It was 3 AM, and I couldn’t sleep. Yet, I had an early start to my day this Wednesday. I needed to be down the street at David’s house to pick him up for a film shoot. That’s right he had landed for us a spot on a Vietnamese television series. I finally dragged myself out of bed, dressed and hauled out my bike.
I roared down the alley to David’s house, and we headed out to the rendezvous point near West Lake. Through some connections, my friend David had learned of a TV series commemorating the 60th anniversary of the French defeat, and we would be playing the French soldiers. It was a typical spring morning in Hanoi – so it began to rain. After reaching the meeting point, the assistant director pulled up on his scooter, and so did an English fellow, a Frenchman, and a Quebecois.
We all sat around waiting for the last man to show up, but as 6:30 ticked by, he was not present. I fact by 7:30 he still hadn’t arrived. “Why are we waiting?” I asked. “Oh we’re waiting for Vic, the “French Officer” of the film, he’s kind of inconsiderate so this is no surprise.” was the answer. Over an hour late, and a tall blond man drove up, came screeching to a halt, lifted both of his hands up in the “middle fingered salute” at our director and shouted, “F— you! You expect me to drive in this s—!” pointing up at the drizzly sky. His Lordship didn’t wait for a response after his rant, and without giving anyone else so much as a glance, he drove off. “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet our commanding officer Vic.” I said loudly as he drove out of sight. “Yea, he thinks he’s a Hollywood Star,” our Vietnamese director responded, humiliated. We all had a sardonic laugh: annoyed.
Fortunately the rest of us were made of sturdier stuff and we headed out to the rural area of Ba Vi. The road was good, and the Englishman named Paul had a 150cc bike as well. So he and I took turns racing ahead, tunnel blasting, and generally larking about on the highway.
By the time we reached the film location – the skies were clear. We up a muddy track and headed for a cluster of vehicles, tents crowned by a fluttering French tri-color. We parked our bikes, and took a look around. Before us foxholes, pillboxes, and a network of trenches snaked through the red earth and down the hill. We then saw a scene of the Viet Minh charging the French position. Dozens of real Vietnamese soldiers were dressed in sandals and khakis. They were carrying Mosin Nagant rifles or PPSH machine pistols and ran up the hill, shouting a battle cry as they came on.
Presently, we went to the costume bus, and got on our green French fatigues and American steel helmets. We then went over to the props truck and picked up our gear, cartridge belts, canteens, and weapons. Not liking pea shooters, I passed over the French sub-machine guns and picked out something more familiar to me. It was a very beat-up Enfield Pattern 30-06 rifle, but it still was fully functioning. I looked at the receiver and read, “Springfield Armory, 1917”. “Ahh, this is more like it.” I said. Apparently, the Vietnamese Army gave some wartime stock to the studio for use. The hardware – French, Chinese, American, Russian, was real – no plastic replicas.
As we were getting used to our gear, “Gary Cooper” finally showed up, having taken the bus so as to not get his paws wet. This meant we could start shooting – with film that is. We had just gotten fully kitted out for battle; but then had to take most of it off for the POW scene (films are never shot in chronological order). So marching in a line with neither shirt nor shoes, we walked past the lead characters as they said their lines. “OK cut”, said the director – the lead Vietnamese heartthrob had messed up his lines. We had to march past him about seven times till he finally got the lines correct. Uniforms on again, shoulder arms, and we readied for our next shot.
The next scene was the “charge scene” from the French perspective. We Frenchman were put in the bunker to be filmed firing down the hill on the Viet Minh. However, I would be on top of the bunker as the assistant gunner on the machine gun. A thirty-something Vietnamese fellow in fatigues took up his spot as the gunner. The film crew loaded a belt of blanks into a much-worn M60 machine gun – altered to look like a Browning 1917. “When the big explosion goes off in front, act dead” I was told as I lay on the sandbags. OK, feed a machine gun, and play dead after an explosion – how hard could that be? “Action!” and the sergeant fired a gun inches from my unprotected ears. A loud staccato broke out as the belt of rounds fed through so violently that it jumped out of my hands. I fumbled around, trying to pick up the belt – feeling like a dolt. On the second take I tried to let the rounds slide over my hands into the gun. “Action!” BR-R-R-R-R-ROWW – went the gun. Luckily I didn’t drop the belt this time. Before I could celebrate, the grenade exploded in front of us and I played dead – getting covered with sawdust. The camera caught the backside of my corpse on the pillbox, and my colleagues got the “face time” as they came out of the position with their hands up. Oh well.
The sun was high, and so was the temperature; but we didn’t do much for the next two hours as other scenes were filmed. The Vietnamese soldiers had lost their shyness, and came over to talk with us and take pictures. None of us enlisted men were very good at Vietnamese, but the pictures made up for that. I broke out my pipe, and the fellows got a kick out of that.
We had only done two scenes, but it was time for lunch, so everyone headed to the hotel. We sat down to a typical Vietnamese meal of rice, fish, vegetables and egg. After lunch I went into the courtyard to smoke my pipe. The lead actor was there, pulling on a Vietnamese water pipe – a “Thuoc Lao”. He didn’t speak English, so it was up to my Vietnamese. “”Where are you from?” he asked me. “I’m from the USA.” “How long have you lived here?” he said. “I’ve lived in Vietnam for three years, two in Hanoi and one in Da Nang. Smoke this,” I said, giving him some of my tobacco, “It’s very aromatic.” He put it in the bong and inhaled, which was mistake – it’s not for inhaling, so he gave a cough and grimaced. Not to his liking I guess.
After the two-hour lunch break, we returned to the location for more waiting. As the day waned, we were called up for our next scene, a morning scene. We were sitting around a fire eating breakfast while “Hollywood” Vic came over to the guard at the machine gun. Since the guard was sleeping, Vic would yell an order at him that startled him awake. We then all chuckled at his incompetence. In that shot the camera swept across us at the fire and I got my 10 seconds of face time. Mission accomplished, I’ll be famous . . . sort of.
Finally, we did a scene of the initial attack. The Viet Minh would be massing in the valley for a charge and four of us would pull up to the trench line in a jeep. We did that take five times over. With our Vietnamese driver going “hell for leather”, I began to wonder how any soldier could ride in that tin can without breaking every vertebra in his back. It was the most uncomfortable experience of the day.
That was a wrap, and we headed back to the hotel, changed out of the fatigues, and collected our pay. The producer asked us to stay for tomorrow’s shooting, but I had to work the next day. David and drove the hour back to Hanoi, sore and exhausted; but glad.
Playing a small part in a TV show or film . . . tick that one off the “bucket list”.