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The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan: Must-See Vietnam Feature Doc Asks All the Right Questions

06/30/2010 09:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Deep in the cotton belt of Washington, Texas, where the grass bends to the whimsy of the wind and the soil is dark and rich, McKinley Nolan told Mary Nolan, his young, beautiful bride: "I want to explore the world."

The time was 1965, and they had been married for about a year.

"I said, 'Where we going?'" says Mary Nolan, relaying the fond memory while sweeping the porch, her hair kept tidy with a kerchief to keep away the dust and the heat, her endearing smile matching the pleasant lilt of her southern accent.

"He said, 'I'd like to go into the army.'"

"I said, 'Well, good. You want to go into the army? Go ahead, they might choose you, with your two left feet!'" Mary recounts, echoes of the adoring young woman teasing her husband floating easily from her voice.

"He left June 16, 1966, to go to Vietnam, and I haven't seen him since."

Such is the start of Henry Corra's feature documentary, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, a haunting, heart-wrenching, and soul-searching exploration not only of the horrors surrounding the quagmire of the Vietnam War and the men we sent to fight it, but also, and perhaps even more importantly for modern audiences, the strength, endurability, and triumph of the human spirit to, quite literally, soldier on. Further buoyed by a longing, soaring score from Robert Burger, the movie recently screened as part of the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Dan Smith visited the Vietnam battlefields of his youth in 2006 and may have encountered McKinley, alive. "When I killed my first man, or boy, like me -- that pretty much ruined my life," Dan says in the movie. "Once you kill someone, once you take a life, I truly believe you forfeit your own as well." He joined forces with journalist Richard Linnett, who has been researching the McKinley Nolan case since 1998, and Richard brought the story to Henry's attention.

"Dan came in as a symbol of hope," says Henry from the air-conditioned comfort of his office. "What I think might have happened is that he enabled them to take this journey that they never would have been able to take, and perhaps mourn for the first time. And, you know, at least try to find closure," Henry explains as he discusses the journey of McKinley's brother Michael, to Vietnam and Cambodia, to trace the path of his brother who may have been captured, may have been a traitor, may have been an American operative, may have killed two guards; these conjectures swirl around McKinley, a defector who joined the Viet Cong as an American soldier disillusioned by the realities of war and the polarizing magnet they offered to the rhetoric he was fed pre-battleground in the USA. McKinley did go on to take another wife, a Cambodian ethnic living across the border in Vietnam, and have two children.

"Although they still don't know (what happened to McKinley), did you find that frustrating by the way? You can be very honest. Do you think it's a flaw of the movie as a story to let the audience down, or is it more true to life for you?" Henry's boyish blue eyes flash to punctuate his rapid-fire questioning and rueful grin as he spins the interview table around.

The documentary is executive produced by Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes and their company, Louverture Films, which is dedicated to the development and production of films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value, and artistic integrity. Their involvement was particularly helpful in leaping over hurdles presented by both the American and Vietnam governments as the Nolan family and the film crew embarked on the investigation of McKinley's disappearance.

Whittling 300 hours of footage to a spellbinding 77 minutes edited over a year and a half, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan has more questions than answers. Henry Kissinger's office issued an ambiguous memo in 1974 acknowledging the location of McKinley in Cambodia and questioning whether or not he should be airlifted out as part of Operation Homecoming.

"It's very cryptic, because it says would he be eligible for amnesty? Do you think Kissinger's office would have issued the memo if they had known McKinley had murdered two guards to escape? And also, what do you think about the fact -- were you convinced that he shot those guards?" Henry doesn't pause for an answer. "With this void of information, everybody is left to speculate. In a sense you are forced to find your own version of the truth, to find your own way of processing his story, and find closure with it. What do you think happened? Because it's a crazy world out there and there's a lot of crazy information, right?," Henry continues with his interrogation.

Was it just love? Did McKinley just meet another woman and fall in love, or did he kill the guards? Was he afraid to go home because he thought he would be prosecuted and murdered? Why did he name his two children Mary and Roger after his wife and son back at home? Everybody who talks about McKinley Nolan is really talking about themselves, because he is a ghost.

Co-producer Jeremy Amar chimes in, "Or a part of themselves they wish they were. They project their hopes upon him."

A tense confrontation and perhaps a thinly veiled confession between Michael Nolan and Cham Sone at the Chamkar Cafe in Cambodia serves as overwhelming testimony and evidence, barring the last physical stronghold of a body or bones, that McKinley met his death through a shovel beating at the hands of six guards of the Khmer Rouge in 1977. The Khmer Rouge were members of the Communist Party, ruthless enforcers of social engineering, and responsible for the genocide of an estimated 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. It is likely that McKinley's Cambodian wife and two children met their fate at the hands of the Khmer Rouge as well.

"I was born in 1955. From '67 to '73, I was 12- to 17-years-old, going through my adolescence in suburban Richmond, VA. And the years prior to that as a smaller child, the Civil Rights movement was going on around me, and the Vietnam War was on the news every night. They had this incredible coverage of the war, much more true coverage than the recent wars now. Our suburbs were sort of encroaching onto rural African-American enclaves that were very similar to the Nolans, and there's the Vietnam War raving on TV, but I didn't really understand what it meant. When I was a little kid, I remember going to the bus station and seeing the "Coloreds Only" sign. The public tennis courts where "Whites Only," and my mother (who was a very progressive, blonde Doris Day type), our housekeeper, who was black, her daughter, and me as a little blonde 8-year-old went out on a Saturday and played on the public courts, which were right in the middle of downtown Richmond. I didn't even understand what I was doing. Everyone stopped their cars and got out to watch this doubles tournament," shares Henry candidly, as he expresses the resonance this story, time, and people stir in him.

"I knew I was going to make this film because of the look in Mary's eye, the look on Dan Smith's face, the cadence in Michael Nolan's voice. Can you imagine going out and trying to raise money and saying, "I know this is going to be a good film because of the cadence in his voice?" But I did. That's how it started. I just knew I was going to follow it. We did have some funders who said, "What if you don't find him?" And I went, "What if we do?!" Henry exclaims.

If and when Mary Nolan ever legally declares her husband dead, all of his military and CIA records will be released. "They just don't want to declare him dead until they are 100% sure, until there's evidence. Would you want to declare your mother dead without evidence?" Henry asks pointedly.

Adds Jeremy:

How do you shift that burden to Mary? She has never left the cotton belt of Texas. Why do you put that emotional burden upon that woman? If you know... the organization knows. There's information that should be brought to her, not the other way around.

I always maintain that finding McKinley Nolan would be much less interesting than not finding him. So I just kind of assumed that we weren't going to find him. That he was missing. The real meat of this story and the real catharsis of this film was always not about finding him, but having the hope that maybe we could.

Few modern filmmakers have the guts to craft a story that trusts the intelligence of an audience and the integrity of a story, leaving viewers with more questions than answers that a pat conclusion might provide in a cinematic wake.

"I just spoke with Michael yesterday, and he said, 'He could have run away. Before they beat him with the shovels. Henry, you're not giving up, are you?' And it just broke my heart. I don't know what to say. It kind of has a biblical aspect to it, the whole story," says Henry softly.

The Nolan family, including Roger, who was born after his father went to Vietnam, traveled to Maryland for the Silverdocs Festival last week and was crushed to discover upon their very first trip to Washington, D.C., that McKinley Nolan, because he is classified as a defector, is not among those 58,000 plus names included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "I thought you were innocent until proven guilty in this country. He needs to be on this wall," said Mary Nolan.

A pillar of strength among her family and in her community in Washington, Texas, Mary remains steadfast and unwavering in her conviction: "I'm still his wife. 'Till death do us part' is what I said, and that's what I meant."

For more information on Henry Corra's The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, visit http://www.mckinleynolan.com.