Go Tell the Spartans

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Go Tell the Spartans
Go tell the spartans.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed by Ted Post
Produced by Allan F. Bodoh
Mitchell Cannold
Written by Wendell Mayes
Daniel Ford
Starring Burt Lancaster
Craig Wasson
Marc Singer
Music by Dick Halligan
Cinematography Harry Stradling Jr.
Editing by Millie Moore
Distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures
Release dates June 14, 1978 (1978-06-14)
Running time 114 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.5 million

Go Tell the Spartans is a 1978 American war film based on Daniel Ford's 1967 novel Incident at Muc Wa,[1] about U.S. Army military advisors during the early part of the Vietnam War in 1964, a time when Ford was a correspondent in Vietnam for The Nation. It stars Burt Lancaster and was directed by Ted Post.

The film's title is from Simonides's epitaph to the three hundred soldiers who died fighting Persian invaders at Thermopylae, Greece: "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

The choice of film's name thus constitutes a deliberate "spoiler" by the film makers, telling anyone familiar with the source of the quote that the film's soldier characters - like the Spartans at Thermopylae - had been sent to their deaths.


In January 1964, American troops in Vietnam were euphemistically termed "military advisors." As the film begins, Major Asa Barker (Burt Lancaster) has been given command of a poorly-manned outpost named Muc Wa in rural South Vietnam. This outpost, located somewhere near the rural Da Nang to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) highway, had been the scene of a massacre of French soldiers during the First Indochina War a decade earlier. Barker is a capable commander, but also a weary infantry veteran in his third war (he served in the Pacific during World War II as well as in the Korean War) whose career has been badly damaged by a previous affair with a senior officer's wife. In his new role, he is expected to provide veteran supervision to a cadre of advisors attached to a group of South Vietnamese soldiers who garrison the deserted village.[2]

As a seasoned officer, Barker knows that he cannot defend his position due to lack of numbers and the poor quality of his local troops. Nevertheless, he is still obliged to carry out the orders of his superior, General Harnitz (Dolph Sweet), who sends Barker U.S. reinforcements to appease him. His command now consists of a handful of U.S. soldiers (encompassing the inexperienced, unhappy, idealistic and glory-seeking) and some reluctant former Vietnamese paddy farmers turned militiamen. Barker argues that the hamlet is deserted and has no importance, but sends a detachment from his command to occupy it. The detachment is commanded by the brash but nervous Lt. Hamilton, and includes veteran sergeant Oleonowski, who is suffering from battle fatigue; a drug-addicted medic, Cpl. Lincoln; and a young draftee, Cpl. Courcey, who quickly befriends an elderly native volunteer, nicknamed "Old Man".

On their way to Muc Wa along a dirt road, the column is ambushed at a roadblock, resulting in ARVN Cpl. Cowboy capturing and beheading the lone Viet Cong attacker. On reaching the hamlet, Hamilton sets up his defenses in a triangular formation and receives supplies brought in by helicopter. At the rear of the hamlet is a graveyard of 302 French soldiers with a placard above the entrance that reads, in French, "Étrangers, dites aux Spartiates que nous demeurons ici par obéissance à leurs lois (Stranger, tell the Spartans that we remain here in obedience to their orders)", which refers to the ancient Battle of Thermopylae. While he is investigating the cemetery, Courcey spots a one-eyed VC soldier, who is presumably a scout. Back at Barker's base, Barker receives a Psy-ops officer who claims that he can predict which one of Barker's outposts the VC will attack next.

During the following night Muc Wa is attacked by the VC, sustaining its first casualties when Lt. Hamilton is killed along with a few South Vietnamese soldiers. The next day, Sgt Oleonowski commits suicide rather than face the pressure of command. When Barker is informed of the deaths, he wants to pull his troops out now that they lack an experienced leader, but this request is refused by Harnitz, forcing Barker to send his own deputy to Muc Wa. When the psy-ops man predicts Muc Wa will be attacked, Barker contacts them by radio only to learn that they're under attack from the Viet Cong.

On the second night, and true to Barker's predictions, the outpost is attacked again and this time overwhelmed by the massive numbers of Viet Cong who number in the many thousands, not the few hundred predicted by the high command, all of whom are well armed with various automatic weapons rather than outdated rifles. Barker is ordered by Harnitz to withdraw the American troops, leaving behind the South Vietnamese—including the walking wounded. The idealistic Courcey refuses to leave the wounded, so Barker stays behind with him to help evacuate the remaining South Vietnamese troops and militiamen. This leaves Barker, Courcey, the Old Man and his fellow South Vietnamese militiamen at Muc Wa, and in the ensuing battle almost everyone is killed, including Barker who had stayed behind to cover their escape.

The only American survivor is ironically the willing volunteer, Courcey, whose idealism and enthusiasm for the Vietnam War has now been killed together with his comrades. He wakes up after the battle in the morning to find that everyone else is dead and the soldiers, including Barker, have been stripped of their fatigues. The VC have withdrawn, having left him for dead. As Courcey wanders to the grave site, he finds another survivor: the wounded, one-eyed VC scout that he saw earlier. The VC points his rifle at Courcey before dropping it out of exhaustion. Courcey says to the one-eyed VC, "I'm going home, Charlie, if they'll let me" as he wanders off the grave site and onto the dirt road leading away from the ruins of the village.



The screenplay by Wendell Mayes was shopped around for years with various older leading men in the role of Major Asa Barker.

Director Ted Post persuaded Avco Embassy Pictures to produce the film on a limited budget with the film shot in California with Vietnamese migrants. He sent the script to a friend of Burt Lancaster, then 65 years old, who was recuperating from a knee injury – his Maj. Barker limps throughout the film.[3] Calling the script brilliant, Lancaster agreed to star in it and when the 31-day production budget ran short, he paid $150,000 to complete it. The younger actors cast were Marc Singer as infantry Captain Al Olivetti, a gung-ho career officer seeking to earn the Combat Infantryman Badge and Craig Wasson as Corporal Courcey, the idealistic college-educated draftee who wants to see what a real war is like.[4]

Release and reception[edit]

Go Tell the Spartans was released in the United States on June 14, 1978. It was re-released on September 7, 1987, and came out on video in the United States on May 13, 1992.[5]

Though the film had a limited release in the United States, critics, especially those opposed to the Vietnam War, praised it: "In sure, swift strokes," wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the Saturday Review, "it shows the irrelevance of the American presence in Vietnam, the corruption wrought by that irrelevance, and the fortuity, cruelty, and waste of an irrelevant war." Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic found it "the best film I've seen about the Vietnam War." More broadly, Roger Grooms in the Cincinnati Enquirer judged it to be "one of the noblest films, ever, about men in crisis."

Over time, the film became an overlooked anti-war classic. At one of its revivals, it was described as:

A cult fave — and deservedly so — Go Tell the Spartans was hard-headed and brutally realistic about our dead-end presence in Vietnam; released the same year as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, the film won critical admiration, but audiences preferred individualised sagas, sentiment, and romantic melodrama. Rather than tackle the effects of the war on physically and emotionally wounded vets, this brave film exposed the fundamental, tactical lunacy of the war as perceived by an American officer (Burt Lancaster) who knows better, but must follow through on stupid, self-destructive orders from above. This is one of Lancaster's best performances: embittered, a cog in the military juggernaut, this good man foresees the killing waste to come.[6]

In 1979, Wendell Mayes' screenplay was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium (Screen)".[7]


  1. ^ Daniel Ford, Incident at Muc Wa (Doubleday, 1967) ISBN 0-595-08927-5
  2. ^ "Muc Wa" is a real Special Forces base in the Plain of Reeds, southern Vietnam. The name is pronounced "muc-hwa", but spelled "Muc Hoa".
  3. ^ This is the second film where Lancaster was bedeviled by knee troubles. In John Frankenheimer's The Train, Lancaster injured himself playing golf on a day off from filming. A scene showing Lancaster getting shot was inserted to explain his limp.
  4. ^ Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster (Da Capo Press, 2000) ISBN 0-306-81019-0
  5. ^ TCM Misc notes
  6. ^ Program notes at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, May 2000
  7. ^ IMDB Awards

External links[edit]