The grotesque apologia for U.S. foreign policy that ferments in the cinema capital of the world, Hollywood, is as transparent in its depictions of the Vietnam War as it is in its depicting any other U.S.-backed or led imperialist misadventure. Even the ostensibly anti-Vietnam War films focus the sympathy of the viewer largely on the U.S. soldier and his plight, underplaying the genocide of the millions of Vietnamese by the U.S. and its allies. Of course, to profitably exploit the experiences of the U.S. working class in this war, Hollywood directors must pull on the heart-strings of its audience, and those strings must be pulled in the right direction: inwardly, nationally. Even those films which allegedly have “anti-war” messages succeed in erasing the Vietnamese from their own war. Why would it be otherwise? An American director feels obliged to create something with cultural resonance and isn’t likely to make a film that focuses on the plight of foreigners—it would not be profitable. Many claim that the genre of war in film is an expression of the desire for the U.S. audience to come to terms with its collective past. In exploring these struggles it searches for a meaningful identity through the portrayal of the ventures of a protagonist archetype. It is argued that their struggle will provide closure to the previous chapters of our existence and help U.S. audiences come to terms with what atrocities its military has committed in the past.
The focus of this essay will be on a widely-overlooked element of the Vietnam War in two popular U.S. films, namely the Vietnamese people. More specifically, this essay seeks to understand the causes and effects of their erasure and thereby expose the role of the profit-motive in the production of film and its subsequent delimiting of cultural expression. The intentional molding of collective memory that results from this order will be explored through analysis of canonized Hollywood films depicting the Vietnam War (or the “American War” as it is known in Vietnam). The ideological impetuses for this cultural order and its consequences will constitute a small but imperative consideration throughout this piece.
Various depictions of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers in U.S. film can sometimes be accurate. Some National Liberation Front soldiers tortured their captives, some Vietnamese civilian women prostituted themselves, and some Vietnamese civilian men would gamble their lives away. What is problematic about these depictions is that they constitute the vast majority of portrayals, when in fact those who engaged in such activity were a small minority. Moreover, whatever agency is afforded to the Vietnamese people, such as in Platoon, is quickly and quietly overshadowed by refocusing the sympathy of the viewer on the U.S. soldier through ellipses and the narrative generally.
To fully appreciate the erasure of Vietnamese suffering in U.S. films it is necessary to briefly put the death statistics in perspective. It is estimated that 3.35 million Vietnamese people died during the war, which is more than 10% of Vietnam’s total population at the beginning of the fighting in 1959.1 Of these casualties, around 2 million were civilians—which does not include the 500,000 children who suffer(ed) from birth defects due to the chemical weapons used by the U.S. In comparison, less than 60,000 U.S. soldiers died.2 That the suffering of U.S. soldiers is put in the foreground of U.S. depictions of the war, while that of the Vietnamese rarely constitutes a footnote in the script is something to keep in mind in the following examinations.
The Deer Hunter
While there exists scores of American-made films depicting the Vietnam War, there are four that uncontroversially constitute the canon of this genre: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. Of these Platoon and The Deer Hunter are appropriate objects of analysis as the former is the only of the four that sharply criticizes the war and its motives, while the latter is the only film that focuses on the after-effects of the war on its American rank-and-file participants, and both emblematize the self-focus of U.S. cinematography on its citizens at the expense of all other nationalities.
The film that included the line, of which there were many of similar composition, “you ever piss and take a drink of beer at the same time?” was the recipient of five academy awards. Perhaps this is too reductionist and cynical a depiction of The Deer Hunter. But considering that the first hour of the movie is overwhelmed with such low-brow stupidity that it prompts one to hope that a plot is forthcoming, one that moves beyond the pale of dipping Twinkies in mustard, of a half dozen drunks utterly wasting their lives in the foothills of nowhere, inclines us to reconsider the value of this alleged masterpiece.
Those who fail to analyze such historical degradations might be rebuked for being unable to perceive the depth of its overall mise en scène, the allusions to the human condition, the portrayal of relationships and life challenges through extraneous character development, and other inartistic, puerile pretensions. Unfortunately this so-called masterpiece is as shallow as its canonized brethren.
If one survives the first third of this film they will be suddenly transposed to a war zone, as the film follows a non-linear narrative. Within seconds the Apollonian calm of the piano and bittersweet collective rumination by the main characters in the previous scene is turned on its head into a dark, Dionysian hellscape. Here one witnesses a Vietnamese man of the National Liberation Front (NLF) ruthlessly throwing a grenade into a hole filled with hiding, frightened Vietnamese civilians—women, children, the elderly. Immediately the barbarity of this savage foreign communist is explicated in a most base manner. This portrayal sharply contrasts with the American veterans who are built up for over an hour as care-free drunkards who, while irresponsible, are fun-loving well-to-do go-getters. After the explosive is dropped this heartless, dark-skinned enemy of the U.S. is pictured walking toward the camera with pigs in the foreground and foliage surrounding him, intimating that this beast, juxtaposed with his most reviled sounder, is more of nature than civilization. Thankfully the great American protagonist is there—bruised, bloody, and bold—to save the Vietnamese from themselves. Michael, played by Robert De Niro, sees the cruel communist mowing down a helpless mother and baby and proceeds to heroically light the communist on fire with a flamethrower. This depiction of the NLF, of the morality of the U.S. soldier in saving other countries’ peoples from themselves, is so blatantly jingoistic one wonders how this movie did not receive support from the U.S. military or its intelligence agencies, as so many other Hollywood war films do.
Notwithstanding this remedial cultural propaganda and the racist overtures, academics are still audacious enough to claim that “…the accusations of racism made against The Deer Hunter are not correct in a political or social sense…” because the “…Vietnamese are shown among the victims of the Viet Cong”.3 The depiction of the Vietnamese as victims of other Vietnamese does not automatically erase the problematic portrayals (all of whom are depicted as cowards or money-grubbers in this film). Rather, it simply heightens the anti-communist visual rhetoric by attributing the guilt of war crimes to that of the NLF, while omitting or reducing the depiction of war crimes committed by the U.S. or South Vietnamese forces. In fact, those anti-war or anti-U.S. foreign policy elements of this film are subtle (faceless helicopters bombing a village infested with communists, a black soldier missing both of his arms, the singing of ‘God Bless America’ in the final scene), while those depictions of the barbarity of communist Vietnamese are unequivocal, as exemplified above. The only other depictions of Vietnamese in this movie are those of prostitutes, Russian roulette participants (dead and alive), and war criminals. These depictions constitute almost the entirety of portrayals of Vietnamese people in U.S. canonized films of this war, but were a small minority—and all were still victims of foreign military escalation and intervention.
Perhaps the most outrageous scene in the film is the one for which it is most know: the forced Russian roulette scene. Laughing demonically, the NLF soldiers bet over the captives lives as the U.S. soldiers take their turns with death. The North Vietnamese flag is draped in the background of one side of the table, while a portrait of Ho Chi Minh adorns that of the other side. Peering stoically, Ho Chi Minh’s portrait appears to the audience as a reminder of the evil of communist ideology, as those who subscribe to it laugh while the U.S. soldiers cry. This repulsive inversion of history and morality undoubtedly constitutes one of the most dishonest portrayals of the Vietnam War in the canon. The director takes an incident that has no historical record and makes it the climax of the film that will go on to be internalized by millions of U.S. citizens, shaping the collective memory away from fact and toward myth, imbuing them with historical and cultural amnesia.
The director of The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino, apparently had different motives in making the scene as Cimino stated: “…the Russian roulette is a metaphor for what America was doing with its young people, sending them to a war in a foreign place, when there was no justification for it.”4 But as we are all painfully aware, intent is not the same thing as effect. And in this case the effect was perhaps the opposite of the intent; the inversion continues.
Of the over 9 million U.S. military personnel who participated in the Vietnam War, 116 died in the captivity of communist forces.5 Just as the depictions of the Vietnamese people is statistically dishonest and exaggerated, so too are those depictions of the plight of the U.S. soldier in this conflict. The focusing of the viewer’s sympathy on the U.S. soldier is always at the expense of the Vietnamese people. Although the Vietnamese suffered far more than the U.S. occupiers, the victimization of the latter is played up at the expense of the Vietnamese–which is a constant and backward theme that implicitly characterizes this genre of film.
In his paper “Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now” Hellmann (an academic film analyst) argues that The Deer Hunter portrays a quest to master nature, “…played out in the white imagination as a struggle between light and dark.”6 The attempt at outlining the dichotomous theme of good versus evil in this film is obscured by Hellmann’s analysis because he extends this line of thought to another dichotomy: nature and civilization. Rather unconsciously this academic (who refers to Native Americans as Indians throughout his piece) attempts to construct what is, in the end, a pseudo-progressive interpretation of the film that reveals the author’s own prejudices, and perpetuates these prejudices by forwarding his analysis to the public sphere.
Hellmann’s interpretation of the wilderness landscape as representing the unconscious, as a place where the main characters of The Deer Hunter can struggle through their own passions, and then his attempt to link this passion-conflict to an analysis focused around the idea of individual captivity misses the mark. In short, this interpretation uses the Vietnamese landscape and its people’s lives as mere instruments in the self-discovery of a few U.S. soldiers. This miscarriage of psychoanalytic film theory arguably does a further disservice to the agency of the Vietnamese people than the film itself by turning them into inanimate tools of U.S. introspection. A more astute analysis would accept the juxtaposition of nature and civilization and realize that the film dehumanizes Vietnamese as animals, as part of nature, comparable to the deer in the first and third parts of the movie. This hunt for humans in a foreign land is a continuation of the hunt for animals in the homeland, and is pursued in some sick effort by the U.S. soldier to attempt to come to terms with his inhibitions (not passions) which were partly revealed in earlier hunting scenes through frustration, demoralization, and existential angst. This would seem more plausible as it would give the film stronger thematic continuity and, if we are to obsess with unconsciousness, subtly portray the ostensible desire of the U.S. and other neocolonialist states to bring civilization to ‘nature’, including the ‘savages’ who still inhabit it. Unfortunately, this latter interpretation is likely too generous as commentary on U.S. imperialism is almost entirely lacking in the writing or videography of this movie.
Nevertheless we see that it is not just the high echelons of Hollywood who participate in the erasure of Vietnamese from public consciousness, but academics as well. Both of these institutions constitute powerful components of the superstructure and share a symbiotic relationship wherein Hollywood controls cultural production while Academia purveys mental production. These two productive establishments overlap and strengthen one another by mutual justification and inward-focus, trapping its consumers through the binding of debate, exposition, and narrative. Like a house of mirrors with endless reflections, one is unable to escape the structure unless they overcome the imposition of such limited consciousness. Hollywood and the academic film analysts are dually responsible for the production of a highly constricted, standardized culture industry to which mass society are subjected as consumers and to which ‘the other’ is omitted as an externality of profit.
Apparatus theory posits the centrality of ideology in the creation and consumption of cinema, the susceptibility of the audience to distortions of reality, and the use of cinema to maintain prevailing culture. We must consider that the consumer of cinema is a passive one who cannot often differentiate between the world of cinema and the real world, especially in historical dramas. Therefore whatever imagery the consumer is exposed to will be taken at face-value and the consciousness they are imbued with will be regurgitated, perpetuating the dominant ideology of the culture, of which this film and all others are products. The consumption and production of culture through cinema dialectically maintains the hegemonic institutions of society, consciously or not.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon is a film noir that seeks to realistically portray the Vietnam War based on the director’s experience in the war. Stone, the auteur, takes a great deal of poetic license in conveying the experience of the U.S. soldier. However, the attempts at honest depiction of the war in this film fail to address the wider contexts of the war and instead the collective past of tens of millions of Vietnamese is subsumed into conflicted American personas. Although the film does less of a disservice to the perpetuation of orientalist stereotypes and historical myths, it still falls short of what could have otherwise been a fully honest depiction of the Vietnamese people. Like The Deer Hunter, Platoon’s plot is centered around U.S. servicemen and their existential struggles, while the Vietnamese people are props in the unfolding narrative. Unlike The Deer Hunter, Stone forces the viewer to address whatever cognitive dissonance they may have experienced about the war and its purpose, and more or less depicts the Vietnamese civilians as victims not of North Vietnam or its soldiers, but of U.S. troops.
In what is the most critical scene of U.S. foreign policy of either of the films so far evaluated, the audience sees the killing, burning, and r***** of a Vietnamese village as Sgt. Barnes, the antagonist, leads his men to commit the atrocities. In the scene an important situation unravels. The villagers, like so many others caught up in the war, are forced to hide armaments and supplies for the North Vietnamese Army. The U.S. soldiers, who are belligerently committing war crimes from the beginning of their march into the village, are lied to by the villagers about the existence of supplies. During the march away from the torched village, weapon caches explode, confirming that the village was used a repository for North Vietnamese armaments. The civilian populations of most war zones who are caught between two opposing sides are often forced to acquiesce to the wishes of both sides at once and impossibly on pain of death. By portraying this situation, Stone illustrates the difficulties that many Vietnamese civilians faced during the war and gives humanity to those for whom war was such an utterly dehumanizing fact of life. The fear, loss, and sheer horror wreaked by the U.S. soldiers on the abjectly poor villagers is all conveyed in powerful imagery. The corralling of the villagers into a pig sty has obvious symbolic importance and can be juxtaposed to the NLF soldier’s depiction among swine in The Deer Hunter. However, in Platoon, the Vietnamese people are not compared to animals through clever framing techniques, but symbolize the extent to which Vietnamese were seen as subhuman by the U.S. soldiers. Similarly, the image of Sgt. Barnes tossing a grenade into a hole filled with frightened villagers who refuse to come out is an inversion of what was depicted in The Deer Hunter where it is a NLF communist who commits the same action. Nevertheless, the sometimes humanizing depictions of Vietnamese people (accomplished, paradoxically, through their dehumanization by U.S. troops) takes a backseat in the production and the focus is evermore centered around the situation of the U.S. troops and their myriad struggles against the ubiquitous enemies, external and internal.
Edward Said argued that the Eurocentric world conception with which Western peoples are inculcated results in racist and Orientalist narratives, “…capable of warping (distorting) the perspectives of reader and author equally”.7 This statement can also be applied in this context to the viewer and director, or, more broadly, consumer and manufacturer. As was stated above, this process of cultural consumption and production creates a feedback loop that is intent on balancing the never-ending battle between supply and demand, cultural or otherwise. The zeitgeist is largely crafted by cultural inputs, which consists mainly of products of societal norms. A film is an expression of the zeitgeist and can either alter or maintain the latter’s form. When directors then take it upon themselves to portray history as they know it, they are unconsciously channeling their internalization of the hegemonic culture. They are portraying the great conversation to which they are member, while the need to cater to societal expectations, beliefs, and desires restricts the plane of permissible cultural outputs. This is especially true when a product, such as a film, is subject to high cost production. The profit motive, the necessity of funding, and a myriad of other economic restrictions force themselves on cultural production. If mass culture asks for big explosions, violence, and motifs of U.S. military heroism, the chances of a film depicting such things being well-funded will increase, as the expected payout will be higher for all involved in the production.
Those who have financial capital can of course invest it into the culture industry. Directors, producers, and the whole gamut of those with some modicum of creative autonomy in the creation of film are subject to the expectations of their entertainment facilities to create a profitable commodity. These bourgois entertainers rarely have reason to introduce subversive or anti-system themes or commentary into their films. They are not victims of this system–quite the opposite, they are reaping the gains of it–and so have no incentive to do anything other than 1) distract the masses from this reality or 2) actively perpetuate bourgeois ideology through pop culture, capitalist value systems, and refraining from depicting class warfare, conflict, or consciousness. Instead these bourgeois film makers either celebrate familiar themes of the dominant culture while ignoring societal problems, or, if they do touch upon the latter, individualize the systemic issues of capitalist society and almost always underplay the seriousness of our society’s problems by way of a ‘happy ending’ that resolves the protagonist’s conflict. Such unrealistic portrayals obfuscates the reality of the situations of millions of people, and can imbue audiences with a false optimism that all struggles may be overcome by individual efforts.
Film reaches a mass audience far more than poetry, essay, dance, painting or other cultural expressions, thus it influences mass culture on a far more wide-reaching scale. Conformity to prevailing narratives, whether historical or imaginative, allows hegemonic power structures to ensure their own perpetuation by controlling mass culture, and in effect, mass consciousness. Economic levers are in place to prevent the ascendance of subversive consciousness, to prevent subcultures from becoming mass cultures. Further, they maintain formidable feedback mechanisms between the producers and consumers of mass culture that will ensure the erasure of undesirable elements of social existence, whether they be entire peoples, ideologies, or anything else that represents a threat to the continuance of establishment orthodoxy.
What enervated criticism of the U.S. empire that may occasionally arise in Vietnam War films is brushed away in an orgy of masculine infighting, drunken knavery, and white men’s soul searching. The suffering of millions of Vietnamese and the anemic Western domestic opposition to the war is underplayed or misrepresented in the canonized Vietnam war films internationally. As professor John Kleinen points out, in the first 35 years of Western portrayals of Vietnam (1939-1975), more than 150 Vietnam related feature films were produced, of which “more than 50 percent fail to deal with the Vietnam experience, counter-culture, or the return of veterans.”8 Such lack of realism perpetuates dominant cultural norms and expectations and can have deadly consequences. As Kleinen conjectures in a footnote, U.S. soldiers brought up on John Wayne films that unrealistically portray war as glorious were powerfully impacted by such images and, imagining they were “Wayne-like heroes”, undoubtedly mimicked their hero in real battle situations, leading to more unnecessary deaths.9
Public memory surrounding the Vietnam War has been so thoroughly influenced by the canonized Vietnam War films that many of the myths surrounding the war—and their attending orientalist stereotypes—are still alive and well today. The idea that the South Vietnamese Army was composed of ineffectual soldiers, that the NLF were a scrappy guerrilla force, and that the Vietnamese people are generally “cunning, cruel…sadistic, ambivalent, and irresponsible” are all latently and explicitly portrayed in the Vietnam War film canon.10 That many Americans think they have never lost a war, that today China is widely percieved as a “yellow peril”, that the Vietnamese people and the genocide committed against them by the U.S. has been nothing more than a footnote in U.S. history—all of these matters are informed by cinematographic portrayals in the perpetuation of an orientalist world conception.11
Vietnamese who fought their entire lives for liberation from the West at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their loved ones are not forgotten in this American-centric canon of self-pity and reflection—for they never existed in the first place. The role of liberation ideology, of the revolutionary aspirations of legions of North Vietnamese soldiers, is utterly forsaken; while the South Vietnamese are erased through dishonest and reductionist portrayals or total exclusion.
The military genius of Ho Chi Mihn and his cadres and the fearlessness of their rank-and-file in the face of endless, asymmetric warfare is erased. Everything that created this conflict, that animated the souls of those at an unimaginable disadvantage to win against the most powerful military in world history—all of these dreams, sacrifices, and accomplishments are drowned in a sea of American self-examination. Ultimately the Vietnamese heroes and heroines of this epic are eliminated from public memory in the West. Such is the power of mass culture.
In the context of war in film, the binding of consciousness and history through cultural restrictions and societal amnesia has profound effects on the modern public’s ability to understand the body of its society, its military organ, the impact of this complex, or why this entity and its sponsor might warrant opposition. Indeed, the public’s inability to decipher propaganda is the result of a lifetime of internalizing propaganda. If our mass cultural legacy restricts us to pre-ordained bourgeois conceptual frameworks, largely perpetuated through cinema and post-secondary institutions, then the U.S. citizenry’s ability to internationalize its world-conception will never sprout from the rich earth of critical history, because the seeds will have never been planted in the first place. Among the best ways to overcome mass culture is through critical history, and in this manner the films produced in Hollywood and widely disseminated to U.S. audiences do the viewers a disservice. A documentary history—not a Hollywood depiction—of the Vietnam War would do more to awaken the consciousness of U.S. audiences and surmount the psychological compartmentalization of our minds by repeating white-washed American-centric narratives of humanity’s past.
All pedagogy must allow the instruction of the necessity of action, and the servile predilection to refrain from all normative statements and to endow this servility to students must be dispensed forthwith and seen for what it is: a restriction on the mind’s ability to formulate ideas of how the world should be, which is the intermediary step in actually changing the world. This academic norm will contribute to the perpetuation of mass apoliticism within the U.S. and thus an unopposed, unrestricted U.S. foreign policy. Furthermore, this academic tendency will sterilize the development of the revolutionary mind capable of overthrowing the conditions that create war from now until those responsible for influencing the public sphere endeavor to overturn such expectations by sheer force and disobedience.
1. United Nations Population Division “Vietnam, Total Population, both sexes combined.” data.un.org. http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?q=Viet+Nam&d=PopDiv&f=variableID%3a12%3bcrID%3a704
2. “Vietnam War Casualties (1955-1975).” militaryfactory.com. https://www.militaryfactory.com/vietnam/casualties.asp
3. Hellmann, John. “Vietnam and The Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.” American Quarterly Vol. 34. No. 4 (Autumn 1982): 421.
4. Biskind, Peter. “The Vietnam Oscars” Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2008/03/warmovies200803?verso=true
5. “Vietnam War Casualties (1955-1975).” militaryfactory.com. https://www.militaryfactory.com/vietnam/casualties.asp
6. Hellmann, Vietnam and, 421.
7. Kleinen, John. “Framing “the Other”. A critical review of Vietnam war movies and their representation of Asians and Vietnamese*.” Asia Europe Journal Vol. I (2003): 435.
8. Ibid., 441.
9. Ibid., 445.
10. Ibid., 432.
11. Meehan, Mary. “Vietnam War A History Lesson Not Easily Taught” Orlando Sentinel. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1990-03-25-9003253500-story.html