As far back as 1898, when motion pictures were in their infancy, a short film entitled Tearing Down the Spanish Flag rallied its viewers to the American cause in the Spanish-American War. The very first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1927 was the war film Wings, a tale of World War I flying aces. During the course of World War II nearly 450 features were made about the conflagration (see Tessa Horan's "F.Y.I.," Premiere, May 1991, p. 15). Although the Korean conflict, America's "forgotten war," had only nine releases concomitant to the hostilities, throughout the history of film, a body of work known only since 1896, war has provided one of the most compelling subject areas. Inherent in it is a panoply of human emotion, tragedy, and spectacle that lend themselves to the salient medium.
Conventional wisdom correctly tells us that many of our images and opinions of war are shaped by what we have seen on television or in film. The written word recedes in the wake of the electronic media and instantaneous satellite imagery exemplified by the coverage of the Persian Gulf War. Especially for our youth, the unforgettable moments are not what was gleaned from an astute author on the op-ed page. Rather, indelibly marked on the collective conscious are CNN's reports from Baghdad under air assault, the pitiful surrender of Iraqi troops to allied forces and ABC cameramen, or the dramatic, live, all-network briefing by General Schwarzkopf.
When America went off to fight communism in the jungles of Vietnam, twenty years of glorious World War II imagery from films accompanied the troops and policymakers. But something went awry in Southeast Asia. For the first time the United States lost a war and with it a great deal of pride, innocence, and many lives. Only one film was made about the Vietnam War during the conflict itself. Most appropriately that was the very personalized work of a man who exemplified gung-ho Americana, John Wayne. His instantly dated and reviled film The Green Berets was released in 1968.
As the consensus about the Vietnam War unraveled, Hollywood reacted as any for-profit business would; it retreated from the unpalatable. No longer could it serve its traditional propaganda-boosting role or entertain in a conventional sense. Therefore it was not until two years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 that the now-familiar Vietnam War films such as The Deerhunter and Coming Home were released. Since that time the casual observer might be able to mention only a handful of films about the hated conflict. They probably include Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. Upon reflection one might also call to mind The Boys in Company C, Hamburger Hill, or Full Metal Jacket. Perhaps the important Rambo and MIA movies might also be discerned.
Correcting the notion that there have been relatively few Vietnam War films is what fills the pages of this book. Critical commentary is offered on more than 400 feature-length motion pictures. In attempting to be comprehensive, I have included discussions of many films that admittedly make merely tangential reference to the war. However, as a unique and tragic chapter in American history, the Vietnam War had a rich historic base not just in the jungles of Southeast Asia but also in the domestic issues of conscription, protest, veteran reintegration, loss, and rebirth.
This work begins with the dawn of the cold war in 1948, a period reflecting the background basis for the belief systems that led us into the conflict. It continues through the 1950s and the war years of the 1960s and early 1970s, then the aftermath and beyond, even into the future of the 1990s. This represents nearly a half-century body of work. This book runs the gamut of genres. Surprising to some will be the fact that critical attention is paid to horror films, comedies, and even one musical, as well as the anticipated plethora of dramas, actioners, and adventure tales.
This book is necessarily limited primarily to English-language and fictional works. Therefore by self-imposed definition many fine documentaries and foreign films are not discussed. However, rules, particularly self-imposed ones, are made to be broken. Thus there are a few French, Vietnamese, and other foreign films examined in these pages. So, too, a limited number of documentaries that received the rare general release are also included.
An attempt is made to place each chapter's era in its historical context. This takes the form of brief introductory passages that describe what was happening in the war and the greater world stage at the time of the films' re leases. Utilizing a chronological approach to the subject best allows this essential integration of the reel and real worlds. In addition, the evolution of imagery becomes more apparent and speaks in a subtly patterned totality to the changes in perspective toward the war as reflected and as created by the films.
One other matrix is laid over the progression of film discussions to help in understanding the images. That is the dynamics of the film industry itself. The production, exhibition, and distribution of feature-length films is a fascinat ing process that exemplifies the often uneasy coexistence of artistic and business concerns in the American society. Far from tending to eliminate Vietnam War films, the programming or software concerns of the industry have dictated a contextualization of the relevant films. Vietnam as a subject has been part of the evolution from double features to drive-in flicks to made-for-television movies to made-for-video and cable releases. Each of these facets of the medium has contributed to the ranks of films discussed in the following pages.
As a practical note, in the video age it is relatively easy to gain access to many of the titles in these pages, and the reader is strongly urged to view these motion pictures. In many instances in the context of production histories, plot synopses, or commentary, I have revealed the endings or dénouements. Therefore, the reader who does not want such information is forewarned. One can either preview the movie or consult the index to determine the latter pages of a discussion of a particular film and skip them until after viewing. For the busy student or more casual reader, the entries are designed to be informative and not necessitate frequent, costly, and time-consuming rentals. However, as clearly defined by the relative length of certain treatments, some films are more important than others to this study and deserve viewing.
Since the publication of the first edition, the United States and Vietnam have normalized relations. This reconciliation is reflective of our continued process of healing from the trauma of the Vietnam War. As might be expected, film treatments on the conflict have dropped off. With 400-plus films preceding, many stories have already been played out. More importantly, many of the therapeutic aspects of the 40-plus years of films which are the subject of this work have been achieved.
Normalization of relations with Hanoi were led by a bipartisan coalition of legislators which included veteran Senators Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Representatives Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) and Pete Petersen (D-Fla.). The latter three had all been POWs, and Petersen was named the first ambassador to Vietnam. As always, closely following the political overtures were economic missions. These included filmmakers scouting locations, the theater multiplexing of Vietnam, and the sale of American films to Vietnamese television. In the mid-90s one of the hottest nightspots in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, was the Apocalypse Now Bar.
Encapsulating the ten chapters of this book into types of films by era reveals the cathartic nature of the oeuvre. The "Early Years" typified our ignorance and naïveté in Southeast Asia. The years concomitant to the war itself had very few direct treatments of it. Films that did exist often recontextualized Vietnam via allegory or metaphor. Most often we just ignored the war. The pragmatic for-profit studios recoiled from the unpopular and lethal conflict, assuming that it was box office poison. However, by the late 1970s a huge delayed Hollywood reaction was unleashed with many important portrayals of the war. This intensity dissipated by the early 1980s to be replaced by a cinematic reworking of the conflict in order to afford us the opportunity to "win" via Ramboesque fantasy. The late 1980s films revealed a desire to embrace the individual veterans and move away from the divisive political arguments. The Gulf War and 1990s movies reinforced the realization that the veterans of Vietnam had been shortchanged.
According to many actual veterans of the Vietnam War, the films were a painful but necessary part of the passage. Marine vet Gerald A. Byrne stated:
How appropriate that it was the movie business that began my healing process. It started with "The Deerhunter," the film that said the most, at least for me, about the misery of war. It showed the anger, fear, frustration and confusion, that were the common denominators of the conflict.... Hollywood hit Vietnam from every direction....
Vietnam was a personal affair. It was different for everyone. So every vet could point to a picture and say that was their Vietnam.
The most notable of the Vietnam war films of the 1994-1998 period is the story of a simpleton whose life adventures so uniquely captured the 1960s zeitgeist that it became the fifth highest grossing film of all time. Forrest Gump (1994) transcended hawks, doves, and other political considerations via the omnipresent grace afforded a truly likable but largely oblivious character. He presides at and survives the historic events that stripped away our collective innocence: the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, etc. His resilience is that of America.
This charming film starring Tom Hanks and chock-full of evocative 1960s tunes synthesized many of the elements of the Vietnam War film genres. It featured harrowing combat scenes computer enhanced for maximum effect. It chronicled the difficult readjustment to civilian life of Forrest's beloved Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), confined to a wheelchair having lost his legs. It touched upon the anti-war movement via Gump's love interest Jenny (Robin Wright). She, unlike Forrest, succumbs to all of the sinister pitfalls and traumas of the era, a symbol of our confusion. Ultimately, the Academy Award-winning performance of Hanks works because the opaqueness of the politics is not only transcended but rendered moot by the clarity of the hero's goodness.
Other notable films from the 1994-1998 period include The Walking Dead (1995), directed by Preston A. Whitmore II, and Dead Presidents (1995) from Albert and Allen Hughes. All are young African American film makers. Their perspectives on the combat experience and its aftermath for the Black soldier reflected a disgust with the exploitation and lack of gratitude they perceived. Their dramatic themes mimic many of the late 1970s Blaxploitation films.
Disney provided a rare child-friendly entry in 1995 with Operation Dumbo Drop. Loosely based on a real life incident, it tells the tale of goodnatured American servicemen trying to aid their Montagnard allies by procuring their village a new pachyderm. On a more serious note was the much-anticipated adaptation of Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lt. Colonel John Paul Vann, A Bright Shining Lie (1998), starring Bill Paxton. Vann's "tour of duty" from 1962 to 1972 began with gung-ho optimism but turned to disillusionment over our compromised tactics, corrupt allies, and inflated body counts. HBO's $14 million production traces the arc of U.S. involvement through the fascinating experiences of its flawed hero. Many other films in the 1994-1998 period contained characters who were veterans, featured combat sequences, or examined the soldiers' readjustment to civilian life. While new treatments, they were very much informed by the preceding four-decade body of work to be examined in the pages to follow.
By the time of this paperback publication, a notable cultural phenomenon is the rebirth of the World War II film. Stephen Spielberg's powerful ode to the World War II fighting man and the sacrifice of his generation, Saving Private Ryan, has taken the country by storm. Anxiously awaited is director Terence Malick's take on that conflict, The Thin Red Line. Other theatrical and cable entries on that war represent a resurgence that has not been seen in film in 30 years. One of the many topics elicited by the powerful Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, is the reaction of actual World War II vets, now men in their seventies, to the harrowing, realistic, and gruesome combat sequences such as the D-Day invasion. Never before has the chaos and carnage of combat been so powerfully evoked. Thanks to Spielberg's genius and modern technological advances in sound editing, as well as their graphic nature, the scenes are gut wrenching.
This re-examination of the "Good War" is long overdue. There is no question that these films are partially informed by and owe a debt to the Vietnam War films with which their creators are now quite familiar. Their graphic nature reflects a shift in mores as to what is depictable. Their uncomfortable veracity in American boys not always acting according to the "rules of war" are truths that would not be presentable without the preceding generation of Vietnam treatments. The very fact that World War II has a long-overdue cinematic resurgence demonstrates the manner in which the Vietnam War films have receded from the stage. Yet they will continue, albeit in diminished quantity. We have exorcised many of our Vietnam demons. How poignant and long overdue it is that we help do the same for a generation that is literally dying out. It is important that we acknowledge our collective debt of gratitude to this generation that sacrificed so much for us to be free. In so doing we bring additional honor on them and the generation of their sons, some of whom also fought and died in the jungles of Vietnam.