Indie Beat: Ride the Thunder Transitions from Book to Film

Ride the Thunder filming a prisoner of war scene at Kualoa Ranch.

Ride the Thunder filming a prisoner of war scene at Kualoa Ranch.

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.

Rich Botkin with actor Joseph Hieu.

Rich Botkin with actor Joseph Hieu.

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.

Branscombe Richmond, associate producer.

Branscombe Richmond, associate producer.

“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.”

9 comments to Indie Beat: Ride the Thunder Transitions from Book to Film

  • Mike McKernan

    Wolcott forwarded this to me. Nice work following your dream to write the book and now create a film. I look forward to seeing the film.

  • Andrew Finlayson

    I read the book and consider it one of the most interesting and factual books about the Vietnam War. I am a Vietnam War veteran and I have been concerned for some time about the false narrative laid down by many academics and anti-war activists about the war. Mr. Botkin sets the record straight and I hope his film is widely seen since it tells the truth about a very poorly understood war. When it is released, I hope to invite many of my friends to view it.

  • H. David Brace

    Will this film include 3/3 Lima Company “Ripley’s Raiders”!

  • Lawannah Curry

    I would like to be q part of this film. May I please submit my HS and Resume?
    I live in Phx.

    Lawannah Curry
    Senior actor/model

    602 8192954

  • Linda Galbraith

    Glad u r doing this. Lost friends over there. Had friends come back, very changed, some could just not fit into society from all they had seen. One was in the bamboo cages. He wife wrote a book about it but it was borrowed and never returned. I had friends who lost limbs as young men. Are u aware of the VA center/hospital here in Prescott AZ. Maybe some of these men could be in ur crowd scenes. I know they r too old to b the brave men returning from ‘Nam. My neighbor was one of the last to return from ‘Nam. He had a construction company. He married a ‘Nam woman, had 2 kids. Treated her daughter as his. It took the kids a long time to be “normal”. The little girl was about my daughter’s age. She would hang onto the wall and stay near walls when at the house playing. We didn’t have many planes go overhead but when we did she tried hiding. She is now a married Mom. Don’t know if she remembers those yrs. Think she was around 3. The kids had a hard time adjusting. In ‘Nam they had servants – very cheap there. They didn’t like it here that they had to do so much – no servants! The oldest cared for the younger who cared for the next younger. Beatings with cords, sticks, whatever, was OK with the older kids. This was how it was done in ‘Nam. It was hard for them to learn some of the American ways. The mother never did take well to America and left for Hawaii to open a restaurant for the ‘Nam. Just though I would write, ask about putting some of our vets in the crowd scenes. They were there.

  • Hello Mr. Schmidt;
    I read your page about the film Ride the Thunder and that you will be having auditions in Prescott. Does this include also background actors as well? I am retired, 62, and have not driven a vehicle since 1980. How can an extra apply for your film? My email is . If chosen, I could possibly get a ride to Prescott. Thank you for your time sir. I look forward in meeting and working with you.
    Robert Quigley

  • Mahalo Tim for a great write up and tribute to such a great project.

    Mahalo nui loa!!

    Connie M. Florez
    Producer/Production Manager

  • Karen Rhodes

    I hope your film will show in my eastern NC area at some point. This is a point of view that should be shared. Perhaps it can heal or at least effect some of the beliefs that were held in the 60′s as the entire story was never cognizalently explained then. What a grand project. Best wishes on your previews.

  • Andy DeBona

    Richard- When blowing the bridge is mentioned, I feel that the size and scope of the bridge should be shown just to appreciate the effort required of Rip- Semper Fi Marine

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