Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Year of the Vietnam War Movie

In Vietnam, 1978 was the Year of the Horse; in Hollywood it was the year of the major Vietnam War movie. While the Vietnamese were guided by ancient Chinese astrology, movie moguls simply posed the question, Will it work at the box office? There had been earlier films on the war, but all forgettable other than John Wayne’s super patriotic, pro-war production Green Berets (1968).

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.

      ♫ There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down **

Coming Home’s back story was equally interesting. Jane Fonda had been a big-time antiwar activist in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, lending her passion, talent, and wealth to the cause. With the exception of one serious lapse of judgment while touring North Vietnam, she was a positive force in the GI movement against the war. In the course of her activism, Fonda created the Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC) which also doubled as her film production company. On the hustings she met Ron Kovic, the ex-Marine paraplegic whose antiwar autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July (1976), was a best seller; he gave her an idea that became the genesis of the script for Coming Home, IPC’s eventual first feature film.***


Fonda speaking against the war, Miami, August 1972

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.


From left:  DeNiro, Savage, & Walken

But first, Savage gets married in a magnificent nearly hour-long scene of a Russian Orthodox wedding, the faith of the three pals. Then they’re off to Vietnam as infantrymen, engaged in heavy combat during which they’re captured by the Viet Cong (VC), the southern guerrilla force. In the film’s signature scene and most controversial moment, the three GIs are made to play Russian roulette, the deadly game of holding a pistol to one’s head and pulling the trigger. Only one bullet is loaded in the six-shot chamber, so it’s the ultimate game of chance as to whether the lone bullet will have your name on it.

They survive the game, manage to overcome their captors, and escape. In the process, Savage is severely injured and Walken is traumatized. Only DeNiro is rescued unscathed. Their war over, Savage returns home partially paralyzed, Walken goes off his head and commits suicide, and only DeNiro survives intact, but now bitter and disillusioned with the war. For his sterling performance as Nick, Walken took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Controversy swirled around the Russian roulette scene. There was no evidence that any such thing ever occurred in the course of the fighting. With the war just three years in the past, there was strong feeling among some critics that the director, Michael Cimino, had introduced a false note. There was also criticism of the depiction of the enemy because the script had them wantonly killing South Vietnamese civilians in the midst of battle, ironically the very kind of atrocity we subsequently learned some US troops engaged in, the My Lai Massacre being the worst, but by no means the sole incident.

Whether the director and producers included those scenes merely as dramatic cinematic devices or to demonize the VC (the way war films made during WWII used to depict the ‘Japs’), out of concern as to how the movie-going public would receive a war film so soon after the unpopular conflict was over, we may never know. Apropos America’s war against Japan, however, the war scenes in Deer Hunter were shot in Thailand, and movie trivia fans no doubt found it ironic that the VC prison camp where DeNiro and buddies were mistreated was on the River Kwai, made famous by The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the memorable WWII film.

Parsing the intentions of movie makers can be a fool’s errand. Whatever the reasons for the depiction of the VC, Cimino won the Oscar for Best Director and The Deer Hunter took the gold for Best Picture. It doesn’t get much better than that in Hollywood studio land.

The year 1978 saw two other serious films about the war, but I’ll talk briefly about only one of them, the one I used in an undergraduate course I taught on the Vietnam War. Several years after Saigon fell in April ’75 bringing the conflict to an end, I introduced a new course on the war as a kind of memorial to my brother Jeff who died in that cavernous Miami VA hospital in June ’69. In addition to several paperbacks I used Jeff’s GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, as course readings, and, when it became available, I had the students view Go Tell the Spartans, a lesser known gem of a war film.

Spartans, as I’ll call it for short, starred Burt Lancaster as a senior military advisor in South Vietnam in 1964, the period of the low-intensity shadow war in which Jeff had served. In fact, the film was set near the road from Danang on the South China Sea into Cambodia, not too far to the southwest of Jeff’s base at Phu Bai just below the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone.

Lancaster, who plays Major Barker, was in command of a small mixed force at a fortified camp deep in the bush with outlying outposts. An old soldier who had served in WWII and Korea, the major knew the situation was hopeless. Between the thoroughly corrupt regional South Vietnamese army commander who was selling munitions to the enemy on the side and his post’s indefensible position, Lancaster understood it was just a matter of time before the VC launched an unstoppable attack. The attack came at the major’s weakest point, a lightly manned outpost near an old  military cemetery from France’s Indochina war (1945-54) which had ended ingloriously at Dien Bien Phu.

Learning his men at the outpost were about to be overrun, Lancaster requested reinforcements, but was denied and ordered to evacuate the US troops by chopper, leaving the South Vietnamese soldiers to their fate. The major managed to get all his men out but one who refused to abandon the allies. Lancaster stayed behind with the lone GI. As the doomed defenders faced the VC onslaught, the camera drew the viewer’s eye for the final time to the sign over the entrance to the French cemetery, "Etrangers, dites aux Spartiates que nous demeurons ici par obeisance a leurs lois” (Strangers, go tell the Spartans that we remain here in obedience to their orders), the reference being to the 300 Spartan warriors who died fighting against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.


Burt Lancaster as Major Barker in Spartans

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.





** For What It’s Worth by Stephen Stills, 1966.
***For a study of Fonda’s antiwar activism, see M Hershberger, Jane Fonda’s War (2005).











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