Go Tell the Spartans

For the story by Jerry Pournelle, see The Prince (Pournelle).
Go Tell the Spartans

theatrical poster
Directed by Ted Post
Produced by Allan F. Bodoh
Mitchell Cannold
Written by Wendell Mayes
Daniel Ford
Starring Burt Lancaster
Craig Wasson
Marc Singer
Music by Dick Halligan
Cinematography Harry Stradling, Jr.
Edited by Millie Moore
Distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures (USA), Astral Films (Canada) United Artists (Germany & Japan), HBO (2005, DVD)
Release dates
  • June 14, 1978 (1978-06-14)
Running time
114 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.5 million

Go Tell the Spartans is a 1978 American war film directed by Ted Post, starring Burt Lancaster, and based on Daniel Ford's 1967 novel Incident at Muc Wa,[1] about U.S. Army military advisors during the early part of the Vietnam War in 1964, a time when Ford was a correspondent in Vietnam for The Nation.

The story was inspired by a futile special forces operation in 1964 at Tan Hoa in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, an objective that turned out to an abandoned settlement containing only a field, an abandoned airstrip and three or four French gravestones.[2] The graves inspired the film's title, taken from Simonides's epitaph to the three hundred soldiers who died fighting Persian invaders at Thermopylae, Greece: "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

The choice of film's name thus constitutes a deliberate "spoiler" by the film makers, telling anyone familiar with the source of the quote that the film's soldier characters - like the Spartans at Thermopylae - had been sent to their deaths.

Plot summary

Major Asa Barker (Burt Lancaster) has been given this command: a poorly-manned outpost over seeing three villages named Boo Jum, Mung Tau & Hat Song and he is ordered to re-occupy a nearby, deserted hamlet named Muc Wa in rural South Vietnam somewhere near the rural Da Nang to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) highway that a decade earlier had been the scene of a massacre of French soldiers during the First Indochina War. Barker is a weary infantry veteran in his third war (he served in the Pacific during World War II as well as in the Korean War), who provides veteran supervision to a cadre of advisors attached to a group of South Vietnamese who are ordered to garrison the deserted hamlet of Muc Wa.[3]

Major Barker and his executive officer, the career-orientated Captain Olivetti receive four replacements. Second Lieutenant Hamilton has been passed over for promotion and sees volunteering for Vietnam is a way to obtain a promotion to remain in the Army. First Sergeant Oleozewski served in the Korean War under Major Barker and is burnt out from three tours in Vietnam; his last assignment saw his previous unit massacred. Cpl Abraham Lincoln is a combat medic and a drug addict. The mystery to Major Barker is the fourth man, the draftee Cpl. Courcey, a demolitions expert who extended his enlistment by six months to serve in Vietnam. Major Barker sends his four new men plus Cpl. Ackley, a communications expert to garrison Muc Wa with a half French half Vietnamese interpreter/interrogation specialist called Cowboy, a hardcore squad of Nung mercenaries and a motley mob of about 20 South Vietnamese Popular Force civilian "troops" armed with shotguns and old rifles with a sprinkling of machine guns attempt to create a defensible outpost at Muc Wa.

On their way to Muc Wa along a dirt road, the column encounter a bobby-trapped roadblock. They capture the lone Viet Cong soldier manning the roadblock who is beheaded by the overly enthusiastic Cowboy. On reaching the hamlet, Hamilton follows Oleozewski's advice to set up his defenses in a triangular formation and the unit receives supplies brought in by helicopter. At the rear of the hamlet is a graveyard of 302 French soldiers, massacred in a VC attack ten years earlier immortalized with a placard above the entrance that reads, in French, "Étrangers, dites aux Spartiates que nous demeurons ici par obéissance à leurs lois" ('Foreigners, tell the Spartans that we remain here, in obedience to their laws"), which refers to the Battle of Thermopylae. While he is investigating it, Courcey spots a one-eyed VC soldier, who is presumably a scout.

During a patrol, Courcey spots a group of nine Vietnamese women and children fishing along the small river that runs through the deserted Muc Wa village, despite intelligence that there are no civilians said to live in the area.

That evening, the VC attack Muc Wa with a harassing attack where the doped up Lincoln is wounded. Courcey leads an ambush patrol that kills the four Viet Cong mortar crew which included one of the women found by the river.

The next morning, Barker travels to Saigon to meet with Colonel Minh, the military chief of the region where he tries to persuade him to send reinforcements of at least 300 ARVN troops to Muc Wa. But the corrupt Minh refuses for he claims that he needs the troops to stay in Saigon to prevent a potential coup that may happen. After some reassurance and finagling of Colonel Minh the Vietnamese Colonel informs, Baker that the requested troops will be released in exchange for 1,500 155mm howitzer shells.

That evening the outpost is attacked. A patrol from the outpost led by Sgt 0leonozski returns to safety but leaves a badly wounded man behind. Ignoring 0leonozski's warnings, Lt. Hamilton tries to rescue the man but is killed. The next day, Sgt 0leonozski commits suicide rather than face the pressure of command. When Barker is informed of the deaths, he wants to pull his troops out now that they lack an experienced leader, but this request is refused by Gen. Harnitz, forcing Barker to send his own deputy to Muc Wa.

That night, the outpost is attacked again by massive numbers of Viet Cong who number in the many hundreds, not the few dozen predicted by high command, and they are all well armed with various automatic weapons, as opposed to outdated rifles. Barker is forced to threaten Harnitz over the radio to send air support for Muc Wa in which several helicopters and flare ships arrive just in time to stop the Viet Cong attack.

The following morning, Barker receives orders from Harnitz to withdraw all of the American troops from Muc Wa, which is believed to be soon besieged by the 1,000-strong 507th Viet Cong battalion. Barker personally flies out to Muc Wa to evacuate the surviving Americans as well as the wounded by helicopter, but leaving behind the South Vietnamese troops, and due to mechanical issues with the helicopter, the walking wounded. The idealistic Courcey refuses to leave the wounded, so Barker decides to stays behind to help evacuate the remaining South Vietnamese troops and militiamen overland to safety. This leaves Barker, Courcey, Cowboy, the Old Man and his fellow South Vietnamese militiamen alone at Muc Wa.

The Vietnamese civilians that Courcey found and brought into the base camp steal several weapons and try to escape, forcing Cowboy to kill all of them. But the Vietnamese teenage girl gets away and informs the Viet Cong scouts of the Americans plans to withdraw thus revealing that she and all of the other civilians were in fact Viet Cong supporters (as Cowboy predicted) after all.

That evening, Barker and Courcey are forced to destroy all of the arms and equipment left behind and then leads the group on the road departing the village, as friendly artillery fire begins raining down on the area. But no sooner has the group filed out, they are ambushed and surrounded by the Viet Cong, led by the civilian girl. Courcey is wounded but taken to shelter and hidden by an elderly militiaman.

After the final battle, the only survivor is ironically the willing volunteer, Courcey, whose idealism and enthusiasm for the Vietnam War has now been killed along with all his comrades. He wakes up in the morning to find that everyone else is dead and the soldiers, including Barker, are stripped of their fatigues. The VC have withdrawn. As Courcey wanders to the French grave site, he finds an enemy survivor: the wounded, one-eyed VC scout that he saw earlier. The VC points his rifle at Courcey before dropping it out of exhaustion. Courcey says to the one-eyed VC, "I'm going home, Charlie, if they'll let me" as he wanders off the grave site and onto the dirt road leading away from the ruins of the village. The film closes with the title card which reads '1964'.



The screenplay by Wendell Mayes was shopped around for years with various older leading men such as Robert Mitchum, William Holden and Paul Newman offered the role of Major Asa Barker.[4] Unlike the elite US Army Special Forces of Ford's original novel who he called the "US Army Raiders", Mayes' screenplay of Military Assistance Advisory Group military advisors comprised a collection of misfits with the project turned down by Paramount and 20th Century Fox.[5]

A female reporter character of the novel was removed from the screenplay.

In 1977 the producers sought assistance from the United States Army who responded that assistance would only be forthcoming if modifications to the script and characters were made. The Army response stated that Army advisors to Vietnam in 1964 were "virtually all outstanding individuals, hand picked for their jobs, and quite experienced...in presenting an offhand collection of losers it is totally unrealistic of the Army in Vietnam in that period".[6]

Director Ted Post persuaded Avco Embassy Pictures to produce the film on a limited budget with the film shot in Valencia, California.[7] He sent the script to a friend of Burt Lancaster, then 65 years old, who was recuperating from a knee injury his Maj. Barker limps throughout the film.[8] Calling the script brilliant, Lancaster agreed to star in it and when the 31-day production budget ran short, he paid $150,000 to complete it. The younger actors cast were Marc Singer as infantry Captain Al Olivetti, a gung-ho career officer seeking to earn the Combat Infantryman Badge and Craig Wasson as Corporal Courcey, the idealistic college-educated draftee who wants to see what a real war is like.[9]

Release and reception

Go Tell the Spartans was released in the United States on June 14, 1978. It was re-released on September 7, 1987, and came out on video (VHS cassette) in the United States on May 13, 1992. It was released to DVD by HBO Home Video on August 30, 2005[10] and on Limited Edition Blu-Ray by Scorpion Releasing in June 2016.[11]

Though the film had a limited release in the United States, critics, especially those opposed to the Vietnam War, praised it: "In sure, swift strokes," wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the Saturday Review, "it shows the irrelevance of the American presence in Vietnam, the corruption wrought by that irrelevance, and the fortuity, cruelty, and waste of an irrelevant war." Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic found it "the best film I've seen about the Vietnam War." More broadly, Roger Grooms in the Cincinnati Enquirer judged it to be "one of the noblest films, ever, about men in crisis."

Over time, the previously overlooked film became an anti-war classic. At one of its revivals, it was described as:

A cult fave — and deservedly so — Go Tell the Spartans was hard-headed and brutally realistic about our dead-end presence in Vietnam; released the same year as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, the film won critical admiration, but audiences preferred individualised sagas, sentiment, and romantic melodrama. Rather than tackle the effects of the war on physically and emotionally wounded vets, this brave film exposed the fundamental, tactical lunacy of the war as perceived by an American officer (Burt Lancaster) who knows better, but must follow through on stupid, self-destructive orders from above. This is one of Lancaster's best performances: embittered, a cog in the military juggernaut, this good man foresees the killing waste to come.[12]

In 1979, Wendell Mayes' screenplay was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium (Screen)".[13]


  1. Daniel Ford, Incident at Muc Wa (Doubleday, 1967) ISBN 0-595-08927-5
  2. Daniel Ford on the novel and film
  3. "Moc Hoa" was a real Special Forces base in the Plain of Reeds, southern Vietnam. The name is pronounced "muc-hwa", but spelled "Moc Hoa".
  4. http://www.warbirdforum.com/movie.htm
  5. http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft138nb0zm&chunk.id=d0e13271&toc.id=&brand=ucpress
  6. pp.247-348 Suid, Lawrence H. Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film University Press of Kentucky, 2002
  7. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-04-06/entertainment/ca-55_1_vietnam-war-movie
  8. This is the second film where Lancaster was bedeviled by knee troubles. In John Frankenheimer's The Train, Lancaster injured himself playing golf on a day off from filming. A scene showing Lancaster getting shot was inserted to explain his limp.
  9. Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster (Da Capo Press, 2000) ISBN 0-306-81019-0
  10. TCM Misc notes
  11. SAE
  12. Program notes at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, May 2000
  13. IMDB Awards

External links

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