(director: Winterfilm Collective; cast: John Kerry; Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Winterfilm Collective; New Yorker Films/Milestone Films; 1972)


Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A long forgotten documentary (really a document) that was rarely seen (since its 1972 Cannes premiere it played only at NYC’s Whitney Museum and on public TV). It’s sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and is made by the anonymous Winterfilm Collective (shot Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1971). It has received attention recently due to some of Bush’s ultra-conservative supporters effort to discredit John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. Kerry, a 28-year-old at the time, is briefly shown early on as one of the more than 125 honorably discharged Vietnam vets who gathered at a Howard Johnson hotel in Detroit, a month after My Lai, to give testimony to the atrocities they had committed or witnessed in their Vietnam duty and show that My Lai wasn’t an isolated incident. One soldier tells us “We were never instructed in the Geneva conventions,” another that the last lesson in training was the marine demonstrator gutting a rabbit, a few soldiers tell of villages burned, women raped and disemboweled and of children mutilated for no reason except sadism, while another soldier tells of some 50 live prisoners thrown out of his helicopter. The film makes it clear that there was not much to be proud of in this unnecessary war, where the American soldiers were expected to act as barbarians and no one in top leadership positions told them that their brutality was wrong–they were just interested in getting a high body count.

Eighteen filmmakers, including the then unknown Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA”), filmed the event but kept their names secret for fear of retaliation by those who don’t want the truth about the war revealed. It was shot in a grainy black-and-white footage; it includes interviews with the now mostly longhaired and bearded soldiers, newsreel clips and still photos.

It became known as “The Winter Soldier Investigation,” an afterthought to Thomas Paine’s American Revolutionary statement: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summertime soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Winter Soldier is essential viewing and should be required viewing in schools that allow military recruiters; it’s one of the screen’s most literate antiwar tracts, and arrives at a time of another bad war and where the media is ineffective in stopping it. Its eyewitness frontline horror story is an unsettling reminder of how little is learned from history: “The more things change,” the more they remain the same.”

Winter Soldier Poster