By Tim Ryan Executive Editor
It’s not about money, fame or headlines for author-turned-film producer Rich Botkin.
“No, it’s about passion for the truth, to tell the real story about the Vietnam War,” he said on the set of his Ride the Thunder documentary at the Kualoa fishponds. “The goal, the purpose of this film is simply tell the truth about what happened there and why (the United States) was there.”
It took Botkin, a U.S. Marine for 15 years and Punahou Schools graduate, 4 visits to Vietnam to conduct interviews and 5 years to write his book. Ride the Thunder was published in 2009. Then, with the encouragement of friends and fellow Marines, he decided that “it made sense” to make the documentary.
But Botkin, who admits, “I’m not a filmmaker,” had few contacts in Hawaii’s filmmaking community.
“I don’t have a clue in knowing how to make a film,” he confessed. “I just reached out to the filmmakers with the message of what I wanted to do.”
After Botkin’s partner, director Fred Koster, contacted production entrepreneur Branscombe Richmond at his Maui home, as well as Honolulu’s Connie Flores, Hawaii crew started applying. Richmond is the film’s associate producer, but on this day he was also assisting first-time director Koster, who is also the screenwriter and executive producer. Flores serves as a producer and the unit production manager.
Depending on the day, crew numbers fluctuate between 60 and 80, including 11 from Maui, all working below union scale since the film is an independent project. The on-set atmosphere is refreshingly cheerful. Crewmembers have time to say hello to friends and visitors between shots.
Ride the Thunder tells “the entire history about Vietnam overlaid on the personal stories of five Marines”—three U.S. Marine officers and two South Vietnamese officers, said Botkin. The film’s budget is about $300,000, most of which is Botkin’s money with some donations from friends, former Marines and U.S. Army personnel. The film is being shot on Oahu, Maui, and in Hollywood.
The two main characters in the film are an American officer, Colonel John Ripley, played by Eric St. John of California, and Major Le Ba Binh, played by Joseph Hieu. Ripley was an American hero awarded the Navy Cross after he blew up a strategic North Vietnamese bridge that stopped the communists’ offensive on Easter Sunday in 1972.
The bridge’s superstructure, built by American Seabees, was supported by six enormous I-beams three feet tall. To destroy it, Ripley had to hand-walk and crawl with 500 pounds of dynamite and plastic explosives 100 feet into the bridge’s underbelly. All the while he was under continual enemy fire. After several hours, everything was put in place, the charges were detonated and the bridge came down.
Perhaps the most prominent character in the film is Binh, a South Vietnamese Marine officer who served his country for 13 years until 1975. He was wounded nine times and awarded the American Silver Star. Binh’s battalion was called “Wolves of the Sea.” His men held their ground defending the bridge because it was the only crossing in the area sturdy enough to support the more than 200 tanks the enemy had assembled on the north side of the river.
“When the war ended, Binh remained in Vietnam and put in a re-education camp for nine years,” said Botkin. “These camps had nothing to do with regaining lost knowledge. (The camps) were nothing more than organized revenge on a massive scale.”
After his release, Binh and his family moved to the United States, where he became a successful businessman.
“He achieved the American dream; he’s a metaphor for all Vietnamese in the U.S.,” said Botkin. “Ripley is a metaphor for the American effort: honorable, brave, courageous.”
The film deviates a bit from the book for narrative purposes.
“We’re taking Binh into the re-education camp, then use flashbacks to get us to the interviews we did with significant people who can tell the story through their experience,” said Botkin. These include American POWs, Marine officers and enlisted men, and key Army officers. There are 8 principal characters and about 44 extras that portray prisoners of war.
“Every member of this crew is so awesome,” said Botkin. “They get it and bust their butts for us.”
The major challenge for Botkin has been “keeping all the balls in the air at one time and staying organized.”
He continued, “On this film I’m basically the logistics officer, like what I was trained to do as a Marine. I coordinate the vans, food, travel. I feel like I’m leading the Marines and everyone is rising to the cause.”
Ride the Thunder is following an unusual business plan for its release.
“We’re going to release the film in just one theater in Southern California,” said Botkin. “Hopefully, we’ll do well and create a buzz. This film certainly will appeal to veterans. Then hopefully get into general release.”