How a Columbia Historian Fact-Checked a Film About the Vietnam War
For the post-Vietnam War generation, the war lives on, memorialized in popular culture as a tragedy of American miscalculation. Nearly 50 years after the last U.S. military plane departed from Saigon, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, directed by Columbia alum Peter Farrelly (SoA ‘86), revisits the Vietnam War film genre with a universal tale of friendship—and accuracy: Lien-Hang Nguyen, Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia, fact-checked the film.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever tells the true story of Chickie Donohue, a native of the Inwood neighborhood in Northern Manhattan, who traveled to Vietnam to bring a taste of home in the form of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to his bar buddies in combat. Producer Andrew Muscato first heard “the best story never told” from his friend, former New York Daily News reporter Joanna Molloy, who went on to co-author Donohue’s 2020 memoir, The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A Memoir of Friendship, Loyalty, and War.
But Muscato couldn’t forget the incredible story he had heard. He produced a 13-minute documentary about it with Pabst Blue Ribbon, reuniting Donohue and the original soldiers of the beer run. The first seeds of a feature-length film were planted.
Correcting Misperceptions About the Vietnam War
“Apocalypse Now and Platoon were gritty, realistic depictions of the soldier experience,” Muscato said in a recent interview at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. “I think this movie gets more at the heart of the thinking of the average member of the American public at the time, and maybe how misguided some of that thinking was.”
While growing up, Muscato’s exposure to the Vietnam War was mostly limited to the perfunctory coverage in high school history classes. But to do Chickie Donohue’s story justice in a film, Muscato decided that getting the Vietnam War right was a top priority.
“Even though this is a Vietnam War story told through an American point of view, it was very important for Peter Farrelly and me to depict the war, Vietnam, and the Vietnamese with the utmost accuracy and sensitivity,” Muscato said, acknowledging significant gaps in Hollywood’s track record of including Vietnamese voices in its retellings of the war. That meant hiring Vietnamese actors to play Vietnamese roles; bringing in the expertise of costume designer Bao Tranchi, a refugee from Saigon; and enlisting Professor Nguyen.
Everything From the Tet Offensive to Military Uniforms
From pinpointing the exact coordinates of a firefight that broke out during Donohue’s first day in Vietnam, to providing a minute-by-minute rundown of the Tet Offensive, and catching a chronologically inaccurate newspaper headline in an early cut of the film, Nguyen’s expertise was indispensable to creating a realistic picture of the war.
“They were very committed to ensuring that every aspect of the film was historically accurate, down to the type of art design on the walls of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, and the specificity of military uniforms from the Republic of Vietnam armed forces,” said Nguyen. “I was going back to the historical record, to images that I've collected over the years, because that's the sort of attention to detail, the sort of historical rigor they expected from me.”
As with all Hollywood productions, liberties were taken with adapting the source material—some with the intention of highlighting important narratives that have largely been absent from older films.
Exploring the Vietnam War From Different Perspectives
“I appreciated that they wanted to bring as much about South Vietnam as possible into a film based on the true story of a protagonist who did not have that much interaction with South Vietnamese civilians or military or the population at large,” Nguyen said.
The Greatest Beer Run Ever is not the only film that has tapped Nguyen for her expertise. She looks forward to consulting on future projects that explore the war from different perspectives. “We are here in 2022, and we have heard––and should listen to––cultural critics like Viet Thanh Nguyen, who criticized––rightly so––the entertainment industry for making Vietnam War films where the Vietnamese are simply props or background, or two-bit characters who help facilitate American self-realization about the horrors of the war,” Nguyen said. She hopes to see more films that put the Vietnamese experience front and center.
A screening of The Greatest Beer Run Ever will be held at Teachers College on October 27, 2022, at 3 pm, followed by a panel discussion with Andrew Muscato, Chickie Donohue, Peter Farrelly, and Bao Tranchi, and moderated by Jason Dempsey. The event is co-hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Teachers College, the Center for Veteran Transition and Integration, and the Military Veterans of Columbia University. Register here.
Ariana King is the communications coordinator at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.