Vietnam veteran Larry Rottman admits he was an imperfect soldier in a historically flawed war.
The former Army Lieutenant, Bronze and Purple Star recipient, and retired Missouri State University professor won’t tell you that his film Voices from Vietnam is gold standard, though it did garner some acclaim.
But Rottmann’s gripping anecdotes, dualistic narrative, and poetic cadence in his 52-minute image are a visual culmination of his decades-long endeavour.
Rottmann, who railed against the conflict in Vietnam while testifying before Congress as a young veteran, retains much of the same power.
“Some call it obsession, I call it responsibility,” said Rottmann, an author and former journalism teacher who is nearing his 80th birthday.
The latest version of Voices from Vietnam, made with help from Missouri film professor and director Mark Biggs and help from three local colleges, debuted last November. It will be shown again in the Ozarks soon.
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The film will be screened on Thursday, November 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Springfield-Greene County Library Center Auditorium, followed by a Q&A session. DVDs of the film, narrated by Rottmann with a musical score by Ray Castrey, are available for purchase.
As a prelude to the film, Rottmann and retired Army officer Mike O’Brien of Boise, Idaho, will be performing at the same location on November 2 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the reading “A Different Vietnam: Three True Stories.”
Rottmann also reads from a Vietnamese perspective with an excerpt from Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s “The Mountains Sing”.
Rottmann has often conducted readings of his work across Missouri and beyond in the spirit of Veterans Day, but this will be a very different presentation.
Biggs, who has worked with Rottmann on various projects since 1987, likes the finished product and noted that it won awards at several film festivals.
“I think it’s become the form that Larry has presented for a long time,” Biggs said.
What to expect
Dressed in black, Rottmann sits in a chair as he tells dark but powerful first-person American and Vietnamese wartime stories.
The narrator of Voices from Vietnam is flanked in the film by an array of musical instruments, including a gong made from artillery shells fired by US tanks, flutes and bamboo whistles.
Castrey, a Missouri State Department of Theater and Dance Emeritus, plays each instrument and provides a musical score that helps punctuate Rottmann’s stories.
Footage and photographs accompany the storytelling along with the sharp and contrasting sounds of war and nature.
The opening minutes set the tone.
In a series of letters, Rottmann tells the story of an American soldier who corresponds with his family back home.
“Dear Mom, it must be raining a lot here,” the soldier wrote.
“Tell us more,” replies his mother.
“The monkeys here are really funny,” he replies. “The sunsets here are spectacular. Simply spectacular.”
“Don’t hold back. How is it? You have to tell us everything,” his mother urges.
“Today I killed a man,” he admits. “Yesterday we threw napalm at women and children.”
In the next letter, his father interferes.
“Please don’t tell us that. You’re depressing your mother,” says the father.
“Dear Mama, it’s raining a lot here,” replies the young soldier, returning to his original message.
“Name and Nuance
Since Rottmann, a 1965 University of Missouri graduate who nearly died in the field after suffering a traumatic head injury, he has said he’s always wanted to add cultural context to the widely misunderstood and complex Vietnam conflict.
He has written several books and compiled several films on the subject and has taught in over 100 classrooms.
Even after his time in the military, Rottmann still considers Vietnam his second home. He has returned 19 times and has taught, worked, hiked and cycled around the country. One of his books, Voices from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, chronicles these experiences.
Rottmann said he often winces when he sees the war portrayed from a sensational Hollywood perspective. For more than 40 years, his primary goals have been to dispel stereotypes, create nuance and humanize the Vietnamese.
“I was really concerned about how the culture portrayed the war. I’m still worried,” said Rottmann. “Movies like Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill. They seemed unfair and one-sided. It wasn’t much about the individual GIs, their backgrounds. And about the Vietnamese next to nothing.”
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years in the making
Rottmann’s passion project Voices from Vietnam first came together in 1985. Since then, several iterations of the performance and reading have evolved.
It has been performed hundreds of times in schools, churches and prisons, museums, cruise ships and just about every venue that Rottmann said would support his goal: to deliver a balanced and nuanced history of the war.
It was only after his 212th reading at Drury University in 2019 that he felt inspired to pursue the documentary path.
Production was boosted by a $10,000 grant from the Ozarks Technical College, where Rottmann served as an educator. Missouri State and Drury also contributed talent and resources to the project.
It took 27 months to put together the final product, which involved the use of 12 cameras and 24 microphones.
“One of the best film collaborations that MSU, Drury and OTC have done on a single project,” said Biggs. “This was a labor of love from pretty much everyone involved.”