Back in 1986, I got to work as an extra in the film “The Hanoi Hilton.” Spending an entire day on a movie set is a great way to see how Hollywood filmmaking really works. I played an extra (a Vietnamese prison guard) but amazingly, every scene that I saw filmed that day was cut from the final version that was released in the theaters. Still, being an extra gives you a birds-eye view of filmmaking since extras are basically walking scenery and spend most of their time sitting around, waiting for something to happen.
In the theaters, “The Hanoi Hilton” bombed. After seeing the final movie after being on the set for a day, I think I know why the film flopped.
First, the film was based on actual events that happened to American prisoners of war in the Vietnamese prison camp dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. Unfortunately, just because something is true doesn’t mean that the actual events will make for a compelling story, and that’s exactly what happened with “The Hanoi Hilton.”
From an accuracy point of view, the movie did a great job cramming every bit of true trivia into the film, but from a story telling perspective, there’s no rhyme or reason why these various actual events pop up and disappear for no reason. During the actual Vietnam war, American prisoners would often lie to their Vietnamese captors and give out phony military information, such as claiming that their fighter planes used the Norden bombsight, which was actually used in World War Two.
In real life, it’s a funny story that the Vietnamese thought they were getting military intelligence when the Americans were just lying to them, but in the film, this bit of trivial seems pointless. Unless you know that the Norden bombsight was only used in World War Two, this information is meaningless. Even worse, the fact that the Americans are lying to the Vietnamese has no impact on the rest of the story. It’s just a scene meant to portray an actual event, and then it’s gone with no reference to it ever again.
Another actual event portrayed in the film was a sailor who fell off an aircraft carrier and was found floating off the coast of Vietnam. The Vietnamese captors considered this sailor to be an idiot and they treated him that way. By playing dumb, this sailor could actually help deliver messages to the other prisoners of war since the Vietnamese gave this captured sailor more freedom than they granted the other prisoners.
Once again, the film barely mentions this event and when it does, it’s on the screen for a few minutes and then disappears with no reference to it ever again. From a story telling perspective, the movie just parades one actual event after another without telling an actual story. It’s no wonder the film sucked so badly.
Perhaps the most glaring problem is the hero. In every story, your hero is the character who struggles the most to achieve a goal. In “The Hanoi Hilton,” the hero is the first American pilot captured during the Vietnam War and he spends the entire movie just watching a parade of other Americans arrive in the prison camp. Then he waits for the war to end so he can go home.
Sound exciting? Imagine if Luke in “Star Wars” just sat around his uncle’s farm, wishing something exciting would happen. Imagine if in “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone just sat at home, wishing he could fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, but never actually do so. Sound boring? You bet, and that’s what makes “The Hanoi Hilton” such a dull and boring movie.
The two lessons are simple. First, just because your story is based on actual events doesn’t relieve you from the task of telling an interesting story. Remember, the story always comes first and the truth often comes second. That’s why movies like “A Beautiful Mind” can play with the facts to tell a more compelling story.
Second, your hero must be proactive with a clear goal that’s just out of reach. Then your hero must constantly struggle and fight to get that goal. Just sitting around waiting makes for a passive and dull character, and that makes a dull and boring movie.
Tell a decent story and tell the truth as much as possible, but given a choice between dry facts or fascinating story telling, pick the story telling over facts every time. Your audience will thank you for telling a story rather than reciting an encyclopedia of facts.