Essays: The agony of Vietnam |
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The agony of Vietnam

‘MEA MAXIMA CULPA,’ droned the Pope in the opening number of his Easter Sunday special (Pope Paul’s Easter Mass, BBC1), and at least he sounded sincere.

Such personal confessions seemed a touch irrelevant, however, in a Holy Week so rife with indiscriminate evil. Untold thousands in Vietnam having guessed, without a doubt correctly, that nothing they might do to one another in frenzy could possibly be as bad as what the Communists would do to them in cold blood, the cameras feasted for day after day on scenes of panic and flight, arousing an image-storm which culminated, on Friday, with those dreadful pictures of the orphans who died on the plane. ‘We all grow older more quickly than we think,’ croaked Barbara Castle in the Labour Party Political Broadcast. Not all of us, love: only most.

From Holy Saturday, when we saw the film of desperate people trying to board the plane at Da Nang airport, to Wednesday evening, when both BBC News and News at Ten carried the incredible footage — shot by Vietnamese cameraman Tran Khien for ABC — of the troops evacuating from the Da Nang beaches, there was clear and mounting evidence that a whole population was frightened to death. That what they were frightened of might be a fiction was not an idea which received much encouragement in the media, nor is there any reason to think it should have. In the next months and years there will almost certainly be atrocities on an apocalyptic scale, as the conquerors set about the Procrustean task of trimming the population to fit their ideology. In the light of this prospect, which not even the intrepid Tran Khien will get to film, it might be salutary for those of us who have always deplored American activities in South East Asia to remember that the assumption underlying US foreign policy is quite sound — Communism really is tyranny.

Unfortunately everything else about US foreign policy is as unsound as it could be. In retrospect (and we all grow older more quickly than we think) it will surely be seen that the American habit of propping up right-wing regimes and abetting their eagerness to eliminate independent socialist forces was the single most powerful historical factor furthering the emergence of Communist States. Since every post-war President (including Kennedy) and Secretary of State (including — especially including — Kissinger) shared this tic, there will be a lot of feet to lay the blame at. Too many: when everybody is guilty, nobody is guilty, and we are left with pictures which are all significance but no meaning — mothers tearing their hair for grief, and tiny corpses lying in scraps of polythene.

Sometimes, however — not so frequently as to convince you that there is such a thing as poetic justice, but often enough to encourage the occasional twisted smile — the villain stands exposed, with crumpled horns and his tights around his ankles. As a jokey addendum to the sacred season, Shelepin was hissed from the British stage, and with a daemonic fizz from the Mikulin engines of his Tu-104 he retreated fuming to Moscow. Considering that Shleppy is about as maximally culpable as a human being can well get, this perhaps seemed merely a token punishment, but it was better than nothing, and the whole farcical episode possibly helped contribute to the political education of the TUC leaders — who, while unquestionably knowing their job, seem to know nothing else. A close-up of the distinguished visitor’s bloody-minded self-satisfaction must have set even Clive Jenkins on the track of truth — which is that Shleppy is a trade unionist the way Jack the Ripper was a sculptor.

There were healthy signs, towards the end, that the hosts did not necessarily share the conviction of their guest that the people waving placards were an ‘unrepresentative fringe of professional people’ and/or ‘professional Zionist agitators.’ Late-blooming tact could not do much, though, to dissipate the fears generated in the normal breast by the TUC leadership’s initial obtuseness in rolling out the red carpet for a KGB hit-man.

ITV’s big Easter film offerings were The Robe, a stinker destined to go down in the annals of tedium as the first Cinemascope spectacular, and Camelot, which is appalling beyond description. It was nostalgiaville to see ‘The Robe’ again, with Richard Burton [indistinct] the Crucifixion (‘Were you Out There?’ was the fifties equivalent of ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal.’ People used to say it to each other and curl up in hysterics.) The BBC ran an indifferent Howard Hawks movie (Rio Bravo) and John Boorman’s marvellous Point Blank. The latter screening partly compensated for their suicidal decision to run both the Larry Parks Al Jolson films in one afternoon — a case of adding insult to insanity. The Revivalist, by Paul Ferris, was BBC2’s Good Friday play. Gareth Thomas played a Welsh holy roller, active circa 1905. Thomas’s wet-lipped hwyl was enthralling.

Gala Performance (BBC1) featured the Panovs, a welcome pair of professional Zionist agitators who turned on an invigorating display. Judging from a piece called ‘The Hooligan,’ modern Soviet choreography hasn’t caught up with Gene Kelly, but the pair’s untrammelled exuberance won all hearts. Mr Panov has elongated legs like a Beardsley drawing and can enter at a height of about nine feet, tied in a reef knot. Mrs Panov is cute too. A happy night all round, but it is foolish, having once secured the services of a dish like Anne Howells as Delilah, to provide her with such a turn-off of a frock.

20th Century-Fox Presents (BBC2) was a trashily written and compiled promotion film which the Beeb were silly to fall for. Let’s hope they didn’t pay good money for it, since it was the kind of PR handout which is too expensive even when it’s free. Richard Chamberlain linked the clips, proving all over again that actors make hopeless front-men. A steady stream of notorious Fox bombs were presented as masterpieces, including ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Myra Breckinridge.’ Fox was described as ‘in many ways an actresses’ paradise’ — which it was famous for not being, since Darryl Zanuck was astoundingly indifferent to female talent. ‘Perhaps the film Zanuck is proudest of is “The Longest Day,”’ said Dr Kildare, apparently failing to grasp that a man who could be proud of a film like that would be proud of a mud pie.

Some reverence there was, but its profile was low. In Remember All the Good Things (BBC2) a young man dying of cancer provided for his family before departing. On One Man’s Week (BBC2) David Hutchings cleared the Upper Avon waterway, putting something beautiful back together that negligence had almost destroyed. Sir John Betjeman recited a poem at the opening ceremony, with the Queen Mum all ears. Very British and a long way from the fighting. Closer to the action, Major Dudley Gardiner (Man Alive, BBC2) was still busy at his task of feeding 6,000 people a day in Calcutta. There was a flashback to 1968, when things already looked hopeless, with chickens walking on streets of liquid excrement. Seven years later things are far worse, but Major Gardiner presses on. He showed the camera some squalling tots, explaining how strong they would grow if only they could get through the first year. Between them and the dead ones in Vietnam was all the difference in the world.

The Observer, 6th April 1975