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‘The Vietnam War,’ “Episode 3 - The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)”
September 19, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

There are 16,000 American advisors in Vietnam when Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series The Vietnam War returns tonight with Episode Three: “The River Styx (January 1964-December 1965)”.

Those advisors’ fate — and the fate of the embattled country of Vietnam — will rest with a new U.S. president.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated just weeks earlier, and a new American president is about to take charge of the war effort: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Johnson is about to inherit a quagmire that will prove to be his undoing, but Burns and his fellow filmmaker Novick are not interested in merely going over old ground. The episode’s title, “River Styx,” takes its name from Greek mythology: the Styx formed the boundary between the Underworld, the domain that came to be known as Hades — hell — and Earth.

The Styx was also the name of a great marsh, where, it was said, the rivers Styx, Acheron, Lethe, and Cocytus merged.

This is instructive because the Vietnam War was both a jungle war and a war set in hot, humid, leech-infested swamps, where rain was a constant companion, and M16s were prone to jam in the mud and relentless wet. The rot would set in early. And once it set in, it was almost impossible to shake.

First, a note about running time. “The River Styx” expands to two hours; the first two nights of The Vietnam War were 90 minutes. Two hours might sound like a long time, now that the setting and tone have been firmly established, but this harrowing, haunting journey is about to become personal.

“The River Styx” opens with Bob Dylan on the harmonica and Jean-Marie Crocker, a suburban mom from Saratoga Springs, NY, reminiscing about Denton Winslow Crocker, the “colicky little baby” who could be demanding of their attention at times.

Denton Crocker (right), the youngest of four children, was born on June 3, 1947, and he and his tireless, selfless sister Carol Crocker are about to become central figures in Burns and Novick’s Vietnam War.

This is poignant and personal, and it’s what elevates Burns above so many other documentary filmmakers. He takes the sweep of history — momentous upheavals, tectonic generational shifts  — and views it through the prism of ordinary, everyday people, small-town families as symbolized and represented by Denton Crocker and his idealistic sister who looks at her kid brother in old family snapshots with an expression that borders on adoration.

Burns cuts to the flickering VU meter on an old Teac reel-to-reel tape recorder and the unmistakeable Texas twang of Lyndon Johnson as he says, “The more I think of it, I don’t know what in the hell . . . It looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there once we’re committed. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damn mess . . .”

Denton Crocker wanted to be part of something important, Jean-Marie Crocker explains. And brave.

“It’s damned easy to get into war,” Johnson continues. “but it’s going to be awfully hard to extricate yourself if you get in.”?

Johnson’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt — subject of Burns’ epic documentary The Roosevelts — and The Vietnam War is about to come full circle.

“It’s going to be hell in a handbasket,” Johnson’s ambassador told him at the time, and “The River Styx” is underway — a jungle war, fought in jungles and swamps, in the borderlands between Earth and the Underworld. A bad situation is about to get worse.

As with the first two nights, Burns and Novick are careful to tell their story from the Vietnamese perspective as well, North and South. North Vietnamese veteran Le Quan Cong, who fought with the Viet Cong, explains how he thought the North would overrun the South in a matter of days. This was 1964, remember. The war would grind on for another decade.

Not just in “The River Styx” but in later installments, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong witness testimony add both emotional weight and historical depth to Burns’ film. If the interviews, in Vietnamese with English subtitles, sound conversational and smooth, unlike the pause-and-wait of most interviews conducted though translators, that’s because Burns and his program producers came up with a neat trick, Burns has explained in press interviews of his own. Instead of waiting for a translator, interviewers and interviewees alike were fitted with ear transmitters. As they were speaking, a translator would translate their words into the other person’s ear, in real time. That meant questions and answers flowed back and forth seamlessly, like a proper conversation, despite the different languages. The result is a brisk, snappy repartee. The answers sound candid, not rehearsed, and the result is a documentary film that practically crackles off the screen.

Toward the end of “The River Styx,” nearly two hours after a mother’s reminiscence of her youngest son as a rambunctious baby, the night’s installment comes to a harrowing end of relentless ambushes, non-stop, staccato gunfire and artillery barrages, played out against a backdrop of tense, nervous electronic by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

It was the Battle of Ia Drang (right), in November 1965, and it’s both an ending and a beginning.

“Some 18,000 artillery shells would be called in over the course of the battle, some of them landing just 25 yards from (Lt.-Col. Harold “Hal” Gregory) Moore’s own men,” narrator Peter Coyote intones.

“My God,” Lt.-Col. Moore said at the time, “they sent us over here to kill communists, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Moments later, Gen. William Westmoreland is shown to be in a more pensive, reflective mood.

“I don’t anticipate that this conflict will end anytime soon,” Westmoreland is shown saying, head bowed, speaking softly but clearly. “We could find that we have more difficult days ahead.

“Certainly we must be prepared for this.”

And then, the grace note: Burns and Novick close “The River Styx” with The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (penned by Pete Seeger with many of the lyrics taken from the English version of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) :

To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.

Powerful stuff.

Editor’s note: This version has been corrected from an earlier edition. A nickname was misidentified in the original post.

TV Worth Watching will preview Episode 4: “Resolve (January 1966-June1967)” on Wednesday, Sept. 20. The Vietnam War airs Sunday through Thursday on PBS at 8 p.m. ET through Sept. 28 (check local listings).

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Clay Kepner
Seriously, did you even watch the show? Denton Crocker was a "colicky" baby not a "cocky" one. His nickname was Movie because his father felt that the newborn baby controlled the family like a mogul. Mowgli, from the Jungle Book?!? To make this many mistakes embarrassing.
Sep 25, 2017   |  Reply
Al vito
Great job Mr Burns and miss Kovak I served 1967-1969 7th Marines infantry
Sep 20, 2017   |  Reply
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