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Inventing Vietnam

Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television

EDITED BY Michael Anderegg
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Temple University Press
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    Inventing Vietnam
    Book Description:

    The Vietnam War has been depicted by every available medium, each presenting a message, an agenda, of what the filmmakers and producers choose to project about America's involvement in Southeast Asia. This collection of essays, most of which are previously unpublished, analyzes the themes, modes, and stylistic strategies seen in a broad range of films and television programs. From diverse perspectives, the contributors comprehensively examine early documentary and fiction films, postwar films of the 1970s such as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, and the reformulated postwar films of the 1980s--Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July. They also address made-for-television movies and serial dramas like China Beach and Tour of Duty. The authors show how the earliest film responses to America's involvement in Vietnam employ myth and metaphor and are at times unable to escape glamorized Hollywood. Later films strive to portray a more realistic Vietnam experience, often creating images that are an attempt to memorialize or to manufacture different kinds of myths. As they consider direct and indirect representations of the war, the contributors also examine the power or powerlessness of individual soldiers, the racial views presented, and inscriptions of gender roles. Also included in this volume is a chapter that discusses teaching Vietnam films and helping students discern and understand film rhetoric, what the movies say, and who they chose to communicate those messages. Excerpt Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf). Contents Acknowledgments Introduction - Michael Anderegg 1. Hollywood and Vietnam: John Wayne and Jane Fonda as Discourse - Michael Anderegg 2. "All the Animals Come Out at Night": Vietnam Meets Noir in Taxi Driver - Cynthia J. Fuchs 3. Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now - John Hellmann 4. "Charlie Don't Surf": Race and Culture in the Vietnam War Films - David Desser 5. Finding a Language for Vietnam in the Action-Adventure Genre - Ellen Draper 6. Narrative Patterns and Mythic Trajectories in Mid-1980s Vietnam Movies - Tony Williams 7. Rambo's Vietnam and Kennedy's New Frontier - John Hellmann 8. Gardens of Stone, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill: Ritual and Remembrance - Judy Lee Kinney 9. Primetime Television's Tour of Duty - Daniel Miller 10. Women Next Door to War: China Beach - Carolyn Reed Vartanian 11. Male Bonding, Hollywood Orientalism, and the Repression of the Feminine in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket - Susan White 12. Vietnam, Chaos, and the Dark Art of Improvisation - Owen W. Gilman, Jr. 13. Witness to War: Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic, and Born on the Fourth of July - Thomas Doherty 14. Teaching Vietnam: The Politics of Documentary - Thomas J. Slater Selected Bibliography Selected Filmography and Videography The Contributors Index About the Author(s) Michael Anderegg is Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, and author of two other books: William Wyler and David Lean. Contributors: Cynthia J. Fuchs, John Hellman, David Desser, Ellen Draper, Tony Williams, Judy Lee Kinney, Daniel Miller, Carolyn Reed Vartanian, Susan White, Owen W. Gilman, Jr., Thomas Doherty, Thomas J. Slater, and the editor.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0107-6
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)
    Michael Anderegg

    The essays here collected testify to the unique relationship between the U.S.–Vietnam War and the images and sounds—on celluloid and videotape—that have been employed to represent it. Whereas World War II, despite all the cinematic treatments it inspired, found its most characteristic depictions in historical writings, memoirs, and novels, the Vietnam War, though it has produced a number of brilliant novels and nonfictional prose accounts, has thus far been given its imaginative life primarily through film. The most compelling statements about the war, for many people, have beenThe Deer Hunter(1978),Apocalypse Now(1979),Platoon(1986),...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Hollywood and Vietnam: John Wayne and Jane Fonda as Discourse
    (pp. 15-32)
    Michael Anderegg

    Hollywood’s failure to participate imaginatively in America’s war against Vietnam has been often noted: only one wartime film, John Wayne’sGreen Berets(1968), took as its primary subject the combat in Southeast Asia. Other films of the period use the war as background or premise for characters and situations located within some other, non-Vietnam context. We can find, as well, films that allude to the war obliquely or indirectly; indeed, some would say that a Vietnam allegory underlies virtually every significant American film released from the mid sixties to the mid seventies, fromBonnie and Clyde(1967) andNight of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “All the Animals Come Out at Night”: Vietnam Meets Noir in Taxi Driver
    (pp. 33-55)
    Cynthia J. Fuchs

    Vietnam, as Michael Herr notes in the closing lines ofDispatches, has become an inescapable traumatic experience for all Americans, no matter where they were during the war. “And no moves left for me at all,” he writes, “but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”¹ This lyrical paean brings the war home in the form of simultaneous lament and indictment: those who have “been there” share in the suffering and bear responsibility for the continuing experience called Vietnam.

    ThroughoutDispatches, Herr emphasizes the war’s elusiveness, the massive emotional,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now
    (pp. 56-80)
    John Hellmann

    Since their respective releases in 1978 and 1979, Michael Cimino’sDeer Hunterand Francis Coppola’sApocalypse Nowhave enjoyed remarkable popular and critical success. But their wide recognition as contemporary cinematic masterpieces has been accompanied by a corresponding controversy regarding their thematic significance and coherence. In addition, none of the commentaries on either of these two epic-scale films about the Vietnam War has searched for possible connections between them. My first purpose in this chapter is to show that each film draws its design from a popular American narrative formula, with the separate formulas providing the basis for the differences...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “Charlie Don’t Surf”: Race and Culture in the Vietnam War Films
    (pp. 81-102)
    David Desser

    Since the late 1970s, Hollywood has made a significant effort to portray America’s Vietnam experience. Yet the films produced, beginning in 1978, something of a watershed year for films about the Vietnam War, hardly present a unified, coherent vision. If we take these films as a group, we find contradictions and ambiguities throughout, while many individual works are similarly conflicted in what they are trying to say about the Vietnam War and America’s involvement in it. At the same time, all of these films have at least one overriding commonality: a vision of the war as a problem within American...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Finding a Language for Vietnam in the Action-Adventure Genre
    (pp. 103-113)
    Ellen Draper

    InSwimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray reworks two maxims concerning the American involvement in Southeast Asia:

    How does a country like America, or rather how does America, because certainly there’s no country like it, begin to find a language to negotiate or talk with a country like Russia or Libya if I can’t evenbeginto get it with my people on the corner of Broadway and John Street?

    It was a kind of visitation of hell on earth. Who needs metaphors for hell, or poetry about hell? This actually happened here on this earth. Pregnant mother disemboweled. Eyes gouged...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Narrative Patterns and Mythic Trajectories in Mid-1980s Vietnam Movies
    (pp. 114-139)
    Tony Williams

    Since the 1983 release ofUncommon Valor, critical opinion has discerned considerable differences between recently released Vietnam films and those of the seventies. While nearly all Vietnam films present the conflict as a personal American tragedy and avoid any complexities of political reinterpretations (with the honorable exception ofTwilight’s Last Gleaming[1977]), eighties products have a more conservative bias contrasting with their more venturesome predecessors.¹

    One explanation for this tendency lies in the contemporary political climate. The elections of Reagan and Bush, with their ideologically conservative simplistic dreamworlds, had an undeniable appeal to a nation that has safely distanced itself...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Rambo’s Vietnam and Kennedy’s New Frontier
    (pp. 140-152)
    John Hellmann

    Somewhat tentatively upon the release ofFirst Bloodin 1982, and definitively upon the release three years later of its sequel,Rambo: First Blood, Part II, film reviewers declared the Vietnam veteran played by Sylvester Stallone a dangerous personification of right-wing revisionism and militarism. They portrayed the Rambo character as a vehicle for a version of the “stab-in-the-back” theory with which, in the aftermath of World War I, Hitler persuaded a demoralized people that their defeat must have resulted from betrayal by a decadent minority, specifically Jews, democrats, and leftists. The Rambo films are indisputably revenge fantasies, and both the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Gardens of Stone, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill Ritual and Remembrance
    (pp. 153-165)
    Judy Lee Kinney

    Unlike their predecessors, many recent films about the Vietnam War, notablyPlatoon(1986),Full Metal Jacket(1987), andHamburger Hill(1987), have been dramatizations of combat. Yet two of these films combine combat stories with a tone so elegiac and full of grief that they reflect something quite different from the celebratory heroics of traditional action-oriented American combat films likeThe Sands of Iwo Jima(1949).Platoon, called byNewsweek“a ferocious Vietnam elegy,” concludes with an act of remembrance: “Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam war.”¹ More directly thanPlatoon, Hamburger Hillis an...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Primetime Television’s Tour of Duty
    (pp. 166-189)
    Daniel Miller

    CBS’sTour of Duty wasU.S. network television’s first dramatic series specifically about the Vietnam War. Like its cinematic predecessorPlatoon, it has been described as a first in telling the truth about the real war in Vietnam and in aiming toward healing wounds the nation, the public, and veterans suffered as a result of the war. It premiered on American television in September 1987, only months afterPlatoonwon the Academy Award for Best Picture and established the model for film and television representations of the war. LikePlatoonit is set in 1967 and reconstructs the period of...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Women Next Door to War: China Beach
    (pp. 190-203)
    Carolyn Reed Vartanian

    Vietnam was the first television war, one brought to the dinner table each evening in graphic detail. Images from its verité coverage influenced the iconography associated with the ensuing genre revision of combat war films focusing upon the Vietnam experience. YetChina Beach, shown on the very medium that brought the war so close to the millions of Americans who had little other access to its “reality,” seems to displace the entirety of the Vietnam nightmare into the realm of romanticized fantasy, one in which historical, political, and social implications are all but erased. Instead one is offered the stuff...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Male Bonding, Hollywood Orientalism, and the Repression of the Feminine in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket
    (pp. 204-230)
    Susan White

    Full Metal Jacket(1987) was marketed as a traditional war film, basking in the reflected glow of Kubrick’s ambiguous reputation as an eccentric genius. Like most war movies, this film is, at least superficially, unconcerned with the representation of women. However, in the Warner Brothers press kit, the reviewer David Denby articulates a return of the issue of femininity repressed from the film’s manifest content.¹

    The first law of moviegoing happiness in the eighties is this:Anticipate nothing. Because if you dream about an important upcoming movie, if you expect it to save your life or even the movie season,...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Vietnam, Chaos, and the Dark Art of Improvisation
    (pp. 231-250)
    Owen W. Gilman Jr.

    The Vietnam War has proved to have remarkable staying power as an unsettling experience. By the time of the South Vietnamese government’s collapse in 1975, a great many Americans had been compelled to relinquish their illusions about managing the war to an ordered, reasonable resolution. Consequently, a panoply of assumptions about power and control was virtually swept aside, and a kind of existentialism at last became more real than theoretical. Old truths no longer offered assurance, and the Vietnam War has shrouded every turn of events in U.S. foreign policy to the present day. The specter of Vietnam was evident...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Witness to War: Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic, and Born on the Fourth of July
    (pp. 251-268)
    Thomas Doherty

    Alone among bankable Hollywood directors, Oliver Stone lends the Vietnam film the moral authority of the witness. No matter what the cinematic standing of Michael Cimino’sDeer Hunter(1978), Francis Coppola’sApocalypse Now(1979), Stanley Kubrick’sFull Metal Jacket(1987), or Brian De Palma’sCasualties of War(1989), none comes close to the stature, verisimilitude, or moral weight of Stone’sPlatoon(1986) andBorn on the Fourth of July(1989). All are the imaginative re-creations of big-gun auteurs who never knew firsthand the terror or thrill of live ammunition fired in anger. Like the classical Hollywood filmmakers who most movingly...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Teaching Vietnam: The Politics of Documentary
    (pp. 269-290)
    Thomas J. Slater

    “Well, you’ve gone too far this time, Doc.” My summer class “World War II and Vietnam on Film” at Missouri Western State College had just finished watching Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’sLetter to Jane(1972), and, before I could even turn on the lights, one of the Vietnam veterans present was expressing his opinion. But the moment is memorable for its humor and not because of any tension involved. Despite the film’s very leftist politics, he was reacting only to its unusual style.

    Godard and Gorin’s film exemplifies and distills every aspect of film language and is thus a...

  19. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 291-297)
  20. Selected Filmography and Videography
    (pp. 298-303)
  21. The Contributors
    (pp. 304-306)
  22. Index
    (pp. 307-315)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 316-316)