Greatest War Movie Employing Golf as Key Plot Point

Not to be unkind, but with such mediocrities as Hot Dog…The Movie (1984 teen sex romp with competitive skiing) and Youngblood (1986 Rob Lowe/Patrick Swayze Canadian junior hockey drama) to his credit, one might think that filmmaker Peter Markle couldn’t direct his way out of a popcorn bucket.


But in keeping with the expression “Even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut,” Markle does have one quality theatrical release to his credit, 1988’s, BAT 21, a Vietnam War rescue film starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. And as the title of this blogpost indicates, it involves golf — yes, as in the sport — as a key plot point. Seriously. The whole thing’s as fascinating as it is unlikely, a bonafide “truth is stranger than fiction” situation.

The True Story

On April 2, 1972, in the skies over over Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam, USAF Lieutenant Colonel Iceal E. “Gene” Hambleton was acting as navigator on a plane escorting three B-52s on a bombing run. Hambleton’s plane, a Douglas B-66 Destroyer, was tasked with identifying North Vietnamese anti-aircraft radar installations so they could be jammed, thus preventing accurate surface-to-air (SAM) missile launches against the B-52s. Ironically, it was Hambleton’s plane that was hit by a missile at 29,000 feet. Hambleton ejected, the only one able to do so of the six-man crew before a second missile completely destroyed the aircraft.

The 53-year-old Hambleton (call sign: BAT 21) quickly experienced a second stroke of luck — despite parachuting into an area crawling with more than 30,000 North Vietnamese, a low fog allowed him to land undetected in a rice field.

With Hambleton safe on the ground, operations quickly shifted to search-and-rescue. Speed of recovery was paramount for two reasons: 1) a downed airman still in-country after four hours sees his odds of retrieval drop below 20% and 2) Hambleton, based on his rank and years of service (29), could provide a wealth of classified information to the North Vietnamese (and perhaps the Soviets) if captured.

Initial “quick-snatch” rescue attempts proved disastrous. A Huey heading to Hambleton’s location was shot down, killing three of the four crew. Night fell, suspending operations. At first light, yet another aircraft was shot down. And while its pilot was captured, the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Mark Clark, found himself in the same situation as Hambleton.

On April 6, four days into the ordeal, yet another helicopter was shot down trying to rescue the two men, this causing the deaths of six more flyers. Air operations were suspended. The North Vietnamese, realizing all the American activity could only mean the man targeted for rescued was incredibly valuable, upped their efforts to capture Hambleton.

Special Forces were recruited for the rescue. However, in order to be extracted, Hambleton would have to cross territory teeming with minefields and the enemy to reach a local river. Because the North Vietnamese were monitoring radio communications, a special code only Hambleton would understand was devised to help guide him to the river. Hambleton was known as one of the Air Force’s best golfers and boasted an encyclopedic memory of the courses he’d played over the years. Thus they radioed him this first instruction: “You’re going to play 18 holes and you’re going to get in the Swanee and make like Esther Williams and Charlie the Tuna. The round starts on No. 1 at Tucson National.”

After some initial confusion, Hambleton realized they were using the golf hole for distance and direction — the first hole at Tucson National was 408 yards running southeast. And so on. Along the journey, he was able to call down pinpoint airstrikes on the enemy. More personally, he ran into a North Vietnamese soldier in a bombed-out village and was forced to kill the man with a knife in hand-to-hand combat.

After 11.5 days in the bush in which he’d lost 45 lbs., Hambleton was finally picked up in a sampan piloted by two Special Forces soldiers who’d volunteered to grab him at great personal risk. (Clark, with a more direct route to the river, had been picked up earlier.)

Hambleton’s rescue has been called the “largest, longest, and most complex search-and-rescue” operation during the Vietnam War. The final tally: five aircraft lost, 11 people killed (not including Hambleton original crew) and two captured.

The Cinematic Version

Adapting a story with as many moving parts as Hambleton’s rescue into a three-act film structure invariably results in the truth being stretched — time is telescoped, real characters removed, fictional characters added, the story streamlined, the stakes enlarged. In other words, thoroughly dramatized. To that end, director Markle and team changed the following:

  • A fictional character, Captain Bartholomew “Birddog” Clark (Danny Glover), was created to be the single point of contact with Hambleton. “Birddog” flies a Cessna O-2 Skymaster and acts as a spotter throughout the proceedings.

  • Hambleton is the one who suggests the golf course map code.
  • The area in which Hambleton has parachuted is slated for a major bombing in 24 hours, thus putting the Lt. Col. in more imminent danger (beyond the North Vietnamese hunting him).
  • The events only take place over a couple days.
  • The second shot down pilot, 1st Lt. Mark Clark, isn’t addressed.
  • Hambleton’s real rescuers, the two Special Forces soldiers, are omitted completely, which allows Glover’s “Birddog” to act as savior as a conflagration explodes around them.

That said, the story retains the inherent drama of a guy behind enemy lines just out of the reach of U.S. Forces. And, as you’d expect, actors as skilled as Glover and Hackman do yeoman’s work. Hackman, especially, has some nice scenes in which the human toll of war really hits home when he calls in an airstrike on an enemy convoy, later kills a peasant who attacked him and, finally, watches as a helicopter rescue ends in the deaths of six Americans. As noted by the real Hambleton in a 1988 interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard, “Dropping a bomb from a plane is not an emotional experience. I got on the ground [in Vietnam] and found out what war was.”

Final Thoughts

Make no mistake, Bat*21 is no All Quiet on the Western Front. It is, however, an eminently watchable war flick with strong performances by the two leads, an exotic local, fine cinematography by Mark Irwin and workmanlike direction by Markle. Unfortunately for the latter, he quickly reverted to his old mediocre ways, setting upon an unsuspecting world 1994’s putrid Wagons East! (John Candy’s last film performance; 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Here’s the trailer for Bat*21:

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