This article includes spoilers for Da 5 Bloods.
One of the most suspenseful scenes in director Spike Lee’s new movie Da 5 Bloods comes when David, a young man played by Jonathan Majors, accidentally steps on an unexploded land mine deep in the Vietnamese jungle. The mine doesn’t immediately explode—it’s one of those movie-friendly land mines that only goes off when the target removes their foot from the trigger—but since another character has just been blown to bits by one of the other mines, the stakes are very clear. Fortunately, David’s father, Paul (Delroy Lindo), has seen a similar situation during the Vietnam War, as he explains in a classic example of dialogue in which a character alludes to a secret plan without revealing it to the audience:
Jethro Bodine. Remember that big ol’ hillbilly kid from Oklahoma? He stepped on a toe popper, remember? OK, we’re going to spring my son the same way we sprung that hillbilly kid, you got me?
What follows is an extremely unlikely seeming escape, in which Paul and the other veterans tie a rope around his son’s waist, and, on the count of three, jerk him off the mine as quickly as possible, pulling him out of the way before the explosion can catch up with him. Could that really work?
The simplest answer is “no,” because judging from the close-up, the mine David steps on appears to be an American-made M14 (a “toe popper,” like Paul says), and those go off when the pressure plate is stepped on, not when pressure is released. But Lee didn’t invent the story to justify including the brief aside about his fellow Morehouse College grad, Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses: The same story, more or less as it appears in Da 5 Bloods, shows up in Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History, Wallace Terry’s hugely influential 1985 collection of black veterans’ recollections of their experiences in Vietnam. (The book was one of Da 5 Bloods’ primary sources, and Lee had his cast read it before making the film.)
In Bloods, the land mine story is told by Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant, and his version goes like this:
This infantry unit was on a little trail west of Pleiku, makin’ a sweep towards the Ia Drang Valley. This white dude had stepped on a mine. And knew it. He felt the plunger go down. Everybody moved away from him, about 20 meters. So they called for the engineers, and somebody asked for Light Bulb. …
When I got there on the chopper, he’s been standing there for over an hour. He really wasn’t in any panic. He was very calm. He knew that if he alleviated any of that pressure, both of us would have got destroyed.
I dug all around the mine with my bayonet and found out that it was a Bouncin’ Betty. I told him I was gonna try to defuse it. But the three-prong primer on the Bouncin’ Betty had gotten in between the cleats on his jungle boots, so there wasn’t any way I could deal with it. So I said let’s see if we could kind of change the pressure by him takin’ his foot out of his boot and me keepin’ the pressure by holding his boot down. That way he could get out uninjured. But when he started doin’ that, I thought I was seein’ the plunger rise, so I told him to stop.
I guess maybe I’d been working with him for an hour now.
Then I got the idea. I knew when the plunger would depress, the Bouncin’ Betty would bounce up about 3 feet and then explode. So I got the other members of his team together, and I tied a rope around his waist. And everybody, including me, moved off about 20 yards from the mine and him. And when I counted to three, everyone would pull on the rope and snatch him about 15 feet off the mine. And it would bounce up its 3 feet and explode. And it did that. And the only damage that he received was the heel of his jungle boot that was blown off. No damage to him.
That’s an extraordinary story, but it might not be entirely true. (For one thing, the German-made Bouncing Bettys, and the American mines modeled after them, are like M14s: They’re set to detonate when pressure is applied to the plunger, not when it is released.) B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley’s 1998 book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and Its History alleges that Bryant exaggerated his service record and spent most of his time in Vietnam driving a dump truck. Historian Patrick Hagopian was similarly skeptical in a 2000 article in the Journal of American History, for the simple reason that Bryant was not the only veteran telling a version of that story—television producer Patrick S. Duncan heard it from several veterans while doing research for the 1987 HBO series Vietnam War Story, and used it as the basis for an episode. Hagopian had heard it before, too:
I, too, heard this story—from a homeless veteran who haunted the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento, who showed me the scars on his leg where shrapnel from the mine hit him. According to a trusted informant, though, it was unlikely that the homeless man had ever been in Vietnam. I had reason to doubt the story anyway, because I had previously read it in the words of Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant in Bloods. In 1991, I assumed the homeless man had copied the story from Bryant. Now I regard it as equally possible that Bryant (who turns out to have falsified his wartime experiences) heard it as the yarn went the rounds.
So although it’s not entirely clear whether the land mine story in Da 5 Bloods is an urban legend or an actual incident from the Vietnam War, however distorted over the years, two things are certain: It makes for very tense filmmaking, and you should absolutely not rely on it should you happen to step on a mine.
For more on Da 5 Bloods listen to Dana Stevens’ and Aisha Harris’ spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.