Vietnam in Film: Opening the Doors of Representation

Until the Vietnam War, Hollywood and most of America had held the US soldier in an almost mythic regard; they were the defenders of truth and liberty against worldwide tyranny run amok.  WWII had drafted the ordinary man, farmers, bakers, grocers, and then violently launched them with little training to the dizzy heights of martyrdom.   And Hollywood, for it’s part, had done it’s best to maintain that level of divinity.

John Wayne was as famous a soldier as he was a cowboy, and the heroism portrayed on the big screen helped define and further the already patriotic tendencies of military nations such as the United States.  When talking of Vietnam, most critics choose The Green Berets (1968) as the first significant film to deal with the Vietnam conflict; undeniably a John Wayne picture through and through, it took a typical “John Wayne” attitude toward the issue of communism, war and foreign enemies.   An essay by Michael Hammond featured in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood described The Green Berets as “a fairly traditional war film” and “thus, it exemplified and presaged the divisions in critical and generic expectations of the war film in the Vietnam era.” Though despite the freshness in regards the style and level of violence “…political divisions were brought into focus by the virulent anti-communist rhetoric of The Green Berets

From the beginnings of the Vietnam War in the late 50s to its unusual end in the 70s, America had undergone a radical change in the attitudes and in the collective mind of its youth; European art films had taken influence over even mainstream cinema, the civil rights movement had progressed rapidly into the Black Panthers, in many states Sodomy laws had been repealed, psychedelics had been and gone and cocaine had taken its place as the drug-of-choice.   More significantly here is the fact that once the conflict was over, no longer were soldiers hailed as heroes, but as pawns in state-sponsored aggression.  The draft had taken ordinary men from their everyday lives and flown them 8,000 miles to face combat with little more than a few weeks military training. And if we are to believe the filmic depictions that would occur over the next few years, many were a little too sociopathic for the experience or too irresponsible for combat.

By the end of the 70s, Hollywood’s depiction of the war had been skewed slightly.  The movie brats had pushed the director to the forefront of film production and art and existentialism had replaced the traditional ideas of conventional genre.  Two films are most notable in this period, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Although both were more cerebral in their themes and deconstruction of conflict, neither took a liberal view and in fact showed very little in terms of actual combat.  The Deer Hunter spends most of it’s time in a small town, moving only to foreign lands to show the viciousness of the VC and the effect of their murderous Communism on a gang of small town good old boys;  Ideologically, it is a more film about masculinity and individuality and the quest to reinstate an equilibrium.   Ryan and Kellner claim in Hollywood and War, The Film Reader that “its bleak, ambiguous ending inspired many to read it as an anti-Vietnam-war statement.  We [the authors] respect these positions, but we read the film from the perspective of the critique of ideology, and in that light, it seems less progressive.”

Apocalypse Now takes a similar view of masculinity, though the politics are more nihilistic.  The film itself uses the Vietnam War as a smokescreen for its own individualist purposes, rather than reflecting too obviously on the War as a whole; tho it did provide many powerful images and interesting uses of soundtrack that became standard for Vietnam films. As Hammond again explains;

Apocalypse Now sought solutions which spun off from the narrative openness of the war itself and from the madness of US political and military strategy.  In doing so, it provided the Vietnam War, and many subsequent Vietnam War films, with a visual and aural aesthetic; helicopters, napalm and the popular music soundtrack.  Moreover, both [Apocalypse now and The Deer Hunter] contain atrocity scenes which were to become central to Vietnam War films in the mid-80s”

A new kind of war film emerged in the 80s, one that took the spectator and threw him/her into the middle of the horrors of war and took a retrospective look at the political and sexual climate existent during the 60s. It seems that if the young, southern right-wingers could find themselves in Vietnam, so could The Doors listening, dope-smoking, long-hairs.  In just a short two year period three significant war films would be released that would  analyse the nature of male sexuality and masculinity and use the industry’s, and the genre’s, very own established and hard fought conventions as a springboard for their own renegade rhetoric.  The films were Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), John Irvine’s Hamburger Hill (1987) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). The most interesting of these from the point of view or homoerotic / homo-social standpoint is Platoon.  It would use the 60s artistic community’s fascination with European writers and Greek mythology to analyse in depth the nature of the various bonds between soldiers, it would also win Best Picture Oscar and turn out to be one of the highest-grossing US movies of all time.

Platoon begins when a new recruit, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam, wet behind the ears, he is confronted not just with the realities of the violence of combat but also the divisions that exist within the men he serves with.  Stone deliberately creates a very specific and obvious duality in the ideologies of the unit.  One side of the platoon is aligned with Sgt. Robert Barnes (Tom Berenger), an aggressive and tough Southerner with a right-wing philosophy and ruthless code of practice who inspires the same level of discipline and aggression in those who ally themselves with him.  Conversely, Sgt. Elias Grodin (Willam Dafoe), Barnes’ counter-part, leads the other faction known as the ‘Heads’; the soldiers who have not bought into the politics of military propaganda, those who, in between skirmishes choose to spend their time getting high and listening to Jefferson Airplane (a band well  known psychedelic influences).  It is also worth noting that many of the troops in Elias’ gang are Black, the only Black soldier incorporated into Barnes’ group is there because he disapproves of the others’ drug taking.

During the first part of the film, Taylor is gravitates equally towards both leaders.  The battle for control begins immediately, though originally he is evenly drawn to the gung-ho, no nonsense style of Barnes as he is the friendly, nurturing manner of Elias.  Taylor’s loss of innocence occurs on the first patrol, when during the night the squad is ambushed and he is wounded in the neck.  This act knocks his perception and causes a disruption in the narrative.   Upon his return to the unit he aligns himself more with Elias and he begins to reject the methods used by Barnes.  One significant moment occurs as he enters the Elias den, which is low lit with candles and smoky from the pot.  When one of the soldiers addresses him as ‘Taylor’, another interjects, saying “This here ain’t Taylor, Taylor been shot.  This here’s Chris.  He’s been resurrected”

While this conversation may seem flippant, when regarded in the context of the social interactions, it becomes much more significant and while the soldier may not have meant the comment to be metaphorical, it seems that Chris, at least on a spiritual level, has been through a form of ‘rebirth’ and ‘resurrection’.  For these man to use Chris’ first name is in contrast to the Barnes group who all refer to each other by their surnames.  This lack of familiarity by Barnes’s gang helps to suppress any emotional connections that may eventually result in genuine fondness.  After all the ‘Heads’ are a much more emotionally bonded group and have a sense of genuine friendship.

Feminists may argue that the lack of female representation in Hollywood war films is a significant slight against the gender. This is true, but sometimes it is also necessary. It is pertinent to realise that many war films rely upon the absence of women in order to cement certain subtexts of the genre. Some of them are romantic; the longing of a soldier to return to his sweetheart for example. It is the faceless sweethearts waiting piously back home that motivates many soldiers and places the female into part of a larger nostalgic single-minded, southern apple-pie mentality.  However, the only women corporeal in Platoon are foreign and communist; they are the enemy. This leaves the narrative to explore the interplay of men forced together through violent bonds.

The ‘den’ scenes show a clearer subtext to homo-social and homoerotic networking that is at play.  Whereas there may be a hint of homosexual repression in the Barnes den, the sexual overtones are much more obvious when dealing with the ‘Heads’, certainly in regards to  Elias’ sexuality and playful behaviour towards Chris.  During the ‘den’ scene, Chris tries pot for the first time.  We are given a shot from Chris’ point-of-view as Elias walks over and looks directly in the camera.  He then tells him to place his mouth on the barrel of his rifle and blows smoke through the chamber into Chris’ mouth.  The male gaze here is important in establishing or heightening the sense of sexual innuendo, as well as breaking the boundaries of looking straight into the camera.  Cohan and Hark remark in Screening the Male:  Exploring Masculinities in the Hollywood Cinema that “because the spectatorial [sic] look is so insistently male the erotic elements involved in the relations between the spectator and the male image have constantly to be repressed and disavowed”  This is reminiscent of a scene in Genet’s homosexual prison film Un Chant d’Amour (1950) where two male prisoners in adjacent cells exchange cigarette smoke through a piece of straw fed through a hole in the wall.

Another aspect of Chris’ relationships with Barnes and Elias can be viewed as bordering on the Freudian interpretation of repression and the Oedipus Complex.  If Barnes represents the paternal and traditional aspect of masculinity for Chris, then Elias fulfills the maternal, cerebral and nurturing role.  Although there has been nothing physical between the two men, if the text is to read in this way the sexual suggestions hinted at between Chris and Elias (as his ‘Mother’) would have strong Oedipal tie-ins.  This idea is compounded further when near the end of the film Chris shoots his ‘Father’.  This also completes the final act in his journey into Manhood; the act of killing the father, an act that Freud considered one of the baser instincts if the id, essentially kills the old ideas and leaves him free to discover himself beyond the limitation paternal expectation.  The Oedipal undertones are clearer when Chris talks of two ‘Fathers’ in the narration that plays over the final scenes;

I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves – and the enemy was in us … The war is over for me now, but it will always be there – the rest of my days.  As I am sure Elias will be – fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul … There are times since I have felt like the child borne of those two fathers … but be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life

It seems that although it’s rational to conclude that the War genre is traditionally conservative, and even some of the more radical and poetic attempts fail to offer any real alternative ideologies. Men and war have been entwined since the beginning, and  it is for this reason that it is easy to hold a mirror to the established narrative structures and themes and conventions of war films, and in turn Mankind itself.

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About craig shaw
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