Vietnam War Hero William H. Pitsenbarger His True Story Showcased in The Last Full Measure Film
It’s a story that took more than thirty years to unfold, and two decades to bring to the big screen, nowU.S. Air Force Pararescuemen medic William H. Pitsenbarger’s heroic actions are showcased in The Last Full Measure. From his decisions on the battlefield, to the emotions of his family, to the perseverance of his veteran friends fighting to make sure he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Pitsenbarger’s story is sure to inspire.
It was Spring 1966, during a rescue mission that Pitsenbarger was offered the chance to escape on the last helicopter out of a combat zone heavily under fire, but he chose to stay behind to save and defend the lives of his fellow soldiers before making the ultimate sacrifice in the bloodiest battle of the war. He personally saved over sixty men.
Writer/Director Todd Robinson first heard of this extraordinary story while researching another film and after hearing what happened at Operation Abilene from numerous young airman, meeting Pitsenbarger’s parents, and reflecting on his own life, Robinson knew this was a story that needed to be shared with others.
Bringing together an all-star cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Stebastian Stan and Peter Fonda, in what would be his final role, Robinson sat down with Risen to talk about the making of the movie, a father’s love, and his hopes for the film to transcend the military story and be experienced as a parable.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did you first hear about the story, and when did you decide this would make a great film?
Todd Robinson: I had actually been hired by Warner Brothers to adapt a book on pararescue into a movie, and it was a peacetime book, it was 1999, pre-9/11. I had asked them if they would send me through what’s called the Pipeline, which is the training syllabus for PJ students, pararescue students. So I was going around the country to each one of these schools, to really see what kind of training they got, and pretty much every place I went these young airmen wanted to make sure that I knew the story about [William H.] Pitsenbarger, and his valor.
I listened to the story respectfully over and over again, and by the end of it I pretty much felt like I had all the details of that battle called Operation Abilene. However, I was already making a movie, or at least researching one, and I didn’t really think I wanted to make a movie about a cold, hard battle. But, at the end of the cycle of this thing I ended up at Kirtland Air Force Base to see this class graduate, and I had the opportunity to meet Mr. [Frank] Pitsenbarger, William Pitsenbarger’s father, who happened to be there to dedicate a building to his son. Frank got up, and spoke extemporaneously to this group of people that were gathered, and many, many, many PJs showed up. There are only about 600 active duty pararescuemen at any given time, and I think most of them were there.
As he began to speak he talked about the things that he never got to see his son do, and some of those included he never got to see him marry, and have a child of his own, because only then could he understand how much his father loved him. In other words, it’s not until you have a child of your own that you can understand how much your parents love you, and what it really means to be a parent, and what that loss might be like. In that moment, I found myself reflecting on my own son who was only seven years old at the time, and being confronted with the idea of losing him, or my daughter for that matter, and just the unthinkable pain that that would involve. Then I flashed way back to my own life, when I was a young teenager watching the Vietnam War play out on television, and seeing how concerned my father was at that late date, because we were in to the end of the early 70’s then, and it was clear that the war was pretty much a disaster in terms of policy.
They were all threatened by the draft. They all knew people who went. They all knew people who didn’t come back, and those who did come back came back forever changed, and had paid a terrible price.
My dad was completely troubled as a Korean War veteran, that his son might get dragged into this thing by something as existential as a draft number, draft lottery. So I had one of those epiphanies where I just sort of saw the whole thing, and realized that going off to war is both a selfless act, but it really involves more than just the warrior themselves, it affects everyone, not to mention what may or may not happen in the future. So once that sort of gelled for me I knew that there was a movie to be made, or at least explore in terms of a screenplay.
RM: You mentioned Mr. Pitsenbarger, and that was one of the most powerful scenes within the film, when he’s in his son’s bedroom and Christopher Plummer, who portrays him beautifully, delivers the amazing line, “Dying isn’t harder than losing a child.” That has to hit home with any parent. Did Plummer get a chance to meet his counterpart?
TR: No, Mr. Pitsenbarger passed away I think in 2001, about six months after his son posthumously received the Medal of Honor. So he was gone probably 16 years before Chris Plummer ever considered the role.
RM: Oh wow, so then this story has been sitting with you for a long time if you had the opportunity to hear Mr. Pitsenbarger speak but the movie is just being released now?
TR: Well, it’s interesting there. This is entirely unintentional, but there are sort of two parallel stories in terms of the movie, and the first is that the actual story of the foot traffic of the movie, which is how the survivors of Operation Abilene, soldiers from the Big Red One Charlie Company, the Big Red One, rekindled the effort 32 years after Pits had died, because they were unaware that he had not received the Medal of Honor. They put him up for it in ’66, they all got spit out to military hospitals all over the country, all over the world really, and lost track. As it was easy to do then because we didn’t have social media, cell phones, that kind of thing, and so … the first part of the story is about that.
I came into that late in 1999, when the final push was being made before Congress, and then I became committed to the story really after the medal had already been presented. I was an interested, sort of fan boy, if you will, about the process. I wanted to see it happen, but I wasn’t yet involved in it as a film, and then it ended up taking us 20 years to get the movie made. I wrote the script. Well, first my partner and I pitched it to probably 50 places around Hollywood, and it was passed on not only the first 50 times, but then I went off, and I wrote the script on spec because I believed in the story. Then the movie was sold in a bidding war to New Line Cinema, then they were bought by Warner Brothers, the movie fell apart and it came back to life in several iterations.
Myself, along with Sidney Sherman and Julian Adams, really went around town three times. I mean three solid times to try to get the movie made, and it failed every single time. Finally, it’s the last guy you meet, right? The last guy I met was a guy named Mark Damon, who is a longtime film financier, and a foreign sales agent. He had recently made Lone Survivor, and saw the merit in the film, and he was able to pull enough money together for us to go out and make the film. So there are really these sort of two parallel stories, and our journey really echoes the journey of the veterans, because in that 20 years we became very close friends with many of the veterans, and we were transformed by that experience, just like Scott Huffman is in the movie.
RM: You’re no stranger to amazing casts having with films like Lonely Hearts [John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Jared Leto, Laura Dern] and White Squall [Jeff Bridges, Ryan Phillippe, John Savage], but how did you get Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter Fonda, Christopher Plummer and the other fine actors attached?
TR: Part of it is my stubbornness, and insistence or inability to hear no, but honestly, over the years we’d never had any problem getting amazing actors interested in, and being part of the movie. We’ve had a cadre of people over the years that have all been attached, but in the end it was who was available now, and a shoutout has to go to ICM, which is one of the big entertainment agencies in town who represented Sebastian Stan. They recognized what a wonderful opportunity it was for him, and then they were willing to support the movie with their very best talent.
RM: Not only did you direct The Full Measure, but you wrote it as well. Earlier you were talking about how it alternates between two time periods, practically when you shot the film, did you shoot one time period and then another? Or did you shoot by the vignettes within each of the veterans that we’re meeting?
TR: Oh, that’s a good question. We really had to coordinate around the Medal of Honor ceremony when they all had to be in the same room together, although they weren’t, Ed Harris actually wasn’t there. We reconstructed the scene to make it feel like he was there. Then it was just a matter of scheduling those people, and it was not easy. That was probably the biggest challenge. We shot all of that, what I call “near present” in Washington, D.C. (which was actually mostly shot in Atlanta and we did some second unit B-roll in Washington).
Then we went to Costa Rica where Sebastian Stan and John Savage shot sort of present day Vietnam sequence. From there we ended up going to Thailand to shoot all the combat. Everything took place over, I would say, eight months, but in actual shooting days we were very tight on our schedule.
The secret sauce to surviving, and overcoming PTSD that isn’t blended with mental illness, because often times that’s what’s really tricky about it, it’s really service greater than self.
RM: There is no way you could have known when you were making the movie, but it ended up being the last film Peter Fonda made before he passed. Talk a little bit about this film kind of closing out his legacy.
TR: Peter was sort of the ultimate outlier in terms of the social outlaw Vietnam protestor, but in the end, Peter, like all of the men of that generation, all experienced the war in a very real and tangible way. They were all threatened by the draft. They all knew people who went. They all knew people who didn’t come back, and those who did come back came back forever changed, and had paid a terrible price. I think when you separate yourself from the late 60’s, and the early 70’s when it was such a tumultuous time, and you have the context, and the wisdom of reflection, I think all of these men wanted to pay tribute to the people that they knew, and cared about.
There are 5,800 names approximately on the Vietnam War Memorial, people who gave their lives in that conflict, but that doesn’t really represent how many people actually died — those lost to suicide, Agent Orange, died of wounds later, and such — their names are not on that wall. So we all know people… All of these actors wanted to be a part to say finally, “Welcome home. We hold space for you. We see you.” We hope that this movie is an invitation for people to take their fathers, and their mothers, people who have served, uncles, brothers, sisters, their children, so that maybe we can ignite, or reignite, a conversation about war that involves empathy and forgiveness.
RM: I thought you did such a fantastic job of bringing to light how PTSD can manifest, but then also some of the other things that the guys bring home with them like survivors guilt. Obviously, you are working with such a talented cast, so they all can bring that emotion and weight to a scene, but how did you help them get there?
TR: It’s really easy to direct great actors. I spent a lot of time with them at my home before we went. We talked about it. We didn’t really talk about the acting or even the scenes, I mean, these are confessional scenes in many ways. It was really about the tapestry of what we’re seeing as they’re reflecting that informs their performances. But when you look at somebody like, for instance William Hurt or Ed Harris, and just how deep they go into that well of emotion, it’s not really about me cheerleading them into it, it’s really about me creating the conditions where great work can happen.
It’s tougher with the younger actors who don’t have a lot of experience, or maybe process, that you have to take the time, and it’s kind of like coaching. You’re really teaching as you’re going, and trying to make them feel confident enough to take chances, but at the same time you want them to feel vulnerable. You want them to feel like they’re going to fall off the fence post, or the fence rail, and that’s true with the older actors too, except they’re more comfortable going there. Then in the end not letting them fall, or if they do fall, making sure that they trust me enough.
RM: Right, and there were so many lines that stood out to me and takeaways. Another one was Samuel L. Jackson’s line that, “Trust is the only real currency we have left in this world.” I think that that is such a powerful statement when it comes down to integrity and trust, and how we interact with each other. Aside from it being this amazing military story, what do you hope are some of the key themes or takeaways?
TR: I hope that it transcends the military story, and is experienced as a parable, or as a metaphor. The secret sauce to surviving, and overcoming PTSD that isn’t blended with mental illness, because often times that’s what’s really tricky about it, it’s really service greater than self. If you can get out of your own way even when you’re feeling terrible, go do something for somebody else, that is the healing tonic. You recognize that you’re not alone, you’re not isolated, you’re not dissociating, you’re engaging, and so to anyone out there who’s in trouble, and who’s suffering, that’s really the first thing that I would say, and the movie really is about that. That’s what Scott Huffman, Sebastian Stan’s character, learns. He learns to become much like the very man that he is investigating.
The other thing that I think is really important is to consider that any random act of kindness in your life can extend out forever, touching people and changing lives in ways that you will never know yourself. Had Pitsenbarger died, or survived, or had he been awarded the Medal of Honor back in ’66, we never would’ve had the opportunity to reflect back on it. One of the things that I recognized immediately, which was why I knew that I had a good film, was because I knew what the end of the movie was, and that doesn’t often happen.
The other thing that I think is really important is to consider that any random act of kindness in your life can extend out forever, touching people and changing lives in ways that you will never know yourself.
I hope people will consider or if you’re a teacher and there’s that kid in the back of the room that maybe you really don’t like, maybe he has bad hygiene, who knows, has a temper problem, or whatever, you go back and you say, “You know I’m going to spend the time with that fourth grader, and do the long division with them, and make sure that they get out of my class understanding.” You hear these stories all the time, 20 years later a teacher will get a note from that kid that they barely remember and it will say, I just want you to know that I’m currently Head of Neurology at the Cleveland Clinic, and it all started with you giving me that confidence. You just never know.
I hope people will engage somebody who might need a little bit of extra help, it doesn’t really matter what it is, but we have to extend ourselves, and realize that there are people around us in need, and the smallest little things can trigger things down the line, because those people will eventually pay it forward as well.
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