Hollywood War Movies

Continuing the theme of how movies reflect society under stress – in this case, the Cold War and the “Space Race” – the early 1960s continued to produce successful movies with “war” themes although the violence of war was a minor part of these films. In this decade, the anti-war theme first began to appear. But, before such films as Easy Rider (1969) came Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Manchurian Candidate (1962),The Longest Day (1962), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Great Escape (1963).

Although not an anti-war film, The Ugly American (1963), based on a 1958 novel of the same name, first raised the theme encompassed by its title and could be the genesis for all of the anti-war films that followed. The general theme of the book was the insensitivity, in Asia, of the American diplomatic corps to the local customs and traditions and refusal to integrate into local society as – so the plot contends – the Soviets did.  (In truth, the Soviets bought their way into the hearts and minds of poor locals throughout the “third-world” during the early Cold War period.)

However, this portrayal apparently, made them “ugly” in the eyes of the locals and, by implication, condemned all Americans to wear this epithet. Hence the portrayal of most Americans in subsequent war-films as insensitive, dismissive and, generally, repulsive. Perhaps Hollywood should have paid closer attention to the public, including the critics, than to the astute marketing of the title, who panned the film and disregarded it in droves. It was a financial flop.

Even though it was based on a fallacy, the book met all of the requirements for the nascent anti-institution crowd at the nation’s universities and in the press. It remains popular today and influenced the young President Kennedy to create the Peace Corps.

Why a fallacy? Ask the nearly 2 million Vietnamese or the quarter-million Cambodians or the quarter-million Laotians who have populated America since 1974. Surely, they didn’t see Americans as “ugly”, they saw them as welcoming and inclusive and have thrived in their new homeland. If not, they would have gome to Russia. They did not.

According to Lawrence Suid, author of Hollywood and Vietnam, “In writing to President Johnson in December 1965 about his intention to make a film about the Green Berets, movie icon John Wayne explained that it was “extremely important that not only the people of the United States but those all over the world should know why it is necessary for us to be there . . . The most effective way to accomplish this is through the motion picture medium.” He thought he could make the “kind of picture that will help our cause throughout the world.”

According to Wayne, it would “tell the story of our fighting men in Vietnam with reason, emotion, characterization, and action. We want to do it in a manner that will inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of fellow Americans – a feeling which we have always had in this country in the past during times of stress and trouble.”

Unlike earlier wars however, because the now-dominant information industry had other objectives – namely pandering to the affluent, college indoctrinated but disillusioned baby-boom generation (by the Kennedy assassination and the reconstituted military-draft lottery) by echoing their delight in tearing down America’s venerable institutions – the Vietnam War press, media, academia, film and television did not help unite the nation to a common cause, but tore it apart.

Michael Wayne, who produced the film for his father’s company, claimed that The Green Berets (1968) did not tell a controversial story: “It was the story of a group of guys who could have been in any war. It’s a very familiar story. War stories are all the same. They are personal stories about soldiers and the background is the war. This just happened to be the Vietnam War.”

For its part, the White House willingly embraced the project. Jack Valenti, then an advisor to President Johnson, advised him that while John Wayne’s politics might be wrong, “insofar as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture, he would say the things we want said.” Wayne himself freely admitted he was doing more than playing his usual soldier role. He saw the movie as “an American film about American boys who were heroes over there. In that sense, it was propaganda.” (Only not state-sponsored)

Of all the filmmakers in Hollywood, whether hawk or dove, only Wayne was willing to take a financial gamble and make a movie about an increasingly unpopular war. But The Green Berets did not inspire other filmmakers to use Vietnam as a subject for supportive war movies. In fact, until 1975, no one in Hollywood seriously considered producing a major theatrical film about the Vietnam conflict.

In the spring of that year, having completed his second Godfather film, Francis Ford Coppola told an interviewer that his next movie would deal with Vietnam, “although it won’t necessarily be political—it will be about war and the human soul . . . I’ll be venturing into an era that is laden with so many implications that if I select some aspects and ignore others, I may be doing something irresponsible.” The movie Coppola produced was perhaps the most anti-American and intellectually dishonest film of the generation.

He told another interviewer that his planned film would be “frightening, horrible—with even more violence than The Godfather.” As the vehicle for his explorations, Coppola selected John Milius’s six-year-old screenplay based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Taking the liberty of shifting Conrad’s story of civilization’s submission to the brutality of human nature from the jungles of Africa to Vietnam, the script told the highly fictional story of a Green Beret officer who defects and sets up his own army across the Cambodian border where he proceeds to fight both American and Vietcong forces. [Conrad (who died in 1924) would probably not have approved of Coppola’s usurpation of his theme because Conrad was intrigued with struggles aimed at preserving national independence – the very reason America was in Vietnam.]

Throughout the film’s production, Coppola shifted his intended focus from an anti-war film to an action adventure film and back again. At one point, he characterized Apocalypse Now as pro-American, denying it was anti-Pentagon or even anti-war. During filming in the Philippines, he described Apocalypse Now as “anti-lie, not an anti-war film. I am interested in the contradictions of the human condition.” [Of course, none of this had anything to do with Conrad’s work.]

With his intellectual attraction to the good and evil that are inherent to all men, Coppola said that he was trying to make a war movie that would somehow rise above conventional images of valor and cowardice. When asked why he was attempting to show this in a film set in Vietnam, the director responded that it was “more unusual that I am the only one making a picture about Vietnam.”

In coming to the Pentagon with his plans in May 1975, Coppola told Public Affairs officials that his initial script would need considerable work, especially the end, which he considered “surrealistic.” While recognizing that the screenplay had considerable problems, the officials forwarded it to the Army with the recommendation that the service should work with the director so that the completed film “will be an honest presentation.” [Standard PLDC fare – establish a position that your opponent cannot possibly associate with – much less agree with; then blame the opponent when your position crumbles.]

The Army found little basis to even talk to Coppola, responding that the script was “simply a series of some of the worst things, real or imagined, that happened or could have happened during the Vietnam War.” According to the service, it had little reason to consider extending cooperation “in view of the sick humor or satirical philosophy of the film.”

Army officers pointed to several “particularly objectionable episodes” which presented its actions “in an unrealistic and unacceptable bad light.” These included scenes of U.S. soldiers scalping the enemy, a surfing display in the midst of combat, an officer obtaining sexual favors for his men, and later smoking marijuana with them. [Perhaps the only scene with some basis in reality.]

The military probably could have lived with at least some of these negative incidents if put in what it regarded as a realistic and balanced context. But, from the initial script onward, the Army strongly objected to the film’s springboard which has Captain Willard (PLDC icon Martin Sheen) sent to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (famous liberal Marlon Brando) who has set up an independent operation and is waging a private war against all sides.

The Army said Kurtz’s actions “can only be viewed as a parody on the sickness and brutality of war.” The service maintained that in an actual situation, it would attempt to bring Kurtz back for medical treatment rather than order another officer to “terminate” him. Consequently, the Army said that “to assist in any way in the production would imply agreement with either the fact or philosophy of the film.”

In the meantime, other filmmakers followed Coppola’s lead and began to create images of America’s Vietnam experience. In contrast, however, they chose to make their comments about the horrors of war, not through portrayals of violence, but by using the conflict as a starting point and as the villain which scarred individuals and the nation. By focusing on the [foreign] victims of the war, these first movies continued the anti-war, anti-military movement of the Sixties and early Seventies.”

Curiously, the horrors of the Vietnam War were no more atrocious or violent than Americans had experienced in both World Wars and yet, veterans of those conflicts never descended into the emotional morass on the scale portrayed in these movies. The major difference in their (Vietnam) experience is that, when they returned home, they were treated as if they were all war-criminals (or worse) by the American press/media, academia and their radicalized students, McCarthyite Democrat politicians – like Vietnam vet, future Senator, presidential candidate and Secretary of State John Kerry – and these movie makers.

“Rolling Thunder, released at the end of 1977, began as an Air Force officer disembarks from a plane to greet his wife after eight years as a POW. Played by William Devane, the officer becomes the symbol for the destructive impact which the war had on individuals and the country. His first night at home, while trying to comprehend the changes in his wife – her job, mini-skirt, and bralessness – she informs him that she has “been with another man” (the policeman who drove them home from the airport) and that she wants a divorce. The film explains Devane’s character’s apparent lack of reaction, either of pain or of anger, by inserting flashbacks of North Vietnamese torture sessions. According to Devane’s character, he survived by coming to love his enemy.

Reviewers found the violence excessive and audience ignored the film, having recently watched Charles Bronson play a similar revenge-seeking husband in the equally violent Death Wish. If Rolling Thunder passed from sight, however, it undoubtedly deserved a better fate. Its sparsely written script made telling insights into the changes that the Vietnam War had made on its participants, the Army itself and American society as a whole [although the why somehow eluded the production but, don’t worry, its covered in this production].

Heroes, also released in 1977, used the same veteran-as-victim thesis to convey its anti-war statement. But, in contrast to Rolling Thunder, it enjoyed some success due to its comedic approach and the presence of Henry Winkler (TV’s “The Fonz”), playing a demented Vietnam veteran who roams the country trying to find himself.

According to Winkler, he played “a guy back from Vietnam who’s a little touched.” On the surface, the film was simply an offbeat love story and typical Hollywood “road” movie. On another level, however, Heroes attempts to convey the idea that Winkler’s craziness grew directly from his Vietnam experience.

In the closing sequences, however, the cause of Winkler’s insanity is finally visualized by means of a brief firefight during which his best friend is killed trying to rescue him. Thus, the film does make the connection between the effect of the war on its participants and their subsequent behavior [if not allowed the time to grieve and decompress before being thrown back into a self-centered society].

In making Coming Home, the producer sought assistance from the Marines “in the interest of authenticity.” In response, the service’s Office of Information found the script “interesting and will undoubtedly result in an entertaining and controversial film,” but felt it would “reflect unfavorably on the image of the Marine Corps.” The service objected particularly to the widespread use of drugs by officers and men [which did not occur in the Marine Corps in Vietnam] and the commentary by an officer (played by Bruce Dern in the movie) about how his men cut heads off enemy bodies in Vietnam. As a result, the Chief of Information recommended that the Pentagon refuse to assist the production.

The VA found that the script exploited paralyzed veterans and was “very offensive” to them. In responding to the second script, Dr. John Chase, the VA’s chief medical director, observed that the story “incorrectly and unfairly portrays veterans as weak and purposeless, with no admirable qualities, embittered against their country, addicted to alcohol and marijuana, and as unbelievably foul-mouthed and devoid of conventional morality in sexual matters.”

Although the VA’s position in regard to assistance on Coming Home changed when Democrat politician Max Cleland became its director in 1977, filming had already been completed. Unlike the armed forces, Cleland, himself a disabled Vietnam veteran, did not believe a critical portrayal of an organization is sufficient grounds to prevent use of facilities by a “legitimate” filmmaker: “If it is in the broad range of legitimate film-making, just because it portrays the VA in a bad light or VA physicians or nurses in a bad light, that is in my opinion not enough reason by and of itself to say perforce, you cannot film it on location.” [This reprehensible attitude toward doctors and nurses borders on moral malpractice against the very VA doctors and nurses who had nurtured Cleland back to health for whom Cleland apparently has no regard.]

Even though the depiction of the main character in Coming Home has no legitimacy in fact, the progressive/liberals in Hollywood and Democrat politicians in Washington considered it acceptable to malign service members by offering official, federal government endorsement to the mendacious efforts of Hollywood.

The long road of federal government degradation of the character and capability of our armed forces had begun, leading eventually to the military becoming the captive and compulsory laboratory for any manner of social-engineering experiments with little or no regard for the selfless courage, combat capability or esprit-de-corp of service members and their units that have been sent, continually, into harm’s way. I am reminded of an old English rhyme:

“While it’s ‘Tommy this and Tommy that, and throw him out, the lout’. But, it’s ‘savior of his country’ when the guns begin to shout.”

In contrast, Go Tell the Spartans made a serious effort to look at the American combat experience in Vietnam. Set in the early Sixties, the film focused on the role of U.S. advisors working with the South Vietnamese army. The Army had problems with the story because the script presented “an off-hand collection of losers” making up the American unit at a time in history when advisors in Vietnam “were virtually all outstanding individuals, hand-picked for their jobs, and quite experienced.”

With Go Tell the Spartans, however, an irreconcilable problem did exist. The Army could not accept the characterization of the movie’s central figure, a major played by Burt Lancaster, and the filmmakers refused to revise the role. Apart from objections to Lancaster’s language and drinking, which were compromisable matters, the Army pointed out that a man of his age and years in the military (a veteran of World War II and Korea) would have been promoted out of the field or have left the service.

Despite such dramatic license, Go Tell the Spartans did in large measure become a tribute to the Army’s advisors in the early days of the war. The climactic firefight created the feel of real combat, unlike the major battle in The Green Berets which looked like a typical John Wayne versus the Indians shootout. As a result, the film came the closest of any film about Vietnam yet released to capture the American experience in the war.

Not until The Deer Hunter appeared did the war itself become a financially viable subject for filmmakers. Ultimately however, The Deer Hunter failed to capture the essence of the American tragedy in Vietnam not only because it distorts history, but because its’ central metaphor, the recurring game of Russian roulette, is a lie. Initially, audiences and reviewers accepted the authenticity of the game. According to one critic, it apparently “was played in Saigon and other parts of Southeast Asia as well. It was a parlor sport of some sort.”

In fact, no evidence exists that any POWs played any form of Russian roulette while in captivity. Nor was it a betting game in Vietnam. If audiences cannot accept the validity of the Russian roulette imagery, then they cannot, in the end, accept the validity of the people in the film.

In any case, it is doubtful if Apocalypse Now or any film about Vietnam can help the American image be “pro-human and therefore pro-American.” No movie about Vietnam can delineate events that occurred there in terms of American good versus enemy evil as Hollywood could do in its films about earlier American wars. Vietnam films can depict individual bravery and perseverance in the face of a determined enemy and perhaps even capture the essence of combat, the unique excitement of challenging death in personal combat.

But filmmakers cannot show the United States winning a glorious victory and making the world a safer place. If, as George C. Scott in Patton says, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” it remains to be seen whether audiences will go to a Vietnam War movie whatever its focus or quality.” You see, the responsibility for the Vietnam “fiasco” lay with Lyndon Johnson, a failed, one-term Democrat (read anti-war) President and the man who had “replaced” the sainted John F. Kennedy after November 22, 1963. That’s three strikes!

It is curious that none of these producers made any attempt to seriously define as a major theme, either with support or criticism, the politics of the effort – the attempt by the United States to contain communism – no matter how poorly the effort was managed [and it was managed egregiously], in favor of the “veteran [or enemy]-as-victim” theme.

The general victimization mentality and anti-any-war effort of America’s progressive/liberal cabal was apparently sufficient motivation for these efforts and the spread of world-wide communism was not their problem since, apparently, the communists weren’t coming here – yet. As Muhammad Ali said so eloquently at the time; “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet-Cong…No Viet-Cong ever called me nigger.”

One movie of the period successfully dealt with the toll of war on all Americans – service members and those they leave behind. Summer of ’42 (1971) tells the story of a young women who loses her fiancée in early World War II – a universal story – and how she dealt with it. The story is told tenderly through the eyes of a young boy who befriends her in her time of need and vulnerability. By respecting the service and sacrifice of all Americans, the movie was a blockbuster success.

One television series managed to succeed in telling a compelling, probing story about the Vietnamese experience for our fighting forces. China Beach (1988-91) starring a woman, actress Dana Delaney, ran for four years and 62 episodes to critical acclaim and several Best Drama series awards. The series looks at the Vietnam War from unique perspectives: those of the women, military personnel and civilians who were present during the conflict and was based on a book by Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter.

Perhaps the best war movie ever to deal with the psychological struggles as well as the horrors of war experienced by the officers and airmen of America’s fighting forces was 12 O’Clock High (1949) which chronicled the effects of the violent and sudden loss of fellow airmen in an Army Air Corps heavy-bomber group flying daylight missions from England to Nazi Germany in the middle of World War II.

This movie was so professionally conceived that it is used by the United States military in the training of officers for command in the services’ leadership curriculum where the situations encountered by commanders in the movie are studied and analyzed by command candidates.

Another successful movie was M*A*S*H*, a 1970 American saterical black-comedy war film directed by Robert Altman and written by Ring Lardner, Jr., based on Richard Hooker’s‘s novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. The picture became one of the biggest films of the early 1970s for 20th Century Fox.

The film depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War but, the subtext is about the Vietnam War. MASH was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The Academy Film Archive preserved MASH in 2000. The film inspired the popular and critically acclaimed television series M*A*S*H*, which ran from 1972 to 1983.

These particular productions were successful because they made an obvious effort to honor the service and sacrifices of the fighting forces they were depicting. The unsuccessful projects never did.

More recently; Paul Farhi, Washington Post staff writer, noted in 2008 that; “After five years of conflict in Iraq, Hollywood seems to have learned a sobering (but familiar) lesson: The only things less popular than (an inconclusive) war itself is dramatic films and television shows about the war. A spate of Iraq-themed movies and TV shows haven’t just failed at the box office, they’ve usually failed spectacularly, despite big stars, big budgets and serious intentions. The underwhelming reception from the public raises a question: Are audiences turned off by the war, or are they simply voting against the way filmmakers have depicted it?

Stop-Loss (2008) was a financial disaster. In the Valley of Elah (2007) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, received mixed critical notices and did little business upon its release. Redacted (2007), a Brian De Palma-directed film about a renegade Army unit, was barely seen when it came out in limited release.

An even more paltry reception greeted Grace Is Gone (2007), in which star John Cusack deals with the aftermath of his wife’s death in Iraq; Home of the Brave (2006), about a group of soldiers (including Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Biel) adjusting to life after the war; and The Situation (2006), about a love triangle set amid the conflict.

The picture isn’t much brighter when the frame is widened to include recent films dealing with the war on terrorism. Meryl Streep appeared in two such flops in 2007, Lions for Lambs (with Tom Cruise and Robert Redford) and Rendition (with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal). The Kingdom, an anti-terrorism thriller set in Saudi Arabia, with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner as FBI agents, fared somewhat better. It took in $47.5 million in its domestic release – although that looks modest in light of Kingdom’s $70 million production budget. [For the sake of comparison, The Bourne Ultimatum, a big spy story hit at the time, generated $227.5 million in domestic ticket sales.]

Comedy – if there’s anything to laugh about – hasn’t worked much better. The egregious Delta Farce (2007) about Iraq-bound soldiers who fail to realize they’ve actually landed in Mexico, ginned up only $8 million. (The San Francisco Chronicle summed up the film this way: “The characters are ignorant and borderline racists, but at least they’re self-loathing borderline racists.”)

Documentaries chronicling the war have been among the best-reviewed films of the past few years, but they, too, have struggled commercially. One example: Taxi to the Dark Side, which in 2008 won the Oscar for Best Documentary for its exploration of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, has earned about $180,000 since its release, or roughly what Spider-Man 3 took in at a couple of multiplexes during its opening weekend.

Another acclaimed documentary of 2007, No End in Sight, earned a modest $1.4 million. [The gigantic exception in this category is, of course, the marginally educated college dropout Michael Moore’s monumentally incompetent and documented lie, Fahrenheit 9/11, which is the highest-grossing documentary ever; it has generated $222.4 million in ticket sales worldwide since its release in mid-2004 – the high-water mark for the PLDC “Against-Everything American” crowd.]

On television, the first and only series about Americans in Iraq, Over There, lasted just 13 episodes in the summer of 2005 before being dropped by cable’s FX channel. Of all of the Iraq War centered productions, only three succeeded to critical acclaim – The Hurt Locker (2008), which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2009 [more of a Hollywood political victory since the director was up against her “evil” ex-husband James Cameron for the award], identified as the “lowest-grossing movie to ever win Best Picture” in Academy Award history as of 2010; Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and SEAL Team Six (2012), which was first released on television.”

However, the general theme of Radical Islamic terrorism aimed at the United States, its institutions and its people, engaged in continuing wars involving American armed-forces (both military and civilian) in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and other areas, is enormously popular on generally non-political network drama series like the N.C.I.S. franchise of three long-running series on CBS, 24 on Fox, Homeland on ShowTime, Madam Secretary on NBC, occasionally on Blue Bloods and Hawaii 5-0 on CBS –  all of which show no signs of abating.

These successful and highly awarded productions focus on the telling of their story with all of its horrors and do not attempt to convey progressive/liberal orthodoxy, either overtly or covertly, as the major film crowd feels compelled to do – probably because of the ego that accompanies celebrity – the coin-of-the-realm of film in Hollywood – big productions need big “names” as actors and directors.”

The People however, want their actors to simply entertain them, which most but, by no means all, are equipped to do – they are preached to every day by the television networks who, for all of their obvious biases and distant acquaintance with the truth, are much more competent at actually informing (while using their own words) than actors or other entertainers who specialize in emoting (while using someone else’s words).

So, what can we glean from this short history of the American entertainment industry in times of national stress when it can play a pivotal role in American attitudes? Next time.

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