And...

Writing About Film

"Peoples and Governments Never Have Learned Anything from History": Hollywood Agrees

Paper for Recent America: 1941 to the Present course, 1989
Selected Bibliography
A., D. “Hollywood War,” Newsweek (February 6, 1978): 89.
Asahina, R. “On Screen: Filmed Fictions,” New Leader 61 (November 6, 1978): 19.
Aufderheide, Pat. “Kubrick’s Shining Path of Black Comedy,” In These Times (July 8-21, 1987): 21.
Auster, Albert and Quart, Leonard. “Film Review: Man and Superman: Vietnam and the New American Hero,” Social Policy 11 (January/February 1981): 60-64.
Bernstein, Richard. “Vietnam, from a Cameraman’s Vantage,” New York Times (March 22, 1989): C15.
Blake, Richard A. “All for Naught,” America 157 (August 1-8, 1987): 66.
Bogue, Ronald L. “The Heartless Darkness of Apocalypse Now,” Georgia Review 35, no. 3 (1981): 611-626.
Bromwich, David. “The Bad Faith of Apocalypse Now,” Dissent 27, no. 2 (1980): 207+65p6.
Brown, Georgia. “Candid Camera,” Village Voice 34 (March 28, 1989): 60.
Buckley, Tom. “Movies: Hollywood’s War: The Deer Hunter Invents Cruelties to Sell Vietnam,” Harper’s 258 (April 1979): 84-88.
Burke, Frank. “In Defense of The Deer Hunter or: the Knee Jerk is Quicker than the Eye,” Literature Film Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1983): 22-27.
Canby, Vincent. “Film: Post-Vietnam Romantic Triangle,” New York Times 127 (February 16, 1978): C20.
_________. “Hollywood Focuses on Vietnam At Last,” New York Times 127 (February 19, 1978): sec. 2, p. 1+.
_________. “How True to Fact Must Fiction be?,” New York Times 128 (December 17, 1978): sec 2, pp. 1+.
_________. “Film View: the Heart of Apocalypse Now is ‘extremely misty’,” New York Times 128 (August 19, 1979): sec. 2, pp. 1+.
_________. “Film: the Vietnam War in Stone’s Platoon,” New York Times 136 (December 19, 1986): C12.
_________. “Film: Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on Vietnam,” New York Times 136 (June 26, 1987): C3.
Cawley, Leo. “Refighting the War: Why the Movies are in Vietnam,” Village Voice 32 (September 8, 1987): 18+.
Clark, Michael. “Vietnam: Representations of Self and War,” Wide Angle 7, no. 4 (1985): 4-11.
Clines, Francis X. “Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam,” New York Times 136 (June 21, 1987): sec. 2, 1+.
Corliss, Richard. “Cinema: A Document Written in Blood,” Time 128 (December 15, 1986): 83.
_________. “Platoon: Viet Nam, the Way it Really was, on Film,” Time 129 (January 26, 1987): 54-61.
DeMarco, Darcy. “The Missing Image of Black Vets in Nam,” In These Times (September 30-October 6, 1987): 20.
Dempsey, Michael. “Apocalypse Now,” Sight and Sound 48, no. 2 (1979): 5-9.
Doherty, Thomas. “Full Metal Genre: Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam Combat Movie,” Film Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Winter 1988/1989): 24-30.
Emerson, Gloria. “Jon Voight: Making Peace with an Endless War,” Village Voice 23 (February 20, 1978): 38-39.
Fox, Terry Curtis. “Stalking The Deer Hunter,” Film Comment 15 (March/April 1979): 22-24.
Gardner, James. “On Screen: Blood and Guts,” New Leader 70 (March 9, 1987): 22-23.
Geng, Veronica. “The Current Cinema: ‘Mistah Kurtz — He Dead’,” New Yorker 55 (September 3, 1979): 70-72.
Grenier, Richard. “Movies: A New Patriotism?,” Commentary 67 (April 1979): 78-81.
Harmetz, Aljean. “Oscar-Winning Deer Hunter is Under Attack as Racist Film,” New York Times 128 (April 26, 1979): C15.
Hoberman, J. “Film: at War with Ourselves,” Village Voice 31 (December 23, 1986): 79+.
__________. “Hollywood on the Mekong,” Village Voice 32 (September 8, 1987): 19+.
Honeycutt, Kirk. “Film: The Five-Year Struggle to Make Coming Home,” New York Times 128 (February 19, 1978): sec. 2, pp. 1+.
Humphreys, Reynold. “Rewriting History: Notes on The Deer Hunter,” Framework no. 11 (Autumn 1979): 40-41.
Jackson, Martin A. “Films: The Deer Hunter,” USA Today 107 (May 1979): 63-64.
Kael, Pauline. “The Current Cinema: Mythologizing the Sixties,” The New Yorker 54 (February 20, 1978): 119-121.
__________. “The Current Cinema: The God-Bless-America Symphony,” New Yorker 54 (December 18, 1978): 66+
__________. “The Current Cinema: Platoon,” The New Yorker 62 (January 12, 1987): 94-96.
__________. “The Current Cinema: No Shelter,” The New Yorker 63 (September 7, 1987): 97-98.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Far From Vietnam,” New Republic 178 (March 4, 1978): 26-27.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Searching and Destroying,” New Republic 178 (June 24, 1978): 22-23.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: the Hunting of the Hunters,” New Republic 180 (May 26, 1979): 22-23.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Coppola’s War,” New Republic 181 (September. 15, 1979): 24-25.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: An American Tragedy,” New Republic (January 19, 1987): 24-25.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Blank Cartridge,” New Republic 197 (July 27, 1987): 28-29.
__________. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: ‘Don’t Mean Nothin’’,” New Republic 197 (September 14-21, 1987): 32-33.
Kinder, Marsha. “The Power of Adaptation in Apocalypse Now,” Film Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1980): 12-20.
Kinney, Judy Lee. “The Mythical Method: Fictionalizing the Vietnam War,” Wide Angle 7, no. 4 (1985): 35-40.
Koning, Hans. “Films and Plays about Vietnam Treat Everything but the War,” New York Times 128 (May 27, 1979): sec. 2, pp. 1+.
Koper, Peter. “Can Movies Kill?,” American Film 7 (July/August 1982): 46-48+.
Kranz, Rachel C. “Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter: the Lies Aren’t Over,” Jump Cut no. 23 (October 1980): 18-20.
Kroll, Jack. “Vietnam Hero Worship,” Newsweek 91 (February 20, 1978): 89-90.
__________. “Remembering Hamburger Hill: On the Point in Vietnam,” Newsweek 110 (September 14, 1987): 83.
Lacayo, Richard. “Semper Fi: Kubrick Sticks to his Guns,” Film Comment 23 (September/October 1987): 11-14.
Lehman, Peter. “‘Well, What’s it Like Over There? Can You Tell Us Anything?’: Looking for Vietnam in The Deer Hunter,” North Dakota Quarterly 51, no. 3 (1983): 131-141.
Lichty, Lawrence W., and Carroll, Raymond L. “Fragments of War: Platoon,” in American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, pp. 273-287. Edited by John E. O’Connor and Martin A. Jackson. New York: Continuum, 1988.
“Mailbag: Vietnam and Artistic Integrity,” New York Times 128 (June 17, 1979): sec. 2, pp. 23+.
Marin, Peter. “Coming to Terms with Vietnam,” Harper’s 259 (December 1980): 41-56.
Maslin, Janet. “Film View: Inside the ‘Jacket’: All Kubrick,” New York Times 136 (1987): 17+.
McGilligan, Pat. “Point Man,” Film Comment 23 (January/February 1987): 11-14+.
McInerney, Peter. “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam,” Film Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1980): 21-32.
Mills, Nicolaus. “Memories of the Vietnam War,” Dissent 26, no. 3 (1979): 334-337.
Morrow, Lance. “Nation: Viet Nam Comes Home: Two Winning Films Signal the Struggle to Learn from a Lost War,” Time 113 (April 23, 1979): 22-24+.
Nash, Jay Robert, and Ross, Stanley Ralph. The Motion Picture Guide. Chicago: Cine-Books, Inc., 1987.
Norman, Michael. “War’s Face, Seen Intimately,” New York Times (March 19, 1989): sec. 2, p. 15.
O’Brien, Tom. “Films: Platoon,” Commonweal 114 (January 16, 1987): 17-18.
_________. “Films: Full Metal Jacket,” Commonweal 114 (August 14, 1987): 457-458.
Palmer, William J. “The Vietnam War Films,” Film Library Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1980): 4-14.
Pilger, John. “Why The Deer Hunter is a Lie,” New Statesman 97 (March 16, 1979): 352-353.
Pym, John. “A Bullet in the Head: Vietnam Remembered,” Sight and Sound 48, no. 2 (1979): 82-84+.
_________. “Apocalypse Now: An Errand Boy’s Journey,” Sight and Sound 48, no. 3 (1979): 9-10.
Quart, Leonard. “On Screen: Hollywood Discovers Vietnam,” USA Today 107 (May 1979): 65.
Rafferty, Terence. “Films: Platoon,” The Nation 244 (January 17, 1987): 54-56.
_________. “Films: Full Metal Jacket,” The Nation 245 (August 1-8, 1987): 98-99.
Sarris, Andrew. “’70s Going on ’60s,” Village Voice 23 (February 20, 1978): 38-39.
__________. “Films in Focus: Is Metaphor the Message?,” Village Voice 23 (December 18, 1978): 67-68.
_________. “Films in Focus: First Assault on Apocalypse Now: Ayatollah Coppola Opens at Cannes,” Village Voice 24 (May 28, 1979): 1+.
__________. “The Screen at the End of the Tunnel,” Village Voice 32 (September 8, 1987): 19+.
Simon, John. “The Movies: Truth — for Beginners,” National Review 30 (April 14, 1978): 480-481.
__________. “Found in the Mud,” National Review 39 (March 13, 1987): 54-57.
_________. “Twice-Bitten Bullet,” National Review 39 (August 14, 1987): 52-53.
Sklar, Robert; Aufderheide, Pat; Ceplair, Larry; Quart, Leonard; Taylor, Clyde; Weigl, Bruce. “Platoon on Inspection: A Critical Symposium,” Cineaste 15, no. 4 (1987): 4-11.
Spark, A. “The Soldier at the Heart of the War: the Myth of the Green Beret in the Popular Culture of the Vietnam Era,” Journal of American Studies 18, no. 1 (1984): 29-48.
Suid, Lawrence. “Apocalypse Now: Francis Ford Coppola Stages His Own Vietnam War,” Cineaste 8, no. 3 (1977/1978): 32-33+.
_________. “Hollywood and Vietnam,” Film Comment 15 (September-October 1979): 20-25.
TRB from Washington. “Platoon and Iranamok,” The New Republic 197 (July 27, 1987): 4+.
Vallely, Jean. “Michael Cimino’s Battle to Make a Great Movie: the Director of The Deer Hunter Had the Guts to Make a Movie about Vietnam — and the Guts to Get it Right,” Esquire 91 (January 2-16, 1979): 89+.
Wander, Phillip. “The Aesthetics of Fascism,” Journal of Communications 33, no. 2 (1983): 70-78.
Wood, Dennis. “All the Words we Cannot Say: a Critical Commentary on The Deer Hunter,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 7, no. 4 (1980): 366-382.

 

Vietnam was like no other war in United States’ experience. Not only did it conclude with American withdrawal and South Vietnam’s eventual defeat, but it forced the U.S. to face its culpability in the morally ambiguous undertaking. Vietnam was a war that forever changed America’s conception of itself, one which altered the way its people saw themselves — they were no longer the “good guys” and, because the country was so divided, could not even return home to nurse their wounds in communal sympathy. The War tore America apart in far-reaching and integral ways: it set hawk against dove, parent against child, black against white, and rich against poor. Additionally, the War played itself out in front of the television camera, and, ultimately, in America’s living rooms, where the futility of the struggle was shockingly apparent. American soldiers fought in a country which did not want them for a cause they increasingly came to doubt. They returned to a nation which treated them with fear and disrespect, as much because the majority of them were poor, black, and Hispanic, than because of national shame or guilt.

At the conclusion of its military involvement in 1972, the U.S. had come no closer to resolving its feelings about the War, and internal tensions remained high. For this reason, few believed that the American film industry would want anything to do with the War. True to expectations, except for the government-financed 1968 propaganda-machine The Green Berets, no films were made during the War years which depicted the fighting. With America’s 1972 pullout and subsequent defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, the possibility of forthcoming film representations of the War seemed doubtful. As Arthur Penn said in the mid-1970s, “I don’t believe the war in Vietnam can be treated in a ‘popular film.’ We have no capability to confront events of that enormity head-on.”1 Hollywood, however, finds ways of selling just about anything, even national guilt, and by 1977, Vietnam film production was in full swing. Unfortunately, Vietnam’s popularity as a film topic has since spawned an array of filmmakers who for the most part “. . . have created inventive metaphors and ingenious images, rather than using this opportunity to pierce the political heart of darkness”2 of Vietnam. To help viewers understand what “. . . the U.S. was up to in Vietnam, . . . you’d need a movie about the brightly lighted offices where military strategy and military careerism . . .”3 , and a whole lot more, intertwined.

This paper will focus on the most respected and popular of the Vietnam War films: Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, of the period 1977-1979; and Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, and 84 Charlie MoPic of 1987-1989. Films such as The Boys of Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, The Green Berets, and Rambo will be addressed as they relate to the other works. The paper will concentrate on two themes: the films’ relationship to the War’s events, and the motivations behind films about the Vietnam War.

The fact that the United States lost the war in Vietnam demands a sensitive approach to the issue: opinions as to why it lost still widely vary. The fact that it was a losing venture can provide important, educational insights into America’s image and worldwide philosophy. “Victory requires only an idiot-grin; defeat demands patience and improvisational wit.”4 Unfortunately, this is an approach which the United States’ government refuses to take: every responsible film was denied historical or technical assistance because it refused to portray Vietnam as if it were “any other war.”5

The reasons behind these films vary, from Oliver Stone’s cathartic need to “get it down” to the clinical and disinterested approach of Stanley Kubrick. The first round of Vietnam films were made by non-veterans, while the more recent ones are increasingly the products of people who were there. The earlier films, made so soon after the U.S. withdrawal and the fall of Saigon, address large issues, unwilling to return to the familiar television images. They focus on all-encompassing appeals for compassion for veterans, or alternately, generalized condemnation of the U.S. government. Veterans’ need to deal with the War — whether as a means of achieving catharsis or unloading powerful feelings of guilt — seems increasingly to be the operative motivation behind the Vietnam films of the 1980s. Stone’s Platoon, for instance, “. . . simply shows us as much as we need to know about a small patch of the territory — Stone’s own experience in Vietnam — which is probably more valuable”6 than the symbolic moralisms of films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter.

Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, for example, was obviously unaware “. . . of the irony involved in idealizing revolutionary regimes in counterrevolutionary settings [like the Philippines, where Apocalypse Nowwas filmed], the only settings in which a capitalist filmmaker, however guilt-ridden, can function.”7 And then Coppola had the gall to compare his experiences in filming Apocalypse Now with the actual War. Obviously even the filmmaker is not beyond confusing art and reality. Even Platoon — now considered the document of the War — slides into an attempt at universalizing the War, as Chris Taylor, at the film’s conclusion, relates his personal experiences to the entire War. Both approaches — broad and specific — have so far failed to sufficiently address the causes and implications of American involvement in Vietnam.

Whether, how, or why the Vietnam War was different from any other war is simply not touched upon [by the films]. . . . If Vietnam was different — perhaps because for the first time in modern history a large part of a nation refused to let patriotism override its sense of justice — this distinction is not accepted; or if accepted, it is not shown, let alone explained.8

Fundamentally, every film has avoided dealing with American guilt about what the War did to the Vietnamese. Such feelings are, in any case, unfashionable in today’s America, and the films tend to increasingly focus on the American side. Platoon, typically, laments America’s involvement, not because we invaded and slaughtered the Vietnamese, “. . . but [because] we debased ourselves by killing them.”9 Or, that it was not “. . . whether the Vietnamese won or lost in the fight, it was what we were doing to them that was destroying us. The film is about . . . shame.”10 That is a perfect example of American twisted , self-centered guilt.

The one reality that the filmmakers all are forced to confront is that a movie about Vietnam had to be intrinsically different from the traditional war film, if for no reason other than because Vietnam was a losing cause. Additionally, representations of a military engagement that was roundly condemned for its immorality and shortsightedness could not follow the traditional convention of glorifying America, or war in general. This seemed obvious during and directly after the War, but by as early as 1978, some of the films successfully reincarnate the supposedly debunked values. The manners in which these films approach the restrictions of their subject vary greatly; they are in no way anchored to left-wing perspectives.

Fact and Fiction

The question of film realism is a contentious one, made especially poignant because of the power of the medium. Because film is a visual and aural phenomenon which evokes the feeling of “being there,” many people confuse film representation with historical reality. Movies which purport to be based on history wield tremendous power in defining those events, especially for the young or naïve, who may have no other source of education. The Vietnam War is ripe for such distortion, and calls for very specific criticism regarding its representation. Because of its freshness, Vietnam is still emotionally-charged. For this reason, it is imperative that the films do their best to deal with the War as it happened, not how it should have happened — which is what instantly invalidates The Green Berets, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and to a large extent, The Deer Hunter. One reviewer, in response to the films of the 1977-1979 period, warned that “revisionism about Vietnam is in the air. . . . [An] effective moral laundering would be the conversion of the Vietnam quagmire into just one more seedbed for guts-and-glory war movies.”11

The most successful films treat the War in a straightforward manner, refraining from imparting their story with too much symbolic or literary weight. It is when the viewer later applies the film’s message to grander themes that the movies succeed, not when the films heavy-handedly use Vietnam as allegory. The danger of the ever-expanding Vietnam War picture genre, however, is that films begin to rely on their predecessors, instead of history, for their imagery, repeating similar themes, patterns, and motifs, and legitimizing the silence regarding certain issues. “For better and worse, these conventions are the im-mediate and unavoidable referents, . . . a cinematic usurpation of the historical record that reaffirms the vital cultural function of genre: to ease division and reconcile conflict through myth.”12 Some of the clichés, however, despite their shopworn appearance, are true: Full Metal Jacket’s training sequence is factually based, and the grunts of 84 Charlie MoPic, though apparently stereotypes, existed on the battlefields of Vietnam.

The majority of the films are set in 1967-1969, when American involvement was at its greatest and when there was a significant and vocal American anti-War movement. The films go to great lengths to simulate period realism, not only through the complex issues which are addressed, but in their evocation of the language, dress, and cultural habits of the Vietnam generation. Even so, there are some things that the films could show more of: the fact that helicopters did not always arrive promptly to evacuate the wounded; that the injured did not always suffer in heroic silence, but often screamed so loudly that they alerted the enemy of the American position; that airstrikes frequently fell short and hit American positions. When the films stray too far from reality, like The Deer Hunter, they suffer:

Within the last three weeks [of April 1979], articles in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, Seven Days, and L.A. Weekly have called the film “a lie,” “a criminal violation of the truth,” and a “horrific history,” in which all non-Americans are “sweaty, crazy, vicious, and debauched.” Izvestia, the Soviet Government newspaper, responded to the film’s Academy Award by accusing it of portraying a war in which the “aggressors and victims” changed places.13

Sticking to “historical truth” is not an easy task because many questions remain about the War. The Hué scenes in Full Metal Jacket display the city’s residents lying dead in mass graves, supposedly assassinated by the North Vietnamese after their invasion. It seems that the dead were quite possibly actually victims of American bombing, killed in the Army’s attempt to retake the city. Their bodies were then thrown into the graves and covered with lime to prevent them from smelling, and a fake story about NVA atrocities was cooked-up.14

The films focus almost exclusively on the American experience, stressing the reality of our boys’ suffering. Thus, “. . . we are shown a Vietnam which is nothing more than a handy background for what is otherwise violent American drama. . . . Vietnam is seen as the testing ground for relations between American young men.”15 The Deer Hunter is the most blatant example fo this phenomenon, as Vietnam becomes another symbols of the men’s ritualistic bonding. Furthermore, the film spends its first hour establishing the strength and love of the Clairton, Pennsylvania, community, but “. . . there is no suggestion that there ever was a sense of community among the Vietnamese which was disrupted”16 by the War. This focus on the American experience, though it in some fashion deals with the emotions and pain of the returned veterans, manages to continue the film silence about other important issues surrounding Vietnam, such as imperialism, racism, removed technological warfare, and the slaughter of the Indochinese.

The Fighting,The Jungle, and Death

The films which closest approximate Vietnam’s environment do so to an extraordi-nary degree. Platoon, for example, appeals to all five senses in its depiction of the jungle habitat, from the sting of the black ants, to the heat of the tropical summer, to the thumping of Chris’s frightened heartbeat. Vietnam’s jungles were different from anything with which Americans were familiar, characterized by exotic diseases, strange animals and insects, turbulent and oppressive weather, swamps and rice paddies, and shifting terrain. Platoon and Apocalypse Now portray the jungles as the veterans experienced them, and Full Metal Jacket fastidiously resurrects a contrasting but equally real setting: the ancient capital of Hué during the January 1968 Tet Offensive. 84 Charlie MoPic despite its other successes, shot its jungle scenes in the Southern California mountains, sacrificing a degree of its otherwise formidable authenticity. The very air and texture of Southeast Asia is different from that of the North American western seaboard. The alien quality of the Vietnamese jungles essentially contributed to the eerie dread that the War inspired.

The Vietnam films allow for spectacular reenactments of the battles which characterized the War. Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and 84 Charlie MoPic, through their intimate camera technique, bring the viewer smack into the action, powerfully resurrecting the chaos and mind-numbing fear of the firefight. These three films successfully remove glamor from battle, not only in their presentation of the fighting but in their refusal to let the action assume heroic dimensions: victories are hollow and temporary, and men die quickly and without warning. 84 Charlie MoPic is the most successful film in this regard, “. . . since [it] doesn’t, in the way of conventional war movies, show the enemy creeping up (or tip you off with tension music), there’s no letup to anxiety.”17 Full Metal Jacket also conveys the awful violence of the war in Vietnam (isn’t every war horrible?), but with a removed perspective — because the grunts are prevented from becoming victims, the viewer sees the war’s egalitarianism: both sides suffered. Kubrick’s war prevents “. . . easy catharsis, . . . [or] comfortable understanding.”18 A true analysis of Vietnam, however, cannot leave out the primal horror of fighting in it, and if the anguish of Platoon and Hamburger Hill (and even The Deer Hunter) seem easy or self-centered, they are the only proven methods of faithfully conveying the War’s emotional effect on its victims. What these films are all trying to refure, even The Deer Hunter, is “. . . ‘that old lie,’ Wilfred Owen called it — . . . that to die alone and far from home for all the wrong reasons is not ever sweet or proper, and that there is nothing patriotic about pulling the trigger, nothing glorious about combat.”19

Much of the grunt’s experience in Vietnam was of a very individual nature: “The relatively high incidence of death, wounds, and illness in combat units, the individual re-placement system, and the one-year tour of duty all helped to make Vietnam a lonely place for the infantryman.”20 Especially by 1967, there was little instance of friends journeying together and serving in the same outfit. The experience’s solitary nature is effectively captured in Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill, which display the various methods that soldiers used to cope with their fear and loneliness. Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill demonstrate how the men’s use of comical or dirty nicknames gave them an emotional safeguard against loss. It hurt much less to say that Eightball was "wasted" than that your friend Johnson was "killed". Platoon shows Chris’s loneliness and confusion when he joins his platoon as a “cherry” — no one has the time to teach him the ropes, and no one chances getting close to him until he has spent significant time in-country. The feeling goes that it is better to die earlier than later and why chance making friends with a vulnerable new guy? The Deer Hunter and 84 Charlie MoPic portray the much more rare case of group solidarity, while in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard’s boat companions assume more emotional significance than they would have in the real Vietnam. (Similarly, in the real Vietnam, Willard would not have taken a slow, metaphorical, boat trip to Cambodia — he would have flown to the Do Lang bridge by chopper.) Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore presides over more of a World War II neighborhood outfit than a Vietnam-era strife-torn platoon.

The chance of three pals from back home, members of different branches of the armed services, meeting in a Vietnamese village in the middle of a battle is so remote that The Deer Hunter’s credibility immediately diminishes. Despite this, The Deer Hunter captures the simultaneous cheapness and dearness of human life in Vietnam. When Michael says of a bullet, “This is this — this isn’t something else — this is this,” he understands the bullet’s finality. Nicky’s death, quick and ritualized in Vietnam, assumes great importance back home, and the audience understands the pain of one of the families of those 120,000 American casualties (though, significantly, it says nothing about the Indochinese casualties).

An Army of Nineteen-year-olds: Sex and Aggression

The Vietnam War was fought by adolescents, and the Vietnam films have ready access to viewer-identification: the majority of the American moviegoing public is composed of adolescent males. Films which use young, relatively unknown stars are more successful at recreating the reality of Vietnam — the casting of The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now,and The Green Berets lessen their effectiveness because the actors are simply too old to be in Vietnam.

America’s youth brought its loves to the War, including rock-and-roll and drugs. The Vietnam film which most effectively shows this War is Apocalypse Now, which “. . . is at its best in delivering the texture of the first freaked-out, pill-popping, rock-accompanied war.”21 Platoon also addresses the mixture of youth, rock music, and drugs, while Full Metal Jacket, 84 Charlie MoPic, Coming Home, Hamburger Hill, and The Boys of Company C spend some time with one or the other of the themes. Only The Deer Hunter, true to form in its lack of attention to history or realism, fails to deal with the influence of music and drugs, other than one glimpse of Nicky’s track-marked arms in Saigon.

The Army knowingly exploited the young soldiers’ immaturity by appealing to their basest instincts. Full Metal Jacket’s first forty-five minutes make this appallingly clear, as the new recruits are systematically stripped not only of their individuality, but of their morals and ideals. The Army took advantage of the American fascination with war, encouraging the disturbing tendency of the young men to confuse war with war movies. The idolization of John Wayne, and “John Wayning it” on the battlefield, were common suicidal practices among the (white) grunts. Pyle’s murder of Hartman at the conclusion of the film’s first half shows that the “. . . insane logic of the war [was] bred at home.” (Audfder FMJ 21)

The Army indoctrinated its recruits to a philosophy which explicitly linked aggression and sexual desire. Again, Full Metal Jacket best describes this phenomenon, as the grunts learn to sleep with their weapons and give them girls’ names, make phallic connec-tions between war and sexual intercourse, and employ the Army’s homophobic, misogynist lingo. “Double meanings and metaphorical associations tend to proliferate in the context of Vietnam — sex and violence, johns and soldiers, the screwing of the Vietnamese. Both playground and killing ground, Vietnam is a landscape for American projections.”(Doherty 28) Apocalypse Now makes this association painfully clear during the Playboy bunny show, as huge phallic missiles dominate the stage. This linking of sex and violence, which virulently objectified the Vietnamese and created, among other ills, a permanent prostitute subculture, implicitly encouraged the soldiers to perform the atrocities of physical mutilation and rape.

Though Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket both disparage rampant Army sexism, and though Coming Home and The Deer Hunter at least mention women’s connection to the War, the Vietnam film genre is remarkable in its inattention to women or their concerns. The television show China Beach, and some episodes of Tour of Duty, are the only Vietnam-topic production which deal with the many female nurses who served (and also died) in Vietnam. The issue has yet to be addressed in a major Vietnam War film.

Friend and Foe

The agonizing frustration of not being able to distinguish between friend and enemy was one of Vietnam’s most distinctive attributes. This was not only a product of racist fear, either — quite often the same South Vietnamese woman who did the grunt’s laundry during the day turned into a VC sniper at night. Platoon addresses this issue in the chilling village scene. Through masterful narrative progression, the audience witnesses the platoon’s increasing nervousness as their fears that the ville harbors sympathies for the Vietcong are justified. The scene culminates with Sergeant Barnes murdering a woman and the platoon’s near massacre of the village population. What makes the scene so alarming is the audience’s sense of participation — it almost condones the grunts’ murderous intentions, making them seem all the more horrible. The evocation of MyLai is inescapable. The Deer Hunter, however, takes the understandable fear and converts it into a racist portrayal of all Vietnamese, North and South. The film excludes the possibility of there being any good Vietnamese, who as a race seem to be working together to corrupt and victimize the naïve American GIs. World War II-era “yellow peril” xenophobia rears its head once more.

In general, true to their communal focus on the American experience, the films stereotype the Vietnamese as either pathetic victims or noble, inhuman foes. This is not surprising simply because the same stereotyping took place in the real Vietnam — how could the movie versions be more fair? Typical are films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, which devote half their time to praising the Vietnamese or making them seem more human, and the other half dismissing them with racist generalizations. It is tempting to favor a film such as 84 Charlie MoPic in this regard, which, acknowledging its ignorance about everything other than the individual grunt, concentrates exclusively on his experiences.

The ARVN, the NVA, and the Vietcong

The South Vietnamese army was notorious for its poor fighting-record during the years of American involvement. Reasons for this were complex and varied: native Viet-namese resentment of Westerners, the tendency of the Thieu regime to conduct forced-enlistment campaigns, and the psychological dilemma of fighting ones’ own people certainly played a role. The films, except for the relentlessly optimistic The Green Berets, make no attempt to allude to the complexities of the ARVN situation. Because these films concentrate almost exclusively on the American experience, however, they almost completely ignore the ARVN. Cowboy, at one point during Full Metal Jacket, offers to sell a Vietnamese an ARVN rifle, claiming that it was “only dropped once.” Such humor, instantly appreciated by a veteran, passes unnoticed before a film-educated audience. Those with a limited knowledge of the War’s history would leave these films with the impression that the Vietnam War simply featured the United States against the Vietcong. Many grunts disparaged the ARVN and openly admired the fortitude and military ability of the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA. Though a few of the films feature the NVA (such as The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill), they fail to effectively distinguish between the VC and the NVA, one of which was an indigenous southern rebel force and the other a well-outfitted Northern invader; both committed to repelling the Americans.

Communication and Sympathy

The various forms of human communication revealed both their importance and their unsuitability in Vietnam. In some part because the grunts could not understand Vietnamese, their need for communal understanding led to the development of a particularly direct and obscene lingo, composed of military jargon, street slang, black English, and pidgin Vietnamese. “Opposing the richness and directness of the speech of the troops, though often employed ironically by them, [was] the Orwellian language of euphemism and dis-guise used by the Armed Forces and civilian authorities.”22 Platoon, 84 Charlie MoPic, and especially Full Metal Jacket, effectively capture the tone and structure of grunt commu-nication and humor; while Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now also attack the euphemistic Official Style talk of the government and military. The CIA agent’s instruction to “terminate Kurtz’s command,” and the Stars and Stripes directive to substitute the term “sweep and clear” for “search and destroy” are tragically humorous examples of this.

Many hawks insist that the United States could have prevailed in Vietnam if only it had been allowed unrestricted intervention — that it was the lack of conviction and direction from the Army command that led to the grunts’ confusion and defeat on the line. Most soldiers acknowledge this frustrating and frightening reality, but realize that more troops and better communication would have done little to change things. It was the U.S. government’s overall presence in Vietnam that was a mistake, not only its day-to-day military operations. Indeed, Vietnam was not a trap, though it seems like it to the grunts of Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon: “It would be surprising if many came away knowing that the War was a result of political decisions made in America, and military decisions made in Vietnam, which were neither invisible in themselves nor rendered inevitable by the curse of the jungle.”23 For this reason, Vietnam films need to begin directly addressing some of the larger political issues of the War.

Many of the films display the deadly consequences of the lack of communication and understanding between the officers and infantrymen. Hamburger Hill condemns the Army’s obscene insistence on obtaining a strategic military position regardless of the human cost, that it was willing to sustain 70 percent casualties to take a hill which was later abandoned. The film also shows the tragic futility of attempting to direct a war from miles away, as Air Cavalry helicopters mistakenly fire on their own positions. Full Metal Jacket portrays the Lusthog Squad’s confusion and fear when their requested tank support is denied, and Platoon agonizes about the perennially undermanned outfits which resulted in easily broached perimeters and increased enemy ambush and sniper activity. All three of these films effectively use the movie screen to convey the feelings of futility and pessimism which threatened to overpower the soldiers.

Coming Home address the issue of communication in its broader context, as the ul-trapatriotic Bob Hyde, unprepared by his Marine training for Americans beheading dead enemy soldiers, returns from the War (after sustaining a self-inflicted wound) permanently shaken and scarred. The early films, working without veterans’ advice — often depicted the returned veteran as a crazed killer turned loose on the streets of America. Instead of dealing with the pain and turmoil caused by Vietnam, or the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, these films stereotype and slander the vet, blaming him for the loss of the War. Apocalypse Now follows this pattern — Willard and Kurtz are both unable to return home — and Coming Home only really deals with one kind of wounded veteran, Luke, who is physically disabled. Bob, a pre-War hawk, is portrayed without sympathy, and he soon commits suicide, presumably for the better. Hamburger Hill rejects this image when the sympathetic Motown explains his inability to reconcile Vietnam — exemplified by the Hill — with his Detroit home. The Deer Hunter ’s premise is to evoke sympathy for returning veterans, but though its heart is in the right place, its historical distortions and racist depictions of the Vietnamese rub critics the wrong way. Its portrayal of Michael, Nicky, and Steven’s lives uses the language of the epic film to apply their experience to the entire War — the men are victimized by the Vietnamese and Nicky is lured to his death by a Frenchmen, implying American innocence and an implicit affirmation of traditional America’s imperialist, colonialist values.

Both Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, despite their opposed politics, fail to address why so many returning veterans did suffer from mental instability. The Deer Hunter concocts the apocryphal prison-camp Russian roulette experiences, which, while powerful sympathy vehicles, are “. . . too easy means of audience arousal when everything lese in the movie purports to be authentic.”24 There were plenty of true experiences which traumatized the soldiers in Vietnam — why make up one? Coming Home also fails to address the issue by saying that what happened “out there” is unknowable for those who were not there. It does not deal with the very basic and fundamental issues which confronted the soldier in Vietnam, such as the sudden, awful realization that he may have been fighting for the wrong side. In this way, both films indirectly refer to the phenomenon of the incommunicability of the Vietnam experience — it was so removed from the World that many veterans found it impossible to talk about. That may be as good a reason as any for the use of film in this endeavor. The Deer Hunter follows typical right-wing convention by creating a tortuous experience for its characters to react to, just as the hawks celebrated the pain of the elite flier POWs. The left-wing, exemplified in Coming Home’s pacifism and the directness of Platoon, explores the situation of the grunts, the uneducated, the poor, the minorities, and the Vietnamese. They brand the pilot POWs as the real war criminals.

Race

The Vietnam War repeatedly called issues of race into question, not only regarding the battle between Americans and Asians, but the integral presence of the black and His-panic soldiers in the equation. Both races died in numbers greater than their proportional involvement, and the more dangerous the mission, the higher the minority population of the outfit: “Black soldiers made up 44 percent of the front line, although they made up only 11 percent of the armed services as a whole.”25 Film representations of the white-black ratio, however, are overwhelmingly skewed, with the white characters (with the exception of The Boys in Company C and to some extent 84 Charlie MoPic) always assigned the starring roles. Hamburger Hill is the only film which comes near representing the truly typical front-line outfit, but that film completely ignores Hispanic involvement. Additionally, blacks’ roles in Vietnam films are severely limited: they are rarely shown in positions of command and often are the first to die. They are also more often portrayed as the cowardly ones, like in Platoon, when Francis, Chris’s companion, stabs himself in the leg to avoid returning to battle. Meanwhile, the white characters earn their wounds. Though self-mutilation and refusal to enter battle were common among soldiers of all races in Vietnam, film representations distort their importance, implying that black grunts were less virtuous than their white counterparts. In any case, the irrelevance of traditional concepts of bravery in Vietnam never comes through in film; veterans know that, in war, “cowardice and heroism are the same emotion — fear — expressed differently.”26

In any case, by minimizing black characters’ roles or ignoring them completely, these films fail to address the reality of racism and race-related violence in Vietnam. Platoon’s black characters are either stereotyped — like King, the traditional “male mammy” who guides the white hero into the underworld — or just plain hateful, such as the spiteful and cowardly Junior. Full Metal Jacket shows the racist interaction between white troop and black, but only from one side — Eightball never responds to Animal Mother’s vicious humor. Additionally, no film has portrayed the fragging of officers which was common during U.S. involvement in post-Tet Vietnam, or the race riots, which by 1972, averaged one a day. To be sure, racial incidents were less common on the front lines, and these films focus almost exclusively on the jungle fighting, but tensions remained high on the line, especially when one was not assured that one’s back was covered.

Lack of Ideological Conviction and the Protest Movement

World War II was the "ideal war". Everyone hated the Nazis, the fascists, and the "Japs," and the entire country pulled behind the War effort. With Korea, and then Vietnam, the U.S. engaged itself in wars which garnered little popular support. Though many soldiers volunteered in 1964 and 1965, believing in Kennedy’s New Deal rhetoric and the need for containing Communism, they quickly saw the irrelevance of such terminology in Vietnam. Many soldiers dealt with this situation by deadening their critical faculties — made easier by Army indoctrination, such as that described in Full Metal Jacket — or blindly obeying orders. Others became passive or even active anti-War resisters, and blacks, especially, reflecting developments back home, developed a strong political awareness. Many veterans returned to the U.S. to join the street protestors.

The Vietnam films have a mixed history of dealing with the anti-War movement and its battlefield manifestations. Hamburger Hill is the most straightforward, and suspicious, film, as it resurrects the myth of the hateful, dogshit-throwing protestor while simultane-ously attacking the simplistically-portrayed news media. On the other side of the coin, Coming Home’s Luke stages his own protest and speaks out against the War at a local high school. Coming Home simplifies the dialogue, however, by intimating that Luke was a lone voice, when in reality there was a strong anti-War movement in 1968. Full Metal Jacket succinctly addresses the issue of lack of conviction on the part of the soldiers in its Hué scenes, when Animal Mother asserts in an interview that the only thing he is fighting for is “poontang.” Platoon’s Sergeant Elias summarizes the feelings of many veterans when he remarks that he believed in the cause in 1965, but by 1967, the War just “bugged him” and he knew that the U.S. would eventually lose. True to form, The Deer Hunter, set either in 1968 or 1972, depending on which review you read, completely avoids the issue, implying that the three Clairton pals had no awareness of the tensions surrounding the War. In fact, they and their friends seem to be “. . . the only six men in the United States who never talked about the Vietnam War. Mike, Steve, and Nick are going to get into uniform as unquestioningly as their fathers might have done after Pearl Harbor. In the fall of 1968, . . . this seems incredible.”27

Most of the Vietnam War film makers would agree that America’s involvement in Vietnam was a mistake and that they hope to use their product to convince people to never again become entangled in such a war. But at the core of the question is the feasibility of an antiwar war film; whether our culture’s war fixation is so powerful that any film, no matter how condemning, results in an increase in enlistment. Ideally, the film which best reproduces the reality of Vietnam would be the one most suited to prove the futility of war in general, and Vietnam in particular. This paper demonstrates the obvious success of some films — 84 Charlie MoPic, Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket — more than others — The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now — while boding well for the future. More im-portantly, however, these films show that one movie could not possibly address all the pertinent issues of the Vietnam War, and that there will always be room for improvement.

In the end, the more realistically these films portray the War, the more powerful educational tools they will become. In this manner they could be used as influential ways of shifting American values from fascination with guns and weaponry toward more life-affirming, humane concerns. Film cannot do the entire job, however: “War is too wildly stupid, glorious, hideous, huge, and human for us to think that art can tell us what it really is.”28 What is called for is a change in American society and education. When that happens, Americans will no longer need antiwar films, because war and war films will simultaneously lose their appeal.

Endnotes
1 Lance Morrow, “Viet Nam Comes Home: Two Winning Films Signal the Struggle to Learn from a Lost War,” Time (April 23, 1979), p. 22.
2 Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, “Film Review: Man and Superman: Vietnam and the New American Hero,” Social Policy 11 (January/February 1981), p. 64.
3 Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema: No Shelter,” The New Yorker 63 (September 7, 1987), p. 98.
4 Morrow, “Viet Nam Comes Home,” p. 28.
5 Lawrence Suid, “Hollywood and Vietnam,” Film Comment 15 (September/October, 1979), p.21.
6 Terence Rafferty, “Films: Platoon,” The Nation 244 (January 17, 1987), p. 56.
7 Andrew Sarris, “Films in Focus: First Assault on Apocalypse Now: Ayatollah Coppola Opens at Cannes,” Village Voice 24 (May 28, 1979), p. 73.
8 Hans Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam Treat Everything but the War,” New York Times 128 (May 27, 1979), p. 23.
9 Richard Corliss, “Platoon: Viet Nam, the Way it Really Was, on Film,” Time 128 (January 26, 1987), p. 58.
10 Kael, “The Current Cinema: Platoon,” The New Yorker 62 (January 12, 1987), p. 95.
11 Stanley Kauffmann, “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Far From Vietnam,” The New Republic 178 (March 4, 1978), p. 27.
12 Thomas Doherty, “Full Metal Genre: Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam Combat Movie,” Film Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Winter 1988/1989), p. 24.
13 Aljean Harmetz, “Oscar-Winning Deer Hunter is Under Attack as Racist Film,” New York Times 128 (April 26, 1979), p. C15.
14 Leo Cawley, “Refighting the War: Why the Movies are in Vietnam,” Village Voice 32 (September 8, 1987).
15 Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam,” p. 23.
16 Kael, “The Current Cinema: The God-Bless-America Symphony,” The New Yorker 54 (December 18, 1978), p. 72.
17 Georgia Brown, “Candid Camera,” Village Voice 34 (March 28, 1989), p. 60.
18 Janet Maslin, “Film View: Inside the ‘Jacket’: All Kubrick,” New York Times 136 (1987), p. 17.
19 Bruce Weigl, “Platoon on Inspection: A Critical Symposium,” Cineaste 15, no. 4 (1987), 11.
20 Tom Buckley, “Movies: Hollywood’s War: The Deer Hunter Invents Cruelties to Sell Vietnam,” Harper’s 258 (April 1979), p. 88.
21 Kauffmann, “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Coppola’s War,” The New Republic 181 (September 15, 1979), p. 25.
22 Doherty, “Full Metal Genre,” 26.
23 David Bromwich, “The Bad Faith of Apocalypse Now,” Dissent 27, no. 2 (1980), p. 213.
24 Sarris, “Films in Focus: Is Metaphor the Message?,” Village Voice 23 (December 18, 1978), p. 68.
25 Darcy DeMarco, “The Missing Image of the Black Vet in Nam,” In These Times (September 30-October 6, 1987), p. 20.
26 Corliss, “Viet Nam,” p. 61.
27 Buckley, “Hollywood’s War,” p. 86.
28 Henry Allen, in Lawrence W. Lichty and Raymond L. Carroll, “Fragments of War: Platoon,” in American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, edited by John E. Conner and Martin A. Jackson (New York: Continuum, 1988), p. 284.

[ top ]