By Michael Dodd
Throughout the history of humanity there have been two constants: creativity and conflict. As long as there have been wars there have been artistic depictions of them, and this is true of virtually every known civilisation. This parallel provides a unique insight into our psyche, our humanity and where both can lie at a particular point in history. For though war and representations of war have proved consistent, the manner of both can vary wildly.
In American cinema no conflict has produced more persistently stark portrayals than the war in Vietnam. With definitive characteristics, tropes and archetypes the Vietnam War movie has become an indelible part of Hollywood pop culture. How did this instantly identifiable sub-genre begin, and what can its earliest works tell us about the direction that the cinematic movement would take?
The earliest example of a Hollywood take on battle in South East Asia is the 1958 picture The Quiet American, based on the novel by Graham Greene. With the focus on the First Indochina War of 1946-54 and not the second, two decade long conflict which would later become known in popular lexicon as the Vietnam War, this movie can be considered a prequel to the entire Vietnam War Film movement. Predating the movement as it does it can come as no surprise that The Quiet American suffered from rewrites which diluted the anti-war message and criticism of American involvement in South Asian geopolitics present in Greene’s novel. Such commentary would go on to prove constant in the Vietnam War Film movement. The fact that such reconfiguration of plot occurred, and was met with little resistance from critics and moviegoers, three years into the second Indochina conflagration demonstrates that anti-war sentiment as relating to Vietnam was not yet a popular American campaign. It was certainly not something that the movies were to explore in great detail, at least for the time being.
The grit and downright horror that would mark later works of the movement are also largely absent from A Yank in Vietnam (1964). Writing for the New York Times, film critic Howard Thompson decried the hero-gets-the-girl plot as “standard Hollywood fare” in which the conflict is merely the background for the archetypal Hollywood romantic adventure. In much the same way, the notorious John Wayne picture The Green Berets (1968) can be seen as a depiction of the clichéd Cowboys versus Indians trope, but represented through American troops versus the Vietnamese. To this day Wayne’s belligerent, jingoistic movie is the only legitimately pro-Vietnam War film ever made in Hollywood, but by the time it was released anti-war sentiment had become a popular ideological struggle. The Vietnam War was proving a redundant arena for classic Hollywood storytelling.
There are, however, notable early instances in these early years of tropes that would come to be heavily associated with the movement. As early as 1965 an example of Hollywood cinema tackling the subject of the problems faced by veterans returning home from the war could be found in Motorpsycho. With a plot focused heavily on the exploits of a disturbed Vietnam veteran, this picture is arguably archetypal in that it introduced the “crazy Vietnam vet” to Hollywood audiences.
In the early 1970s and with the war still raging, Hollywood began to explore serious questions about the conflict. Elia Kazan’s 1972 work The Visitors confronts the issue of war crimes committed by American soldiers, and with a darkly violent outcome the movie builds on the groundwork laid by Motorpsycho in examining the trauma felt by American soldiers trying to readjust back into civilian life. The first Vietnam film released after the war’s end followed suit: Heroes (1977) told the story of a veteran with post-traumatic amnesia attempting to find his comrades back home. As the story progresses it transpires that two of his old buddies are in rough shape mentally and physically, while the third actually died on the battlefield in the incident which caused the protagonist’s memory loss.
There would be a short sharp flurry of films focused on the war in the immediate aftermath of its 1975 conclusion including two 1978 pictures by Magnum Force director Ted Post; Good Guys Wear Black and Go Tell the Spartans. However, it was two other movies which would signify the end of this early part of the Vietnam War movement and prove the benchmark for much of what was to follow over the next three decades.
The Deer Hunter (1978) is the blueprint for the Vietnam War movie of popular culture that has become embedded in the psyche of the Western moviegoer for the last four decades. With a much sharper edge than the films which addressed the conflict before it, Michael Cimino’s picture addressed just about every horrifying facet of the Vietnam War experience. The loss of basic humanity, the horror experienced during the war for which the American soldier was totally unprepared, the subsequent trauma upon returning home typified by heroin abuse and suicide. Moreover these themes were explored in such a controversially blunt way that it made American audiences far more uncomfortable than any previous cinematic attempt to address the conflict. In rewarding the movie with Best Picture at the 1979 Academy Awards, Hollywood legitimised the Vietnam War Movie as high art, and this cementing of status was to be solidified very soon after by another masterpiece.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is for many moviegoers the Vietnam War Film. Like The Deer Hunter it offers a stark examination of various hellish themes associated with the war, but crucially the story as told on screen goes much further than that. Roger Ebert described Apocalypse Now as a film which “achieves greatness not by analysing our ‘experience in Vietnam’, but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience”. Simply put, Apocalypse Now gave the moviegoer a sense of what the war in Vietnam was actually like. The chaos encountered at every turn by Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard as he attempts to complete his mission together with the total devastation wrought all around him exemplified the famous expression “war is hell”, here stated famously as simply “the horror, the horror”. On top of that the movie raised significant philosophical questions not just about the Vietnam conflict but about war in general. Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz gives the audience layered queries and accusations about the human psyche and how it morphs when confronted by war, and together with the stunning cinematography and finesse of storytelling this helped make Apocalypse Now one of the most revered movies of all time.
Both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now served to legitimise the Vietnam War Movie in much the same way as 2001: A Space Odyssey gave science fiction a high art voice. Following these two master works Hollywood would produce a plethora of standout Vietnam War Films, and the path that the movement would take is an intriguing one wrought with some of the most gut-wrenching cinema America has ever produced.
In the second part of this series we will explore how American cinema addressed the war in Vietnam itself, and examine how much of the way the United States views the conflict has been influenced by Hollywood depictions.
Michael Dodd is a film critic for the magazine.