Retro Review: UNCOMMON VALOR (1983)

In 1983 the Vietnam War had only been over for 8 years. 10 years, if you count the withdrawal of US ground combat troops. It was still a very delicate topic at the time, and there were few movies willing to bring it up or portray the veterans in a positive light.

Magnum PI was an early TV series that had main characters that served in the war and were portrayed as normal guys instead of drug users or homeless nut cases. The popularity of Magnum PI no doubt helped get Uncommon Valor made.


Uncommon Valor is a little bit of a lost classic, in this man’s opinion. To the surprise of everyone, it was one of the top earners that year.

The film stars Gene Hackman as a retired Marine Colonel who has a son listed as “Missing in Action” towards the end of the war. While his unit is running to a chopper, a fellow soldier gets hit and the son goes back to help carry him to the chopper. They don’t make it and are overtaken by PAVN troops as the choppers fly away.

Hackman spends years hounding the US State Department for info on his POW son. He also spends most of his time and money in Southeast Asia, trying to buy info from someone willing to slip into Laos to bring back proof his son is alive. Growing tired of waiting on the Top. Men. to do something, the Colonel decides to take matters into his own hands.

Backed by the wealthy father of the man Hackman’s son went back to save, played by Robert Stack, the Colonel goes around recruiting the living vets from his son’s army unit and a couple of army chopper pilots.


This movie has a great cast, including some 1980s action movie greats such as Fred Ward, Tex Cobb, Reb Brown, and Tim Thomerson. Patrick Swayze appears as a younger Marine whose father was shot down in the war and listed MIA. They train together on a compounded made-up to be an exact copy of the POW camp in Laos after getting some top-secret satellite photos from one of the Colonel’s old friends still in the service at the Pentagon.

They travel across the border led by an ex-opium smuggler and then the action starts.

Uncommon Valor is an early take on the “going back for our abandoned boys” niche genre from the time. It was a major sticking point at the time with many (this author included) believing, and still do, that troops were left in Vietnam and Laos after the war, with Hanoi not turning over all of their POWs. The reason for this is Hanoi wanted money and concessions from the US and the hostages were the leverage. There is more than a little evidence that this is, indeed, true.

Anyway.  The dream of someone telling the Top. Men. to screw off and do things themselves was very seductive and was even poorly attempted by a few people around this time.  Because of this, we got Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, Rambo II, POW The Escape etc.



The first version of the screenplay was written by actor Wings Hauser, who says he was inspired by the stories of a childhood friend, Gary Dickerson, who had been to Vietnam.

“I saw that he had left something behind in Viet Nam and that triggered the whole thing, and then I became aware of the MIA and the POW situation and said well that will be the excuse to go back to Nam and gel the POWs, but what they’re really going back for is their own clarity and their own integrity right? And that’s the story. That’s the whole film.”

Hauser took 18 months to write the script which he sold to Paramount. The film had at least five title changes, including Last River to Cross. Hauser would controversially lose his screenwriting credit when John Milius became attached as producer and the script was rewritten by Joe Gayton.


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