Under the Radar

'China Beach': Network TV Takes on the Vietnam War



China Beach has finally gotten a DVD release in an elaborate box set. The 1988-91 ABC TV series examined the Vietnam War from the perspective of women, both those who served and civilians who experienced the war up close.


The series was a big deal when it first aired. Even though Oscar-winning movies like Platoon, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home had tried to make sense of the war, they were both pretty dark and little-seen by middle America. Here was a (kinda-soapy) mainstream show that humanized the men and women who lived through that experience.

The show described events that were barely twenty years in the past and it was only a few years after The Ten Thousand Day War documentary that we wrote about a few weeks ago. Set at the 510th Evacuation Hospital and R&R center (a/k/a the "Five and Dime") in Vietnam, the series was told through the story of First Lt. (later Captain) Nurse Colleen McMurphy starring Dana Delany in her first big role.

The box set includes more than ten hours of bonus material in addition to all 62 episodes of the show on 21 DVDs. There are new interviews with the cast and crew reflecting on  the legacy of the show, documentary featurettes about the real-life locations and people who originally inspired the series and five audio commentaries on episodes of the show.


The producers talk a lot about the cards and letters they got from real Vietnam vets who told them how much the show helped them make sense of their war experience. To a generation that's currently watching Breaking Bad, Justified or Boardwalk Empire, a lot of this show will seem like generic, run-of-the-mill television, but that's kind of the point: China Beach shoehorned the Vietnam experience into the network TV experience and made its subjects seem more like the rest of mainstream America.

Why has it taken this breakthrough show so long to get a home video release? Blame the music industry: China Beach was also groundbreaking for its aggressive use of '60s pop music for its soundtrack, including hits by Diana Ross & the Supremes, James Brown, Van Morrison, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin and Manfred Mann. The producers managed to clear the rights to 268 songs for this DVD release, representing "nearly all" of the songs used in the original series.

That also contributes to the cost of the box set. You can't watch China Beach in syndication or on cable. It's not streaming on Amazon or Netflix or available for iTunes download. You can't buy it in a store or order a copy from Amazon: you've got to order direct from Time Life. It comes in a box set with a 32-page booklet and fake dogtags for $199.95 or a 25th anniversary collector's edition for $274.95 that adds in 3 commemorative scripts and a few more photos.

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