Ride the Thunder – Telling Some Essential Truth About the Vietnam War

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On May 29, 2015 I attended a showing of this excellent film in Houston, Texas. I say excellent because the combination of story telling, cinematography and the cuts from flash forwards to flash backs and the personal details that were included provided for as good a docu-drama as was possible under the circumstances. Producer Richard Botkin did a remarkable job and appears to have done it by walking a fine line in the production effort. He is to be commended for doing so, but at the same time, the film’s weaknesses need to be addressed.

The story centers in two officers, one American and one Vietnamese; both real people.   The American, Captain John Ripley, USMC, was assisting the Vietnamese soldiers led by Major Le Ba Binh, who were blocking the North Vietnam Army on its way to Saigon. The two have been working together for some time and have an obvious bond, referring to each other as Brother, and sharing a desire to fight the war to win, rather than simply defending as best they can against the attacks designed to wear them out. After the war ended Ripley returns home where he has to struggle with anti-military sentiment and the beliefs of some that he had been fighting for a corrupt government or for big money interests. He tries to take the truth to the public with mixed results.

Meanwhile, Le, is imprisoned in a “re-education camp,” is tortured, and forced to work under primitive conditions with little food. The prisoners are also subject to communist indoctrination on a continual basis. He does not know what has happened to his family, or whether he will survive the camp, but he intends to do so in order to return to his beloved wife, who eventually finds out where he is and visits him for a short time.

What struck this writer was a certain similarity to Schindler’s List, in the imprisonment of people for loyalty to their country and/or for political beliefs. But Ride the Thunder lacks the same impact. Likely, this is because the production company lacked the Hollywood, big studio budget to achieve the same effect. In this, I was disappointed as the film could have hit harder on the true nature of the experience of Vietnam under the Hanoi government. The focus was on the prison camp experience and not on the totality of the circumstances for the conquered people.

In a similar vein, it is possible, even likely that the producers were attempting to avoid the look of a propaganda film by keeping the impact of the film less than it might otherwise have been. This is unfortunate, but it fits with the fact that too many people might be unwilling to believe the truth, having been fed inaccuracies for so long.

The most important thing I have learned from my association with the Vietnamese immigrants to America is that there was and remains a tremendous lack of understanding of their desire to fight back against Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and that even if the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem was imperfect, it was better than the alternative. He was, at the fundamental level, a patriot, which was what most of the nation desired.

The American people have been exposed to the evils of Nazism in the wake of World War II to, perhaps irrevocably, brand that name as “evil.”   But Communists, and particularly North Vietnamese Communists are less well understood despite that they were just as evil and used similar methods. It would have been most useful if the film had been able to concentrate more heavily on the experiences of the South Vietnamese people in general, capturing the essence of how they were treated, in addition to those who were imprisoned and tortured, which was mentioned, but not powerfully enough, in my opinion. In addition, providing an understanding of “why we are willing to fight” would have made a significant difference.

Portions of the film contained interview sequences with American Veterans who served with Ripley and who could shed light on the experiences of Major Le in the prison camp. These and other sequences were juxtaposed with contemporaneous interviews or other video footage of such individuals and Jane Fonda and John Kerry, essentially selling out the Vietnamese people; presenting themselves as “experts” in the situation, while having essentially zero knowledge and experience of the truth. Particularly in Fonda’s case, having been presented with a Potemkin village, she asserted that American prisoners were very well treated when they actually were not, and to this day there are people who still believe her.

The film ends on a happy note as the Ripley and Le, who was released after 11 years in prison for serving his country, reunited in Westminster, California at the Vietnam War Memorial. It was a fitting end, but again, lacking in the impact I would have liked.

Despite this film’s shortcomings, it is still a valuable resource and should be seen by the present generation of Americans so that they can perceive a portion of the truth, and be prepared for the rest, should it be available to them. There has been too much fiction about Vietnam and too little accurate information in popular media. The public has been conditioned to believe that the big, bad, USA was beaten by a small country that was intent on resisting “imperialism” when the northern imperialists actually won, and are now handing the country over to other imperialists; the Chinese.

Blaming America has become a major pastime of many in the public light. Films such as Ride The Thunder can be important tools in turning the tide. But they will need to have more force and a greater scope to be as effective as is needed. It is hoped that people such as Richard Botkin have the ability and backing to expand on the theme and make the full story available to audiences throughout the United States.

Ride the Thunder has an official web site and is based on a book by Richard Botkin, available from Amazon.com. It is available on a limited engagement basis and the web site has contact information to request a showing.  An additional book on the life of Col. John Ripley, An American Knight, is also available from Amazon.

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