One of the best films ever made about Vietnam is also one of the least known.
Go Tell The Spartans takes place in 1964, during the early days of the Vietnam War. Though the Americans at home may not know just how hopeless the situation is in South Vietnam, Major Barker (Burt Lancaster, in one of his best performances) does. Barker is a career military man. He served in World War II and Korea and now he’s ending his career in Vietnam, taking orders from younger superiors who have no idea what they are talking about. Barker has been ordered to occupy a deserted village, Muc Wa. Barker knows that occupying Muc Wa will not make any difference but he is in the army and he follows orders.
Barker sends a small group to Muc Wa. Led by the incompetent Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger), the group also includes a drug-addicted medic (Dennis Howard), a sadistic South Vietnamese interrogator (Evan C. Kim) who claims that every civilian that the men meet is actually VC, a sergeant (Jonathan Goldsmith) who is so burned out that he would rather commit suicide than take command, and Cpl. Courcey (Craig Wasson). Courcey is a college-educated idealist, who joined the army to do the right thing and is now about to discover how complicated that can be in South Vietnam. At Muc Wa, the soldiers find a cemetery containing the graves of French soldiers who died defending the hamlet during the First Indochina War. The inscription as the cemetery reads, “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
Because the film strives for realism over easy drama, Go Tell The Spartans has never gotten the same attention as some other Vietnam films. Unlike The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Coming Home, and Born on the 4th of July, Go Tell The Spartans received no Oscar nominations. It is still a brilliantly acted and powerful anti-war (but never anti-soldier) film. It starts out as deceptively low-key but the tension quickly builds as the soldier arrive at Muc Wa and discover that their orders are both futile and impossible to carry out. Vastly outnumbered, the Americans also find themselves dealing with a land and a culture that is so unlike their own that they are often not even sure who they are fighting. Military discipline, as represented by Lt. Hamilton, is no match for the guerilla tactics of the VC. By the film’s end, Vietnam is revealed to be a war that not even Burt Lancaster can win.