by David Zeiger
In the ten years following the defeat of the United States and its allies in Vietnam, no fewer than 200 films were produced in Hollywood about that seminal event in U.S. and, indeed, world history–the first and to date only decisive defeat of the United States military. The subjects ranged from revenge fantasies like First Blood (the opening film in the Rambo franchise), to agonized explorations of the trauma of American veterans like Coming Home. While their points of view varied wildly, what all of these films shared was an underlying unease with the war and its aftermath. World War II netted scores of films celebrating and mythologizing the “American Fighting Man,” but even the most patriotic Vietnam War films had to confront not only the defeat of American forces by a peasant army, but the widespread rejection of and anger at that war from our own shores.
In the midst of that crowded field, two films stand out. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) are today considered classics and prominent representatives of the 1970s golden age of American cinema when sixties rebels ruled the day. Coming out almost simultaneously, both won numerous Academy Awards (Best Picture for The Deer Hunter, Best Director for Apocalypse Now), and were hailed as brave explorations of both the horrors of the Vietnam War and the emotional damage wrought on American veterans. Products of a liberal perspective, they were widely considered to be condemnations of the war itself.
The stories of the two films are quite different, but they share the same central theme: the immense and poisonous savagery of the war. As such, they are seemingly in line with the opposition that, by the early seventies, had spread to the majority of Americans. But it’s in examining the source of that savagery as depicted in both films that their essentially reactionary and revisionist nature becomes apparent. Most importantly, they are deeply rooted in the myth of American innocence and the supposed tragedy of its loss.
Apocalypse Now, an adaptation to the Vietnam War of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, tells the story of the boyish Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who has received the seemingly incomprehensible order to track down and “…eliminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade officer who is hiding out in Cambodia with his band of American and Vietnamese deserters. As Willard ventures further into the deep recesses of Southeast Asia he encounters scene after scene of the “absurdity” of the American war–a colonel (Robert Duvall) who orders the strafing of a coastal village so that his troops can surf, a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies in the middle of constant fighting, and the trigger-happy crew members of the boat ferrying him to his destination.
But it is when he encounters Kurtz that the heart of this film is revealed. As Willard has learned from the documents given him for his mission, Kurtz has been engaging in wantonly brutal attacks on soldiers and civilians alike. What Willard is completely unprepared for is the “primitive” nature of Kurtz’s encampment–a nightmare vision sprung from every colonialist’s fever dream of an African and Native American village, replete with naked bodies hanging by ropes and human skulls prominently displayed on stakes.
In the film’s penultimate moment, Kurtz reveals to Willard his philosophy that it is only by learning to kill without emotion, to allow oneself the ultimate brutality, that the war can be won. And where did he learn this? From the “enemy,” of course. His awakening came, he recounts, when he saw Viet Cong (National Liberation Front, or NLF) troops enter a village and chop off the arms of children the Green Berets had just inoculated against malaria. To his amazement, they carried out their brutal slaughter with no visible signs of emotion. “These were not monsters, they were men,” he tells Willard, “but they had the strength to kill without feeling, without emotion, without judgment.” And it was “judgment,” the product of civilization, Kurtz muses, that would lead to America’s failure in Vietnam. Kurtz had, in essence, “gone native.”
In The Deer Hunter, a trio of steel workers from a small Pennsylvania town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) enlist in the wake of one of their member’s wedding. The ultimate “innocents” (all of them, not coincidentally, white), they are immediately thrust into the unremitting brutality of the war. After witnessing an NLF soldier wantonly massacre dozens of villagers, they are captured and imprisoned in tiger cages (bamboo cells too small to stand up in). In the film’s central metaphor, their drunken captors force them to play a deadly game of Russian Roulette. The result of their torture is that only one, De Niro, returns home with any semblance of sanity. Savage, now a paraplegic, is hiding in a mental institution. And Walken, who has deserted and disappeared in Saigon, has become a “professional” Russian Roulette player in underground gambling clubs–and ultimately kills himself. With their youth and innocence shattered, the remaining characters end the film sitting around a kitchen table singing “God Bless America.”
In interviews, Cimino related that his inspiration for the Russian Roulette metaphor was Eddie Adams’ famous photograph of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing an NLF soldier by shooting him in the head. That photo, with the cringing, horrified soldier about to die and his stone-faced executioner calmly, emotionlessly placing his gun against his victim’s head, had become an iconic symbol of the war–not its generalized brutality, and certainly not that of the “enemy,” but very specifically the calculated, inhuman brutality of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies.
The image said, simply, that it was the United States and South Vietnamese government that held a gun to the head of the Vietnamese people. Yet now, only three years after the end of the war, Cimino not only appropriated the image but completely reversed its meaning (Adams even looked into suing Cimino and the studio for this blatant falsification of the meaning of his photograph). In fact, every scene in both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now purportedly depicting the inhuman brutality of the NLF was a mirror image of the policies and actions of the United States in the Vietnam War: civilian massacres were, as occurred in the hamlet of My Lai, commonplace (recently declassified DOD documents reveal that the military knew of and covered up over 200 massacres equivalent to or worse than My Lai); the infamous Tiger Cages were an invention of the South Vietnamese government, which imprisoned and tortured thousands of people in them; and, in actual reality, there were never any incidents, or even claims, or American POWs being forced to play Russian Roulette or NLF soldiers chopping off the arms of children in retaliation for accepting American aid (Yes, they were metaphors, but metaphors impart a view of reality, in this case a false and politically directed one). These things were widely known, and yet Coppola and Cimino’s slight of hand was praised and feted in liberal Hollywood, and to this day Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are celebrated as masterpieces of antiwar cinema.
How can this be? How, after ten years of growing outrage of millions at the relentless carpet bombings of North Vietnam and the use of Agent Orange and Napalm–chemical weapons dropped on South Vietnam to destroy foliage and burn villages and their inhabitants, all leading to the deaths of three million civilians–could amnesia have set in so quickly and ubiquitously? There are, of course, the financial and political constraints of producing big budget Hollywood films, but the deeper answer lies in the cherished myth of American Innocence. Despite its flaws, the myth goes, America is at its core and in its heart a “good” country–always striving toward more freedom and more democracy, even if it sometimes uses distasteful methods. Yes, there are bumps along the road (two hundred years of slavery, just to mention one), and the Vietnam War certainly qualifies as one of those bumps (“A mistake,” in the words of John Kerry). But somewhere, somehow, the motives must be pure–if not in the hearts of the politicians, then at least in those of the soldiers, the true innocents.
But there’s still that problem of the unfettered, near genocidal slaughter that was unleashed on the Vietnamese people for over ten years. How does that fit within the comfortable confines of American Innocence? To keep the cocoon intact, the answer can only lie in the Vietnamese people themselves. “They made us do it,” became, in essence, the rational for anything and everything done in the course of the war.
In 1974, General William Westmorland, commander of American forces in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration, famously told an interviewer in the film Hearts and Minds, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” That statement enshrined for millions the racism and imperial arrogance of the American venture in Vietnam. But ironically–and disturbingly–just four years later it was the antiwar liberals Francis Coppola and Michael Cimino who, in essence, said the very same thing in their films–and won accolades for their insights.
David Zeiger, a Guggenheim Fellow, has been making documentary films for twenty years. His 1999/2000 series, Senior Year, following the senior class at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was a landmark PBS broadcast in 2002. His 2006 film, Sir! No Sir!, telling the long-suppressed story of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War, was seen on television in over 75 countries worldwide. This piece will be appearing in the 2014 anthology, Innocence and Loss: Representations of War and National Identity in the United States.