Reflections on ‘China Beach’: 30 Years Later

The Vietnam War was still fresh in the minds of Americans when China Beach premiered on ABC on this day in 1988. Created by Vietnam veteran William Broyles and John Sacret Young, and inspired by former army nurse Lynda Van Devanter’s 1983 memoir, it gave to audiences an insight into the horrors of the non-combatant side of warfare in the late 1960s.

It is estimated that of the thousands of American women who served in the Vietnam War, 90% were nurses. Though by 1988 films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now had addressed the war itself, China Beach was groundbreaking in that it was not only a mainstream television series shedding light on the stories of those on the frontlines, but one telling them from the perspective of the women. It was not a series softened to meet the expectations of so-called ‘women’s television’, but one unafraid to delve into the gritty realities of wartime nursing, both emotional and psychological.

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The cast of China Beach in a promotional photo for its first season

The pilot, a feature length episode, opens with a woman relaxing on a beach, book in hand, silhouetted against a beautiful ocean view. This idyllic tableau is soon interrupted by a call to duty; whirring helicopter propellors, voices calling for medical care, distant sound of gunfire rousing Colleen McMurphy from her daze. This is the essence of China Beach; women, wilderness, and war.

What’s it like? Hot, sticky, the kids, the smells, the sweet rain, laughter, blood under your fingernails that won’t come out. I’ve held a boy as his life bled out. I turn out the lights at night and see their faces, hear their voices. I recognise them in everybody I see. You are a boy from Terra Haute. Played the tuba in his marching band. I washed what was left of him down the drain. Hoped that his stain would remain on me, a kiss you don’t want to wash from your cheek. A boy’s life reduced to a dried bloodstain on my hands that won’t come out and when it does come out I don’t want it to. Ever. And what if I forget? What if I can’t remember? Are they gone forever? One boy had this ring, it was a class ring. I can’t remember whether his hand was black, white, yellow, red, brown, I can’t remember his face. Just that ring as he died. What’s Vietnam like? It’s heat, sticky, smells, laughter, and I won’t forget them. Ever.

At the helm is Dana Delany, known more recently for her work on Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof and Amazon’s Hand of God, as nurse Colleen McMurphy. Like the late Van Devanter herself, McMurphy was a Catholic girl from a large family, with a girl-next-door façade masking psychological scars running deeper than she lets on. Dependent on alcohol like one depends on oxygen, she uses her dutiful work ethic to mask her perpetual state of shock, giving little time for the few pleasures available in the scenic Bac My An Beach.

Marg Helgenberger of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation fame stars as K.C. Koloski. Professional in both her cynicism and entrepreneurial prostitution, she serves as the antithesis to Delany’s McMurphy. Where McMurphy is Henry Fonda, stoic and controlled, K.C. is Marlene Dietrich, provocative and world-weary, yet despite their differences, they both have kindness and courage in their hearts, and over time form an unlikely friendship.

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Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger as Colleen McMurphy and K.C. Koloski, respectively

Stubborn as an ox and tough as they come, stage actress Concetta Tomei’s Major Lila Garreau is the World War II veteran commanding the base. Having witnessed life and death and the tragic in-betweens first-hand, she’s unperturbed by the horrors around her, and tragically familiar with the scars they leave. The eldest and most experienced of the women in the centre, she’s respected and admired by most, but looks upon K.C. with disdain, considering her a lower class of person. Though occasionally proving themselves worthy of respect from one another, their dynamic remains a consistently entertaining facet of the series.

This is the moment I love most. The sight of you young, patriotic Americans coming to help our boys. My name is Lila Garreau and I’m your special services officer. I’ve been here since the beginning of time and you don’t know how lucky you are. There are half a million young fighting men in this country, and almost that many civilians. Most are very young and more than 12 thousand miles from home. For many of them, this is their first time away. They need you. You have a grave responsibility. You represent home to these boys; you are the only link to the world they know.

Every character, from to the one-episode guest stars to those given arcs across the seasons, was written with a depth that made them feel as real as the viewers themselves: Star Trek Voyager’s Robert Picardo as the ‘geographically single’ womanising surgeon Dick Richard, drafted into the army, leaving his family behind; Nan Woods’ Cherry White, a naive Red Cross worker who goes to Vietnam in the hope of finding her missing brother; Frankie Bunsen, played by Nancy Giles, arrives at the exceeds the expectations of those around her and becomes a friend and confidante to many; Boonie Lanier, a lifeguard portrayed by Brian Wimmer, who brings real heart and happiness to everyone he meets; as Wayloo Marie Holmes, Megan Gallagher gets more than she bargained for after travelling to Vietnam to become a famous news reporter.

No person left Vietnam unchanged, and China Beach never shied away from addressing the effects of life on and after the front lines, both long-term and short. Alcoholism, PTSD, broken relationships, addiction, and turmoil both inside and out were subjects often tackled.

Across the show’s four-season run, it was Mimi Leder – who went on to direct Deep Impact and Pay It Forward – who held the position most often, with a plethora of others, Gary Sinise and Diane Keaton amongst them, given guest directorial spots. In addition to the leading characters, the crew was consistently led by women, from producers to editors, in a time when this was not so common and encouraged as today.

With a ceaselessly iconic soundtrack of 1960s chart toppers punctuating each scene, the sounds of the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and many more of the era were immeasurably important in conveying the feeling of the era. The theme song itself, Diana Ross and The Supremes’ 1967 hit song Reflections, tells of love lost, living in a distorted reality, and looking back on the past, and there was no better song of the decade to encapsulate the rollercoaster of emotions of China Beach and its characters.

It would be simple to describe China Beach as ‘ahead of its time’ or ‘non-traditional’, but this prescience proved to be its undoing; though the series was widely acclaimed and awarded multiple Primetime Emmys and Golden Globes, its ratings failed to mirror its success, and led to ABC not only postponing the airing of its fourth season by a year, but cancelling the series, cutting short a story begging to be told.

A significant contributing factor to its cancellation was the 60s soundtrack. Clocking in at 62 episodes with a brilliant but expensive soundtrack, it was denied the chance to make the cultural and televisual impact it could so easily have done, leaving it tragically near-forgotten. Had it reached the required 100 episodes for syndication, or appealed to a wider audience at the time, there may have been a greater demand for home video release – or even another season – but the network deemed it unworthy of either, rendering it unavailable commercially for 25 years. It wasn’t until 2013 that the critically lauded series was given a DVD release, albeit only for North American buyers.

In 2013, in conjunction with the release of the DVDs, the cast and crew reunited for interviews and panels, and it’s apparent that there is still a feeling of loose ends and stories from both those involved in the show and viewers who remember it fondly. It is undoubtable that had its presence been given the chance to grow, with DVD releases internationally, China Beach would be amongst the many shows of the era with the audience demand for a reboot or revival. Nor is it a far stretch to imagine it finding a place with new audiences, its gritty realism not dissimilar to the trends of today. 

China Beach was unique in its time for its portrayals of women and war, and at its core, it was a demonstration of the resilience and strength of women even in the most difficult of circumstances. For many who had served in the war 20 years prior, it was the closure they didn’t have at the time. It showed people thrown into a world unlike anything they had seen before, peace shattering into deafening and unnecessary war, and yet through its veins ran a deep, heartbreaking testament to the power of the human spirit.

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