Friday, July 12, 2013

Vietnam: Apocalypse Near

When I was in college, beating the draft was a top priority for most young American males, and Vietnam seemed like the last place anyone would want to go on vacation. But now that I’ve read Gold Rush in the Jungle, by science journalist Dan Drollette Jr., I’m ready to pack my bags. Not that Drollette’s Vietnam sounds relaxing. In his pages, I’ve read a lot about leeches, landmines, and disease. But when it comes to exotic wildlife, this corner of Southeast Asia is clearly a paradise, though it’s a paradise that could easily be lost in the not-too-distant future. Hence Drollette’s subtitle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s “Lost World.”

Normally I focus on movies, not nature. So when I write about Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising that I think about the movie connections to this nation long troubled by war. I’m obviously not the only one. I learned from Drollette that the country’s most popular chain of bars, decorated with Sixties memorabilia, operates under the name Apocalypse Now. This, of course, is a reference to Coppola’s 1979 war epic, which of necessity was filmed not in Vietnam but in the Philippines. Name a film about the Vietnam War, and you can bet it was not made in country. Platoon and Hamburger Hill both were shot in Filipino jungles; The Deer Hunter filmed its Vietnam scenes in Thailand; and Stanley Kubrick’s powerful Full Metal Jacket actually used England as a stand-in for Indochina. (John Wayne’s noxious The Green Berets, which was intended to rouse public support for the war, was shot entirely stateside, so I hear.)

We in the Roger Corman world took advantage of Roger’s longstanding connection with producer-director Cirio Santiago to film a passel of war flicks in the Philippines. At least one of our writers, Tom Cleaver, had actually served in Vietnam, which helped give our stories a modicum of authenticity. But unlike the challenging dramas being made by Coppola, Kubrick, and Oliver Stone, ours were little more than excuses for blood, guts, and “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”  They all blend together in my mind, but I remember Beyond the Call of Duty because (on short notice) I had to finish a script that a writer had left lacking. And I remember Nam Angels -- about bikers who ride behind enemy lines to rescue captive American soldiers -- because Cirio, wanting his actors to wear matching emblems on their leather jackets, blithely copied the Hells Angels’ logo, which happens to be trademarked. Their lawyer duly claimed that the movie had sullied the Angels’ sterling reputation,  and for a while we at Concorde-New Horizons had colorful visitors in our office waiting room.

Now Vietnam makes its own films, like Three Seasons, which features Harvey Keitel as a former soldier searching for the daughter he’d fathered years before. But as Dan Drollette’s book vividly illustrates, today’s Vietnam contains a lot of great stories that have nothing to do with war. Drollette’s heroes are the wildlife biologists who’re desperately trying to save some of the most unique species on earth -- like the  langur, the saola, the kouprey – from extinction. On a daily basis, these scientists face down poachers, corrupt bureaucrats, the tourism industry, a severe lack of funds, and an astonishing array of ecological challenges. Here’s how he begins: “Like the cramped, narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the work of wildlife biologists in Vietnam is full of the unplanned and serendipitous, as well as the messy, the crowded, the dirty, and the wonderful. This is their story.”


  1. Great post, Bev! Incidentally, at a recent reading & slide show last night at a small indie bookstore, there was one guy in the audience who brought a thick album of photos of Vietnam with him. I hauled out some of my research materials, and we compared notes. Because he was an older American who was extraordinarily fluent at speaking Vietnamese, I asked if he was stationed there during the war.

    His reply: "Yes. I was a spy."

    It turned out that his job had been to listen in on radio transmissions among the Viet Cong and the communist North. Along the way, I guess he developed a real fascination with the country's culture, language, cuisine and history, so much so that he recently went back to modern, post-war Vietnam as a tourist. And he was very enthusiastic about the book and the slide show, encouraging everyone to visit Vietnam.

    The world is full of the most unlikely connections.

  2. It is indeed, Dan. Thanks so much for writing, and best wishes for the success you certainly deserve!

  3. That's fighting the good fight - protecting Mother Nature and her children. Mr. Drollette's book sounds fascinating - I wish him the best with it!

    I believe The Green Berets was shot somewhere around Charleston SC - as were the Vietnam scenes in Forrest Gump.

    Do you have any idea what the Hell's Angels logo cost the company in the end?

  4. Good question, Mr. C. I don't know anything about the details of the legal settlement. But I know it helped a lot that Roger Corman had built up some good will years earlier when shooting The Wild Angels. You don't want to tangle with a Hells Angel, that's for sure!