40 Years Ago The Back to Vietnam Films Began With Uncommon Valor

Nearly two years before “Rambo: First Blood Part II” saw Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo go to Southeast Asia in search of American Vietnam prisoners of war (POWs), and a year before Chuck Norris did much the same thing in “Missing in Action,” “Uncommon Valor” hit the big screen and became the first of the ‘Back to Vietnam’ stories that were to follow.

Released nearly 40 years ago, “Uncommon Valor” set the tone for those other movies—but it was also notable in that it didn’t follow the ‘one-man army’ motif that had become common with the action films of the era from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris. It was also as much about camaraderie and loyalty as it was about the sheer ability to kick ass.

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, who had actually been in the director’s chair for Stallone’s “First Blood” and later would go on to direct 1989’s “Weekend at Bernie’s,” “Uncommon Valor” was also a more grounded story that highlighted the planning, training, and even difficulties in launching such a mission in a way that the subsequent films simply skimmed past. As it attempted to tackle the serious issue of those missing in action (MIA) believed to be held in prison camps in Southeast Asia, it received no support from the United States Department of Defense (DoD).

It is unclear why Laotian soldiers are wearing U.S. fiber sun helmets with insignia from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (Paramount)

Back to Vietnam

The story by Wings Hauser focused on retired Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman), who puts together a rag-tag team to rescue his son and other Vietnam War POWs believed to be held captive in a camp in Laos.

While it would still fall very much into the “action” category, and offers a rousing final act, “Uncommon Valor” arguably is the most grounded of the back-to-Vietnam films, despite the fact that the production featured the least ‘exotic’ of locations. Whereas “Rambo: First Blood Part II” was filmed in Thailand, and Missing in Action’s principal photography took place in the Philippines, “Uncommon Valor” headed to the Lumahai Valley on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, which stood in for Laos, the site of the POW camp.

The production team made good use of the location, however, proving even before “Karate Kid II” or TV’s “LOST” that Hawaii was able to stand in for a foreign locale.

Yet, critics at the time weren’t all that impressed. When the film arrived at the box office the reviews were far from kind. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave “Uncommon Valor” a thumbs down and suggested the first-rate talent of Kotcheff and Hackman was wasted. Even today, the film has just a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While the critics didn’t care for the film, audiences certainly loved it.

It is largely forgotten today, but “Uncommon Valor” went on to be one of the top-earning movies for 1983, which is impressive as it came out late in the year. That fact is especially notable as it also competed with “Scarface” and the then-latest Dirty Harry film “Sudden Impact” at the box office.

World War II Guns in a Vietnam War Movie

Gene Hackman fires an M1 Garand in Uncommon Valor
Rhodes (Gene Hackman) is attempting to “snipe” an enemy with an M1 Garand using open sights. In the background are a Thompson and BAR. (Paramount)

A key plot point (spoilers) is that as the team prepares for its mission in Thailand, the CIA steps in and seizes their weapons and other equipment to avoid an international incident. The fact that the team is not arrested, deported, or otherwise detained requires a fair share of “suspension of disbelief,” but it sets up for Hackman and crew to scramble to obtain the small arms needed to accomplish the mission. Quitting was never an option.

Thus while they train with modern U.S. hardware, they then head into action with an arsenal of World War II firearms that include M1 Garands, M1928A1 Thompson submachine guns, a Browning Automatic Rifle, an M18 57mm Recoilless Rifle and a number of Colt M1911A1 .45 pistols.

Tim Thomerson is seen holding a Thompson SMG
Charts (Tim Thomerson) fires his M1928A1 Thompson at the Laotian Border guards. This type of SMG would have been used by the USMC in the early stages of the Second World War. (Paramount)

The choice of weapons is notable in that it also includes a German MG42—in fact likely a modified M60 mocked up for the film. The presence of such a weapon wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Southeast Asia, as members of the French Foreign Legion included volunteers from the Waffen SS and even the German Army who sought to escape justice after the end of the Second World War. The French military did send World War II surplus weapons such as the MG42 with those troops, likely due to their familiarity with them. Such a machine gun thus could have found its way to the “bargain bin” of a Bangkok arms dealer.

The bigger issue—not addressed in the film—is one of ammunition. The BAR and Garands would use the same .30 caliber rounds, while the same is true of the Thompsons and M1911A1s, which are chambered for .45 ACP, and likely the team was able to acquire the ordnance to complete the mission. However, the MG42 would use different ammunition (the German 7.92×57mm Mauser rifle round), and it is unclear how much of that ammunition an arms dealer in Asia could have possibly been able to acquire. Viewers may need to load up with a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief.

Randall "Tex" Cobb firing an MG42
Sailor (Randall “Tex” Cobb) fires the MG42 from the helicopter. This gun appears to be a mock-up and viewers will note he’s firing blanks. (Paramount)

AK and RPGs in Uncommon Valor

Though the “heroes” of this story had to make do with their antiquated military small arms and equipment, the Laotian forces are seen utilizing a variety of Communist Bloc weapons. This is most notable in the Laotian Border Patrol and prison camp guards who are armed with the Norinco Type 56 carbine, the Chinese version of the SKS.

A number of the Laotian troops—as well as former drug smuggler Jiang and his two daughters who aid Rhodes and his team—also carry the Norinco Type 56 assault rifle, a Chinese-made clone of the AK-47. The particular weapon had stood in for the AK-47 in dozens of films due to a U.S. import ban on any small arms from the Warsaw Pact.

However, it is also worth noting that until 1982 even firearms from China and Yugoslavia were banned in the United States. Issues were made to skirt the bans by filming overseas. The Type 56 had been seen previously in “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Year of Living Dangerously”—the first filmed in Thailand, while the latter two were made in the Philippines. Thus “Uncommon Valor” has the distinction of being the first Hollywood production filmed in the United States to employ any “AK” style of weapon.

Laotian soldiers with AK-style guns
Laotian border patrol guards armed with the Norinco Type 59—the Chinese-made version of the AK-47. (Paramount)

“Uncommon Valor” was also the first Western film to feature an RPG-7 on screen—while it had appeared in three Soviet films. The handheld anti-tank grenade launcher isn’t actually seen being fired however, and American viewers would have to wait another year until the arrival of “Red Dawn” to see the weapon in action (but even then they were props that utilized deactivated/surplus RPG-2 that were mocked up to resemble the RPG-7).

Though Rambo gets the credit for going back to Vietnam, the team in “Uncommon Valor” beat him to it—and did it far more convincingly. This one has more heart and simply a better story.