I Was A Soldier(1970)
During Mike Grigsby and my first 'sound board' session for I Was A Soldier Mike suggested I fly to Chicago to find three or four 'typical' Vietnam verterans. Chicago, I presumed because Mike's Films leant themselves to big open skies. But Illinois didn't feel right to me.
It was autumn we’d be filming in the winter, when the short days and the freezing weather would keep us inside. Texas felt better. A secretary in Granada Television’s New York office had told me she had a brother in San Angelo who had recently returned from Vietnam. A warm contact is always good.
Her brother was at San Angelo Airport to greet me and drove us straight to a saloon where his mates were playing on the pool tables. My Dad was a teetotaler, so I didn’t drink much. They were drinking plenty. I made my ‘escape’ soon after ten o’clock, checked into my hotel and crashed out.
Around 5 am a loud banging on my bedroom door woke me. The brother’s mate had been arrested - drunk and disorderly. Could I bail him out? An hour or so later I bought the three of us an early hearty breakfast, washed down with a bucket of coffee.
The brother agreed to drive me to out of town in his VW Beetle. My ‘reserved Brit’ eyes widened as he opened the glove box to check his revolver was there and loaded: “We’re leaving the city limits,” he explained as if this was perfectly normal, which of course it is the the US.
That afternoon I had my London long hair cropped, rented car and set off on my own to recce small town America. At the end of an exhilarating week I phoned Mike to say I’d found what he wanted, two Vietnam vets in Menard, a tiny town in rural Texas, and a third on a ranch an hour’s drive away.
Here’s a précis of the British Film Institute’s summary of I Was A Soldier:
"Michael Grigsby's haunting Granada television documentary is perhaps the first sustained treatment on film of the phenomenon of the 'Vietnam veteran', later a familiar cultural archetype, and in particular a recurring character type in Hollywood feature films. The film includes no war footage, and is instead filled with gentle pastoral images of rural and small-town Texas, leaving the viewer to imagine what searing memories may remain stuck in the subjects' heads."
Forty years later Mike, who died in 2013, revisited the Vietnam vets in Menard Texas, to film a follow-up: We Went to War, “which has attracted wide praise for revealing the lifelong impact of post-traumatic stress.”
I hope to see a lot more follow-ups of long forgotten documentaries like I Was A Soldier.