There was an explosion of Vietnam movies in Hollywood from 1978 to 1989 depicting the Vietnam experience. All these movies shared a common trait in that they all tried to give the viewer a taste of Vietnam. However the film industry and history as a social order are two separate and oppositional forces. Hollywood especially, with its need to present a pleasurable experience to a large audience, finds itself in a difficult position. Filmmakers who want to recreate an historical experience are bound by the need to ensure mass appeal, so the need for distortion and evasion of the truth is maybe a necessity.
A lot of the Hollywood movies concerning Vietnam do not portray the Vietnam War in sense of the truth, so how does the viewer know they are receiving the facts? With a number directors and producers coming from many angles, each director has a different angle and opinion of what happened. Many of the directors have tried to go for ratings and revenue by exaggerating the more dramatic points of Vietnam for the film while others have tried to stick to the truth. By exaggerating the film it becomes distorted and evasive and has provided biased information to the viewer.
Many Vietnam films dealt with different aspects of the war and have a distinctly different feel to each other, for example, Oliver Stones, Platoon is a personal memorial story of a Vietnam veteran whereas, The Deer Hunter depicts how the Vietnam War affected different men in different ways, and all Vietnam films especially Green Berets carry strong political messages. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July both directed by Oliver Stone were based on the actual experiences of Oliver Stone and fellow veteran, Ron Kovic.
Platoon is often said to be the most realistic of all the Vietnam War films, because of its ability to “represent the terror and the numbing confusion of daily battle”. Cawley an ex Vietnam veteran wrote a positive review about Platoon, saying “He praises above all the reality of the film and its willingness to show the gritty and bloody nature of the war. He sums up this attitude by writing “Facts about the war that seemed in danger of disappearing forever are captured here for the first time. ”
The problem with Platoon, although it was painfully and visually truthful when depicting the violence in Vietnam, was that it gave a lot of the soldiers in Vietnam a stereotype of being completely psychotic. Vietnam veteran Michael Herrera says “The first time I saw Platoon in a theatre, there were a number of Vietnamese people in the audience. After the village scenes, if anybody had asked if I was a vet, I would have said no. The film focused too much on the negative, completely ignoring the positive civic action – sponsoring orphans, rebuilding communities – that many took an active role in.
A friend who served in the infantry shook his head and said ‘Oliver Stone must have known an awful lot of psychotics. “2 Born on the Fourth of July spends less time in combat and more time depicting the life of the veteran after his return home. Because Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July was one man’s story of his experience in Vietnam, it could be a little generalised. He will only remember certain things he chooses to remember, so the viewer will yet again get a biased view of the war in Vietnam.
Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic were both eventually anti Vietnam so this again would of distorted the outcome of both Platoon and Born on the fourth of July. They are both Anti Vietnam war veterans. “Both of them were gung-ho patriots who were eager to answer their country’s call to arms. When they came back home, they were still patriots, hurt and offended by the hostility they experienced from the anti-war movement. Eventually, both men turned against the war, Kovic most dramatically. “(Ebert, R)
Full Metal Jacket is formed round the experiences of young men in ‘boot camp’, and when they’re sent off to war in Vietnam. Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket chooses to portray genuine events from the war. He focuses his action on the Tet Offensive 1968, directed by the enemy divisions in the South towards the United States. They wished to weaken American confidence in the Saigon government, strengthening American anti-war protest and ultimately bring America to some agreement. In order to asset Viet Cong influence and undermine Saigon authority, the North Vietnamese captured the city of Hue.
Kubrick concentrates on the battle, which resulted from the marines dispatched to Hue. He manages to capture the vast destruction caused by the intense violent fighting in the houses and the streets. The tet offensive was an important event in the war because “the offensive marked a military victory for the Viet Cong. For many Americans who had believed that the war was being won, the sight of Viet Cong troops holding the US embassy is a rude awakening, and forces them to question the US “true” position. ”
The film has an almost documentary-like feel, as if this is real footage of the battles. In the first half of the film, Kubrick focuses on the marine training. Again it feels like one is right there amidst the recruits preparing for war. Lee Ermey who played the drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, was actually a former drill instructor. Kubrick allowed him to improvise as he relied on his personal experience to guide the film. Most of the outrageous insults that he hurls at the recruits were Ermey’s own creations, derived from his former position.
The way in which Kubrick utilizes humour could be seen as an attempt at portraying reality. Through the use of humour in the film, Kubrick is able to distance the audience from any emotional responsiveness. The viewer is led to believe that Full Metal Jacket is based around the truth; however Susan White’s (Inventing Vietnam) critique of Stanley Kubrick’s film, points out that this film, like many others, is laced with Hollywood stereotyping Orientals and is too concerned with the conception of male bonding. Kubrick is an ironic version of the already ironic Crane text, both film and novel achieve a peculiar impersonality of tone despite their close recounting of a young man’s experience in a war whose political implications are dealt with almost not at all”(White)5. The screenplay for this film was co-authored by Michal Herr, a Vietnam War correspondent, it seems that films involving veterans in their production would stand up to criticisms and add a substantial validity to them.
The critics deemed the film a disappointment and claimed that the integrity was undermined due to the filming taking place in England; it was a failure on all counts. Full Metal Jacket looks at truth versus fiction in the media and Kubrick uses his political and cultural sensibility to capture his audience through cinematic story telling and to a lesser degree shows the realities of basic training, the tet offensive and not much else.
The Green Berets, the first of the Vietnam War films, directed and stared in by the very American John Wayne depicts pre-1965 Vietnam with a World War II feel about it. The film kicks off with a press conference hosted by the Green Berets, who attempt to answer difficult questions from the so called sceptical reporters as to why they are fighting in Vietnam. The emphasis is put on sympathy for the Green Berets as the ‘rude-radical’ journalists bombard them with questions.
The whole film resembles a press conference trying to assure the sceptical public who are in need of some answers. John Wayne (director and star) propagandises the military throughout the entire film and top government officials oversaw the filming. “The film, of course, is an unintentionally humorous, thin and messy shell for anti- communist sentiments”6 The film came across as a government message, with all its pro-war and anti- communist opinions and excessive violence was exactly what the government wanted it to be, as they undeniably had a hand in production.
In Katherine Kinney book Friendly Fire: American Images of the Vietnam War, she says that “The Green Berets can be seen as the final act in Wayne’s personal audition to play the mythic embodiment of the American ideologies that went to Vietnam: anticommunism, racism, and imperialism masked by the rhetoric of manifest destiny and mission. “7 They were wise to choose Wayne as their messenger, because according to Gary Wills “The Green Berets was a commercial success despite all critical ridicule”. Green Berets was purely a political tool distorted to gain public approval of the Vietnam War “Sadly, though predictably, Wayne offers a very biased and politically nai??ve view of the issues of US involvement in the war. “9 Green Berets was supported by the American government from funding to the lending of equipment and men. Despite this obstruction of reality, the main priority of any Hollywood director is the industry itself. Hollywood is a business with profit goals and consumerist ideals. In order to guarantee that the films satisfy the needs of this money making corporation, a mass audience must be reached.
In the films under analysis, these Hollywood demands cannot be ignored. They must ensure success by targeting a large spectatorship and to do this certain formulas must be granted. Although the films looked at do not overtly symbolize conventional stylized Hollywood, there are aspects that are included to make sure that a wide audience will recognize them as Vietnam War films. The helicopter image, the war-torn landscape, the elimination of the women and the misrepresentations of the enemy as the other are some such devices in which the films can be distorted and evasive.
How confident can we be when watching these films that we are seeing the truth about Vietnam? This is important because, many people will watch a film as though it’s the truth instead of reading a historical book on the Vietnam War, thus the directors of Vietnam films had the biggest say in what people depicted in the war. Directors should make more of an effort of sticking to the truth when it comes to making a Vietnam movie instead of evading and distorting the truth.
The choice then, is how we the viewers accept these films, and do we accept them as the truth or with scepticism. There is no simple solution, because each film is different and conveys a different message to the audience that it tries to reach. But if an audience can take in a film, any film with history or cultural changing implications, with some perspective of the past, either through personal experience or learned experience from others, then that audience can view the film with knowledgeable scepticism.
And knowledge is the best filter for gaining the truth. Oscar Wilde, made as good an observation that can be made for the Vietnam War genre in American film; “when art develops a purpose it becomes propaganda”. 10 Even modern day films such as We Were Soldiers don’t show Vietnam in its full, just the parts the Americans won, even though eventually they lost the war in Vietnam. It just leaves you wondering, how Hollywood will depict the present on going war in Iraq.