The Iron Triangle (1989) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Based on the diary of an unknown Viet Cong soldier, this film provides a sympathetic look at a Viet Cong soldier who protected a captured American soldier whom he believed did not kill him when the American had the opportunity.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • South Vietnam, 1967

    Afraid of civilian casualties, U.S. Army Captain Keene (Beau Bridges) declines air support as he enters a Vietnamese village in the "Iron Triangle" near the Cambodian border during a sweep-and-clear mission. His troops come under fire from an unseen VC machine gunner hidden in a hut. U.S. troops slay the machine gunner with a rocket-propelled grenade. During the shooting, Private Swan (Richard Weygint) rushes into a hut and emerges carrying an infant. Once the village is secured, a helicopter drops leaflets stating the U.S. is the friend of the Vietnamese people.

    Later, Swan and a sergeant scout ahead of the main force. They are ambushed and both killed by Ho (Liem Watley), a young Viet Cong soldier, who strips their bodies of food and weapons. When Ho returns to his VC base, Khoi (Jim Ishida), a political officer, demands Ho give him the Thompson sub-machine gun he captured. When Ho refuses, Khoi demands that their commander, Captain Tuong (Haing S. Ngor), force Ho to give up the gun. However, Tuong rules that as Ho is a front line soldier, he should keep it. Khoi claims Tuong is questioning his courage and threatens to contact the Party about being insulted. Tuong denies insulting the man, and gives Khoi a mission with Ho.

    A few days later, Ho and Khoi stop a bus to search for a traitor. Upon boarding, Khoi finds a businessman wearing a cross. He orders the man off the bus, makes him kneel and asks if he wishes to pray. Before the man can say three words, Khoi shoots him dead, then riddles the bus with machine gun fire, which disturbs Ho.

    Meanwhile, Keene and his men return to their fire base with prisoners. Keene is in his tent when he hears screams and rushes out to find Captain Dirk has shot one prisoner and is drowning another. Keene orders him to stop, but Dirk argues that as they are in Vietnam, and he is Vietnamese, the prisoners belong to him. Keene suggests Dirk "grow a pair" and goes into the bush to capture his own prisoner. To maintain "face," Dirk shoots the prisoner in the head and tells Keene to keep him.

    A jeep arrives at the fire base with Khan Li (Iilana B'tiste), a beautiful Vietnamese actress who is in charge of spreading pro-South Vietnamese propaganda to area farmers. Her bodyguard, Jacques (Johnny Hallyday), a former French Foreign Legionnaire, warns Keene that Dirk is a dangerous man.

    That night, Ho bunks down with his best friend, Pham, and discusses the reasons they joined the Viet Cong. Pham joined because American soldiers destroyed his village, while Ho wanted to get revenge against the South Vietnamese soldiers who massacred his family. Ho confesses he fears he is losing his soul due to the killings he has done.

    A few later, Capt. Keene receives orders to take Minh Tang, a village in "The Iron Triangle." He suggests Dirk and his men take the lead, but Dirk refuses stating that his superiors would not approve. The Viet Cong also want Minh Tang, so Tuong, Ho and Pham disguise themselves as peasant farmers and infiltrate the village. There, they attend a meeting run by Khan Li, who offers land grants to any villager willing to support the South Vietnamese government. An old man named Thuy (Arsenio 'Sonny' Trinidad) protests, denouncing the government for commandeering the villagers' entire rice crop. Khan Ly thanks him and tells everyone that speaking one's mind is important for democracy. After the meeting, Colonel Tuong orders Ho to assassinate Khan Ly. Ho meets a farmer's daughter and confesses to killing a woman that bothers him.

    That night, Jacques, Khan Ly's mercenary, murders the old man Thuy, then goes to a French colonial mansion to make love to Ly. When they finish, Li takes a shower, and Ho emerges from behind a curtain and garrotes Jacques. When a naked Khan Ly returns to the room and finds Ho, she attempts to seduce him to get him to spare her life. Ho first embraces her, then stabs her to death with a bayonet.

    The next day, Khoi, Ho and a squad of Viet Cong ambush Keene and his men. During the firefight, Keene takes aim at Ho, but the boy trips and falls, losing his weapon. Keene holds his fire, but is struck in the head by a rifle butt and taken prisoner. After the American squad is wiped out, Keene and two other captured American soldiers are marched into the jungle, but when one of the soldiers cannot keep up, Khoi shoots him dead. Keene tries to intervene and is seriously beaten until Ho calls off his attackers. Khoi screams he is in charge and to prove it shoots the other American in the head. For days they march north, and Keene is caned, starved and deprived of sleep in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to divulge his mission.

    One night, Ho gives Keene a bowl of rice and asks him why he did not shoot him during the battle. Before Keene can respond, Khoi arrives, kicks the rice bowl from Keene's hands and announces that Ho will pay for disobedience. Ho asks Pham to run ahead to report Khoi's conduct to Tuong. After Pham leaves, Ho drags Keene into the jungle, determined to keep the American alive until he can get him to Tuong. As Ho and Keene rush across country, they encounter a column of refugees who proclaim Ho as a hero and give him a lotus flower. Later, they meet a grandfather who claims his grandson was slain by the Viet Cong, dragging the dead body of the child in a burlap bag.

    That night over a campfire, Ho and Keene learn about each other's lives and politics. Ho explains his people fought to free their land from the French and cannot understand why the Americans invaded. Keene has no answer. The next day, they come upon a swift moving river. When Keene complains he cannot swim with his hands tied, Ho pushes him in. Screaming, Keene is shocked to discover that he has landed on a bridge submerged inches below the surface to prevent it from being spotted by American planes. Later, Ho unties Keene and gives him a bayonet so he can cut bamboo and suck out the juices.

    Khoi appears with three Viet Cong soldiers. He demands Keene be returned to him. When Ho resists, Khoi removes Pham's head from a burlap bag. They are interrupted when two American helicopters fly overhead. Realizing Keene was scouting for a major offensive, Khoi orders his men to warn Tuong. As they leave, Khoi offers to forgive Ho's impudence if he kills Keene. When Ho hesitates, Khoi rushes the American. Keene, who still has the bayonet, stabs Khoi, grabs his gun and turns on Ho. The two men stare at each other before Ho lowers his rifle and disappears into the jungle. Keene waves down a helicopter and joins the U.S. troops in attacking Minh Tang.

    A climatic battle begins as US helicopters land troops which assault the Viet Cong village. The battle is long and brutal and the village is more or less destroyed. As the Viet Cong retreat into the jungle before the Americans' superior firepower, Dirk appears and orders his men to kill the remaining villagers. Dirk starts by shooting the farmer's daughter who talked to Ho days earlier. As he bends down to examine the girl's body, a grenade rolls out of her dead hand and explodes, killing Dirk.

    Ho mans a machine gun, allowing Colonel Tuong and the rest of his compatriots to escape into the jungle. He is wounded by a mortar round, crawls into the bush, and takes out a grenade. U.S. soldiers quickly surround him, but before they can shoot, Keene arrives and orders everyone to hold their fire. Keene crawls over to Ho and gently takes the grenade away. After the medics remove Ho from the scene, Keene finds his diary and pockets it.

    Later in the final scene, Keene reads the boy's journal and discovers his enemy is very much like him.

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