by Andrew Wiest
I knew from the moment that I met John Young that I needed to write a book about him – a book that sought to redefine the historical vision of the Vietnam combat experience. While immersed in the writing of the book, as the story of Charlie Company emerged in text on my computer screen, I couldn’t help thinking, “Boy, this would make a good movie!” I am sure that thoughts like that have occurred to many a historian, and the thoughts soon passed – subsumed by reality. But then Lou Reda Productions and the National Geographic Channel also fell in love with the story of Charlie Company, and the result was the 2014 release of the documentary Brothers in War. Working as the historical advisor to a documentary based on my book was a very interesting experience. The most difficult part of the process was boiling down 400 pages of text into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. The most enjoyable part of the process was being able to utilize the new tools of film (including home movies shot by the members of Charlie Company) and sound to help tell the intimate story of an infantry company at war. The most surreal part of the process was hearing Charlie Sheen narrate the words that I had written.
After well over a year of rather frenetic work (film folks work at a very different pace than that to which most historians are accustomed) Brothers in War was launched at a reunion of Charlie Company at National Geographic Channel Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was a very emotional evening. The veterans were so excited to see one another again, but it was quite hard on them to witness scenes filmed so long ago – scenes in which their best friends were lost in battle. It was their best of days and worst of days come back to life. As the film drew to a close and the lights came up, tears were shed, backs were patted, and congratulations were offered. After Brothers in War aired on television, good news on ratings came in, as did glowing reviews. At that point I was pretty certain that my unexpected foray into the film world had come to an end.
In March 2015, though, some very unexpected news came in: National Geographic was nominating Brothers in War for four Emmy awards – in writing, research, editing, and for Outstanding Historical Programming (the big one). Having National Geographic Channel pick out Brothers in War as its most Emmy worthy documentary of the year was quite an honor in and of itself. Liz Reph, Scott Reda (the director and producer respectively of Brothers in War), and I got together to assemble a submission in all four categories for the folks at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. With that bit of extra work done, I once again assumed that the story was over. I knew that Brothers in War was good, but the competition was so fierce that I just figured that our journey had run its course. But on July 22, more news came in. Brothers in War was an official Emmy nominee for Outstanding Historical Programming.
The rest of the story is something of a blur. We received out tickets to the Emmy awards in New York, we made travel plans, I bought a new tie and a shirt that fit, and we were off. Two of the veterans of Charlie Company, Bill Reynolds and Steve Hopper, were able to join Liz Reph, Scott Reda, Steve Heavner (the sound engineer for the project), Madeline Carter (Executive Producer from the National Geographic Channel), and myself at the ceremony. Festivities began at 5:30 at Lincoln Center in New York. First there was a walk down the red carpet and then drinks and dinner surrounded by hundreds of people I either knew from television or should have known. Next came the ceremony itself. The Brothers in War team was seated together midway through the crowd as Emmy after Emmy flew off of the shelf. Our turn came after Larry King presented Ted Turner with the lifetime achievement award. The lights dimmed as the film began, “And the nominees for Outstanding Historical Programming—Long Form are. . .” Next followed a five second clip of Brothers in War and similar clips from the other four nominees. I am a cell phone Luddite, but my iPhone was on and recording away. The Emmy made its way out to the stage. The envelope was ripped open. “And the Emmy goes to Independent Lens for The Trials of Muhammad Ali.”
Since our category was near the end, the ceremony quickly wrapped up, and a disappointed Brothers in War crew headed outside. The veterans who had joined us for the ceremony were upset that a documentary about Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector who refused to fight in Vietnam, had won the Emmy. But once the disappointment had time to clear, amid a series of farewell hugs, we all came to the realization that it had been such an honor to be there in New York for the Emmys. It was such an honor to be selected as one of the five best documentaries on television for the year. There we were, amid the famous and near famous – a bunch of folks who had tried their best to tell the story of a unique group of veterans. There are so many stories about so many veterans that never get told. Our story did get told. It did get noticed, and we were standing on the red carpet to prove it. We were the lucky ones.
Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines (Osprey, 2013) and The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 2012).