Big Muddy movies: The top ten Vietnam War films

Today, April 30, is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the reunification of the country. The liberation of Vietnam was the biggest military and foreign policy defeat in U.S. history. As Washington faces more overseas debacles we must ponder the disaster of America’s imperial policies in Southeast Asia and learn the lessons about what happens when empires stick their noses into other peoples’ business. A great way to reflect is through ‘Nam war movies, which often also featured far out rock ‘n’ roll scores.

Hollywood already started noticing Vietnam with 1948’s Rogues Regiment, starring Dick Powell as a U.S. intelligence agent who joins the French Foreign Legion to hunt a Nazi war criminal believed to be in Vietnam. Gene Barry and Nat King Cole join the French Foreign Legion to fight the Viet Minh in Sam Fuller’s 1957 banned-in-France China Gate. Angie Dickinson is the Eurasian wife of Barry, who dumps her after their “half caste” child is born with Asian features. Starring as the titular The Quiet American, Audie Murphy wooed Phuong (Giorgia Moll, who was actually Italian) in this 1958 Saigon-set version of Graham Greene’s novel.

A decade later, after LBJ escalated U.S. intervention, many Vietnam features and documentaries were released. The first came out during the year of the Tết Offensive, 1968’s The Green Berets, co-directed by and starring John Wayne. The pro-war movie was so blatantly propagandistic that the Defense Department asked Wayne not to list it in the movie’s credits, in order to deflect inquiry into military support for a film ballyhooing U.S. Southeast Asian policy. (Nevertheless, according to David Robb’s “Operation Hollywood,” the GAO investigated – and dovish Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal condemned – the Pentagon for subsidizing an agitprop production with taxpayer dollars.) The Green Berets was as phony as its Georgia locations (which doubled for Indochina!) and it’s no wonder – like that other chicken hawk, Sylvester Stallone, who starred in the Rambo flicks, Wayne did not fight in Vietnam; neither served in the U.S. military. According to Garry Wills’ “John Wayne’s America,” during WWII the Duke pursued his acting career and avoided Selective Service notices while Hollywood colleagues such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable enlisted.

However, these war wimps’ hawkish movies are uncharacteristic of most Vietnam films which, like many WWI productions, have antiwar themes. Indeed, some of these pacifist and protest pictures not only question the nature of war from an ethical perspective, but U.S. foreign policy itself. Compounding this has been the sense that Vietnam is the only war America ever lost (although Iraq and Afghanistan are now giving it a run for its money). Vietnam remains timely for the movies: In the 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up the soul singer meets with LBJ in the White House, then embarks on a USO tour of ‘Nam,  where his plane comes under fire just prior to landing for a concert at a military base. Here’s a list of the Top 10 Vietnam War films from Hollywood, France – and from Vietnam:

Bring the War Home: The Strawberry Statement

 Vietnam was a contentious issue that divided America into hawks and doves, exacerbating a “generation gap” as youths subject to the draft questioned whether an immoral war was worth fighting. Many opted to resist going thousands of miles away to fight in steaming jungles and burned their draft cards instead. Pete Seeger summed the sentiment up, singing in ’67, “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, And the big fool said to push on.” Combined with their disposable income, all this made students a lucrative target market Hollywood catered to with a cycle of campus unrest films – in 1970 there were no less than five of them.

Perhaps the most representative is The Strawberry Statement, which adapted Simon Kunen’s diary-like account of the 1968 Columbia University student strike (Columbia wouldn’t let the filmmakers shoot on campus), starring Bruce Davison as Simon and Kim Darby as Linda. They join student activists occupying a gym to protest the university’s complicity in war research and its plan to turn a college-owned park in the Black community into a ROTC building. Police and National Guardsmen raid the gym, mercilessly beating and tear gassing long-haired students as they sing John Lennon’s antiwar anthem “Give Peace a Chance.” 

Best Oscar acceptance speech: Hearts and Minds

The Vietnam War was noted for televised coverage that brought the conflict into America’s living rooms. It also inspired numerous noteworthy documentaries, including some made by intrepid filmmakers who went to “enemy territory” in North Vietnam, including: Dutch director Joris Ivens’ 1965 The Sky and Earth and 17th Parallel in 1968; British journalist Felix Greene’s (Graham’s cousin) 1967 Inside North Vietnam; Cuban Santiago Alvarez’s 1968 Hanoi, Tuesday 13th and 1969’s 79 Springs, about Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps the finest of these nonfiction films is 1974’s Hearts and Minds, which won the Best Documentary Oscar. A scathing attack on the anti-communist ideology that paved the way for U.S. intervention, it shows how the war pitted Americans not only against Vietnamese, but also against each other (a recurring theme in these films). Perhaps the most poignant sequences are when Vietnamese suffering and grief are starkly contrasted with Gen. Westmoreland’s racist, cavalier comments about how Asians don’t value human life as much as Westerners do.

When New Hollywood producer Bert Schneider accepted Heart‘s Oscar in April 1975 he made this speech during the live telecast: “It is ironic that we are here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated. I will now read a short wire that I have been asked to read by the Vietnamese people…sent by Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi…chief of the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s delegation to…the Paris political talks…: ‘Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris Accords on Vietnam. These actions serve the legitimate interest of the American people and the Vietnamese people. Greetings of friendship to all the American people.”

Redemption: Coming Home

In the first great feature about ‘Nam, Jane Fonda – the real-life antiwar heroine who took shelter in the Metropole Hotel’s bunker during Nixon’s 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi – starred as Sally Hyde, wife of brainwashed Captain Hyde (Bruce Dern). She falls in love with paraplegic veteran Luke Martin (Jon Voight); both find redemption by protesting the war. Suggested by Ron Kovic’s odyssey, Hal Ashby’s profoundly poignant 1978 classic scored Oscars for Fonda, Voight and co-screenwriter Waldo Salt (who’d been blacklisted), and was nominated for five others, including Best Picture. Coming Home‘s cinematographer Haskell Wexler directed 1969’s Medium Cool, which combined fiction with actual footage of the riots at the Democratic National Convention, and the 1974 documentary Introduction to the Enemy with Fonda and Tom Hayden.

The horror, the horror: Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 resetting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from Congo to Indochina may be the best big-screen adaptation of literature in cinema history. Much of this epic’s power is derived from its visceral depiction of U.S. war crimes, especially a helicopter raid raining destruction down on a Vietnamese village. The aerial attack’s objective: Securing a beachhead so a surfer (Sam Bottoms) whose initials are LBJ can catch the waves there. As the Yankees wreak havoc upon villagers, gung-ho Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) infamously exclaims: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” During the chopper blitz a tape recorder blares Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to terrify the Vietnamese, although Coppola’s masterpiece helped set the trend of using great rock songs (such as the Doors’ “The End”) in Vietnam War movie soundtracks. In Marlon Brando’s last great role he co-stars as enigmatic Col. Kurtz, who has been driven off the deep end by “the horror” of war, with Martin Sheen as the assassin Capt. Willard, Dennis Hopper as a drugged-out photojournalist, and a teenaged Laurence Fishburne as a jittery machinegunner who opens fire on unarmed peasants in a sampan concealing what turns out to be a puppy.  

At war with ourselves: Platoon

This modern morality tale has a nitty-gritty grunt’s-eye view of combat as wide-eyed recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) observes sergeants Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Barnes (Tom Berenger) square off against each other, with Elias opposing Barnes’ atrocities. Platoon scored four Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director. Even though he never wore the uniform of his country (except onscreen), the Pentagon lavishly subsidized John Wayne’s Green Berets, but didn’t provide any support to decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, because of his anti-militarism. One suspects that in this 1986 elegiac masterwork the naïve witness Taylor, who tries to do the right thing, is writer/director Stone’s alter ego.

Bad dreams: Casualties of War

Based on an actual incident, playwright David Rabe – who’d previously written the Vietnam-themed features 1973’s Sticks and Bones and 1983’s Streamers – wrote this hard hitting 1989 drama directed by another Hollywood heavyweight, Brian De Palma. As sadistic Sgt. Tony Meserve, Sean Penn kidnaps the young Vietnamese woman Than Thi Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) in the Central Highlands to be his squad’s sex slave, and Oanh meets a horrific fate. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) objects to the gang rape and tries to bring the war criminals to justice in this gripping, sorrowful saga that touches upon PTSD.

Antiwar wheelchair warrior: Born on the Fourth of July

Ron Kovic inspired Coming Home, but this 1989 biopic helmed by Oliver Stone (who won a second Best Director Oscar) is Kovic’s own story, based on his autobiography. It’s one of the most moving antiwar movies since 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Both open similarly, with impressionable boys being brainwashed to go to war by their elders – in Kovic’s case to fight communism. In this trenchant critique of Cold War ideology and the macho mentality Kovic (portrayed by Oscar-nommed Tom Cruise) is wounded in ‘Nam, returns home in a wheelchair, experiences awful treatment in a VA hospital and becomes disillusioned. However, he regains a sense of himself by joining the peace movement; using his Marine Corps skills he leads a charge of disabled vets against Tricky Dick at the 1972 Republican Convention. Kovic finds redemption and meaning in life by rolling down the path of the antiwar crusade.

Vietnam, mon amour: Indochine

 Indochina’s former colonizer, France, has also produced Vietnam films, such as Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1992 big budget Diên Biên Phu, about the Viet Minh’s 1954 decisive defeat of the French. Régis Wargnier’s 2.5-hour-plus epic Indochine, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was released that same year. Indochine is a sort of French Gone With the Wind about Vietnam during its colonial era, set against the rising revolutionary tide. Catherine Deneuve was Oscar nominated for playing French rubber planter Éliane Devries, a single woman who romances a French officer and adopts a Vietnamese girl, Camille (Linh Dan Pham), who eventually joins the independence movement. Stunning cinematography at locations such as Halong Bay in the Tonkin Gulf display Vietnam’s beauty.

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came: Sir! No Sir!

David Zeiger’s 2005 documentary chronicles widespread resistance in the U.S. armed forces to being imperialism’s pawns during the Vietnam War. The nonfiction film includes clips from 1972’s FTA (“Free The Army” or, alternately, “F*ck The Army”) concert film featuring a traveling troupe of pro-peace performers led by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, that staged vaudevillian antiwar skits, songs and dances near U.S. military bases. Only a week after its release Nixon suppressed distribution of FTA, but a third of a century later Zeiger’s doc led to its re-release.  

Is this the enemy? The White Silk Dress

America and France – the perpetrators of colonialism, imperialism, war crimes, etc. – have had their say about this Southeast Asian nation, but what about the Vietnamese themselves? Although filmmaking is an expensive medium, and Vietnam is a developing nation, the fact is that the Vietnamese have made extremely powerful, poetic, poignant films about their wars, and 2006’s award winning The White Silk Dress is arguably the best. In this story with mostly female characters, about a family struggling to survive during the French and American wars, Vietnam-born writer/director Luu Huynh uses the titular garment or áo dài, Vietnam’s national dress, as a lyrical symbol of nationhood. At one point, after the áo dài is cut into pieces, it is restitched together, as a metaphor for reunifying northern and southern Vietnam.

The 142-minute epic opens in 1954 at Ha Dong near Hanoi, where the hunchback Gu (Khanh Quoc Nguyen) and the lovely Dan (Truong Ngoc Anh) are servants working for a vicious Vietnamese master who collaborates with the French. After he’s assassinated, Gu and Dan, who have become lovers, flee and stumble upon the scene of a massacre; they elude the French by playing dead amidst the corpses. After the Viet Minh’s triumph at Diên Biên Phu the film jump cuts to 1966 at Hội An, a trading town near Đà Nẵng, where the impoverished Gu and Dan live in a thatched hut, striving to make a living as mussel sellers and to raise a family of four daughters. Dan undergoes Buñuelian sexual humiliation to earn money; when she’s caught after curfew with what appears to be a Viet Cong leaflet, she is arrested and brutally beaten by South Vietnamese security forces.

In 1966 an aerial attack lays waste to their daughter’s school. After another bombardment surviving members of the beleaguered family take flight with other peasant refugees. In a montage sequence actuality clips of atrocities, such as famous footage of a napalmed naked Vietnamese girl running, depict devastation. In a magical realist ending, the film jump cuts again to 1975; many Vietnamese women wearing áo dài are seen striding forward, symbolizing Vietnam’s liberation and reunification. The skillfully shot $2 million film (a big budget production by Vietnam’s standards) uses deft camerawork, alternation between desaturated and vivid colors, and heartrending acting to create an artistic testament by and for those who were the victims of massive crimes against humanity, yet survived. Watching the Vietnamese side of the story unfold onscreen with so much humanity, one gets the sense that having won the war, they are now winning the peace. Viva Vietnam!

Photo: Scene from Apocalypse Now.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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