to be an activist
for human rights. There's also Graham Nash's song "O, Camil (Winter
Soldier)," a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of stills.
WINTER SOLDIER makes for fascinating viewing and serves as a
real document of its time.
Rating: A -
MPAA Rating: NONE
Running time: 95 mins.
Viewed on DVD