Chuck Norris’ ‘The Delta Force’ Tried to Rewrite History
This Cannon ‘classic’ takes exploitation to the next level
War Is Boring published an earlier version of this story on July 31, 2013.
The terrorists sort through the passports, looking for Jews. The hijackers force a terrified flight attendant to pick out the Jewish passengers among the passports. She refuses and the villain demands to know why.
“But can’t you see,” she wails, “that I’m German?”
It’s a moment of maudlin melodrama straight out of a dime store novel — ’80s popcorn cinema at its worst. The moment does not stand alone, but churns in a celluloid sea of overacting, explosions and machismo.
This is Chuck Norris’ world, after all, and we’re lucky he’s here to protect us. This is The Delta Force — and it’s among the worst war flicks ever made.
Watch with mounting incredulity as:
Two men wielding grenades hijack a flight leaving Athens and authorities arrest a third terrorist in the airport before he boards.
The plane diverts to Beirut and refuels before flying to Algiers, where 12 more bad guys join their comrades on the plane.
The hijackers beat one of their hostages, a Navy seaman, with an armrest before putting a round in his head and tossing him from the plane.
The pilot of the doomed flight wears an idiot grin during a press conference where he leans out of the window of the cockpit as a terrorist holds a gun to his head.
Then Lee Marvin and Norris take care of business. They’re members of Delta Force — never mind their characters’ names — and they unleash the full fury of America’s Special Operations Forces on some terrorist ass.
Buildings explode. Men burn. Norris stops a convoy of terrorists with the aid of a motorcycle that spews missiles.
The good guys win, rescue the hostages and punish the bad guys.
It’s tripe. A forgettable relic of jingoistic era we’re better off remembering with disdain … or simply forgetting. Except so much of it is true. So much of it actually happened.
Which of course makes the movie way, way worse.
Take ’em down!
In the summer of 1985, two men armed with grenades and guns took control of TWA Flight 847 as it flew out of Athens. A third hijacker was late for the boarding and police arrested him.
The flight diverted to Beirut, where it refueled and flew to Algiers to take on a group of 12 more armed men, including the man previously arrested in Athens — if you can believe that.
The hijackers asked a German-American flight attendant to single out the Jewish and American passengers. The armed men beat Navy diver Robert Stethem with an armrest, shot him in the head and dumped his body on the tarmac. Flight 847 returned to Beirut.
The flight crew shut down two of the engines and convinced the terrorists that the plane would no longer fly. After an 18-day standoff in the plane, the terrorists released all the passengers and escaped.
Less than a year after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, The Cannon Group unleashed The Delta Force on audiences. It spawned two God-awful sequels.
It isn’t hard to see why. Delta Force is a pornographic, exploitative revenge fantasy.
It’s one that tells a story just close enough to the truth to remind people what they saw on the news not long ago. But the movie dumps complicated geopolitics and the motivations of the actual event in favor of a cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up.
The film plays as an insult to the memory of the actual event.
Delta Force opens on a helicopter exploding in the middle of the desert. It’s Operation Eagle Claw, the failed U.S. military operation to end the Iranian hostage crisis.
We follow Delta Force fleeing Tehran. Chuck Norris stews as the helicopters flee the aborted mission.
“We told them it was too dangerous to launch this operation at night,” Norris says.
“They thought their plan was better,” Marvin shrugs.
“I spent five years in in Vietnam watching them doing the planning and us the dying,” Norris says. “Well, I’m resigning when I get back.”
The worst of the exploitation films?
But he can’t stay out. Not when five years later he sees the hijacking of TWA Flight 282 on television.
He knows his old buddies will be there to stop to it. Here’s his chance to exact revenge on the Islamic militants he never got a chance to fight before and the top brass he blames for the blunders in Iran.
“I demand negotiations, American! Do you hear me?” one of terrorist leaders screams through a radio at Norris after the commando murders dozens of faceless enemies.
Norris blasts the radio with an Uzi before quipping, “Loud and clear.”
The real life Delta Force stood by during the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. Reagan declined to green-light their operation. The unnamed, unseen president in the universe of Delta Force has no such problem.
The politics of the movies’ villains are confused, to put it generously. They’re based in Lebanon and have ties to its military in some way that’s never made clear. The terrorists never make any demands. They want only to cause chaos and kill Jews and Americans. Posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini plaster every wall of the villains’ various lairs.
In the movie’s third act, the hijackers contact Iran’s supreme leader in an attempt to barter the hostages for entry into his country. The hijackers’ tenuous connection to the ayatollah provides a bogeyman for the audience to latch onto — the specter of a grand architect behind the chaos.
But that doesn’t really matter. We’re really just here to watch Norris kill baddies.
And boy does he. All of them.
Norris and his team redeem themselves. They get to be heroes. They bring everyone home. The film ends, literally, with the plane filled with Delta Force and rescued hostages drinking Budweiser and singing “America the Beautiful.”
All the bad guys are dead. No loose ends.
This is pornography, it’s violence meant to evoke a strong emotional reaction — a lust for revenge — and a desire to rewrite history. It’s the daydream of an adolescent who, while watching coverage of the actual event, thought it would be awesome if Norris could just go in there and blow everyone away.
More than 15 years after 9/11, audiences are still sensitive to movies that exploit its imagery. Moviegoers were uncomfortable while Perry White walked around a desolate metropolis that resembled post-attack New York in Man of Steel.
Again, the hijacking was not a year old when the movie came out. The men responsible were still at large.
Can you imagine a blockbuster coming out during the holiday season of 2002 starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as he tore through the landscape of Afghanistan, pulling bearded men from holes and executing them? Cannon Group didn’t give the same considerations to the very real victims of Flight 847 or their experiences.
The real Flight 847
Uli Derickson was born in Prague, but grew up in Germany. She was a flight attendant aboard 847.
The hijackers spoke poor English, but excellent German. Derickson was able to translate for them and help keep the hostages calm.
She negotiated the release of elderly women and children during the plane’s first landing in Beirut. Later, when the ground crew in Algiers refused to refuel the plane unless someone paid, she offered up her personal credit card. Algiers charged her $5,500 for the fuel.
The terrorists ordered her to collect the passports of the passengers and forced her to single out the Jews. She hid the passports that would have damned her fellow hostages.
Uli Derickson saved lives.
The Delta Force version of events has the Derickson character caving to pressure and giving up the Jewish passengers.
John Testrake, the pilot of the plane, sat in a cockpit for over two weeks while the terrorists harassed, threatened and beat him and his fellow passengers. He calmly stood up to the hijackers and helped shut down the engines, grounding the plane in Beirut. He was calm in the face of danger.
John Testrake saved lives.
But his Delta Force analogue sweats passively and waits for rescue.
Then there was Robert Dean Stethem, a U.S. Navy diver. The Pentagon posthumously awarded him the Purple Heart after the terrorists murdered him in Beirut. In 1994, the Navy named an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Stethem in his honor.
Delta Force was not above exploiting the brutal images of his death to sell tickets — less than a year later.
Remember that detail. This was less than a year after his murder.
All war films are exploitation films. They mine terrifying and violent historical events for entertainment.
At best they provide a background for a compelling story, help us make sense of historical events or contribute to our national mythos. At worst these exploitation films are violent crap that evoke tragedy to make a quick buck and provoke an emotional reaction the movie hasn’t earned.
The Delta Force is the latter, a childish revenge fantasy that tells us nothing, barely entertains and exists solely to make a quick buck. It’s one of the worst war movies ever made.
Uli Derickson, John Testrake, Robert Dean Stethem and everyone else aboard TWA Flight 847 deserve better.