American Movies and the Vietnam War
I am sitting in my parents' living room watching a videotape of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen, his face a mask of green and brown face paint, rises from a swampy river while the Doors' "The End" plays in the background. It is the great climax; the slaughter of the renegade colonel played by Marlon Brando paralleled by the slaughter of a sacrificial bull by his acolytes.
But my reverie is interrupted by my father's voice, clinical, distant. "That's not how it was. It doesn't even look like Vietnam. I heard he shot the whole thing in the Philippines."
At first, I want to reply. I want to explain that realism is not what this movie is about. The story is a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a conflicted view of England's colonies in Africa. I want to explain to him that Coppola is drawing parallels between two moments when Western thought encountered a foreign other and was found wanting. Two moments where the Enlightenment rationality that we hold so dear, our ideas of civilization and science and what makes a human being great, are challenged even as these ideas create the terms of that challenge. But I stop before I can speak.
Because perhaps my father is right. The movie is not "how it was," and my father should know. He was drafted at the relatively elderly age of 23 and served in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He survived the Tet Offensive. He served his time. And who am I to question his opinion? Who else but he, and other veterans like him, can accurately describe what happened in that war?
The question of legitimacy is one that is asked of every movie regarding the conflict. To a certain degree, it is simply a matter of distance; the Vietnam War is too recent to allow for interpretations. Thus the absurd machismo of Missing in Action 2 becomes a bargain-bin video; early films like The Green Berets, with its anti-Communist rhetoric and its locations strangely resembling the southeast United States, become filler for weekday time slots on local cable stations. And Apocalypse Now, well, as my father puts it: "That one's really popular with the wannabes."
The wannabes, of course, being those who were-not-there, as opposed to those who were. They were the ones who were not drafted for any number of reasons or who were passed over by the later lottery system. A gap between American males that became an abyss after the war, when the tepid homecoming that awaited many veterans bled into anger and bitterness. In Apocalypse Now, I was struck by the near-silence of the Vietnamese in the film, the numerous shots of gesticulating faces that say nothing. In many ways, my father brought that silence home with him, rarely speaking about his experience for two decades.
The 1980s saw a resurgence in interest about the Vietnam War. Movies were made: Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Hanoi Hilton, Bat 21. Veterans' organizations saw their memberships begin to slowly rise. The Vietnam Wall was built in D.C. This interest would continue to rise through the 1990s, spurred on by the growth of the Internet and the U.S. government's reopening of many disability claims that were previously ignored. Nationwide reunions are being held; chat rooms and message boards are growing daily. My father is speaking to men that he had not spoken with since he left Vietnam. And there seems to be no plateau in sight.
I'm not sure what precisely sparked this resurgence. My father thinks it was the Gulf War, that watching the national interest in a foreign conflict with a fraction of the horror of Vietnam, and the fanfare upon its success, renewed the interest of a lot of veterans in obtaining some degree of recognition. In my mind, however, the resurgence is linked to the opening of Platoon.
For Platoon was the first movie to be given the coveted award of legitimacy. Directed by Oliver Stone, from the outset it had the credentials of being made by a man who had served in the war, not just as an officer or a "Remington raider" (the nickname for the hundreds of thousands of clerical and service personnel who never saw actual combat), but as a foot soldier. Oliver Stone was there, in a way that other combat veterans could relate to. Stone also won approval for his degree of accuracy throughout the film. My father and I have sat through it several times, and he is lavish in his praise for the choice of uniform, the weaponry used, the actions of the platoon that Stone focuses on. As my father loves to say with a smile, "he even got the burning of the shit right." And as such, the film is dubbed legitimate, and for myself and probably many other viewers, it became the primary image of the conflict: more so than any documentary footage or history book, Platoon was the Vietnam war and the Vietnam war was Platoon.
But what of Vietnam itself? Any movie will give a sense of how American soldiers viewed them: they were the gooks, the Charlies, the ones who are always laughing at you, who are all trying to kill you. Think of the teenaged sniper in Full Metal Jacket and the absolute lack of any explanation for who she is or why she is there. Or the endless images of Vietnamese prostitutes, the "me love you good" women. The Vietnamese men, young and old, who gape without speaking, who stare open-mouthed even as they are threatened and ultimately killed. The depictions bothered me for some time. Were American soldiers incapable of asking who they were fighting? To what lengths did our armed forces go? To killing innocents? Threatening children? Brutally raping young girls?
I was hesitant to ask my father about it. He has images of Vietnam, pictures that he took, but there are no bodies in them. I knew some of what he had done, the battles he had fought, the slow times between contact with the enemy where he did other work, helped to make maps, went out on routine patrols. What else did he see?
In the end, however, I didn't have to ask.
We sat through Platoon together, one more time. We sat through the scene where they burn the village, threaten the villagers, rape the girl, in silence. At the end, he brought up that scene again. He told me of meeting another soldier on an armored personnel carrier who had worn the ears of his kills as a necklace. Of seeing heads on stakes. But, he quickly pointed out, it happened on both sides. He described a mission where he came to a village a day after it had been burnt to the ground. A soldier who had been part of the attacking force told my father how they had been pinned back by enemy fire. The Vietcong had been using local children to deliver them ammunition from the stockpile in the village, knowing that the American soldiers would hesitate to shoot the children running back and forth. And finally, it had come down to shooting the children or being killed themselves. And the soldier had shot a child.
My father told me, quietly, how scared that soldier had been. How scared they had all been. Because, in the end, they didn't know who they were fighting and who they were protecting. Paranoia had spread like wildfire, fueled by rumors of murderous prostitutes, farmers who would suddenly pull a gun on you. Children who supplied ammunition.
And I began to wonder then what it had been like, to be my father. Or any of them. Dropped into a country, overseas for probably the first time in their lives, where they knew nothing of the language or the society. Overwhelmed by the thick humidity of the air, the searing odor of the black earth, the jungle unlike any terrain they had known. Fighting an army that wore no clear uniform, no insignia to designate themselves. I have relatives who served in World War II, who knew their enemy by the German uniforms they wore, who could struggle with a European language they knew bits and pieces of. In Vietnam, where soldier and civilian alike wore similar clothing, where requests to identify yourself were answered in a language unlike any ever heard, who is the enemy? And how do you account for your actions in those circumstances?
In the end, I don't think we have reached the point yet where we can ask that question, much less try and answer it. We are still divided over this war. We struggle to define its meaning amongst ourselves, and in doing so Vietnam itself becomes a sideline, a vehicle for stories, rumors and projected fears. The chronological distance that still demands accuracy may, in the end, be our undoing. For as we move further away, all we are left with are the distorted viewpoints, the individual perspectives to use as a foundation for understanding. Distance, in the end, may only leave us with familiar soundtracks and silent faces. It just might leave us with only the movies.
Quiet American, The (1958)
A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964)
To the Shores of Hell (1965)
Green Berets, The (1968)
Losers, The (1971)
Fighting Mad (1977)
Boys in Company C, The (1978)
Deer Hunter, The (1978)
Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Good Guys Wear Black (1979)
More American Graffiti (1979)
Children of An Lac, The (1980)
Operation Nam (1980)
A Rumor of War (1980)
Fly Away Home (1981)
Don't Cry It's Only Thunder (1982)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Purple Hearts (1984)
Annihilators, The (1985)
P.O.W.: The Escape
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Hanoi Hilton (1987)
In Love and War (1987)
Steele Justice (1987)
Vietnam War Story (1987)
Above the Law (1988)
Bat 21 (1988)
Distant Thunder (1988)
Lost Idol, The (1988)
Off Limits (1988)
Platoon Leader (1988)
Siege of Firebase Gloria, The (1988)
84 Charlie Mopic (1989)
Casualities of War (1989)
Iron Triangle, The (1989)
Last Platoon (1990)
Last Stand at Lang Mei
Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Beyond the Call of Duty (1992)
Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second by Jeremy Devine analyzes over 400 films about the Vietnam War.
Published on 9/1/99