Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Erase & Forget' Introduces the Man Who Inspired 'Rambo'

Erase & Forget Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlinale

Director Andrea Luka Zimmerman looks at the colorful life of Lt. Col. James "Bo" Gritz, a retired army commander, whistle-blower and one-time presidential candidate.

The life of Lt. Col. James Gordon Gritz — a decorated Vietnam veteran who led covert suicide missions against insurgents and claims to have 400 confirmed kills — reads like an ‘80s action film. He’s said to be the real-life inspiration for two cultural touchstones: Rambo and Col. John ‘Hannibal’ Smith of The A-Team.

But the story of James "Bo" Gritz (rhymes with “bites”), as told in Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s documentary Erase & Forget, is stranger than any Sylvester Stallone pic or primetime TV series. Bo has trained Afghan mujahideen in a secret camp in the Nevada desert, and he’s carried out (unsuccessful) missions to rescue missing American POWs in Vietnam — with funding from Clint Eastwood and William Shatner. In 1986, he turned whistle-blower against the U.S. government, accusing several members of the Reagan administration of backing drug trafficking in Southeast Asia. Oh, plus he built a community in Idaho — Almost Heaven — for veterans and survivalists and even ran for president (under the slogan “God, Guns and Gritz”).

Zimmerman first met Bo in 2003 while doing research with the film collective Vision Machine, which also includes The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer, on U.S. involvement in the 1996 genocide in Indonesia. "He was one of the experts we talked to, who had been involved in U.S. covert action there,” says Zimmerman. “Compared with most of the others we talked to, Bo was much more open. He clearly had a need to talk.”

Zimmerman spent the next 10 years talking to Bo, trying to figure out the man behind the myth and what both say about America. “Take the first Rambo film. That was actually an anti-war film,” she says. “It was about PTSD and the plight of veterans rejected by society. By the 1980s you had a crisis of masculinity in the U.S., and the second and third Rambo movies were pro-war, much more violent, almost slapstick.”

Using techniques similar to Oppenheimer’s in Act of Killing, Zimmerman got Bo to act out scenes from his life as if they were in a movie. She even hired a Rambo look-alike for a scene, in which Bo demonstrated his interrogation techniques. “I was looking to find a way of fusing reality with fiction to get a deeper kind of truth,” she says. “With fiction, it is safer to say things that can’t otherwise be said.”

The film, which premieres Feb. 11 in Berlin as part of the Panorama Dokumente program, tells Bo’s story. But Zimmerman says, “It’s not about him. It’s about how we make the world we inhabit, how we fabricate history for a certain purpose, how we all inhabit a sort of structural violence.”