Part 4

War Films
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Vietnam-War Related Films:

The Vietnam-War experience produced only one film during the actual era of conflict and it was one of the worst films ever made about Vietnam: the propagandistic, inaccurate, pro-war The Green Berets (1968), a shamelessly jingoistic, heavy-handed, gung-ho action film starring John Wayne as ultra-patriotic, anti-Communist Colonel Mike Kirby - the leader of elite, hand-picked Special Forces troops fighting against the Vietcong. This war film flopped, probably because it echoed Wayne's earlier westerns and cowboys-vs-Indians mentality, with the star apparently engaging the enemy singlehandedly, and walking off into the sunset at film's end.

It took Hollywood a number of years lasting into the 1970s, after the end of the war in mid-1975 with the fall of Saigon, until it could no longer ignore the subject of the unpopular Vietnam War that had been bloodily splashed on TV screens across the heartland's living rooms. In the interim, there were a few allegorical attempts to reflect the underlying anxieties about the dreaded conflict and its unseen or relentless enemies, in various other action/horror/thriller films:

  • George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), with zombie ghouls substituting for 'gooks', bloody cadavers, etc.
  • Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), an allegorical western about the unwinnable struggle, illustrated by the opening image of a scorpion (symbolically the US and its military might) being attacked by swarming red fire ants (enemy foes of the US in Vietnam), and then set on fire by local village kids
  • Tom Laughlin's action-drama Billy Jack (1971), similar to the earlier film Born Losers (1967), featured an ex-Green Beret karate expert, half-Indian and superhero-vigilante who violently took the law into his own hands to enforce justice
  • John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), a struggle of macho Southerners against mostly unseen backwoodsmen (the Vietcong) when the suburbanites (symbolically the US) trespassed on their 'land', highlighted by a graphic, humiliating sodomy of one of the victims
  • John Carpenter's low-budget, 'battleground' action-film drama Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) about a disparate group of individuals trapped in an LA police station and under siege by an attacking group of gang members called Street Thunder
  • Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), with Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, an archetypal, 26 year-old, ex-Marine - and definitely a battle-scarred war combatant with a psychotic psychological profile and intentions to assault political authority; although the film doesn't clearly state that he was a Vietnam Vet - his Marine battle jacket has "King Kong Brigade" patches on it
  • Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), about a suburban extended family stranded in the desert and forced to combat a marauding and barbaric inbred family of cannibals
  • and later, James Cameron's Aliens (1986), about a 'Vietnamese-style' heroic conflict on a distant colony betweeen heavily-armed Marines and a unbeatable enemy alien

The Deer Hunter - 1978The film industry finally released films of greater substance and violence on the subject of Vietnam, and realistically examined the disturbing effects of the war. [Interesting to note was that almost all of the films about Vietnam didn't include the word 'Vietnam' in the film's title.] There were four films in 1978 that confronted the subject of Vietnam directly:

  • Sidney Furie's character study and anti-war 'sleeper' film The Boys in Company C (1978) was one of the first realistic Vietnam war films, about five young and green Marine recruits sent over to fight in SE Asia in 1968 after boot camp training; it was a precursor of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) - and featured the same character of R. Lee Ermey, an actual former US Marines Drill Instructor
  • Ted Post's under-rated and mostly ignored, low-budget Go Tell the Spartans (1978) examined the 1964 pre-Vietnam War situation in S. Vietnam, and was based on the book Incident at Muc Wa by Daniel Ford; with Burt Lancaster as a burned-out, hard-boiled Major in an 'advisory' role in the Military Assistance Advisory Group at Penang. The film commented on American innocence and naivete just before massive American involvement
  • the classic but controversial Vietnam film, Michael Cimino's compelling Best Picture-winning character study The Deer Hunter (1978), told about three young patriotic steelworkers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) from a Pennsylvania town who found only horror and death in Vietnam; the film was skewered for its depiction of fictional 'Russian Roulette' - although notable for the defining moment in which De Niro (as Sergeant Michael Vronsky) turned the roulette pistol in his hand on his Vietcong captors during an escape
  • the thought-provoking film, triple-Oscar winning Coming Home (1978), set in 1968, dramatized the difficulties of post-Vietnam war adjustment experienced within a romantic triangle of characters on the homefront. While her gung-ho Marine captain husband (Bruce Dern) was away at war, a housewife (Jane Fonda after her controversial visit to Hanoi in 1972, and her being dubbed 'Hanoi Jane') volunteered at an understaffed San Diego VA Hospital and became unfaithful and intimately involved with one of the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound patients (Jon Voight) - setting up inevitable conflict and issues upon his return home

Apocalypse Now - 1979 Francis Ford Coppola's harrowing epic vision of the madness of the war in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now (1979) was an exceptionally spectacular war movie loosely based on Joseph Conrad's 1911 novel Heart of Darkness. An American military assassin, a socially-dysfunctional loner named Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), was commissioned to journey upriver into Cambodia to 'terminate without prejudice' an insane, renegade colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The film featured Robert Duvall as megalomaniac bad-ass Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, noted for loving the smell of napalm, tossing playing cards on each dead enemy body to serve as calling cards, and surfing and hosting steak BBQs amidst war. [The film was later re-released in a new version, Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) with expanded and re-edited footage.] Coppola also directed the grim and somber military drama Gardens of Stone (1987) about the decorated veterans of the Third Infantry (the elite Old Guard) who patrolled, guarded, and served at ceremonial funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The Australian film The Odd Angry Shot (1979) examined the Vietnam War from another nation's perspective. In the realistic drama The Hanoi Hilton (1987), the focus was on the sufferings, torture and brutal treatment American POWs experienced while in North Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison, the most infamous prisoner of war camp in Hanoi.

Full Metal Jacket - 1987Critically-acclaimed films in the 1980s also examined the Vietnam experience, portraying war as a living hell. The Killing Fields (1984) was an emotionally-moving drama based upon the events surrounding the fall of Cambodia and the American evacuation from the novel The Death and Life of Dith Pran by Sydney Schanberg. It was an account of the friendship between a NY Times reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Gustav Hasford's The Short Timers was Full Metal Jacket (1987). In two parts, the film presented the exploits of a recruited young Marine Corps soldier known as Private Joker (Matthew Modine) with his realistic, dehumanizing South Carolina boot-camp training experience on Parris Island (under unrelenting, foul-mouthed drill instructor Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman), his work as a photojournalist for a military magazine, and his combat soldiering in the 1968 Tet offensive - with his helmet labeled "Born to Kill".

Oliver Stone's Vietnam Trilogy:

Platoon - 1986Writer/director film-maker Oliver Stone, an actual veteran of the Vietnam War himself, presented a Vietnam 'trilogy':

    1. the ultra-realistic, gutsy and insightful Best Picture-winning film Platoon (1986) - one of the finest, most-acclaimed combat films ever produced regarding the Vietnam War, about the testing of a young infantryman (a star-making role for Charlie Sheen) in the 25th Infantry (Bravo Company) by his two superiors as they conduct a search-and-destroy mission - contrasting Sergeants (one good and one evil) - tough/compassionate Willem Dafoe (as Sergeant Elias Grodin) and hard/callous, sociopathic Tom Berenger (as Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes); the popular film won four Oscars, including Best Picture, and indelibly portrayed Elias' death in a crucifixion pose on his knees as he was mortally wounded by Vietcong soldiers when he emerged from the jungle
    2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) (for which Stone won his second Best Director award) - a screen biography of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a Vietnam War recruit and an embittered, disenchanted anti-war activist/paraplegic after rehabilitation
    3. Heaven and Earth (1993), about the aftermath of the war reflected in the relationship between a Vietnamese woman and the American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) she married

Revisionistic Vietnam-related War Films:

First Blood - 1982In the 1980s, there was also a reflexive response to the late 70s Vietnam films that were seen as uncompromising and difficult to watch. Pro-military action films disguised as war films featured big stars and dazzling special effects during war sequences, to illustrate how the US should have fought the war. Sylvester Stallone appeared in the 'feel-good' action/war Rambo 'trilogy' (and a fourth film 20 years later) as a misfit, cartoonish, and self-righteous super-hero - a revenge-seeking, buffed up, brooding ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran (of Special Operations Command) named John Rambo. He 'refought' the Vietnam War, using VC bushwhacking techniques, during his battle against a variety of enemies in the Pacific Northwest, including a small-town sheriff, a posse, and hundreds of National Guardsmen. These entertainment-based, mainstream films provided a shallow commentary on the real US conflict in Vietnam, and altered the facts of the complex conflict to portray America as heroic:

  • First Blood (1982) - the most serious, non-exploitational, and non-jingoistic of the franchise -- with the tagline: "A one man war"
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) - this was the first film to appear in over 2,000 theatres; the documentary We Get to Win This Time (2002) examined the making of the film by the cast and crew
  • Rambo III (1988)
  • Rambo (2008)

Actor Chuck Norris' Vietnam-based box-office smash Missing in Action (1984), a fantasy action film, followed the exploits of an ex-Vietnam POW attempting to rescue other MIA-POWs in the Vietnamese jungle.

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