The Vietnam War: A Book and a Film


"To be remembered is an honor, and the whole of my object."

Loring M. Bailey, Jr.

"Poignant, cutting, witty, humorous, trenchant, optimistic and devastatingly honest, Bailey chronicles the profound and the mundane as he struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of war."
Garry Dow, Pomfret School

"Bailey was a literary magician—a man who plucked the right words from thin air at exactly the right moment, often as a grunt in mud and rain. His sense of humor was enviable."
Henry Zeybel, Vietnam Veterans of America

"Loring M. Bailey, Jr. wrote prolifically throughout his experience of training and war. Ring found a passion in the written word. His letters represent the emergence of a new voice. A voice heard only briefly and from the most horrific of circumstances."
Chip Lamb

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My Father’s Vietnam may seem at first a modest film, a merely personal tale of the filmmaker’s father, a lost friend, and others who knew him. And yet, slowly but surely, it reveals itself as a compact prism of the continuing cultural presence of that chapter of the past we call the Vietnam war. Of course we’re all used to this sort of thing; Vietnam was being documented well before it was even over (Michael Rubbo’s Sad Song of Yellow Skin), and its shadow through dramatic films is perhaps the longest of any war, taking us from Kazan’s The Visitors (1972), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006); it’s become in some ways the quintessential American story. As a result, we have the false impression that it’s all too familiar, perhaps even played out. What, another Vietnam War documentary?

But familiarity can also be a way of forgetting, of papering-over the rough edges of pain and discomfort with layer after layer of representation. It’s the genius of this film that it peels back those layers, one at a time, until at last the armature of lived experience is revealed. Thus its emotional force creeps up gradually, through personal interviews with friends and family, slow snippets of 8mm footage, and montages of some the filmmaker’s father’s journalistic work and war photos. The structure is close enough to convention that, when the last layers begin to fray, we’re caught almost by surprise, and the memories of those interviewed seem, for a moment, almost our own.

The most potent moment of the film, strikingly, comes not from Peter Sorensen but Rik Carlson, Loring Bailey’s brother-in-law whom we first come to know as the long-haired anti-war counterpart to the straight-laced crew-cut kid. He’s a compelling figure for the camera, soft-spoken and direct, for whom the grief of the news of Loring’s death has never faded. His recollection of the day the news was delivered is still vivid, still painful: “You see it in movies, you know, the olive green sedan with the dress uniforms that drives up to the house – and there was the olive green sedan in front of my mother’s house, and my sister was there … and the army men were there … and their shoes were so fuckin’ shiny.” Rik remembers how, “when they were leaving, I said to them, in my anger, I said it’s too bad he was fighting on the wrong side.” It’s a potent moment, and becomes even more so when, near the film’s conclusion, we learn that Rik’s son is now a Marine, of whom he’s enormously proud; in that moment, a new dimension of the man, and the film as well, leaps out of the screen and directly into the audience’s soul.

Ring Bailey, who is both the film’s reason for being and its most elusive subject, remains at that distance given all men killed in combat; his documentary next-of-kin might just as well be the soldiers whose letters are read in Ken Burns’s “Civil War.” But it’s the mark he made on those he loved, and who loved him, that endures, bringing memories and those who carry them back for one more go, one more grasp toward closure of a wound that will never be healed.

All great films about the past, whether dramas or documentaries, are always really about the present, and the future as well. There are things that cannot be undone, the dead who live on only in memory and mementos, in faded Kodachromes and toy cars; there are those who remain, aging as we all must, testifying to how these days shaped their lives, and there are those things that are yet to come, whose potential is yet unknown. It’s not mentioned in the film, which opens and closes with an image of the filmmaker’s ancestor, Soren Peter Sorensen I, in his Danish military uniform, but it’s not a name that will be given again; the son of this Sorensen’s name is Ring.

Russell A. Potter is the author of several books including FINDING FRANKLIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF A 165-YEAR SEARCH, and a contributor to FILMS ON ICE: CINEMAS OF THE ARCTIC.

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