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The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of American Filmmakers

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A US squaddie in Vietnam

In 1945, Let There Be Light - a documentary directed by John Huston about psychologically-damaged Second World War veterans - was suppressed by the US Defence Department for fear of its possible pacifist influence. As a result, the film didn't receive a commercial release in the USA until 35 years later, thanks to the support of film critics. Ironically, this came in the middle of a wave of films depicting the horror of war in response to the experiences of a new generation, those who had fought in Vietnam.

The Western Conceit

The first major film to tackle the subject of the Vietnam War was the 1968 film The Green Berets, directed by John Wayne, the hero of many Westerns. Sadly, though predictably, Wayne offers a very biased and politically naïve view of the issues of US involvement in the war. Indeed, the film has much in common with the Cowboy movies that made Wayne famous, dealing with communism as he had dealt with the Indian threat years earlier. The most serious challenge to the jingoism in the film's narrative came, ironically enough, not from the communist Vietnamese but from a liberal, sceptical reporter, George Beckwith (David Jannsen). Beckwith's doubts are suppressed as soon as he is exposed to evidence that the Vietcong have tortured and raped the inhabitants of a small village. His reaction to the brutality echoes that of Wayne himself in the classic western The Searchers. The film ends with Wayne walking off into the sunset hand in hand with his mascot, a small Vietnamese boy who befriends the hero in the same way the audience was supposed to believe the Vietnamese had befriended 'Uncle Sam.'

New York Times critic Renata Adler commented that:

The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false, that it passes through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve not so much for our soldiers or Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do greater disservice to them), but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus of this country.

Hollywood could no longer rely on such obvious propaganda to convince the nation of the need for greater commitment in the war. John Wayne's old-fashioned, patriotic clichés about 'freedom, justice and the American way' and the brutal, totalitarian Vietcong failed to represent the dichotomy of public emotion towards the war. Instead, Wayne's values were challenged by Hollywood's new revisionism, featuring genre films that not only undermined Wayne's right-wing beliefs, but portrayed war with horror rather than honour as their prime focus.

The rise of avant-garde films - inspired by European New Wave - led to films such as Brian De Palma's Greetings (1968) and its sequel Hi Mom (1970), which used comedy and absurdist drama to reveal the pointlessness of the war. In Greetings, after three teenagers go to ludicrous lengths to avoid the draft, one of them, Jon Rubin (played by Robert De Niro) is finally sent to war where he combines his job as film-maker with his hobby as amateur pornographer, using unsuspecting Vietnamese women as his subjects. De Niro would later play another Vietnam veteran with a more sinister edge in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Aftermath - the 1970s

Small, independent films continued to examine the impact of Vietnam; but, in the late 1970s, the subject was tackled by three films supported by the major studios: Coming Home (1978); The Deer Hunter (1978); and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Coming Home

Coming Home was a film about returning veterans. What made this different was that it did not depict the veterans as men who, though mutilated by the war, were still committed to the goals they were supposedly fighting for. Here, the wounds are both physical and psychological, symbolic of the film's pacifist anti-war position. The film also depicts the psychological and ideological transformation that people underwent in the war, as depicted by the suicidal despair of the eager, ambitious Marine Captain Bob Hyde who'd had few reservations about going off to war, but later came to embody the alienation and moral disintegration that often accompanied front-line service in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Coming Home remained a safe humanist film more interested in attacking the horrors of war than in the specific moral and political terrors of Vietnam. However, this was clearly not the case with The Deer Hunter.

The Deer Hunter

Writer, director and critic, Quentin Tarantino notes:

One of the hardest things to do on film is to make an intimate epic, and [The Deer Hunter] is an epic in every sense of the word - in scope, in length, in tension, in emotion. But it's not about big battle scenes, it's about people sitting in a living room or sitting in a car, or sitting in a bar, or sitting in a Vietnamese prison cell.

In other words, the Vietnam War may provide a background to the film, but really The Deer Hunter (1978) is about the effects of war on human beings. The story, directed and part-written by Michael Cimino, begins in a mythical Pennsylvania town at a steel-mill where the workers work without resentment or complaint. Three steelworker friends, Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are seen celebrating at a wedding (ritual being an important feature of Cimino's narrative), just before they leave for Vietnam. They appear as unconcerned about the prospects of fighting as they are by their work, and are surprised when a soldier on leave from Vietnam picks a fight because of their lack of understanding about the horror of the war.

The day before they leave, the friends go on a final deer-hunt (another ritual). At the centre is Michael, who is admired for killing a deer with a single shot. In Vietnam, they are captured by the Vietcong and two of them are forced to play Russian roulette for the entertainment of their captors. They escape down-river and Michael gets Steven to safety, but returns to Pennsylvania alone. He is no longer the light-hearted figure we see at the beginning. On a repetition of the shooting-party scene, Michael finds he can no longer kill. He finds he is in love with Nick's girlfriend, but feels he must go back to Vietnam to find him. Nick is probably the worst victim of the three; he has become a professional player of Russian roulette and Michael tries in vain to stop him playing. He returns to Pennsylvania with Nick's body for the funeral.

After the funeral, the friends of Nick sing an emotional 'God Bless America', acting as a metaphor for the American spirit and community trying to deny the despair that has come before. This is, in part, the film's downfall, in that, like The Green Berets it fails to satisfactorily address any of the political motivations for the war, other than in the use of heavy-handed metaphors. The roulette sequence (criticised by many veterans as inaccurate) leads to yet another example of politically unconscious, guiltless Americans tormented by the Vietnamese, the aggressors, the demonic or decadent variations of the 'yellow peril.' The film suffers from a case of political and moral amnesia, forgetting all about America's war crimes and imperial guilt for the war. Because of this, the long-delayed release of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was even more-eagerly awaited.

Apocalypse ... When?

Coppola has often made comparisons with his film and the war itself:

We made it the way America made war in Vietnam. There were too many of us, too much money and equipment, and little by little we went insane...

In Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Special Forces colonel Walter E Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has disappeared in Cambodia with a murderous band of Green Berets. The film begins with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) awaiting his next mission in a room in Saigon. His anxiety manifests itself during a drunken, nightmarish sequence where he feels the walls of the room are 'closing in' on him. He begins to smash his room up, badly injuring his hand on the shards of glass from his mirror. The sounds of Willard's frenzy are drowned out by music and sounds of helicopters and the jungle.

Willard is finally assigned a mission - to 'Terminate' Kurtz 'with extreme prejudice.' Coppola uses grotesque characters to add a comic element to his narrative, such as maniac air-cavalry colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who will seize any beach with 'good surf,' booming Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' to terrify the enemy and against the billowing yellow smoke from an air strike, enthusing to a stunned Willard:

I love the smell of Napalm in the morning... Smells like victory...

Later, we see an example of the terror coupled with the almost farcical humour of the conscripts as Willard and 'The Chef' leave the boat to find food. They march through the jungle carelessly until, hearing what they think is the enemy, they are confronted by a very hungry and fierce tiger. Safely back in the boat, Chef chants 'Never get out of the boat' to himself repeatedly.

The film also looks at the frustration and isolation faced by the men. Coppola was keen to emphasise the youth of the soldiers and his use of black actors (including an early role for future Matrix star Lawrence Fishburne) acted as reference to the Army's practice of drafting black troops to the front lines. For these men, women exist only in lewd photographs and, in a moment of unconscious callousness on the part of the Government, a burlesque strip show of 'Playmates' arranged to entertain the troops, leaving them even more frustrated - Willard comments:

The more they try to make it like home, the more [the soldiers] miss it.
At the climax of the film, as the river narrows and Kurtz nears, the men die by spear and bullet, and revert to barbarism. Willard finally finds Kurtz, reading TS Eliot's The Hollow Men. 'You have no right to judge me,' he says, and Willard agrees; but their fate, thanks to Coppola, is one of ritual and butchery. Critic Peter Cowie notes how:
The absence of realistic noise from the airstrike establishes at a stroke Coppola's determination to focus on the glamour and intoxicating tints of modern technological warfare.

This is complemented by the lack of opening titles or end-credits, and the black humour evident in the ironic use of The Doors song 'The End', played over a backdrop of Kurtz's base in flames, while sinister silhouettes of helicopters fly past in blurred close-up.

Unfortunately, Mike Warren, president of the California State council of Vietnam Veterans of America, Riverside was one of many who were critical of the film's approach to the war:

Apocalypse Now was too surreal. When I first saw it I got tired of seeing Martin Sheen's face sweating close up. Veterans are interested in films that portray war, but movies about 'Nam sometimes have such an emotional intensity that they are too painful to watch.

The 1980s - Time For a Rewrite

The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now paved the way for a plethora of Vietnam films in the 1980s: the complex First Blood, which introduced Sylvester Stallone's Viet-Vet and one-man army John Rambo, and its two farcical sequels; Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which had less to do with the war and more to do with showcasing star Robin Williams' talent for comedy; Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1990), Casualties of War (1989), Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill (both 1987).

Those last two films follow recruits through initial training and then through their experiences in combat. Hamburger Hill was directed with documentary-like realism and authenticity - its director, John Irvin, had made a documentary in Vietnam in 1969, the year the film is set - as a squad of men make 11 assaults on a hill, a tactical position in the war of attrition. The narrative not only examines the effects of the constant attacks, but also (as with Apocalypse Now) the grudging respect that develops between black and white as initially volatile combinations of racial types are forced, by necessity, to fight for each other's survival. Through this the film reveals the feelings of alienation that many troopers felt on returning home in a scene where 'Doc,' the leader of the black troopers, rebukes a man for pretending to have been unaffected by the war, as he describes the pain he felt over the pretence of normality when he was last on leave. Doc also exemplifies the deep-rooted resentment on the part of the black troopers for their immediate drafting to the front line.

Heart of Stone

Platoon forms the first part in a trilogy of work examining the Vietnam war by director Oliver Stone. Charlie Sheen plays the young idealist who signs up to fight, but finds the reality of war bears little relation to his high-minded patriotism, as his values are gradually stripped away. Sheen becomes the central figure in an emotional power-struggle whose opposing characters, both sergeants, are a vicious, efficient Tom Berenger and a humanitarian hippyish drug-user, Willem Dafoe, providing (at last) a questioning of the motivation and political reasons behind the war, issues long ignored by film-makers. The use of letters sent home provides a voice for the narration of the film and establishes the personal experiences as the core of the film. Director Oliver Stone had himself served in Vietnam. Michael Herrera, Vietnam veteran, Van Nuys, California, says:

The first time I saw Platoon in a theatre, there were a number of Vietnamese people in the audience. After the village scenes, if anybody had asked if I was a vet, I would have said no. The film focused too much on the negative, completely ignoring the positive civic action - sponsoring orphans, rebuilding communities - that many took an active role in. A friend who served in the infantry shook his head and said 'Oliver Stone must have known an awful lot of psychotics.'

Born on the Fourth of July was based on the true story of Ron Kovic from his autobiography (published in 1976). Like Stone's previous work, the film sought to redefine the 'dangerously intoxicating notions of manhood and heroism.' Stone deals in oppositions. Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) is seen as the 'All-American Boy' who, inspired by the myths of cinema, volunteers for service:

I used to imagine I was John Wayne, and I would remember a scene from Guadalcanal Diary. But that ended in my second tour - the reality wasn't fitting the movie any more.
(Ron Kovic)

Kovic was traumatised by the memory of 'Friendly fire' - he shot one of his own troopers. Oliver Stone regarded as:

...the central theme of [Kovic]'s life that he shot his own soldier. It haunted him and he eventually confessed it in his own book.

Kovic himself was shot in the spine and left paralysed from the waist down. In the film, we see the horrific treatment that Kovic receives in hospital, being left facing the floor, while strapped to a table. When Kovic is sent home he is, like Michael in The Deer Hunter, no longer the naive, happy-go-lucky kid he was, but a bitter, angry young man. The contrast is shown in a deeply moving scene when a drunken Kovic vents his anger to his mother over his inability to have sex - providing unexpected humour as the mother responds hysterically to her son's use of the word 'penis.'

Having given the point of view of the foot-soldier and the embittered cynic, Oliver Stone chose finally to depict the view of the Vietnamese themselves in Heaven and Earth (1993), the final part in his Vietnam trilogy, through the eyes of a young Vietnamese peasant girl. Based loosely on the true story of Le Ly Hayslip as seen in her autobiographies When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, the film begins with Vietnam's reaction to the French war, going through to the civil war and then the American war. Stone shows her relationship with the Vietcong, for whom she worked, and the [Vietnamese] Republicans, who tortured her. Hayslip is seen working for the South Vietnamese; she becomes a street hustler and a rich man's mistress before marrying an American serviceman, finishing up as a San Diego businesswoman. Speaking at the time of the film's release, Stone said:

One of the interesting aspects is how she learned to forgive the people who hurt her - and that's true heroism.

Change of View

It's clear that the general approach to these films closely followed the prevailing political winds at the time. After the end of the Vietnam conflict, films emerged with a strongly anti-war sentiment; the brutality of the (fictional) Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter or the overplayed operatics of Apocalypse Now came at a time when the Democrats, led by Jimmy Carter, were in power. The more pro-soldier movies of the 1980s were during the Republican Reagan years, in a time where, arguably, having elected an actor into the White House, the American people were more in need of heroes than ever.

In 2002, Mel Gibson starred in a dramatisation of the very first battle of the Vietman war, We Were Soldiers, its intent being to remind its audience that each man who fought and died was someone's son, someone's husband, someone's father. The cinema's portrayal of Vietnam has finally come full-circle; from the xenophobic propaganda of The Green Berets at the beginning of the war through the unpleasant realities of war in The Deer Hunter and Oliver Stone's sympathetic attempt to find some balance. However, with the Vietnam War now almost as long ago as the Second World War was for the people of the 1960s, newer battlefields have taken its place in Hollywood's eyes. The Gulf War of the early 1990s and the more recent conflicts that have emerged in the wake of September 11, 2001, have provided scenarios that are fresher in the audiences' minds and easier to use as a metaphor for human existence than a battle that was lost over 30 years ago.

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