Documentaries. “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor,” by Ken and Betty Rodgers tells the stories of the Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines in the Siege of Khe Sanh. Thus, Ken Rodgers, a veteran of Khe Sanh, has wanted to fix his memories about the longest siege of the Vietnam War.
Interview by Spanish film director Jose del Rio.
J.R.- Hi Ken, congratulations on getting the project finished. At least in Europe, this is ‘almost’ as epic as a war. What have been your biggest problems: money, organization, crew? Has Betty been essential as emotional support?
KR: Hello Jose, thanks Yareah and you for the opportunity to talk about BRAVO! I will answer the last part of this question first. Betty Rodgers, my spouse and partner in all things, has been more than an essential source of support. BRAVO! was her idea. In 2009 both Betty and I attended a reunion of the Khe Sanh Veterans in Denver, Colorado. There were a goodly number of survivors of the Siege of Khe Sanh in attendance, many of whom were from my outfit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment.
As veterans of combat tend to do, we discussed our time at Khe Sanh and our memories of the siege where 6,000 of us were surrounded by 35,000-40,000 North Vietnamese troops—the enemy—up in the northwest corner of what was then the Republic of South Vietnam.
Betty sat there listening to our stories and told me that as soon as one or another of us Marines or United States Navy Corpsmen rose from the table, those stories disappeared in terms of their historical value to posterity.
One thing led to another and within a month or two, Betty and I decided to make a documentary film about Khe Sanh. We initially wondered about a book or some other means of logging the stories of these men, but we felt a film was most appropriate for the men to tell their own stories and then we could merge the interviews with a variety of other art forms to represent the horrors, the triumphs and the redemptions—if there were any—of that 77 day battle.
As a filmmaker, Jose, you are aware of the numerous obstacles that have to be overcome before a film gets viewed by an audience. The first and most obvious of these impediments was the fact that Betty and I had absolutely no experience with filmmaking, other than being avid film buffs. Betty is a photographer and I am a creative writer, but neither of us had shot a foot of moving picture film or video; we needed to learn about the technical aspects of video, sound, and all the other things that must be harnessed to create a viable work of film art. And yes, we wanted it to be more than history: we wanted the film to be art.
Above and beyond our lack of experience, we faced a bevy of obstacles and yes, money was primary. We had no idea how much it costs to create a film, especially if the filmmaker does not do the videography, the editing, the sound re-mixing.
And yet, we were, as we have been so often in the course of this experience, very lucky. Betty called the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation in Dumfries, Virginia, and asked if they had any grants for people doing films about the Vietnam War. They asked that we write them a letter outlining our ideas. They gave us a grant for seed money. At the time, we thought it was a lot of cash but boy did we find out differently.
Nevertheless, we had some money to begin and as we went along, we funded various portions of the process through three Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns in excess of $17,000.00 and also received generous amounts from other donors made up of veterans, family, friends and people we have never met. The difference between what we spent and what we received has been met from DVD sales and our own personal funds.
Finding a crew was also a critical issue, but one of the benefits of not knowing what you are doing is that you are not intimidated by what you don’t know. We joined the Idaho Media Professionals, a group of local filmmakers, and received some information about folks who might be able to help us. We hired a local film production company with a videographer by the name of Mark Spear, and then we interviewed me first to get a feel for the process. Next, we flew Mark to San Antonio, Texas, for the 2010 Khe Sanh Veterans reunion where we interviewed 8 Marines and 1 Navy Corpsman.
The interviews were an amazing outpouring of memory and emotion. To boot, these 9 men not only recalled the agony of Khe Sanh, but they articulated what it all meant in terms of personal experience some 43 years later.
Yet we wanted more interviews, so we went on the road to interview five more Marines. We drove our car from Boise, Idaho, to Detroit, Michigan, where we rented lights and gels and backdrops. We were on the phone to Mark Spear back in Boise as we fumbled with the intensity of the lights and the microphone while we tried to get our subjects to relax. From their points of view, it must have been disconcerting to see us stumbling around.
After the two Detroit interviews, we went to the Washington, DC, area where the Marine Corps Historical Division of the United States Marine Corps welcomed us with lots of help and information, photos and old film, and audio interviews conducted in 1968 during the Siege at Khe Sanh. They steered us to the National Archives where we spent almost three weeks buried in the collections of film, photo, audio and written word.
On the way home, we interviewed the other Marines. For two of the interviews, we hired local video crews and for the third, we again rented gear and conducted the interview in the Marine’s basement.
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