Editor’s Note: Ride the Thunder can be watched HERE.
The film opens in a dingy, gray-walled room. Three men are visible. One is a prisoner, haggard and unshaven. His bent posture suggests a man who is beaten, bloodied, and tired, yet unbroken. The second man is a prison guard with an AK-47, looming thuggishly in the doorway and watching the prisoner with disinterested eyes. The third man looks down at the scene with a benevolent, impassive smile from a printed propaganda poster on the wall—Ho Chi Minh.
This opening scene shows in microcosm the moral universe of Fred Koster and Richard Botkin’s independent Vietnam War docudrama Ride The Thunder. The film tells the stories of two Marine veterans of America’s war in Vietnam: the Vietnamese Marine Corps Colonel Le Ba Binh, portrayed by Joseph Hieu, and United States Marine Corps Colonel John Ripley, portrayed by Eric St. John. Though Binh is the prisoner we see in the opening scene, over the course of the film it becomes clear that Ripley is just as much a prisoner—in this case a prisoner to the false narrative about the war that is unfolding in his homeland.
The viewer will quickly discover that in addition to being prisoners, the two main characters are also heroes. Colonel Ripley’s heroism is of the obvious wartime stripe: he single-handedly blunted an armored advance by the North Vietnamese Army by sprinting back and forth under heavy fire to plant explosives under a vital bridge crossing. Binh’s, however, is more subtle: despite constant harassment and torture at the hands of a sadistic communist camp commandant, he refuses to submit and affirm that South Vietnam’s war is anything but a war of self-defense. For his stubbornness, Binh endures unbelievably savage treatment from his captors, all under the beneficent smirk of the portrait of Uncle Ho.
Some of the most striking scenes of the movie are its depictions of life in the Vietnamese re-education camps and actual clips of antiwar activists John Kerry and Jane Fonda. Interspersed throughout are present-day interviews with Vietnam veterans and with executive producer Richard Botkin, himself a Marine and also the author of a book about the Battle of Dong Ha. “History will be recorded by the filmmaker and remembered by the film viewer,” says Botkin. “And the current films out about the war portray the American fighting man wrong, they portray our South Vietnamese allies wrong.”
“One hundred million people were killed by the communists, and that’s just the dead—there are maybe six to eight times that number of living victims. How do we even entertain the notion that the communists weren’t—aren’t—evil?” asks Botkin. Indeed, he says the fiercest criticism of the movie he’s heard has not come from those who were against America’s war in Vietnam, but from Vietnamese refugees who say he did not properly portray the depravity and brutality with which the communists treated prisoners and internees in their camps.
One fact of which Botkin is particularly proud is that all the Vietnamese roles in the film are played by actors from the Vietnamese-American community. “That’s one wonderful thing we as a country took away from the war, for sure—two million new American citizens who love this country in ways most of us can’t comprehend, because of how they had to fight and struggle to become and stay free.”
This subject, and the subject of the historiography of the Vietnam War at large, has become a deeply personal one for Botkin, especially over the course of more than two hundred interviews he conducted for his book and film. “We’re at risk of losing history. If we don’t fight, it’ll be the communist version of history chiseled in concrete, not the truth.” Despite the daunting weight of popular cultural history and the majority of academia arrayed against him, Botkin remains optimistic. “The American effort in Vietnam was the right effort, was a justified effort, and is more and more being vindicated by history and the American people.” Ride The Thunder is an excellent step toward the goal of an American history based on truth instead of propaganda.
You can watch Ride the Thunder HERE