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Film traces veteran’s return to Vietnam: a story of vulnerability and healing more than 40 years after serving

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Jim Markel Sr. and Jim Markel Jr. at Khe Sanh War Memorial Site in Vietnam during filming in 2018. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETE TOLTON

‘Return’ will have its final Big Sky showings at The Waypoint on Wednesday, May 8


Seven-and-a-half years ago, Pete Tolton interviewed a Montana resident and retired Green Beret who served in the Vietnam War. The conversation led to “Return,” a 90-minute documentary film about Jim Markel Sr. retracing steps in the country in which he served more than 40 years ago. 

Tolton, a Billings-based filmmaker, directed “Return,” which had its premiere in Big Sky on Friday, May 3. It played through the weekend and will have its final two showings at The Waypoint tomorrow, Wednesday, May 8 at 5 and 7 p.m.

“The story [is] really about the gulf between people who served and people who didn’t,” said Tolton. In the film, Jim Markel Sr. travels with his son to revisit mountain tribes—comrades who he lived and fought with and eventually had to leave after the U.S. military withdrew from the country—and the villages he remembered while serving. While journeying the thousands of miles with his son, Jim Markel Jr., the former Green Beret confronts his experience as both soldier and father.

“This [is] somebody who had so many unanswered questions, and had such feelings of intense loss and suffered deeply in the aftermath,” Tolton said of Markel Sr. “I think he was ready for a full change. I think he was ready for his son to be there with him.”

“Return” had its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula in 2023. Other appearances include the MINT Film Festival in Billings, and Sheridan, Wyoming’s WYO Film Festival. After Big Sky’s final screenings on Monday, the film will show in Newport, Oregon.

Tolton explained that the film touched many families during screenings across the state, recounting military families leaving with a new understanding of their veteran relatives. 

Markel Sr.’s story relates to a wider story about Montana, a state that holds high rates of mental health issues and suicide incidences. “There’s a lot of sense of isolation here, there’s a major problem with especially men, adult men and older men, lacking friendships and strong relationships in their lives,” Tolton said. He hopes that audiences can leave inspired, maybe with an example of how to hold hard conversations, even in older age.

“It’s never too late to talk about hard stuff … if you’ve been thinking about going there, go there,” Tolton emphasizes this especially when things are “long burning and long waiting.” 

“I also hope that it opens a window to history to show a side of the war that may be unfamiliar to people … I hope people feel a sense of curiosity about a faraway place,” Tolton said about the story, which offers a nuanced look at the Vietnam War more than 40 years after its conclusion.

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