Particularly when the subject at hand is the Vietnam War, says director Fred Koster.
“The South Vietnamese people are treated so badly by the press and Hollywood movies,” Koster says. “They’re so marginalized. They’re either cowards or victims or prostitutes. Very one-dimensional.”
Koster says that was his perception, to a degree, before he began production on “Ride the Thunder.”
The film is part of this month’s GI Film Festival, the DC-based event paying tribute to the U.S. Military. “Thunder” recalls the real-life bond between American Marine John Ripley (Eric St. John) and Vietnamese Marine Le Ba Binh (Joseph Hieu) during and after hostilities.
Ripley came home to an America ripped apart by the hotly debated war, while his Vietnamese counterpart suffered in a Communist re-education camp.
Koster, working from “Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph,” a nonfiction book by Richard Botkin, spent years researching the story. He also spoke with Vietnamese-Americans to glean their perspectives before writing the script.
“The South Vietnamese loved and appreciated what America did … contrary to what some of the opportunists [at the time] were telling the American people,” he says.
Koster says Botkin, a retired Marine, didn’t just right historical wrongs with his book. He crafted a compelling story.
“Any filmmaker would absolutely jump at the chance to do an inspirational story that’s true,” he says. Even better, he says the book captured a chapter in history far too many misinterpret.
“It opened up my eyes to the truth of the Vietnam War,” he says. That’s why he knew the book needed to become a feature film. More than ever, pop culture helps education people who learn through visual cues, he says.
“You have to deliver a powerful message through a visual.”
“Ride the Thunder” opened last year via a very limited release, but ticket sales proved robust. That happened without the usual movie marketing team to power the release.
“We didn’t have a publicist, there wasn’t any big advertising firm [behind the movie]. People got the word out,” he says, adding a re-release is in the works.
The GI Film Festival exists to honor the U.S. Military via feature films and shorts. The festival began at a time when that wasn’t the celluloid template. Movies like “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah” hardly put U.S. soldiers in the flattering light.
Today, that’s changing. “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor” offer a more complex, but ultimately positive, portrait of the modern soldier.
“It warms my heart to see that our veterans are being treated well [on screen],” Koster says. “It’s so far removed from the ‘70s which portrayed our military terribly.”
Koster says “Ride the Thunder” may be the start of a larger project. He’s in discussion to extend the narrative into a spinoff TV series, focusing on what Vietnam War veterans faced when they came back home to the U.S. and the struggles facing their wives.
The saga also could include the South Vietnamese people’s suffering at the hands of the conquering army.
No matter what happens next, Koster is proud to bring Botkin’s story to the big screen.
“I can’t think of a greater project to work on … presenting the truth to the American people that was misconstrued for all these years,” he says.
“Ride the Thunder” screens at 10:30 a.m. May 29 at the GI Film Festival.