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China Beach - The Complete Series

Time Life // Unrated // April 15, 2013
List Price: $199.95 [Buy now and save at Timelife]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 29, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Why did it take so long, more than 20 years after its cancellation, for this reviewer to recognize the great television that is China Beach (1988-91), the addictive, utterly engrossing and unexpectedly original Vietnam War evacuation hospital drama?

I'd seen bits and pieces of it when it originally aired on ABC, and though I liked what little I saw at the time I was also rather disinclined to commit the same time and trouble I'd put into a tiny handful of other shows during the '80s, most notably the not-dissimilar St. Elsewhere (1982-88).

Undoubtedly Vietnam War Drama Fatigue had set in. The genre had come in two big waves, the first cycle during 1977-79 with, notably, The Boys in Company C, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. Then, after a spate of exploitation schlock like First Blood, Uncommon Valor, and the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films, a second wave of more personal, serious films followed during 1986-89, beginning with Platoon and continuing with Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hamburger Hill, The Hanoi Hilton, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July.

Some were good, some not, but overall they had a profoundly cathartic affect on audiences, veterans and families largely ignored by American film and television producers during and immediately after the war. I remember sitting through one of these films next to a woman who sobbed uncontrollably all the way through it: her brother had served and survived, but once home was never quite the same again.

I think I must have avoided China Beach when it was new for the same reason many others did. I wrongly assumed it to be a watered-down, sanitized-for-television Platoon-Meets-M*A*S*H, and I wasn't that big a fan of Platoon. China Beach borrows and improves upon many of the best elements from M*A*S*H as well as all those '80s Vietnam films, but - and this is most important in understanding the show's greatest strength - from the very first pilot film it also moves in entirely different directions, strenuously avoiding what by 1988 were already Vietnam War drama genre clichés. Neither does it shy away from the horrific physical (and psychological) injury war inflicts upon soldiers and civilians alike.

Reviewing something as daunting as China Beach - The Complete Series, a four-season, 60-plus-hour set not counting the gobs and gobs of extra features, I'd normally bounce around, viewing highly-regarded episodes from each season. In this case, however, partly because the series relies so heavily on season- and even series-long character arcs (common in 2013 but rare in 1988), and partly because I was so instantly captivated from that very first pilot film, I wanted, even needed, the surprises to continue, the narrative to unfold as originally broadcast, and thus as I write this am only partway through Season Two, though I did spot-check the other season's extra features and episodes for the video/audio quality.

Despite a fiercely loyal fan following, China Beach has taken forever to get to DVD. Chiefly this is because hit songs primarily from the 1960s and '70s (but also the '30s, '40s, and '50s) are an absolutely essential, integral part of the drama. Not only are the original recordings heard as background music, they often comment ironically on the story at hand, and very often the show's characters sing these songs to themselves, quote their lyrics, or perform them live on stage to their comrades in arms.

Presumably most or all of these songs - "When a Man Loves a Woman" (Percy Sledge), "Fever" (Peggy Lee), "American Pie" (Don McLean), "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Marvin Gaye) are a few Season Four examples - were originally licensed only for network broadcast and possibly syndication and free cable for several years after that but not for the home video market, which in 1988-91 was still a long ways away from releasing complete series sets like this.

Licensing popular music today is obscenely expensive. Some years back filmmaker pals of mine produced a movie starring Ben Gazzara that cost about a million bucks. They wanted to use a Frank Sinatra song over the main titles whose owners were only happy to license it, for a million bucks.

The effect of these skyrocketing costs is that marginal home video releases like (most infamously) WKRP in Cincinnati simply can't afford to spend that kind of money out of their budgets to license dozens, even hundreds of songs for DVDs that might only sell a few thousands copies. In WKRP's case, 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment replaced all the songs with generic substitutes, evaporating all verisimilitude and effectively ruining that show on DVD. For DVDs of The Odd Couple, scenes featuring uncleared music were simply chopped out, at times rendering that program incoherent.

China Beach has taken an entirely different and genuinely Herculean approach worthy of a standing ovation. Recognizing the long-term value of the series, they have painstakingly attempted to relicense as much of the original soundtrack as humanly possible, eventually securing "over 300 classic hit songs as they were played in the original broadcasts." Only 17 or so proved unobtainable, but even here the producers of this set - And who are you? Please let me know so I can give you due credit - found perfectly reasonable, next-best-thing type solutions.

When they couldn't come to terms on The Isley Brothers' "Shout," they replaced it with Dion & the Belmonts' cover version. The Eagles' "Try and Love Again" is replaced with another version recorded by former Eagle Randy Meisner, who wrote the song in the first place. Petula Clark's "Downtown" is replaced with a sound-alike version. And so on. Of the 62 episodes, apparently only about 30 seconds of actual show had to be cut, a brief scene in which one character quotes lyrics from The Beatles' "Hey Jude."

Further, China Beach - The Complete Collection is packed with hours and hours of bonus features, too: audio commentaries, new video interviews, a touching 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion, deleted scenes, a gag reel, etc. In short, this is one of the best DVD releases of 2013.

Despite deserved top-billing for Dana Delany, in the pivotal role of Nurse and First Lt. Colleen McMurphy*, China Beach is really a tapestry of characters and situations; even visually the show subtly changes stylistically from character to character, from episode to episode. The show is set in ĐÃ Nẵng, Vietnam, convincingly replicated at Indian Dunes in Ventura**, the same location as the Twilight Zone helicopter tragedy, where its characters populate the 510th Evacuation Hospital and R&R facility, known informally as the "Five-and-Dime."

(My spoiler-free comments are based on viewing the first season and part of the second. I don't want to spoil the show for interested viewers not yet familiar with the program.)

Adapted from U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter's 1983 book Home Before Morning, China Beach contrasts the idyllic surf and sun of My Khe Beach with the maimed and mutilated soldiers arriving daily (with some subsequently shipped out again in black body bags), and the tensions and psychological traumas endured by those working at the facility. McMurphy, the Van Devanter character, is a crack nurse who copes with the madness all around her by shutting it out, keeping it an emotional arm's length, avoiding all but the most superficial feelings and, when overwhelmed, drowning herself in booze. lt's clear from the outset that this temporary emotional blockade is something she'll be paying for psychologically down the road. Expecting something from this character like a cross between Hawkeye Pierce and "Hotlips" Houlihan from M*A*S*H, I was surprised and rather delighted to discover McMurphy, character-wise, has more in common with Maj. Winchester (David Ogden Stiers's character), whose similar attempts to get through the war without feeling anything proved equally disastrous.

Other fascinating characters include 19-year-old Cherry White (Nan Woods), a naïve "doughnut dolly," a Red Cross volunteer in search of her MIA older brother, Rick; SP4 Samuel Beckett (Michael Boatman), a solitary, absurdist (unavoidable, given the name) black serviceman assigned to the Graves Registration Unit, whose exposure to formaldehyde is slowly turning his hands white (racial identity plays a strong role in season one) and who, sleeping among the dead, would rather freeze than sleep with a sheet over him like his dead roommates. K.C. Koloski (Marg Helgenberger, pre C.S.I.) is a busy prostitute hoping to strike it rich but, unlike most such characters, is friendly, funny, and assertive, realistic and businesslike but not dominated by the kind of cynicism one usually associates with such characters; Capt. Dick Richard (Star Trek Voyager's Robert Picardo), confident surgeon and confidant doctor, especially to McMurphy, privileged but without a feeling of entitlement; Capt. "Natch" Austen (Tim Ryan), McMurphy's flirtatious love interest, a fighter pilot; Maj. Lila Garreau (Concetta Tomei), a World War II veteran and commanding officer and mother figure to the various entertainers and Red Cross volunteers coming through the Five-and-Dime; Cpl. "Boonie" Lanier (Brian Wimmer), China Beach's lifeguard, who also operates the camp's Jet Set Club, the local watering hole; solitary Staff Sgt. "Dodger" Winslow (Jeff Kober), a Marine with the thousand-yard stare, whose character acts as a kind of liaison between the 510th and the real fighting just beyond; and, finally, Laurette Barber (Chloe Webb), a USO backup singer initially drawn to the glamour and single men fighting in Vietnam but who quickly adapts to the harsh, sometimes hellish world of real war.

(Later episodes dropped some of these characters while adding new ones played by Megan Gallagher, Nancy Giles, Ned Vaughn, Troy Evans, and Ricki Lake.)

China Beach began airing exactly 13 years after the real Vietnam War had ended, and one of its strengths is the way it tries and succeeds in vividly and realistically capturing that time and place. (Much more so than M*A*S*H, whose Malibu-recreated Korea looked nothing like the real thing.) This ambition is made plain in the show's main titles, set to the perfectly chosen Supreme's "Reflections":

Through the mirror of my mind
Time after time
I see reflections of you and me

Reflections of
The way life used to be
Reflections of
The love you took from me

Oh, I'm all alone now
No love to shield me
Trapped in a world
That's a distorted reality

Like M*A*S*H, however, it boldly experiments with the form even far beyond M*A*S*H's more offbeat shows. China Beach, for instance, flash-forwards to dramatize the lives of characters still struggling to come to terms with emotions long after the war has ended. Other shows adopted non-linear structures and a few even incorporated animated cartoons.

The series was nominated for numerous awards, eventually winning a Peabody and several Emmys for Delany, Helgenberger, and others. But, as Delany notes in the DVD set's booklet essays, her greatest treasure is the Purple Heart given to her by a soldier in appreciation of her performance and for the show itself. "It means more to me," she writes, "than any award I will ever receive."

Video & Audio

China Beach - The Complete Series, comes in a sturdy cardboard box containing five standard DVD cases, one for each season plus the bonus discs. Shows, usually four 47-minute episode to a single-sided disc, are presented in their original full-frame format, using, alas, obviously older but still watchable video transfers. (Given the obviously ginormous outlay to relicense all those songs, I'll give the less-than-pristine video a pass.) To my ears, the pilot and first episode of season one sounded monophonic with all subsequent shows in excellent Dolby Stereo. (English only with no other audio or subtitle options.)

As noted above, great effort was made to retain nearly all the original music as originally presented. This site offers precise details on what was deleted and/or replaced.

Extra Features

Each season DVD case includes a map of Vietnam, an essay by Delany, an episode guide noting titles, airdates, and key songs for each show. Each mini-booklet also includes essays discussing that particular season, material written by co-creator/writer William Broyles, Jr., story editor Carol Flint, script consultant Lydia Woodward, actor Robert Picardo, and co-creator and executive producer John Sacret Young.

A separate booklet, 32 pages and in full color, with character notes from the show's "Bible," adds quotes from the filmmakers and cast about each of the major characters. These are followed by a batch of sometimes deeply moving letters by fans, veterans, and their families.

Included across the first four discs are various featurettes: "China Beach - How It All Began," "Highlights from the 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion," "Voices from War: The Real China Beach," and "Memories of War - The Lasting Impact of China Beach"; new video interviews with Dana Delany, Chloe Webb, Michael Boatman, Marg Helgenberger, Robert Picardo, Nancy Giles, and (producer) John Wells; episode commentaries on "Pilot," "Vets," "Souvenirs," "F.N.G.," and "Hello Goodbye"; deleted scenes, and a season three gag reel.

A fifth DVD case offers two more discs of supplements totaling an additional four-plus hours. These include a featurette, discussion, and interviews filmed at a December 12, 2012 Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Reunion. The party continues on Disc Two, where more discussions, speeches, and interviews follow. And if that weren't enough, glued to the box are a pair of "China Beach dog tags" (minus the chain). This is a heck of a lot of material, all of it worthwhile.

Parting Thoughts

A landmark DVD release, China Beach - The Complete Series, is a must for both longtime fans, and for those who, like this reviewer, missed out completely when it was new. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

* Her name recalling R.P. McMurphy, a similarly displaced resident of a not-dissimilar hospital-insane asylum.

** The pilot was filmed in Hawaii. Interiors (and some exteriors) were shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.






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