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Pa. company builds vast Vietnam War film archive

Mar. 23, 2014 - 01:34PM   |  
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EASTON, PA. — It was built in bits and pieces.

A serviceman’s film canister stashed in the garage. A box from a museum’s storage room.

Five years ago, Lou Reda Productions in Easton established a goal in anticipation of next year’s 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War — build a collection of wartime footage unparalleled in the nation.

Reda researchers and archivists launched a search through veterans groups, Army depots, underfunded museums and private individuals.

“Anyone who might still have films,” said Scott Reda, the company’s managing director.

The result is about 1,000 hours of Vietnam footage on film — what the company boasts is the largest privately held collection in the United States, transferred to high-definition and stored in the Reda archives in the old St. Michael Roman Catholic Church on Spring Garden Street.

Some of it can be seen in the new documentary that will premiere this week on National Geographic Channel. “Brothers in War,” inspired by a unit of the 9th Infantry Division that fought in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam in 1967, airs 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“This is footage that should be preserved,” Reda said. “It’s a time capsule.”

Reda Productions holds about 15,000 hours of archival footage broken into categories such as military, lifestyles, newsreels and personalities, said Adam Reda, Scott’s son and the director of the archives. The military collection represents the largest piece, with footage that dates to the Spanish American War in 1898 and counts the largest collection of high-definition World War II footage in the world, Scott Reda said.

At a premiere screening Friday night in the nation’s capital, “Brothers in War” received a five-minute standing ovation from about 400 veterans, including the men featured.

“Lou Reda Productions’ vast archival library of military footage ensured that we could tell the important story of ‘Brothers in War’ in a fresh way with film and home movies that have never been seen on television,” said Madeleine Carter, executive producer for National Geographic Channel.

Cornering the market

Besides preserving history on film, the company aims to be a primary producer of wartime documentaries and a partner for other producers or collectors in need of footage. Lou Reda Productions will supply footage to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns for a PBS multi-episode project on the Vietnam War targeted for release next year, the company said.

“We have the knowledge, the expertise and the footage,” Scott Reda said. “And probably 90 percent of it’s never been seen before.”

Lou Reda Productions relied on its relationships with smaller museums, veterans reunion groups and the National Archives to bolster its library. Much of it has come from individual servicemen and women using 8 mm film and cameras they bought on their military bases.

“They got home and had this box of film that they stuck in their basement, attic and garage and kind of forgot about it,” Scott Reda said. “Today, things are coming full circle. A lot of guys say, ‘I think I may have some stuff,’ and they’re finding it.”

Sometimes acquiring material is just plain luck.

In making “Brothers in War,” Reda Productions featured home movies and personal film from numerous soldiers, including Richard Rubio. He showed up for his interview holding a plastic bag with a tape recording inside — an audio letter he sent home from Vietnam. The filmmakers incorporated it in the documentary

“We had a guy reach out to us maybe a year ago,” Scott Reda said. “He was on an aircraft carrier when one of the Apollo missions splashed down in the Pacific. This guy shot three hours of footage from the deck. He wanted to donate it to a museum but they refused because didn’t have the money to preserve the film. That’s typical.”

An evolving industry

Reda Productions cleans personal film, transfers it to high definition, licenses the rights and puts the footage on DVD for those who supply it.

The company has its roots in Lou Reda, an 89-year-old World War II Navy veteran whose breakthrough came in producing the 1982 television miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.” Success there led to a long affiliation with History Channel and acclaim within the industry for production of World War II and Vietnam documentaries.

“A lot of the producers in the 1980s and ‘90s went for (wartime documentaries) because there weren’t big budgets for things like that,” said Lou Reda, who grew up in Phillipsburg and lives in Lopatcong Township. “They were mainly guys well known in the field of publishing and history but not in producing films.”

These days, networks are commissioning less and less in military programming; a glut of reality programming has led the Redas to evolve their business. Marc Reda, Scott’s son and Lou’s grandson, serves as creative director and is pitching multiple unscripted programs at any time.

March 2015 will mark 50 years since American ground forces deployed in Vietnam — a milestone that the Redas expect will intensify interest in an era in which many who lived through elected to forget.

Those feelings have loosened over time, as the company’s call and search for film the last few years has demonstrated.

“For us, it serves two purposes,” Scott Reda said. “It preserves a snapshot of what these guys went through. And the hope is we continue to do Vietnam programming and this footage will continue to come to light.”

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