War Through the Eyes of Patrick S. Duncan
By Bert Ehrmann
September 4, 2009
Even though the Vietnam War had come to a close in 1975, I can remember as a kid that its after effects were still resonating across the country into the 1980s. It seemed as if in the mid to late 1980s that the country was finally ready to come to terms with that war beginning with the film Platoon in 1986. I clearly remember the day my dad, who had served in the war, brought home a tape of that movie because he wanted me to see "what it was really like over there."
Platoon was a big enough financial and critical hit that other Vietnam War movies would follow, namely Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Hamburger Hill (1987) as well as the television series Tour of Duty (1987) and China Beach (1988). While Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and China Beach are all considered classics and important pieces of work, there's one Vietnam War film of the period that's been all but overlooked, 84 Charlie MoPic (MoPic) (1989).
Just a few years ago before the proliferation of the Internet and DVD rental services like Netflix, there were very few ways to see movies that were out of the mainstream. If a movie didn't get a theatrical release in your area, if it didn't air on one of your 30 or so cable channels or wasn't available on VHS at the local video rental place...well, it could be difficult at best to see that particular movie. So, when I did manage to catch MoPic airing one evening sometime in the early 1990s as a feature on the PBS series American Playhouse I didn't realize what a huge break I had caught.
MoPic was a film quite unlike anything I had seen before. It was shot in a faux documentary style, featured no music, no recognizable stars and had an overall "rough" visual style. I didn't pay attention at the time, but the film was written and directed by Patrick Shean Duncan who's style for MoPic would go to help shape the documentary look of modern dramatic TV. I recently had the chance to chat with Duncan and talked to him about MoPic and some other similarly themed projects he's worked on over the years.
In MoPic, a "lessons learned" camera team (Motion Picture – MoPic) follows army recon patrol into the jungle during the war in Vietnam. The goal of the cameraman (Byron Thames) and Lieutenant “LT” (Jonathan Emerson) following the soldiers is to film this patrol for training purposes, to take some of the hard "lessons learned" by the troops in the field back to those still in training for war.
The patrol MoPic is following hasn't suffered as much as a scratch on any of their previous missions. They're good and the know it. Staying alive is hard business in the Vietnamese jungle and these men are experts. But even experts can make mistakes – even experts can push their luck too far. “My problem up to MoPic was that there had been some Vietnam films that had been done by guys like Chuck Norris that made it look like war was fun." Duncan told me. "My experience was just the opposite and I wanted to show people what it was like to loose your friends.”
Released in 1989 and costing less than $800,000, the script for MoPic was written in "1982 or '83" and sat dormant for years. “Nobody wanted to do a Vietnam film." Duncan said. "Especially one that didn’t have any editing, music or stars.” Though the movie could have been shot much earlier than 1989, it would have meant loosing everything that would go to make MoPic different than any of the other films of that period. After the smashing success of the other Vietnam films, Duncan found financing for the MoPic via the VHS rental market and the film did find a short release in theaters.
There are no stereotypical soldiers in MoPic – each character has his (there are no women in the film) own unique perspective on the world. Be it the leader of the patrol “OD” (Richard Brooks) who’s as gruff and callus as he is dedicated to his men (the best line of the movie is said about this character – “If “OD” ever gets to heaven, he’ll be checking for booby traps”), first time on an actual mission lieutenant “LT” who’s more interested in medals than keeping his men safe, Sgt. “Cracker” (Glenn Morshower) who’s a crackup in camp but is all business in the field, SoCal native “Pretty Boy” (Jason Tomlins) who’s gone out one mission too many and is starting to crack up, radio-operator “Easy” (Nicholas Cascone) who’s interested in (shall we say) pharmaceuticals, heavy gunner “Hammer” (Christopher Burgard) who is good to have in a fight but can be a bit unpredictable at times… There’s no single character here that you’d find in an issue of Sgt. Rock. If anything, the men of the patrol are less interested in winning the war than making sure one and other makes it home in one piece.
This is where MoPic differs from most other war films. In other war movies, even if the soldiers complain to one an other or are mistreated by their officers in the end their overall goal is to win the war. I never got the feeling that while watching MoPic that this was much a consideration to the soldiers of that movie. Also unique is the overall style of the movie. Shot in the documentary style later popularized by films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cloverfield (2008), MoPic gives the viewer the rare feeling of "being there," that the events onscreen are happening in real time and that danger is at arm's length. “One of the people who worked on Blair Witch came up to me and (jokingly) said, ‘Hey man, we ripped you off!’” Duncan said.
Using the low budget and this style to his advantage, Duncan shot MoPic entirely outdoors in the mountains and woods just north of Los Angeles. And though there are a few background extras at a military camp, some helicopter crewmen and a couple of Vietnamese soldiers, the entire movie is carried by the seven leads.
Though I didn't realize it until years later, my first exposure do the work of Patrick Duncan actually came via the HBO TV series Vietnam War Story (1987-1989). Though Duncan had problems finding any studio interested in financing MoPic during most of the 1980s, producers did take note of Duncan's script for MoPic which eventually would lead to work on this series. Essentially, Vietnam War Story told unconnected stories about the war in Vietnam and the effects it had on the men who fought there. Duncan describes these stories as metaphoric – the kind of stories someone would say, “I wasn’t there but I heard about…” and he would construct the shows around those ideas.
Two standout episodes of Vietnam War Story were "The Mine," starring a very young Eriq La Salle (ER) as a soldier with major trust issues who finds himself stuck atop an anti-personnel mine set to explode if he takes as much as a step and is therefor forced to trust the men around him and "Stranded" about a solider who's trapped outside the perimeter of his base and must make his way back in without being shot by his own men or the enemy soldiers outside the wire preparing a raid.
Duncan would try to revive the Vietnam War TV series on HBO with the series Lessons Learned around the year 2000. In this series, a fresh soldier named Ricketts (Scot Davis) finds the prospect of spending a year on the frontlines in combat unappealing. So he fakes a wound and sneaks off a medical helicopter onto a base tasked with teaching new soldiers how to survive the rigors of combat. Ricketts cons his way into the program as an instructor in order to stay away from the fighting. “Common sense tells you that I should avoid getting in any kind of combat and I should avoid getting killed." Duncan said of Lessons Learned. "But war movies always have the guys charging the machine gun. I just looked at the common sense guy.”
Essentially, the main character of Lessons Learned would have been the villain, or at least the guy too self-centered enough to be part of the team, of any other war film. Ricketts is in the mold of the Sefton (William Holden) character in the film Stalag 17 (1953) in that his main concern is his own safety and well being. Everything else, even his fellow soldiers lives, comes second. At the same time Lessons Learned was being presented to HBO the series Band of Brothers was also in the works and the cable network could only afford to produce one of the shows. They went with the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg produced Brothers. But after having seen the pilot episode to Lessons Learned I wish that HBO would've had a bit more money to produce this series in tandem with Band of Brothers. It certainly would have been a good series that was unfortunately passed up by HBO.
Duncan might be best known as the writer of the movie Courage Under Fire (1996) that starred Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and a fresh faced Matt Damon. Courage told the story of Nat Sterling (Washington), sent to investigate the merits of helicopter pilot Walden (Ryan) for receiving the Medal of Honor during the first war in Iraq. As Sterling investigates Walden, who was trapped behind enemy lines with her and her crew holding off attacking Iraqi soldiers, he finds that no one's stories quite matches each other. And the deeper he digs the more he learns that the events around the Walden's death at the crash site might just be more disturbing than he ever could imagine.
“I wanted to make a movie about courage." Duncan told me. "And anyone who’s been in combat knows, that just as likely that you’re going to do something heroic you’ll do something cowardly. You just don’t know at any moment how you’re going to act.”
Courage was born out of another series Duncan had a part in Medal of Honor: True Stories of America's Greatest War Heroes. While researching this fact based series and interviewing vetrans, Duncan learned that it wasn't uncommon for two witnesses to the same event to have completely different memories of what happened. Duncan said, “They’re just regular guys who did an extraordinary thing one day.”
MoPic was released on VHS in the early 1990s but has so far never been released on DVD other than in Europe. Which is a shame. MoPic is an amazing film that deserves to be seen by modern audiences, if only to better understand all of the Vietnam war movies of the same time period in context with one and other. Courage Under Fire and many episodes of Vietnam War Story are available for purchase on DVD. Most of 84 Charlie MoPic is available for viewing on YouTube.
Visit the Fort Wayne Reader Web site to learn just what Duncan thought of the other Vietnam war movies of the 1970s and 80s.