Film and TV

Hollywood's Long March to War

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It wasn't until another decade had passed that the first wave of Vietnam-era films crested: During the hostilities, studios refused to finance them, and a war-weary public apparently didn't want to see them. When the films finally arrived, audiences beheld a new war-movie view -- skeptical if not cynical about America's ethical authority, psychologically divided, seemingly drugged. If the war in Vietnam had become a political and moral swamp, all the slime and scariness and surreal terror of the place made their way to the screen.

In Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), a film about a group of young Pennsylvania mill workers who land in the same doomed rifle squad, the most chilling and enduring image of the entire three hours is that of American soldiers willfully self-destructing: Psychologically trapped in Saigon, the spooky ex-grunt played by Christopher Walken makes his living and counts out his days playing Russian roulette. Taking it a step further, Vietnam vet Oliver Stone's overheated Platoon (1986) shows America even more literally at war with itself: A ruthless sergeant played by Tom Berenger squares off against a more rational one played by Willem Dafoe, and they both wind up dead. The battlefield realities of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) leave nothing to the imagination, and neither do Hamburger Hill (1987) or the underrated Casualties of War (1989), directed by Brian DePalma. Here, an Army private refuses to cover up the rape and murder of an innocent Vietnamese woman by the members of his own unit. Imagine the old Office of War Information getting a look at that.

One of the only possible responses to such bloody gloom is to conjure up some alternative, comic-book fantasy about Vietnam, some fairy tale drenched in blood. Witness Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies, in which an impossibly beefed-up, buffed-out Vietnam vet returns to the jungles after the war is over to set everything straight, to take revenge against enemies foreign and domestic and personally "win" the war that America lost. Compared to such stuff, the revival of World War II belief (albeit muted and reconsidered) in a film like Stephen Spielberg's harrowing Saving Private Ryan is a relief. So, in its way, is Apocalypse Now Redux. In its new form, it may be the most disturbing and most powerful Vietnam movie of them all; certainly, it demands that we ask ourselves about the actions of governments and men in war, about consequences, about purpose and morality and conviction.

In the end, though, no war film can tell the whole story. The late director Sam Fuller, whose own war movies (The Steel Helmet, The Big Red One) examined, close up, the drama of individual soldiers on the battleground, had his own ideas on what would make an absolutely authentic war film. For that, Fuller said, you'd have to put a couple of riflemen behind the screen and have them shoot into the audience.

Don't expect Sergeant York or Captain Willard to buy a ticket.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo