The events at My Lai remain one of the darkest days in US military history. Anywhere between 347 and 504 (depending on whose figures are referenced) innocent civilians were butchered at the hands of Lieutenant William Calley’s command; men, woman and children were raped, beaten and their bodies mutilated as American soldiers ran riot in the village. Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer prize for his reports and the true story of My Lai is so harrowing that it defies belief. All of which makes the car crash effort in filmmaking that is Massacre At My Lai Four (aka: My Lai Four) so disappointing.
Aside from respect for tackling what is still a sensitive subject to many Americans and Vietnamese alike this is a film almost without merit. Five minutes in and you know from the acting and the dialogue that it is going to be a slog. The soldiers are formulaic – the bespectacled comms guy; the bicep showing tough guy and of course the lieutenant whose orders are gospel – but why they have to shout every line of the script is beyond me. Eventually it becomes hard to watch.
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I may appear as if I am nitpicking, but the subtitle syntax is a mess. For example, when it’s was used it was shown as i’ts; and this is but one example. Then there is the need for subtitles in the first place. When the film first introduces the villagers of My Lai they speak perfect, albeit American accented, English. Then, when an elder shows up the conversation changes to Vietnamese. I have no idea why.
The last material gripe is then with the explosions and attack scenes. They are simply not believable and the pyrotechnic budget looked as if it stretched to a couple of damp squibs and a cheap Roman candle. So, we have awful acting, dreadful dialogue delivered by the actors either shouting or shouting louder, and production values that would be wrapped in blue and white if they were on the shelves in Tesco. But in returning to the ‘almost without merit’ statement from earlier, Massacre At My Lai Four finishes rather well.
As director Paola Bertola warms to the task he delivers a poignant final 20 minutes that doesn’t so much make up for the preceding 80 but at least reassures you that the viewing of this film is not entirely futile. In an ironic twist, Massacre At My Lai Four really starts to get the important elements of emotion and tension right as the script dies away and the story is told through action and events.
Vietnam films are ten-a-penny and many of them deal with equally tough subjects, with very few, if any, glorifying the events of conflict. Massacre At My Lai Four has a subject matter than should make grown men weep but in the end is just one big turd of a film undermining the true story of what was a terrible event in a terrible conflict.