The debate is heating up already over "Hanoi Hilton," writer-director Lionel Chetwynd's controversial, Vietnam-era account of American POWs in Hanoi's Hoa Lo Prison. It opened Friday and so far critics are split--Judith Crist liked it, while Daily Variety blasted it as "lame" and "propaganda pure and simple," full of "right-wing potshots that do a disservice to the very human drama of the subject."

But what probably will have moviegoers buzzing is the portrayal of a Jane Fonda-type peace activist who visits the prisoners and offers sympathy for the North Vietnamese cause. Cannon Films seems eager to spotlight the Fonda connection--its publicity wing has offered interviews with POWs who spoke with Fonda after they returned. They also have made available selected '70s-era newspaper clips, in which lawmakers and government officials denounced Fonda for aiding the enemy.

Chetwynd downplayed the Fonda angle, though he insisted that anti-war activists who went to Hanoi were "duped" by the North Vietnamese: "I'm not out to get Jane Fonda. The woman in the film is a composite character. Lots of people went through Hanoi. . . . The reason a lot of attention has focused on Fonda is because she never withdrew her allegations that there was never any systematic torture in North Vietnam. . . .

"If we had wanted to criticize Fonda, it wouldn't have been hard to do. She sat in a gun site, she broadcast messages to these guys and she went home and called them liars and hypocrites. And we didn't show any of that. In fact, if the POWs have any criticism of the film, it's that I didn't go after Fonda."

Chetwynd said he wrote the script in 1978 but repeatedly encountered resistance from Hollywood execs leery of the peace activist sequences.

"It was quite clear those scenes caused problems," he said. "They'd say, 'Let's stay away from the war-at-home angle' or 'We don't want any trouble with the Hollywood community.' But I think this movie has something important to say. My defense is: If you don't believe what you see, just ask the POWs."

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