In 1968 Tunnel Rats (2008), director Uwe Boll shines a light on a facet of the Viet Nam conflict that is not generally recognized, the tunnel systems in the Cu Chi district of Saigon, Viet Nam, and the "tunnel rats", soldiers whose mission was to investigate tunnels, and clear them of any enemy personnel. Though actual conditions were much worse, the film does a reasonably good job of conveying some sense of what this terrifying duty may have involved. Taking you into close fitting tunnels, where soldiers with just a flashlight, a knife, and a pistol, face the possibility of horrific death deep underground.
Tunnel systems apparently began in Viet Nam in the 1940's, and became more sophisticated, after the Americans arrived and the conflict intensified. The complex tunnels at Cu Chi, were used by the Viet Cong as places of refuge, and also by the civilian populace, as places to live. Following circuitous routes, tunnels systems could be very complicated, and were often booby trapped. Large caverns where people could stand upright were also constructed. Usually deep below the surface, these spaces served as living areas, medical treatment areas, and even schools. 1968 Tunnel Rats features some of these aspects, but really provides just a tip of an iceberg's view, of how elaborate some of these systems really were.
The bulk of the action takes place during a single day, as a squad of tunnel rats is deployed from their jungle basecamp, and finds a tunnel opening while on patrol. The squad proceeds to investigate, and very shortly encounters a strong enemy presence, when a soldier is graphically skewered with a bamboo pole. After being attacked by the enemy, what remains of the squad takes refuge in the tunnels. What happens below ground may seem a little surreal, as the brutal gut level tunnel warfare is not what most are accustomed to, as when one soldier trapped between two dead bodies, must cut his way out. While the "rats" are exploring the tunnels, the US camp is under a full scale attack. The wild scenes of conventional battle, contrasts with the in close fighting underground.
Among many things discussed in the director's commentary track, Boll was seeking to make a statement about the futility of war. The film was set in 1968 because he believes it was an extremely significant period in time. And the enemy's use the tunnels was a key factor in the US failing to achieve victory, thus making this an important subject to examine.
Uwe Boll is a much maligned filmmaker, which may lead some to dismiss any project he is associated with. While his view regarding the nature of war may not be entirely cogent, he does deserve some credit for exploring this subject, and incorporating realistic elements. While the film is graphic and at times extreme, Boll could easily have made things even more gory or brutal. With a cast of mostly unknowns (save for Michael Pare), and often working from an improvised script, the film doesn't escape being clichéd or manipulative in some respects, however there is still much about it that is thought provoking, impactful, and insightful. Conflict at its most basic level, is about survival, not ideology.
Boll's commentary with director of photography Mathias Neumann, is a little rambling, but covers many key points. It is evident that due to past criticism, Boll is a little defensive at times, and hoping that people will give this film a chance. War isn't about happy endings, and even the "victors" usually suffer great losses. That sometimes there are no winners, would seem to be one of the key points of the film.
Parts of the Cu Chi tunnels are today, popular tourist attractions. Those interested in learning more, may want to investigate Tom Mangold's book The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America's "Tunnel Rats" in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam one the leading references on the subject.