Film director Ted Post must feel a little bit like the people who designed the Studebaker Hawks back in the 1950s. The Hawks were compacts--smart-looking and economical--at a time when Detroit was turning out chrome-plated barges.
But the Hawk was not a big hit, and Studebaker eventually went out of business.
In 1978, Post directed a brilliant, honest and emotionally wrenching movie about the Vietnam War. It was also smart and economical, at a time when Hollywood was turning out laser-bathed space spectaculars. But there wasn't an audience for his work, either.
The rights to the movie, "Go Tell the Spartans," got divvied up and the film went through the digestive track of the ancillary market. Vestron released it on videotape. HBO aired it a few times. It has popped up occasionally in revival theaters.
As the success of "Platoon" seems to prove, "Go Tell the Spartans" was made about 10 years before American audiences were willing to look at it. It is
hard to resurrect a released movie, but if the attempt was ever worthwhile, this may be the time.
"If that was a new picture, it would do business now, there's no question about it," said Bob Rehme, who was chairman of Avco Embassy Pictures when that small studio released "Go Tell the Spartans." "You couldn't reissue it, but it is a terrific movie and I think people now would want to see it."
Post, whose long career includes stage, television and film, admits the success of "Platoon" has given him a touch of delayed stress syndrome himself. He says it was a horrible experience having his film rejected in 1978, but "Platoon" has prompted many critics to recall that there was this "other Vietnam War movie" that made some of the same points--and, in some ways, made them better.
The attention gives the 61-year-old Post ambivalent feelings. "Platoon's" success would not appear to have anything to hold for his film. But maybe it does. Post says he has been approached by someone who wants to buy the theatrical rights to it--De Laurentiis Entertainment Group apparently inherited them when it bought Embassy Pictures--and attempt to reissue it.
"I've got everything crossed, hoping," Post says. "Obviously, I want people to see my movie. The points we made in 1978 are just as valid today."
"Go Tell the Spartans," based on a novel titled "Incident at Muc Wa," is set in 1964. Washington was then in preproduction of the Vietnam War; the American commitment then amounted to 12,000 military "advisers."
"Spartans" focused on one group of advisers and the squad of South Vietnamese soldiers they were supposedly advising. The group was led by Maj. Barker (Burt Lancaster), a veteran of World War II and Korea, and the mission that forms its dramatic center was as inexplicable and horrifying as those in Oliver Stone's "Platoon."
There is less action and more characterizing in "Spartans," but there are striking similarities between the two films. Both films deliver their message through the browning of a green recruit. Both have mini My Lai episodes. Both convey the hollowness of the cause and the arbitrary nature of combat death.
So how do you feel when your good movie got lost and the next guy's is a smash hit?
"I got very depressed (after 'Platoon' opened)," Post said. "I think 'Platoon' is a good movie and I think it's important that it breaks through some of the attitudes (about these kinds of films) in Hollywood. But for me, it brings up a lot of bad things."
All directors hope for that one breakthrough film that will move them to the A list and put the town's best scripts on their desk. "Spartans," made on a budget so low they couldn't even afford shoestrings, had the potential of being that movie for Post. It got rave reviews in most parts of the country, but the reviews didn't get people into theaters.
Post blames Avco Embassy for badly marketing the film. He says it was promoted as a straight war movie, rather than an issues movie, and he thinks the company gave up on it too soon.
Rehme, now chairman and chief executive officer of New World Pictures, says everyone at Avco loved the movie and that they sold it the best they could. But there was just no audience for that subject at that time.
"Not every picture does business," Rehme said. "'That was a good movie and it should have done better. But for whatever reason, it was not commercial."
The making of "Go Tell the Spartans" might make a good subject for a movie itself. Post first got involved with the project in 1972, when William Holden wanted to play the Maj. Barker role. The script was shopped around then with a price tag of about $7 million, Post said, but no one was interested.
America was embarrassed and polarized about the Vietnam War, and Hollywood, which knows how to exploit everything but social conflict, wanted nothing to do with it.
Finally, Post agreed to direct a cheesy, $600,000 chopsockey movie starring karate champion Chuck Norris if the film's producers would agree to piggyback "Go Tell the Spartans." The original budget was $1.5 million, but as the preproduction period shrank, so did the budget.
"The night before we were to start shooting, they (the producers) told me they were cutting nine days off the schedule to save money," Post said. "We only had a 40-day schedule to begin with."
"Go Tell the Spartans" was shot on schedule in 31 days, on location in exotic Valencia--in a few acres of hills, thicket and wash right behind Magic Mountain. Most of the scenes had to be set up to keep Magic Mountain's roller coaster out of the frame.
"I was spinning on a dime," Post said. "We changed camera angles, even lenses, to make it look like we were in different places."
Post said that if he had had a reasonable budget, he would have filmed in the Philippines, as Oliver Stone did, or in Vietnam, if the country would have allowed a crew in. But anyone who has seen "Go Tell the Spartans," either in theaters or on videotape, would hardly fault the film for its physical authenticity.
"Spartans" and "Platoon," the best Vietnam movies and the only ones to deal directly with the fighting of the war, are remarkable testimonials to the skills and passions of their makers. "Platoon" was made for a relatively paltry $6 million, "Spartans" for just under $1 million.
What a business. While serious film makers were having trouble getting pitch sessions for their Vietnam scripts, one major studio--United Artists--was busy self-destructing by spending more than $40 million on "Heaven's Gate," a grossly exaggerated account of an obscure 19th-Century range war.
It would be nice if someone did reissue "Go Tell the Spartans" and it made Ted Post a rich man. He deserves it. But you would probably get better odds betting on the comeback of the Studebaker Hawk.