Copyright John Puzzo May 6, 2002
VIET NAM AND HOLLYWOOD
(The author served with the 4th Infantry Division in Viet Nam as a Ranger, Artilleryman, Infantryman, and Combat Engineer. He is creator of "The Viet Nam War Veterans Oral History Project.")
"The History of War is written by the Victor."
This is so true it is a cliché, and Hollywood has produced such clichéd Viet Nam War movies as "Platoon," "Born on the 4th of July," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Casualties of War," these being perhaps the most (in)famous in that genre of LA LA land films. As they meet the standard of "perspective from the victors" point of view some of these films are favorites in Hanoi.
Hollywood deposits soldiers of my era on the screen and animates them, but they are as unreal as so many Frankensteins. Earlier generations of war films had characters played by John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, and Robert Taylor. They portrayed soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who were real, or at least believable. Many were portrayed heroically.
We got Forrest Gump and a litany of other screwball characters the likes of which I never saw in the Army. Gump, a half-wit, at least isnt evil like the bizarre character in Full Metal Jacket who murdered his DI, or the character played by Sean Penn in Casualties of War who raped and then murdered, in a scene of prolonged vicious and brutal agony, a young Vietnamese woman with a Marine issue K-BAR knife.
America also had to endure the tap dance of murders, atrocities, toxic sergeants, incompetent officers, and confused soldiers in Platoon (Best Picture Oscar 1986). This film is a sumptuous feast for haters of all things Viet Nam.
Perhaps because American soldiers were portrayed as oppressors in Platoon, few people were outraged at the Nazi Battle Flag flown on an American Tank after the big battle scene. This movie so completely degrades the American soldier that a member of the Vietnamese Politboro, Bui Tinh, openly praised it. Comrade Tinh was a North Vietnamese Army General Staff officer during the war. They use it, he said, to teach young Vietnamese about the Americans "Imperialist" war.
80% of The Deer Hunter had nothing to do with Viet Nam. That which did was so implausible its a wonder anyone went to see it, but America was (and remains) hungry for Viet Nam War movies and almost every single movie about that subject achieved either critical acclaim (undeserved) or box office success, including Deer Hunter. The main character in "Deer Hunter," played by Robert Deniro, exhibits psychotic and antisocial behavior by stripping off his clothes in public and parading naked right down Main Street behavior that would rightly get anyone arrested and taken away for psychiatric evaluation. Deer Hunter won two Oscars, Best Picture and Best Director (1978).
In Jane Fondas anti-veteran film, "Coming Home," another psychotic episode unfolds as her Navy officer husband, just returned from Viet Nam also strips naked in public. We see him fully nude, and babbling as he strolls nonchalantly into the waves and commits suicide in the Pacific Ocean. His part is played by actor and antiwar activist, Bruce Dern.
Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her performance in Coming Home (1978), and she is as guilty of treason as OJ is of murder and everybody knows it.
Conceivably Fonda and her Hollywood friends, like Dern, Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, and other "celebrities" who visited Hanoi during the War wish a similar fate for all Viet Nam War veterans. Figuratively, Hollywood may as well have turned these veterans and their history into a gas and released it into the stratosphere.
Fonda and Deniro came to my home state of Connecticut in 1988 to make a film about an illiterate, dysfunctional (surprise) truck-driving Viet Nam Veteran. She was met here with protests that were global in scope. But Fondas advance team had prepared for the inevitable protests and made deals with some of the local vets (shame on them) to whom she could make her apology. When I exposed this, I was physically attacked in a VFW hall in Naugatuck, Connecticut. This incident was widely covered in the press. I was not invited to the session where she apologized.
This apology was played sympathetically by Barbara Walters on ABC. Apart from Walters own palsied and not very unique left sided media bias, she served up softballs to Fonda and put a soft face on treason. It is not widely known that Walters husbands company, Lorimar Productions, produces and markets Fondas workout tapes cozy arrangement.
On the screen battlefield, American soldiers in Viet Nam are habitually portrayed by Hollywood filmmakers as making war on civilians (Platoon, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the 4th of July) and running from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
Line of Dialogue from "Full Metal Jacket:
Joker (character in movie): "How can you shoot women and children?"
Helicopter Door Gunner: "Easy... you just don't lead 'em so much."
In "We were Soldiers once and Young," a departure from thirty or more years of humiliation by Hollyweird, the Viet Nam Soldier is finally, and too late, portrayed as a soldier, standing up in battle, and meeting an armed enemy that has shown himself quite capable of making war on civilians and living by atrocity. Of course, I am referring to the communists, who first and foremost make war on their own populations to advance the revolution, as they did in Viet Nam long before any American soldier jumped out of a helicopter there.
In, "Apocalypse Now," (two Oscars, 1979) another surrealistic and bizarre film about Viet Nam, a shaved bald and very fat Marlon Brando (Marlon Brando?) portrays a Special Forces Colonel. Martin Sheen, the anti-war diplomat himself, is the "hero" emerging from a murky jungle river, knife in his teeth, to cut Brandos throat. What was the point of Apocalypse Now? Except that one American soldier kills another, I never did see the point of it.
In "Born on the 4th of July," viewers are subject to the usual hype of war crimes and atrocities, this time committed by American Marines who shoot down civilians and then cut and run from the VC who shoot back. Marines running away? Later in the film, the spectacle of wheelchair-bound veterans spitting all over each other is another twisted, uniquely Hollywood metaphor on the American soldier: "We spit on you "
Even in films which were not overtly about Vietnam, this disgraceful treatment persists to the point of being nearly universal. The promotional press release for a 1969 movie by legendary Hollywood filmmaker, Sam Peckinpaugh, The Wild Bunch, states:
"The 'Bunch' also represents contemporary American soldiers in the late 60s, out of place in the jungles of Vietnam, unchanged men in a changing land, out of step, out of place and desperately out of time. Suddenly it was sundown suddenly their day was over The Bunch is a gang of desperadoes, criminals assaulted in the film's opening ambush and then brutally destroyed in the film's conclusion."
There is nothing subliminal or hidden in this series of metaphors: American soldiers in Viet Nam represent "a gang of desperadoes" and "criminals," conveniently, and truthfully, ambushed and destroyed by Hollywood.
Oscar Wilde, a literary figure of the 19th Century, said that when art develops a purpose it becomes propaganda. This is as good an observation as any that can be made for the Vietnam War genre in American film.
In a more serious venue, PBS "Vietnam: A Television History," (1983) is a masterpiece of propaganda, carefully edited and with sounds like gunshots and flies buzzing around corpses added for effect. Watching this tedious 13 hour documentary will convince anyone that Viet Nam was a hopeless and ill conceived venture criminal in its execution. I would agree with that, but for very different reasons as those alluded in this documentary.
The best and most complete criticism of PBS "Vietnam: A Television History," was done by Reed Irvines Accuracy In Media, a Washington based think tank dedicated to exposing the major media shortcomings. AIM has also done a great deal of reporting on the film industrys portrayal of the Vietnam War and they have good archives.
Contemporaneous with PBS "Television History," PBS produced and released, "Frank, A Vietnam Veteran." Frank is an alcoholic drug addicted crying slob who became a homosexual because he could not find love after Vietnam.
Does anyone see a pattern here?
Hanoi Hilton, a film by Lionel Chetwynd, was released in 1987 (same year as Platoon). It is set in Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi, from 1964-73. Chetwynd stated that his purpose in making the film was "to pay tribute to their [POWs] sacrifice:" The loneliness of isolated confinement, lack of food, beatings, and the torture with ropes, clubs, electric shock and whips, and psychological torture.
In Hanoi Hilton, The Vietnamese commander of the Prison camp remarks, "The real war is in Berkeley, California, Washington, D.C., and in the cities of America, and what we do not win on the battlefield, your journalists will win for us on your very own doorstep."
One scene in this film exposes Cora Weiss, another true life American traitor who was an agent of the North Vietnamese Army in their use of psychological warfare against the POWs, their families, and against America. The segment ends by her hugging the Vietnamese commander and thanking him for his efforts.
Weiss openly declared herself not a pacifist, led a group in the 60s that tried to force American POW families to make pro communist propaganda in exchange for contact with their family members being held in Hanoi. Though desperate for contact with their loved ones, not one family accepted Cora Weiss tainted offers.
Largely assailed by the nations movie critics, Hanoi Hilton was well received by the men and women of the American armed forces and the prisoners whose story he told. Chetwynd wrote and directed the film as a personal statement. It took him ten years to make the film in the U. S. because Hollywood had other notions of how it wanted to portray the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought in it. (The Left engages in blacklisting, too )
The impact Hollywood has had on shaping American opinion of the Vietnam War and the veteran cannot be downplayed. It is significant, corrosive, beyond truth, hallucinatory, anti-war, anti-veteran, anti-American, shameful, insulting, and not accidental.
List of Vietnam War genre Films:
317th Platoon, The
Anderson Platoon, The
Battle of Dien Bien Phu, The
Bloods of 'Nam
Born on the 4th of July
Casualties of War
Face of War, A
First Vietnam War 1946-1954
Full Metal Jacket
Gardens of Stone
Go Tell The Spartans
Good Morning Vietnam
Hearts and Minds
Heaven and Earth
Interviews With My-Lai Veterans
Killing Fields, The
Medal of Honor Rag
Peoples Century: Guerrilla Wars: Cuba, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Scent of Green Papaya
Some Kind of Hero
Television's Vietnam: The Real Story
Television's Vietnam: The Real Story
The War At Home
Vietnam: A Television History
Vietnam: Chronicle of A War
Vietnam: In The Year of the Pig
Vietnam: In The Year of the Pig
Vietnam: Red Hot War
Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War
War At Home, The
We Were Soldiers Once and Young
Who'll Stop The Rain
World of Charlie Company