Message Accompanies 'Letters' Win : Emmys Recognize HBO's Foresight on War Documentary

Bill Couturie was all set to go to the Emmy Awards ceremony and bite his fingernails and fidget in his seat like the other nominees when his agent called last Wednesday and told him he'd have to clear a place on his mantle for not one but two golden statuettes.

Writer-producer Couturie, whose HBO documentary "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," won for best informational program and for outstanding writing in informational programming, was among the several winners unexpectedly announced last week by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in the first phase of its Emmy presentations.

But losing the "and-the-winner-is" element of surprise did not diminish the thrill of winning the first two prime-time Emmys ever awarded to a cable television program.

"I was shocked," Couturie said. "HBO is the only place in the world that would have financed this film. Thank God, the academy recognized that. HBO deserves recognition for having the nerve and foresight to do something out of the ordinary, to step up to the line and put up more than a million bucks for a crazy idea."

Couturie's "crazy idea" was to tell the story of the Vietnam War through the words of the young men who fought it. The result was a brutal and movingly honest account that relied on newsreel combat footage and letters written home to mothers, girlfriends and other loved ones to document the experiences of the more than 3 million Americans who were shipped off to fight in Southeast Asia.

When HBO first approached him with a proposal to make "a positive film about Vietnam that painted the vets as human beings rather than as baby killers," Couturie said he was skeptical. "I didn't want to do a movie about war heroes," he remembered. "It just sounded like a documentary 'Rambo.' "

But HBO kept asking him to come up with some kind of Vietnam idea, Couturie said, and when his co-writer, Richard Dewhurst, who shared the individual achievement Emmy, showed him a book of letters from the war zone collected by the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, the "proverbial light bulb" suddenly clicked on inside Couturie's head.

"I'd been talking to veterans and they always said how out of it they felt over there--like they were on Mars," Couturie said. "And to try to feel connected, they only had two things: Letters they would write and receive from home and the music on the radio. So I thought, why don't we tell the story of Vietnam through letters and music?"

Couturie secured the rights to the letters by offering all of the profits from the film to the Veterans Memorial Commission.

Bird and Couturie then asked a cast of Hollywood luminaries--including Robert De Niro, Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, Kathleen Turner, Eric Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Sean Penn and Robin Williams (all of whom worked for free)--to read the letters. Approximately one-third of the letters used in the film were read by Vietnam veterans.

Couturie synchronized their words and the music to newsreel footage from the NBC News library and some 8-millimeter home movie footage that a few veterans had saved from their duty in Vietnam. Couturie said he picked through more than 2 million feet of film to make his 85-minute documentary.

"It feels like I'm at the bottom of a great sewer," one soldier wrote. "You kill because that little S.O.B. wants to kill you," another penned, describing combat. "You're more scared than you've ever been . . . desperately wanting to live, to go home, to get drunk and walk down the street on a date again."

And another wrote to depict the war's futility: "I doubt if I'll come out of this alive. In my original squad, I'm the only one left alive." The film reports that shortly after mailing that letter, this young soldier became one of the 58,132 Americans who died in Vietnam.

"I did this in part to work out my own guilt about the war," said Couturie, 38, who was a USC film student with a college deferment during the war and describes himself as a classic well-to-do, long-haired, anti-war protester.

"But I differed from many of my (anti-war) peers in that I never felt the guys who had to go fight the war were the bad guys. I never felt that they should have been made scapegoats. I hated it when people would spit at them when they returned from Vietnam.

"I always felt like I skated. Like I got away with something. So in a sense this film was my way of trying to give something back. And it was a lot less dangerous than dodging bullets."

"Dear America" could not have been made five years ago, Couturie said, when most veterans would hardly talk about their war experiences. The pain of having a buddy die in your arms sticks with you forever, Couturie believes, and the healing process for the nation and for the men who actually saw combat is a long, trying and slow one. He said the fact that the film could even be made and the success and impact it has had this year is simply an outgrowth of that healing process.

But while Couturie wanted the film to honor the veterans--to tell their story from the point of view of the 19-year-old universal soldier--his real mission was to say something to their children and all the 19-year-olds who will be asked to man the foxholes if ever the United States goes to war again.

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