Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder

Director: Peter Werner
Dennis Christopher, Susan Saint James, Roger Aaron Brown

It's a funny thing - there are many subjects that are popular with people, but all the same when people think about them they often don't think of some major ways these subjects became a reality and available to people. Let me give you a few examples to make sure you know what I am talking about. For starters, what do you think when you think of "nature"? Well, the first things that probably go through your head are made up of thoughts about all different sorts of animals, and also probably thoughts of wild and unspoiled landscapes made up of various kinds of plant life and terrain. It probably never occurs to you that all these things took millions of years to evolve and become what you see now (or just a few days, if you are one of those people who refuse to accept scientific proof.) Next, what immediately goes through your head when you think of motion pictures? Probably many pleasant and unpleasant viewing experiences. But your thoughts probably don't begin to comprehend that just about any movie not only requires a lot of hard work, but the hard work of hundreds of people all working together on the same thing. Then there are professional sports. What went through your head just now when I mentioned that particular subject? Similar to movies, probably that you have had many entertaining experiences watching such events. But how often do you think of what the particular people playing these sports had to go through to get where they are? These people had to go through numerous hours of training in order to become a professional sports player. Not only that, these people, when they are not on the field playing, spend hours practicing the sport they mastered in order to make sure their skills are up to snuff the next time they play for real.

There's one more subject matter that I would also like you to think of for a few seconds, something that has to do with the movie I reviewing here, Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder. What goes through your head when you think about war? I'm pretty sure I know what went through your head a few seconds ago. You were thinking of grand and explosive stuff, namely various battles in various wars that took place on the land, sea, or the air. No doubt you were thinking of such stuff because part of human behavior is to be attracted to mass destruction and other kinds of violence. It's why we can't help but sneak a look when we pass the aftermath of a car accident on the street. Getting back to war, it's possible you thought of some other war-related things besides battles, but it's unlikely that you thought about one particular topic. And that topic has to do with those who are not involved in any part of fighting a war, but are greatly affected by it all the same. For example, there are civilians who get caught in the middle between two sides engaged in battle, and get hurt or killed in the conflict. Then there are children who are orphaned, and someone has to take care of them. In many wars going on today, there are unfortunately few to no people to take care of such victims of war. But there have been some wars where one side realizes that war doesn't just take place on the battlefield, but on the home front as well. In World War II, for example, there was a considerable amount of effort made by Allied forces to take care of innocent people scarred by warfare, whether it was to give them medical care or simply enough food to survive.

While there have been a number of wars for the past hundred years or so when there has been some effort to give aid to innocents affected by war, when it comes to motion pictures concerning warfare, little to nothing of this is shown. It doesn't take much thought to conclude why this is Don't Cry, It's Only Thunderso. Most people go to the movies to be entertained and see spectacle, and stuff blowing up is an easy way of satisfying an audience hungry for entertainment. It certainly is much easier than going to the effort of writing complex characters struggling with issues. But years ago as a teenager, I saw a movie - based on a true story - that concerned this. It was Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder. I really liked it when I saw it years ago, and my good memories got me recently to track down a copy and watch it again - though this time with a more critical eye. The events of the movie take place in Vietnam in 1967, when the war was still raging. Actor Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away) plays Brian Anderson, a young medic who is only out for himself, making money in the black market among other things. Brian is reassigned to a Saigon mortuary to serve out the rest of his tour when his dirty dealings become known. Not long before that, a friend of his was mortally wounded, and in his dying breath asks Brian to go to an off-base address. When Brian gets the chance to get off base and go to the address, he not only discovers an orphanage run by two nuns, but that his now dead friend had been helping the orphanage. Eventually, remembering his dead friend, Brian reluctantly starts helping the orphanage, using his skills learned on the black market to get the orphans the supplies they desperately need, along with the help of a friendly doctor (James, Kate & Allie) on base. As the weeks pass and his help for the orphans continues, Brian finds himself slowly transformed from a selfish figure to one who grows to love and care for others, not just towards the orphans. But a war is still raging, and Brian may not know his contentment may be turned upside down at any moment.

Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder was one of the final leading man roles for Christopher. According to a 2012 interview done with him, around the point when this movie was made, the "cult of celebrity" was starting to turn him off. As a result, he soon after sought roles that had him playing much different characters, and these turned out to be supporting parts. We'll never know what might have been had Christopher continued pursuing the leading man route, but this movie alone shows he definitely had the stuff to be up front and center in a movie. The role of Brian Anderson is one that would be a challenge to any actor. For one thing, his character at the beginning has some negative attributes, ranging from stealing penicillin and morphine to make some extra money on the black market, to neglecting his duties as a member of the American armed forces. But Christopher makes this flawed character a palatable one with his performance. In his tone and various actions, Christopher makes Brian Anderson a person who at the beginning is not enjoying himself despite getting away with murder. When a soldier is dying before him, he puts out a great song and dance routine that assures the soldier he will be okay, but from his eyes you can tell he thinks otherwise, and the pain of this is getting to him. He later goes to a bordello for relief, but the next morning you can tell he is not satisfied. Christopher superbly shows that the tour of duty for Brian Anderson has almost worn him out completely. We can feel the struggle and suffering this character is experiencing internally, so our sympathies go out to him despite his not always great conduct.

As the movie progresses, Christopher's character experiences moments of great emotion, ranging from sadness to love, and Christopher does well in these moments, making them believable. He also manages to convince the audience of his character's eventual transformation from selfishness to someone concerned about his fellow man. It helps that the screenplay makes this character's transformation believable on paper alone. Anderson doesn't transform a little more in every subsequent scene - on a few occasions he backtracks due to the increasing responsibility being placed on him as well as with other problems in his life distracting him. This is a flawed but human character. In fact, many of the other characters in the movie show more than one side to themselves. The morgue's commander is initially a hardass who threatens the stockade to Anderson, but eventually sees the good that Anderson is doing for the orphans. On the other hand, James' medic character is one that initially starts helping the orphans immediately upon learning about them, but later in the movie quits when it becomes too risky for her budding medical career. Near the end of the movie, one of the orphanage's nuns, who had earlier been relentlessly prodding Anderson to provide so much help, confesses that she now has deep feelings for Anderson. It isn't just with the characters that the movie shows a lot of balance, but also towards the Vietnam War itself. Certainly, we are shown negative things like soldiers dying from suicides and drug overdoses, the nuns claiming the Americans are prolonging the war, and Anderson wearing a t-shirt at one point stating, "Death before reenlistment". On the other hand, the Viet Cong are shown to be people who have no qualms about attacking ambulances or innocent civilians, even those that are children.

As you may have guessed from what I wrote in the above paragraph, the United States military in Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder overall comes across as a lot more sympathetic than you usually get in a modern day movie concerning the Vietnam war (or any other war involving Americans for that matter.) The soldiers in this movie are not perfect, and all of them may not support the war, but they are people who do their duty. I think this portrayal is much closer than normal to what it was really like for American soldiers in the Vietnam war, and director Peter Werner is to be commended for going against the grain and showing a more honest and balanced portrayal. He does well with other aspects of the movie as well. The movie was shot in the Philippines, and Werner manages to pass off the various locations (indoors as well as outdoors) as taking place in Vietnam in the '60s. He adds genuine atmosphere by not adding any fraudulent slickness to what we see; there are frequent overcast skies, and the streets and buildings are worn down and coated with filth. Probably the best thing about his direction is the feeling of honesty that he gives to every scene. He does not try to manipulate the audience in any way, simply presenting every moment just as it is, and leaving it to the audience to find themselves genuinely moved when the movie eventually reaches the end. One can only wonder what may have happened to Werner's career had Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder not had its distribution cancelled after a test run produced disappointing box office grosses. Or Christopher's career for that matter. The movie remains difficult to see today, so if you get the opportunity to watch it, I strongly recommend you jump at the opportunity.

(Posted October 1, 2016)

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See also: Bad Company, Local Boys, Skeletons