The ceremony was always emotional on his farm in upstate New York, where the names of fallen Vietnam War photographers were carved into a stone monument. Eddie Adams had known all of them, and every October he would raise a champagne glass with more than 100 colleagues and students to remember the sacrifices and pictures that once brought the war home to Americans.
Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for taking one of the most notorious photographs of the war, capturing the horrific moment when a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel executed a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in 1968. Adams reportedly was haunted by it for the rest of his life, never comfortable with how the photo affected public opinion of the South Vietnamese and the American war effort. He was also troubled by peoples’ perceptions of the man who pulled the trigger, Vietnam’s national police chief, Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan.
“Two men died that day,” Adams would sometimes say of the photograph. “The Viet Cong and Col. Loan, who shot him.”
The story of that picture and Adams’ long career is the focus of the documentary “An Unlikely Weapon,” directed by Susan Morgan Cooper and screening through Thursday at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks as part of DocuWeek’s 12th annual festival for theatrical documentaries in Los Angeles and New York.
A life in pictures
“An Unlikely Weapon” closely examines the life of Adams, who died in 2004 at age 71, having covered 13 wars, working for the Associated Press, Time and Parade, while enjoying private portrait sessions with such leaders and luminaries as Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II. He photographed the iconic image of Clint Eastwood in 1992 for his “Unforgiven” movie poster and in the ‘70s shot nude pictorials for Penthouse.
But the documentary returns over and again to the scene of his Saigon execution picture, often credited with helping turn American public opinion against the war. Eastwood told Adams that director Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” had been directly inspired by it. While he knew the photograph had made his reputation, Adams sometimes spoke of it with regret. In the documentary, Adams, a former Marine himself, says: “I don’t want to destroy anybody’s life. That’s not my job.”
What follows in the film is an exploration of the power of a single photograph, and the surprising connections between photographer and subject that can linger for years after.
“What really fascinated me was that the photograph that defined him, that won him the Pulitzer and made him famous, was the photograph that really plagued him,” says Cooper, who produced the film with Cindy Lou Adkins. “He felt that in taking that photograph, he had vilified a decent man.”
One of his closest friends was the photographer Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer in 1973 for another shocking image: that of a young Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming toward the camera after being burned in a U.S. napalm bombing. There was TV news footage of both nightmare scenes, but it was the still photographs by Adams and Ut that fully captured the horror of that war for the front pages of newspapers around the world.
“He would always say, ‘Nicky, you and me, our pictures stopped the war,’ ” says Ut, still an AP photographer, now based in Los Angeles. Ut’s older brother, Huynh Thanh My, was also a photographer and was killed in Vietnam.
David Hume Kennerly, another Pulitzer winner in 1972 for his Vietnam images, compares those pictures to Joe Rosenthal’s heroic World War II document of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.
“Those are the three most important war pictures ever taken,” says Kennerly, who has prints of all of them hanging on what his wife calls the “wall of death.”
Kennerly was later President Ford’s official White House photographer and appears in the documentary. “Those are seared into the mind of anyone who has ever seen them, and will be forever. Those pictures will be as powerful 200 years from now as they were at the time.”
The executioner in Adams’ photograph , Lt. Col. Loan, who was later promoted to general, eventually migrated to Virginia. One of the documentary’s most surreal moments is in seeing the former South Vietnamese officer in the 1970s working behind the counter of his pizza restaurant. Adams would sometimes visit him there.
“I don’t think the general was angry with” Adams, Ut says. “Too late to be angry anyway.”
Caught in the act
Life magazine photographer Bill Eppridge first met Adams on the tarmac at JFK Airport in 1964, as both awaited the arrival of the Beatles. He made an impression. In “An Unlikely Weapon” is one of Eppridge’s photographs from that day, a classic image of John, Paul and Ringo waving to fans, while leaning into the frame is a young Eddie Adams, squinting behind his Leica.
They met again in Da Nang, Vietnam, and shared some tense moments amid death and destruction in the company of U.S. Marines. Eppridge says he understands the complicated feelings Adams had for his most famous picture, comparing it to his experience of witnessing the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. He photographed the dying presidential candidate after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
“Like a lot of us who have made pictures of that nature, you didn’t ever want to have to make that picture in your life,” says Eppridge, who appears frequently and eloquently in “An Unlikely Weapon.” “I’m sorry I had to make it, but it had to be done. I think Eddie’s thing was the same.”
Adams was a cantankerous, larger-than-life character in a black fedora, a tough guy who would sing Johnny Cash songs at karaoke bars. He is remembered in the film through vintage footage of Adams and in interviews with many of his contemporaries (Tom Brokaw, Morley Safer, Peter Arnett, Peter Jennings, Gordon Parks), with music by Kyle Eastwood and narration from Kiefer Sutherland.
“He was gruff when he was working,” says his widow, Alyssa Adams, deputy photo editor at TV Guide. She has just edited his first book of pictures, “Eddie Adams: Vietnam,” due in October from Umbrage Editions. “If you got in his way, woe to you, because he would just run you over.”
He was possibly proudest for creating in 1988 the Eddie Adams Workshop, an invitation-only, tuition-free four-day boot camp on his farm in Jeffersonville, N.Y. -- taught by the country’s top photojournalists and photo editors. Several photographers who went on to win Pulitzers have gone through the program. It was there that Adams established the annual tribute to his fallen Vietnam comrades.
The concept for an Adams documentary began years ago as the idea of actress Adkins, Alyssa’s sister. “He’s a natural character,” Adkins says. “And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do something on Eddie?’ ”
Adkins met Cooper four years ago through a mutual friend. In 1997, Cooper had directed a documentary, “Mirjana: One Girl’s Journey,” which followed a teenage Croatian girl as she struggled to survive war and its aftermath in the Balkans. Years later, she directed the short “Stringers,” about photojournalists in Vietnam.
In March 2004, Cooper flew to New York to meet Adams and discuss the documentary. The photographer showed her a 15-minute film project of his own, which collected his still images of young children stricken with the devastating aging disease progeria. It was set to a recording of Dolly Parton singing “I Will Always Love You.”
Before Cooper could shoot any footage for the documentary, Adams was diagnosed with the debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). He died that October, only weeks before the workshop.
That year’s war photographer ceremony would be the first without him, and his name would not be added to the monument. “Before Eddie passed away, I talked to him,” Ut says. “He didn’t want his name there because he didn’t die in war.”