Hollywood’s year of the big war movie saw not one but four major productions, three of which remain memorable. At the Academy Awards, two of the three took 9 Oscars between them. Among other honors, Coming Home won the coveted Best Actor, Best Actress categories, while The Deer Hunter took home the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. The United States may have lost the Vietnam War, but Hollywood won at the box office for telling the story.
After WWII, war flics flooded American movie palaces. After all, we had won, and there were heroic tales to tell. Vietnam was a very different saga; it became our long national nightmare. In ’73 we threw in the towel and pulled out, and two years later in ’75 the Republic of South Vietnam was swept away in a decisive North Vietnamese victory. The idea of a film about our disastrous experience in Southeast Asia was taboo among major movie studios. As one exec put it, “No American would want to see a picture about Vietnam.”
As public memory of the conflict was to be relegated to the dustbin of history, likewise the men who fought the war came home to an indifferent reception at best, while at worst a scornful one for ‘losing’ a war. America largely turned its back on the returning veterans who had sacrificed and survived as the disposable point men of the benighted war policy of three US presidents.
Even when popular support for the Vietnam War was at high tide, the government did not show much consideration for the men who finished their tours and came home. The Veterans Administration (VA), the agency charged with helping ex-military personnel, was underfunded, an immense social problem as tens of thousands continuously mustered out with severe injuries to body or mind, not to mention serious drug problems.
I witnessed the budgetary neglect firsthand. When in ’69 brother Jeff Sharlet turned to the VA for medical help for a problem which had first arisen when he served as a ‘military advisor’ in Nam in ’64, the enormous VA hospital in Miami practiced good medicine, but was shorthanded. Jeff’s problem was soon diagnosed as a terminal condition, and he spent his last months in the facility’s eight-man wards.*
By day there were caring doctors and nurses around, but at night when they assumed the medicated patients were asleep, the place was nearly deserted with one overworked nurse on duty for an entire floor of dozens of men. Fortunately our mother worked floors below in the hospital’s accounting division and could occasionally help the nurses with Jeff. One evening after work she fortuitously arrived just in time as Jeff had a crisis while the night nurse was busy with a serious case at the other end of the floor.
No welcome homes, no parades, no thanks for their service, and the government agency responsible for their welfare hobbled by a shortage of funds – no wonder it was an army of bitter young men who returned from the killing fields of Southeast Asia to a society that just wanted to forget the whole thing. It was in this unpromising environment that several movie companies took the chancy step of ‘remembering’ the war and beginning in earnest the long process of telling its story.
The first Vietnam War film to hit the theaters in early ’78 was Jane Fonda’s Coming Home, a compelling drama seen through the eyes of a military wife. The film is set on the California coast, spring ’68. Fonda’s husband, Bruce Dern, is a Marine infantry officer serving in Nam. With nothing to do during his tour, Fonda volunteers at the local VA hospital where she encounters Jon Voight, a young Marine back from the war, a paraplegic who becomes fiercely antiwar.
Fonda and Voight have an affair. Dern returns suffering from as yet undiscovered Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), learns of the infidelity, flies into a rage, but then in deep despair commits suicide in a stunning closing scene. In the striking blue and red Marine dress uniform, he goes down to the beach, disrobes, carefully folds his uniform in a pile – and walks into the sea. The film did well in the reviews, was feted at the Cannes Film Festival in France, and, by the industry’s critical criterion, scored with a gross 10x the cost of production.
Six years later the film was ready to shoot. Unable to get Pacino, Nicholson, or Stallone to play her Marine officer husband, Fonda called on her old pal from They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969), Bruce Dern who played the role to perfection, garnering a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the process. Fonda’s antiwar colleague, Jon Voight, won the role of the paraplegic which brought him the Oscar for Best Actor. Fonda herself won the Oscar for Best Actress. Later, when the VA conducted a survey of veterans asking which film best represented them, Coming Home was one of two selected.
Later in ’78, the more controversial The Deer Hunter, which shared the Academy Awards honors with Fonda’s film, appeared to much acclaim and box office success. A very long and beautifully shot film, it featured Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage as three young steel workers in western Pennsylvania in ’67. Great buddies, they’ve all been drafted and are about to go off to war, so they go off hunting and pub-crawling together.
The film’s message – if the United States had heeded the futile experience of the French against the Viet Minh, we would not have been there. But of course, France had performed abysmally in WWII and then had been defeated first by the Vietnamese and later the Algerians, so what did they know. So went the thinking among our military technocracy with the hubris of a superpower unblinking in face of Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The back story to Spartans was as slender as its budget. Fortunately, Lancaster, the only recognizable actor, was working below fee because he found the script brilliant. In fact, when the film’s budget was exhausted and the script remained unfinished, Lancaster ponied up $150,000 to complete the movie. Although it received excellent reviews, Spartans had only a limited release and never found an audience. Another reason for its lack of box office success was that Grease, the highest grossing film of ’78, starring John Travolta, was released the very next day.
All three Vietnam War films were considered antiwar, although obviously Coming Home most explicitly warranted that description. Though The Deer Hunter in its Pennsylvania scenes (most of the film) superbly depicted working class life in a small blue-collar town, some think it overly praised as a film, especially as a war film. In retrospect, Go Tell the Spartans is arguably the best and most enduring film of the group, succinctly displaying the strategic and tactical futility of America’s war in Vietnam – not to mention the moral vacuity of the entire undertaking.
*For a brief account of conditions in other VA hospitals, see J Fonda, My Life So Far (2006), 349.