The fighting in Vietnam was such an evening-news fixture by the mid-1960s that writer Michael J. Arlen dubbed it the “living room war.” On the entertainment side, the networks were skittish, unsure what stance to take. Even with Korea standing in for Vietnam, M*A*S*H didn’t arrive on CBS until the fall of 1972. The weekly dramas Tour of Duty, about infantry soldiers, and China Beach, focused on Army nurses, didn’t appear until 1987 and 1988, respectively, more than a decade after Saigon had been abandoned.
Green Eyes, a 1977 made-for -TV movie, thus was bold programming by ABC and Lorimar Productions, the company best known for The Waltons, even if it didn’t deal with actual warfare. It certainly impressed the Peabody Awards board, which honored it for its “touching, moving” portrayal of a veteran’s anguish.
Green Eyes follows the journey of Lloyd DuBeck, a Vietnam veteran wounded both physically and emotionally. Released from a VA hospital, walking with a cane, he can’t find work, can’t seem to fit in. But this isn’t one of those vet-goes-kill-crazy melodramas. DuBeck, sensitively portrayed Paul Winfield, fresh from his Oscar-nominated role in Sounder, finds a renewed sense of purpose by returning to Saigon to search for a Vietnamese woman he had loved and a child he fathered but never got to see. All he knows, thanks to a single letter from her, is that it’s a boy with green eyes.
What follows is not only an unforgettable dramatic work, by turns heartbreaking and heart-warming, but one of the most candid depictions of the impact of our “involvement” in Vietnam ever filmed.
One reason this TV-movie, shot in the Philippines, is so forceful is that it was inspired by the personal experience of its screenwriter, David Seltzer. Best known at the time for scripting the occult thriller The Omen, Seltzer had gone to Vietnam in 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon, to research a documentary about Vietnamese war orphans.
“I went to Saigon as a writer,” Seltzer told me in 1977, when I was covering television for The Orlando Sentinel. “Within hours, I was no longer a writer.”
Seltzer knew the statistics going in – an estimated 100,000 half-American children orphaned, another half-million Vietnamese kids lost, homeless or parentless. But the reality overwhelmed him.
“Children were spilling out of the orphanages,” he said. “They were in the streets – it looked like Calcutta. One orphanage had 3,000 children, a staff of 10 and food every day for only a few hundred. There were rooms full of babies, literally acres of babies, languishing.”
Seltzer said the most indelible scene of his stay and “the most potent lesson I’ll ever learn” came when he accompanied a man with a big basket of food to one of the orphanages. “As he began to dispense the food, I was standing about 20 feet away. A child was near me, so I picked him up. Another one came and I picked him up, too. Children began leaving the food line to get what I was dispensing – to be hugged and touched by another human being.”
Seltzer began working with a relief organization and ultimately adopted a Vietnamese girl and a street kid named Trung who had helped him with translation and black-market food acquisitions.
The fictional story of Lloyd DuBeck parallels Seltzer’s but doesn’t duplicate it. It has twists all its own. It’s not an omen, it’s a revelation.
Green Eyes is far from the only Vietnam related program to win a Peabody Award. Some of the most significant, well worth checking out, are:
- Vietnam: A Television History (1983) – A 13-documentary, produced for PBS by Boston’s WGBH, it’s the first serious effort to make chronological, political and emotional sense of Vietnam’s history.
- Friendly Fire (1979) – A powerful drama about a farm couple’s efforts to discover the cause of their soldier son’s death. Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty head the cast.
- Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1988) –An evocative eyewitness narrative of what the war was like, assembled from real letters, read by a discrete, stellar cast.
- When Hell Was in Session (1979) – One P.O.W.’s story, wrenching and riveting. With Hal Holbrook.
- China Beach (1989) – A series about nurses and doctors at an “evac” hospital in Da Nang, it captured the toll of the war, absurdities included.
The earliest acknowledgment of Vietnam by the Peabody board was a personal award to Morley Safer, now best known for his 60 Minutes reporting and bespoke suits. In 1965, he was cited for his “courageous accomplishments in presenting the realities of the Vietnam War to the American people.”