Disney does a lot of things right, but never send them to do a legitimate war movie. That is not to say that Operation Dumbo Drop is a bad film. There are actually many things to like about it. I must confess, too, that I saw it under less-than-ideal circumstances. In any case, the historian in me could not help but notice the unrealistic combat scenarios depicted therein. Understand, though, that my training makes it so that I notice it when our heroes are not behaving as American soldiers would during the Vietnam War in which this is set, or how their Vietnamese counterparts all conveniently jump off a boat before it is obliterated in an artillery strike. Yet, if you can manage to watch this movie with a light heart and not with knowledge of one of the most awful conflicts in the history of Southeast Asia, then you can get something out of the experience.
It is 1963, and Operation Dumbo Drop begins with showing the importance of elephants to the local population, even in the midst of a warzone. Five years later, with the Vietnam War in full swing, Captain T. C. Doyle (Ray Liotta) arrives. He is a member of the United States Special Forces unit known as the Green Berets. He is there to travel deep into the country to a village along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply lifeline for the North Vietnamese Army. The goal of Captain Doyle is to relieve his counterpart, Captain Sam Cahill (Danny Glover), who has ingratiated himself with the villagers. Captain Doyle is less than thrilled about this prospect, and believes that the small hamlet is of little importance to the war effort until Captain Cahill shows him its proximity to the trail. Unfortunately, while they are away, a North Vietnamese patrol enter the village. When they find evidence of American activity from a candy bar wrapper taken from Captain Doyle, they kill their vital elephant in retaliation. In order to not lose their cooperation, they agree to find another elephant for them. Still, Captain Doyle sees the village as expendable, and presents his case to their commanding officer, Major Pederson (Marshall Bell). Major Pederson sides with Captain Cahill, and the two are ordered to put together a team to procure a pachyderm and bring it back to the village. They enlist the help of two privates before heading to Chief Warrant Officer David Poole (Denis Leary) in order to figure out how to obtain the animal. Lieutenant Poole has many connections across Vietnam, making him an ideal person to requisition an elephant. In turn, he takes them to a Vietnamese trader, Y B’Ham (James Hong), from whom they purchase the elephant Bo Tat (Tai). Bo Tat, though, is a package deal, coming with his boy handler Linh (Dinh Thien Le). Though none of them are eager to take a kid with them, they are also equally clueless as to how to make a mammal weighing a couple of tons do what they want. Hence, two Green Berets, two clueless soldiers, an out of place quartermaster who is supposed to be on a beach in Hawaii, and a Vietnamese boy head off into the hinterlands to deliver Bo Tat. What could go wrong? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Along the way, their mission is discovered by North Vietnamese intelligence, who attempt several keystone cops-esque maneuvers to try to stop the pachyderm delivery. Their ineffectual measures pale in comparison to the challenge of getting an overly large animal into an airplane, on and off a flatbed truck, and down a river on a boat. There is also some doubt as to Linh’s loyalty. Remember that brief introduction of the importance of elephants? That was a young Linh, whose people were caught in a crossfire between American and North Vietnamese troops. As such, when it came down to it, they did not know which side to which he would run. Linh goes along with the plan because the Americans promise that he can stay with Bo Tat, his one remaining link to his dead family, and that he could live a peaceful life in the mountains. The real test of his dedication comes when they need to get past an outpost of North Vietnamese soldiers alert to their presence, and Linh is captured. Still, Linh tells them nothing, and is eventually rescued. By this point, they have all overcome their misgivings, and disobey Major Pederson’s order to abort the mission. Instead, they commandeer a C-130 cargo plane, and carry out the airdrop for which the movie is titled. They even redeem themselves when they capture a number of enemy troops shortly after they land. From there, Captain Doyle officially takes his post, Captain Cahill leaves, and Bo Tat becomes a part of the village.
There is one character in Operation Dumbo Drop that fits into a discussion of Faith, and that is Specialist Harvey Ashford (Doug E. Doug). He is there to round out the team, I suppose, but in movie speak he is part of the comedic relief. He is a soldier that spent the majority of his service time in Vietnam avoiding combat, and he seems to practice all the religions for good luck. Of course, this is problematic, and it is not just because he wears a Rosary as a necklace. For what will probably not be the last time, a Rosay is not jewelry. His belief in carrying a rabbit’s foot, and doing other things aimed at hopefully securing his survival amount to superstition. This is somewhat humorous when it comes to him taking at face value Linh’s assertion that if you see a black crow, you will die. Specialist Ashford must confront his feelings when he sees the bird in question at a moment when he must act to save his comrades’ lives. What bothers me a little more, though, is the lumping in Catholic religious articles with so-called lucky charms. The notion that Faith is nothing more than superstition is a battle that the Church has been fighting, and too often losing, for centuries. You may also say to yourself, big deal, he is wearing a Rosary around his neck and has a rabbit’s foot. My contention, and this is a big motivation for the blog, is that over time your brain picks up on these images, subtle as they are, and begins lumping in two things that do not belong together. Superstition is not real. If it was, Specialist Ashford would be dead. God is real, so be thankful for that fact.
There is a note at the beginning of Operation Dumbo Drop that it is based on a true story. A little research on the subject will tell you that the American Army gave many elephants to villages that needed them as a part of its attempt at winning hearts and minds. Ultimately, as silly and unrealistic of a war movie that it is, any time you can have a film where the main characters are so dedicated to doing the right thing, it is refreshing. I would show this to any audience, though good luck getting younger ones to sit through it.