The Vietnam War had a major impact on American society, as reflected in four decades of Vietnam war films. In the 1940s the theme of triumph ran throughout World War II movies. But the frustrations of the Korean War sowed the seeds of national self-doubt. Most Vietnam films display contradictions that give way to scant sense of resolution.
During the actual period of conflict, relatively few films dealt with the war itself. Those that did, such as A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964), To the Shores of Hell (1966), and The Green Berets (1968), relied on old war-movie formulas irrelevant to the complex nature of the conflict. However, several films addressed the war indirectly in more creative ways. Robert Aldrich's western Ulzana's Raid (1972) pointed to the conflict as arbitrary and meaningless, rendering civilized values irrelevant. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) developed the political implications contained in Aldrich's earlier western, Vera Cruz (1954), to critique American adventurism abroad. The biker movie The Losers (1970) and John Carpenter's science-fiction film Dark Star (1974) were allegories that condemned the deadly nature of bureaucratic manipulation and "search and destroy" missions. Cinematically, the Vietnam veteran returned not as a conquering hero but as a disturbed figure, as in Elia Kazan's The Visitors and Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (both 1972) and Ted Post's Magnum Force (1973), all reinforcing a 1970s stereotype of the "crazy vet" in film and television.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hollywood appeared to follow President Gerald Ford's advice to "put Vietnam behind us." Beginning in 1978, however, Hollywood began to depict the conflict in prestige productions that avoided the political implications of the conflict. Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978) set up the melodramatic triangle of a paraplegic veteran, the woman he falls in love with, and the woman's husband, a militaristic monster-figure. Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) presented the war as an American family tragedy in literary and mythical terms. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), although it depicted the chaos and confusion of war, suggested an exclusively American, rather than Vietnamese, tragedy. Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), directed by Robert Aldrich, is the only film to deal with the government policies, originating in the Cold War, that led to the war. Perhaps predictably, this film was a box-office failure. Set in 1964, Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans (1978) is a bitter indictment of failed American policy prior to the war. Post's Good Guys Wear Black (1977) condemned individual bureaucratic deceit but stopped short of indicting the entire system.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, Vietnam War films began taking a more triumphalist tone. Uncommon
Valor (1981), Missing in Action (1984), Missing in Action: The Beginning (1985), Rambo (1985), and P.O.W.: The Escape (1986) were cartoonish representations of the conflict preoccupied with a shallow patriotism and winning the war on celluloid. Many of these films, rather than draw political lessons from the conflict, exploited the symbolism and sufferings of the prisoner of war. The independent film 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), by Patrick Duncan, far from depicting spectacular battle sequences, emphasizes the tedium and psychological devastation of war.
Few films were made by actual veterans, with Oliver Stone being the most notable Vietnam vet director. Widely praised for its realism, Stone's Platoon (1986) nevertheless mythologizes war, focusing on the scars left not only by combat but by conflicted relationships among the troops. Likewise, Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989), though delivering an antiwar message, avoids direct confrontation with the politics behind the war. Ron Kovic, paralyzed as the result of a war injury, returns to his community and to a Democratic Party that was responsible for the original debacle in the first place. By contrast, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a devastating critique of the "war hero," whose masculine energies become a corrosive force.
A key component of these 1980s films is the demonization of antiwar demonstrators, especially evoking the myth of the spitting protester—one who spits on his country rather than display expected patriotism. Films such as First Blood (1982), Gardens of Stone, Hamburger Hill, and The Hanoi Hilton (all 1987) engage in this critique. Another serious aspect of the Vietnam War was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which many returning soldiers suffered from. PTSD received scant cinematic attention apart from Cease Fire (1985), directed by David Nutter, and Born on the Fourth of July.
Although the Gulf War began to displace Vietnam in popular consciousness in the 1990s, Vietnam continued to be the subject of films. Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (1991) presented its veteran as a victim of family tensions. Thomas J. Wright's Chrome Soldiers (1993) presented its biker Vietnam veterans as well-adjusted individuals participating in family life, the military, high finance, ranching, and gambling. However, one of the characters, an Air Force colonel, expresses doubts about Desert Storm and wishes to join his Vietnam veteran brother in civilian life. Set in 1970s Mississippi, Jon Avnet's The War (1994) depicts a Vietnam veteran affected by PTSD, struggling with the economic and personal demands of family life, finding a job, and becoming a part of the community again.
The new millennium began with a different set of political and military circumstances. The Middle East, rather than Southeast Asia, took center stage. However, it appears likely that the issues surrounding Vietnam will persist in film. For example, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers (2002) not only reflects contemporary patriotism but depicts the values of the generation that would experience the rude awakening of the Tet Offensive. Set in 1965, this film depicts an encounter between North Vietnamese soldiers and vastly outnumbered American troops in what came to be known as the Valley of Death.
Films about Vietnam, and about all of America's wars, are in many ways barometers of society's views. As American attitudes toward the war have evolved—in part as a result of U.S. involvement in subsequent conflicts—so too have the content and message of Vietnam films. As illustrated in the contrast between The Green Berets and Platoon, films not only reflect changes in public views toward the Vietnam War but also help shape them.
Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co, 1995.
Fore, Steven James. The Perils of Patriotism: The Hollywood War Film as Generic and Cultural Discourse. Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1986.
Franklin, H. Bruce. M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Malo, Jean-Jacques, and Williams, Tony, eds. Vietnam War Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1994.
Williams, Tony. "Narrative Patterns and Mythic Trajectories in Mid-1980s." In Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television, edited by Michael Anderegg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
See also:Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam; Grunts; Tet, Impact of; World War II, Images of .