The killing of innocent civilians takes place in all wars. And this isn't the only Vietnam film that depicts such actions. Platoon and Apocalypse Now show the same thing happening. The scene of the burning village in Platoon is one of the most frightening ever filmed. It comes inches short of what the My Lai Massacre was all about. Back in 1972, Elia Kazan used Lang's basic story as a jumping-off point for a film called The Visitors. For it Kazan, who had directed the Academy Award-winning On the Waterfront, wrote his own screen version of what happened after the sentencings. He put up his own money and filmed on his Connecticut estate.
James Woods, in his first starring movie role, played a Vietnam vet hunted down by ex-combat companions. They come seeking revenge because his testimony about a rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman sent them to prison.
At the conclusion, they beat Woods' character nearly to death and rape his wife.
The picture wasn't successful in this country. It was, however, a smash hit in France because the French, far enough removed from their own disaster at Dien Bien Phu, were ready to concede that Vietnam was an evil swamp that tended to drown everyone who set foot in it.
But we must get back to the story of Daniel Lang. He reported the event for the New Yorker by first reading all seven volumes of the trial transcripts in the offices of the clerk of the courts at United States Army Judiciary in Falls Church, Virginia.
Later, Lang went to Minnesota to find Eriksson, who was the only witness. Eriksson is not his real name. Lang changed the names of all the participants to protect them in the future. Eriksson reportedly still lives under an assumed name, fearful of retribution from the men he sent to prison.
Four separate trials were conducted. Eriksson was the lone prosecution witness at each one.
Eriksson told the court that the woman was between the ages of eighteen and twenty and that she had a gold tooth in the front of her mouth. Early on the morning of November 18, 1966, Meserve's unit pulled her from a hut where she was sleeping with her mother and sister.
Eriksson remembered that people kept telling him that American G.I.'s were fools for "being ready to die for people who defecated in public and whose food was dirtier than anything in our garbage cans back home."
After the first day, the woman was sick and coughing. There was a discussion over whether to kill her at once or to keep her, hoping she'd get over her cold and provide more sex for the group.
Meserve, becoming irritated because of Eriksson's refusal to take part, threatened to have him "killed in action." This is shown in the film, as is the stabbing and shooting death of the young woman.
Added to the film are a scene showing Meserve saving Eriksson's life during earlier combat action and a harrowing sequence of the death of Meserve's best army buddy. These are not part of the real record and they appear only in an attempt to humanize Meserve; to make us think he was really a decent sort who merely went off his rocker after too much combat.
DePalma tilts the deck in Meserve's favor but the sergeant still comes off as a figure from your worst nightmare. Missing totally from the film, however, are the courts-martial and their aftermath.
It wasn't until weeks after the killing that Eriksson found someone who would listen to his story. The best his own lieutenant could do was caution Eriksson to be quiet and accept a transfer to another unit. This became necessary because the members of Eriksson's squad were trying to kill him.
First to listen was a chaplain from Arizona named Gary Greenacre. Lang doesn't tell us where in Arizona Greenacre lived, merely that he was a Mormon chaplain. Greenacre called in another Mormon chaplain, Captain Gerald Kirk of Ogden, Utah.
Neither name shows up in phone directories and so it's possible that Lang also devised fictitious names for them as well.
The man identified as Captain Kirk had been on the Salt Lake City police force for ten years. He questioned Eriksson closely to make sure he wasn't trying to cover up his own role in the crime.
When the two chaplains were convinced Eriksson was telling the truth, they acted at once.
Bringing Eriksson with them, they went in search of the victim's body. Though it was almost a month later, Eriksson found the dead woman. Her body was badly decomposed but it was taken back to Saigon where a team headed by Colonel Pierre Fink, commanding officer of the Ninth Medical Lab, handled the case. (Colonel Fink was one of three pathologists who had performed the autopsy on President John F. Kennedy a few years previously.)