Hearts and Minds (1974): Peter Davis Must-See, Oscar-Winning Vietnam Docu

Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis’ 1974 landmark documentary about Vietnam, won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

The film has been restored under the supervision of Michael Pogorzelski, Director of the Academy Film Archive.

Rainbow will release theatrically the remastered version Oscar-winning feature this month.

In “Hearts and Minds,” filmmaker Peter Davis combined stock footage, news reports, and striking color footage shot by his crew in a still war-torn Vietnam, decades before the Pentagon thought of “embedding” war correspondents. Deemed by its original backing studio as too much of a hot potato, “Hearts and Minds” was bought back by Henry Jaglom and co-producer Bert Schneider (“Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces”) and released to box office and critical acclaim, eventually winning the Oscar Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The docu is replete of indelible, never-before seen  images.  Here is a sampler. A quiet, peaceful village, where the only sound is that of a cart rattling before a soldier wanders into the shot.  A montage of presidents from Truman to Nixon commenting on Vietnam, with only Eisenhower laying it on the line.  L.B. Johnson coining the now-common title phrase: “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people.”

A POW welcomed home to Linden, New Jersey with a flag-waving parade, then addressing schoolchildren on patriotism, while a nun lurks in the background.  Two gangly airmen visit a Saigon brothel, oblivious to the eavesdropping cameras.  The ex-French Foreign Minister explains how the U.S. offered his country two A-Bombs to solve the Indochina problem.

A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson stoically talks about his lost son, while war amputees try on prosthetic limbs.  A self-proclaimed Vietnamese war profiteer gloats over his potential post-war prospects.  A Saigon coffin maker explains how the small ones are for children.  The ex-South Vietnamese president, now a Paris restaurateur, tells how the U.S. made him quit.

Former U.S. commander General William Westmoreland opines, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner.”  This outrageously silly statement is followed by a distraught villager, who lost his 9-year-old daughter in an air raid, crying “Nixon murderer!”  Film Forum’s directors, Bruce Goldstein & Michael Jeck, remind us that a similar scene appeared In two other significant documentaries, “Control Room” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

After 30 years, all prints had faded, but following a two-year effort by the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the film’s color photography (by Richard Pearce, later the director of Heartland and Country) has been restored, a reminder of how docus could look before the age of digital shooting.

In 1997, the Academy Film Archive consulted a print in its collection of “Hearts and Minds” for use in a program highlighting some of the most important moments in documentary films. Not surprisingly, the print was found to be suffering from severe color fading. As color film ages, the dye layers in the emulsion began to collapse and deteriorate. The result onscreen gives the image an overall pinkish appearance: blue skies, green fields, and faces all appear red or pink. The program organizers were alarmed to discover that no one in the world–not even the producer and director, Bert Schneider and Peter Davis–had a print that wasn’t severely worn, deteriorated, or faded.

Although the documentary program went ahead with a clip from the Academy’s faded print, the archivists continued to research the location of all the film elements known to exist on “Hearts and Minds.” For a brief moment, the camera originals were also thought to be lost until they turned up at the lab where the original answer printing took place. The camera originals were inspected and found to be suffering from moderate to severe color fading as well.

Luckily, a 35mm blow-up negative, made for the film’s original theatrical released in 1975, was located among the holdings at the lab. Produced directly from the 16mm camera reversal master, the 35mm negative was also beginning to fade but not nearly to such an extent as the camera originals and the release prints. However, the negative contained several shots which were scratched or torn during release printing. Over the course of the restoration these shots were replaced with new 35mm blow-ups made from the 16mm originals and color-corrected to blend in with the surrounding shots.

Director Davis culled the found footage in Hearts and Minds from numerous color and black-and-white sources, each with its own unique look, picture characteristics, and age-induced artifacts. None of this footage was “improved” or altered from its original appearance in “Hearts and Minds.” The philosophical approach to film restoration is to always preserve the original achievement: to present a film so it looks and sounds as much as it originally did when it was first shown.

Restoration of the original soundtrack was conducted with a similar philosophy. The audio qualities of the found footage were retained and only age-induced artifacts–pops, clicks, splices, and magnetic deterioration–were removed by a digital cleanup. What began as a search for one useable print turned into a two-year restoration project supervised by myself, with invaluable contributions by Peter Davis and cinematographer Richard Pearce, who approved the final prints.