August 16, 2023

GO TELL THE SPARTANS: The Vietnam War on a Budget

1978 / 114 min
Available at
Review by Mr. Paws😺

When you release your small but earnest Vietnam War picture amidst the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, of course it's gonna be overshadowed and largely forgotten. A shame, really, because while Go Tell the Spartans isn't in the same league as those towering classics (released roughly within the same year), it’s an efficiently directed and well-written condemnation of American involvement in that particular war.

It stars Burt Lancaster, who gave a lot of undervalued performances in the ‘70s (such as the woefully overlooked thriller, Twilight’s Last Gleaming). Not only did he like Go Tell the Spartans enough to help finance its completion, he was willing to appear in-the-buff (at the age of 65) in one key scene. And speaking of old butts, I suspect he had a friendly competition with pal Kirk Douglas to see who was willing to bare it all at the most advanced age. Kirk did it at 63 in Saturn 3, so Burt bests him here. Lucky us.

Anyway, Lancaster is excellent as weary and cynical Major Asa Barker, a veteran of both WWII and Korea who’s commanding a undermanned outpost during the Vietnam War in 1964. He’s ordered to send a small squad of soldiers and mercenaries to reoccupy a nearby deserted village where 300 French soldiers were slaughtered a decade earlier (during the Indochina War). Though he abhores with the decision, he follows orders. 

"Sounds like the neighbors are making up again."
After they’re attacked by the Vietcong, Barker wants to pull his team out, but his request is denied. When they’re attacked again, he’s finally given permission, but is ordered to leave South Vietnamese soldiers and rescued civilians behind, which doesn’t sit well with Barker or compassionate Corporal Courcey (Craig Wasson), who saved and befriended a local family. Meanwhile, over 1,000 Vietcong troops are about to descend on the village, far more than anyone was expecting (hence, the “Spartans” analogy).

After a slow start, Go Tell the Spartans tells a pretty compelling story that mostly looks and feels authentic (despite being shot in Southern California), with a few surprising narrative turns along the way. It also boasts interesting supporting characters, many who won’t make it until the end credits. My personal favorite is the severely burnt-out Sgt. Oleonowski, featuring a wonderfully angst-ridden performance by Johnathan Goldsmith (best-known today as “The Most Interesting Man in the World”).

Go Tell the Spartans isn’t as aesthetically stunning as Apocalypse Now or as emotionally harrowing as The Deer Hunter. It never had the financial resources or behind-the-camera talent for that. However, the film makes the most of its limited budget and legendary star to deliver an unpretentious anti-war message. Largely ignored back in the day, it's a minor gem worth discovering.

No comments: