If you came to this article from a Google search and decide to read on, you are bound to have some remorse. This won’t be what you think it is from the title. What it is about is a pair of fictional stories, one a book (and maybe, eventually a movie) and one a movie (but never a book), that are set in America somewhere in the 1969-1970 time frame and featuring Vietnam as a locale and a major plot point. I don’t know what you were hoping for, but you’re not going to find it here, ya filthy animal.
Without Remorse was, quite literally, my beach reading some time back, when it was newish. I remember enjoying it at the time and, recently, when I found myself looking for something on the lighter side, I decided to read it again. I now see it, as described on-line, referred to as “A John Clark Novel.” At the time I had no idea that this was the back story on a recurring character and certainly had no idea that he was to become the lead character in the Rainbow Six novels and actually “Rainbow Six” himself. I actually thought it was supposed to be an “Admiral Greer” backstory.
Not so long ago, I reread Red Storm Rising and I found it did not hold up as well as my memory would have it. This, even though my memories of it were not that flattering. My earliest impressions of Clancy’s writing were tainted by his clunky, overly-technical descriptions. Without Remorse, on the other hand, I remembered as being enjoyable. Based on a revised analysis of just these two data points, I’m going to say I think Clancy’s writing ability may have improved a good bit the more he wrote. Or more to the point, Without Remorse remains a good read.
Knowing why the book was written, however, doesn’t help. When I thought that John Kelly/John Clark was just an interesting passer-through in the Clancy fictional world, I could read the story more at face value. Knowing, as I do now, that this book was written as a setup for all the future books that feature this character, I’m a little less enthusiastic.
It was clear from around the very first appearance of Jack Ryan that he was Tom Clancy’s idealized self. Their biographies and personalities are pretty similar. It’s just that Jack Ryan just does it all a little better. Now, under some circumstances, there is nothing wrong with this. An author must put a bit of himself into his works and it all seemed fine when Ryan was put aboard the USS Dallas in The Hunt for Red October. As the books continued, though, Ryan both saw rapid promotions as well as ramping up of his physical participation in these covert operations. Not only are these two character arcs fairly incompatible but I couldn’t get it out of my head that I’m reading about Clancy as he’d like to see himself, running around and stopping the baddies.
Now bring in John Clark. Obviously, by the fact that I missed his character’s appearances in the other Clancy books I’ve read, I have little opinion about the guy. I have read, however, that Clark is a kind of Jack-Ryan’s-other-half. That is, once again, Clancy has created an idealized version of himself through whom he can act vicariously, although this time much more of an action hero. I had already thought Ryan was a little too physical for a Tom Clancy stand-in, so the idea that he needs a beefed-up version seems even more over-the-top.
Of course, as I’ve said, I didn’t know anything about John Clark at the time I read Without Remorse. Taken independently, it’s the story of a Vietnam veteran who turns vigilante to wreak vengeance upon Baltimore’s drug dealers over the murder of a loved one. In that sense, it combines Rambo, Death Wish, and Point of Impact/Shooter (which actually did a version of the story a year earlier) into a tale of what we all sometimes wish we could do. That is, if we weren’t constrained by the law and other trimmings of civilization. Oh, and if we were trained in covert operations and assassination by the United States Navy.
Critics found the story overly-long. We do get, essentially, three revenge stories for the price of one. Kelly/Clark takes on the drug dealers, who, from what I know about Baltimore drug dealers, probably did have it coming. He also takes vengeance on the commies for having captured and tortured some fine, American pilots. He also gets to stomp on a commie spy. In a more plausible world, one tale of revenge might be enough. I remained enthralled in the stories throughout, though, and I think the juxtaposition of all three is intended to make a statement about morality and legality when it comes to killing. Sometimes it is bad, but sometimes we think it is good. Sometimes we even think one thing but perhaps only because we don’t know the whole truth. Perhaps that’s taking what is essentially a beach novel and pushing it too far. In the end, it did for me what a good beach novel is supposed to do – it kept me up at night turning pages, unable to put it down.
Love and Honor, another movie coming off of Netflix, lacks even the depth of a beach novel. Here we follow the story of an army volunteer, Joiner (I shit you not), whose girl back home has broken-off their relationship. His friend, who is Wright (get it, he’s right!), councils him that there are other fish in the sea, yet Joiner decides he is to jump ship (excuse the mixed metaphors) and go back to the U.S. to confront the girl under cover of a 1-week leave in Hong Kong. This is all superimposed with the first Moon landing, which is going on at exactly the same time as the thing with the girl.
Wright decides to join Joiner on his odyssey. He is a “player” (to use some modern terminology) – handsome, smooth-talking, and good with the ladies. In fact, he is probably best thought of in such modern terms. While the film takes place in 1969, with some cars and clothes to emphasize the point, much about this simply comes off as present-day. The moral of the story, a “hate the war, respect the soldier” message, seems targeted more at our current foreign entanglements than that of a generation ago. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, given the popularity of period-not-so-period pieces these days, that some twenty-teens twenty-somethings can just assert that “We’re children of the sixties” and we ask no more of them.
Anyhow, Wright and Joiner go off on the adventure and, seeing how Wright is played by male-lead Liam Hemsworth, we see him make adventures of his own. Will he find love? Will he fall in love? Will love change him? If you know the genre then you know the answers have to be yes, yes, and yes.
Honestly, it’s not the worst movie. Taken purely as a feel-good, teen-romance (albeit with nearly-30 actors playing those teens), it does alright. Try to read much more into it and you’ll likely come away disappointed. Not only does it fail to provide any historical depth, but it fails to convey whether it is even trying. For example, the weaving of the plot in with the moon landings. Is that supposed to help convey some higher meaning? If it is, I failed to see what it was.
I will say one thing that the movie did illuminate for me. Watching the images of twenty-teens actors in what is supposed to be a 1960s anti-war protest invites compare-and-contrast between the protest movements between now and then. One massive difference is the draft. In 1969, it wasn’t just that those college-aged protesters saw injustice in the war. They, at least the boys, were also at risk to be themselves sent to Vietnam. Oddly enough, I read a reassertion of just this point two nights after I watched Love and Honor while reading Road to Disaster and I hit late 1967 and the acceleration of the Vietnam War protests. On this last point, the movie actually seems to be self-aware. During the climatic dramatic moment the leading-gal says to the main antagonist, “I thought you were a traitor. The truth is that you’re only a coward.”
If nothing else, living in a time of an all-volunteer military makes it easier to criticize anti-war protestors who were just out to save their own skins.