Vietnam: The Hollywood Pariah

By Stuart J. Kobak

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      It insinuated itself into our consciousness. We weren't there at all really. Just a few disparate advisors helping the locals cope after the transition from French colonial rule. Some transition. The Vietnamese threw the French out after decades of colonial subjugation, climaxing in a blood bath of the French Expeditionary Force at Dien Bien Phu. The fate of the French should have been indication enough that the Vietnamese needed to rule their own turf and settle their own internal differences. Who knows what prompted the decision to slowly increase our involvement in Indochina.
      Well, it seems that the handful of advisors just weren't quite up to the job of guiding Vietnam to a new era of peace. We began sending in larger pockets of troops to support the South Vietnamese effort against the communist North. The numbers of Americans in Vietnam somehow mounted without our actually engaging in war. When Johnson was elected to office after the Kennedy assassination, the build-up of trained soldiers intensified until we found ourselves in a confused and unpopular war. On the home front people could not understand our presence in Vietnam and what we were fighting to preserve. We had been seduced by the forces of darkness into a no win situation. The military forces were forced to fight a one-handed battle in Vietnam, the other hand doing battle on the domestic political front. We were at war, sort of, but not quite all out. From not really being in Vietnam we were their in force doing most of the battle. The South Vietnamese Army, preservers of freedom, fell under the shadow of big brother America.      

  What's it all have to do with the movies. The war, unpopular with the public, didn't seem like the best fare to present for commercial box office digestion. If the public didn't want the war, the movie moguls reasoned, why would they want to see movies about the war. The Vietnam War was the first major military engagement of the television era. Once the military machine revved up its powerful engines through the beaches and jungles of Vietnam, the images of the war found prime space on the television airwaves. On any given day you could turn on the tube and catch the Vietnam show. The last thing the public was looking for was a Vietnam movie. This wasn't World War II. We weren't out there fighting the fight of the righteous. During the Second World War, Hollywood was cranking out war movies every week. The film companies were well prepared since we didn't enter the war until the end of 1941 and the war had been raging in Europe and Asia for almost three years in various stages. There was no popular cause to get behind. The movie studios played it commercially close to the vest.  When we finally got to the point that we weren't really in Cambodia, only we were, and domestic and international pressures threatened to blow the top off the pressure cooker, the Vietnam War came to a shattering close and the powerful United States left Indochina with its proverbial tale between its legs.
      The war may have come to an end, but the idea of a Vietnam War movie was still not earmarked for the top of the commercial crop. A number of films began to come to explore with the realities and problems of the returning Vietnam vets, but these mostly portrayed the returnees as misfits or psychos irreparably damaged by the ravages of this senseless war.  It wasn't until 1978 that Hollywood came to grips with the Vietnam War big time with the release of The Deer Hunter. Although The Deer Hunter is not purely a war movie, I have always viewed it as a seminal Vietnam film. The most searing action takes place in Vietnam, branding its audience with the indelible mark of the pain of the war. This magnificent film deals with the war on mythic terms, basing almost its entire Vietnam scenario on the contest of Russian Roulette that take place first amongst the prisoners captured by the North Vietnamese in the Northern jungle and then later in the back alleys of Saigon and its seedy environs. In some perfect yet mystical way, the deadly game comes to symbolize the war. For each continuing moment we remained in Vietnam, the bullet was waiting to click into the chamber that lined up with the barrel of the gun, blowing apart any rational for our involvement in Indochina.
          Released in 1978, The Deer Hunter was not the only Vietnam movie to make it to the big screen that year, defying the conventional Hollywood wisdom that prevailed up until that time. Go Tell the Spartans, a relatively small movie which starred Burt Lancaster, was in and out of theaters before you could say Geronimo. Though it received excellent critical response, it seemed to prove the Hollywood mavens right in that it created little interest in the market place. Another Vietnam movie, The Boys in Company C also found its way into theaters, but its confused tone dismissed it before it has a chance to catch on with the public.

     While The Deer Hunter can be considered the ultimate mythic Vietnam war movie, Go Tell the Spartans certainly deserves the right to be called the most cynical film to deal with the war. The Deer Hunter treated the war in its latter stages, while Go Tell the Spartans, set in 1964 before our big military build-up, presaged the eventual realization of the futility of our attempt to capture the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. The cynical tone and downbeat ending of this film, while viewing Vietnam with extraordinarily acuity, was difficult for audiences to swallow. We were so confused about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter succeeded astounding well because it did not deal with the realities of the war but created it own central image. In some ways it was also a very patriotic film that did not force the public to make a direct confrontation with the mistakes of the Vietnam years.
      Apocalypse Now is another seminal Vietnam movie. While The Deer Hunter may have won all the awards the previous year, the monstrous undertaking of Coppola's movie was a significant achievement in and of itself; and this movie is pure Vietnam, an undiluted tank full of mind blowing napalm. Apocalypse Now is the perfect evocation of the insanity of and absurdity of war. Whether or not the events depicted in the film bare any relation to truth or accuracy makes little difference. The film distills the very essence of the insanity into its purest form.
     As the years distanced the public and Hollywood from the reality of the Vietnam war and from the financial debacle of Apocalypse Now, a window of opportunity presented itself for Oliver Stone to attempt a small budget project that reflected his own experiences as a Vietnam dog soldier. This was to be Stone's third film as director in a dozen years during which his greatest successes were as a screenwriter of Scarface and Midnight Express. He had been hoping to make this film for a number of years, but the trepidation of Hollywood toward Vietnam had continued. Oliver Stone's screenplay for Platoon had been floating around for almost a decade and there had been no takers willing to fund the picture. In some ways we are all lucky that Stone did not get to make Platoon when he first wanted to since the resultant film is a remarkably mature and confident achievement that reflects his years of experience at the Hollywood game.
     Platoon, released in 1986, is the purest of the Vietnam war movies. This seminal film deals with Vietnam on the level of reality. This is the war. It's the greatest of the Vietnam movies and one of the great all time movies depicting war. Platoon is the fourth point on the seminal compass of Vietnam films. If Go Tell the Spartans can lay claim to being the most cynical of Vietnam films, The Deer Hunter the most mythical, and Apocalypse Now the movie that frames for all time the insanity of war, Platoon surely presents sharpest realization of the day to day soldiering in the boonies of Vietnam.  When the 1986 Academy Awards were handed out, once again a seminal Vietnam movie won the award for Best Picture. It was also handed the statue for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. In all. Platoon garnered a total of eight nominations.  

     It appears that the success of Platoon combined with years of distance from the reality of the Vietnam war would have opened Hollywood to a more comfortable attitude toward the war that nobody wanted. A good Vietnam script has as good a chance as any other to find the financial backing needed to forge a script into a film. Stanley Kubrick guided his lens through a look at the war in the 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket. Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam featured Robin Williams as an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey broadcasting from Vietnam. Films like Bat 21, 84 Charlie Mopic, The Hanoi Hilton, Hamburger Hill, and Casualties of War made their way to local theaters. After Platoon, Stone went on to complete a trilogy of Vietnam movies with the making of Born of the Fourth of July and lastly, Heaven and Earth. None of these however have the same sense of importance as those four seminal films on the Vietnam compass.



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