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American Independents, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences

BIFF 2012 #4: Distinguished Flying Cross (US 2011)

The only known photo of Wade Wilkerson's helicopter in combat

Screened as part of a double bill of short features, Distinguished Flying Cross is a 61 minute documentary about a US Army helicopter pilot sent to Vietnam in 1965. According to the festival brochure, Film Comment named director Travis Wilkinson as one of the top avant-garde filmmakers currently active. This turned out to be rather a misleading introduction to the film which is actually a conventionally structured eye-witness documentary. The simple structure uses title cards to announce questions and chapter headings for the statements of Warrant Officer Wilkerson who is shown in a head-on shot flanked by his two sons. The trio drink beer and mull over the father’s memories. Intercut with these scenes are clips of the war taken by unnamed army filmmakers (including some interesting footage of local bands playing for the Americans) and acquired by Travis Wilkerson via US National Archives.

Wade Wilkerson has an extraordinary memory from which he digs out some matter-of-fact observations of what happened and why. He was in Vietnam because he wanted to fly civil jetliners and the only way to get such jobs was via military training. He would have needed a college degree to get into the Navy or Airforce but the Army took him without questions. He wasn’t a very good soldier according to his own account and the incident which earned him the DFC, although certainly heroic on his part, was probably awarded for the wrong reason. An excellent raconteur, Wade tells an interesting story well exposing the bullshit as he puts it. I enjoyed the tales (most of which are familiar enough from the well-known books on the war such as Michael Herr’s Despatches or Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War) – but I don’t think I’ve heard the specific helicopter pilot perspective before. This perspective is also important because this was 1965 when the US was supposedly ‘aiding’ South Vietnam and the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Wade is quite illuminating about what it was like to be a mature student at a university a few years later.

If this pops up on TV at some point, I would recommend it.

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