A scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie Apocalypse Now. Despite its technical prowess, Apocalypse Now perpeptuates some false, prejudiced image of Vietnam.
Movies, especially the more serious ones, are powerful educational and political tools. Through them, young people learn about the past, and what is depicted in movies often influence our perception of things.
War movies in particular should be watched carefully, because war is a serious matter, and whatever is represented by filmmakers, whether confidently as historical truth, or with ostentatious modesty as just another artistic vision, may be perniciously misleading.
Bombarded by the celebratory propaganda of Vietnamese television about the Vietnam War every April 30, I was spurred this year to watch and re-watch some classic American movies about the war to see whether there is propaganda in them.
Randomly I picked 8 well-known feature films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the 4th of July, Heaven and Earth, The Quiet American, and Rescue Dawn. (Set before the American involvement in Vietnam, The Quiet American isn’t about the Vietnam War precisely, but its portrait of Vietnam still serves my purpose).
To my surprise, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now turn out to be bad movies. With all of their superb camerawork, sound and acting, they are great technically, but not good, when history is taken into account.
The Deer Hunter takes a metaphor more appropriate to another context and puts it into the context of the Vietnam War, disregarding the fact that the Vietnam War was a poor country’s war fought against yet another foreign power that sought to impose on it.
Michael Cimino’s 1978 war epic, The Deer Hunter, which was honored as one of the best 100 movies of all times by the American Film Institute and preserved by the US’s Library of Congress, explores the metaphor of war as the Russian roulette.
Russian roulette is a dangerous game of chance in which one gambles upon one’s own life. In this game, a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against his head and pulls the trigger.
In the movie, 3 Russian American steelworkers go to Vietnam and are captured by the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong force the American prisoners to play Russian roulette and gamble on the outcome.
This horrifying game wreaks a psychological toll on Nick, who, after his escape with his 2 friends, continues to play this game at gambling dens and ends up killing himself, half intentionally as a release from the stress and fear caused by the lethal game that he has been suppressing for so long.
A poster of Michael Cimino’s 1978 war epic, The Deer Hunter.
The idea of the Russian roulette was originally come up with to describe Las Vegas. Later, the filmmakers changed the context to the Vietnam War. The question is: From Vietnamese audiences’ point of view, do we compare a poor country’s fight for independence to a stupid, unnecessary gambling game played for thrill and money?
Revolutions and independence wars are tough decisions to make, yet, human beings decide to go to war because they don’t have choices. The Russian roulette metaphor doesn’t feel kind to the history of colonized Vietnam.
European colonization was a bloody thing. Lots of human lives were wasted, so if a colonized person decided to go to war and risk his life, he had something to win. His war wouldn’t be a stupid, unnecessary Russian roulette game.
The US came to Vietnam on the heels of the French, and to many Vietnamese, the Vietnam War was an extension of this costly, yet necessary fight for independence, an extension of the thousand-year fight against its bullying neighbor, China.
I read that The Deer Hunter did cause much controversy precisely because of its political incorrectness: there is no historical evidence that the Viet Cong played Russian roulette during the war, and the portrayal of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers as sadistic killers was heavily criticized. Technically, however, it’s a great movie. In my opinion, the truth, however relative, and the artistic merit of art are equally important, especially when a work touches on such an important topic as war.
We can’t devalue truth and separate a work of art, however imaginative, from the context where the artist lives. The Deer Hunter shows an insensitivity to the plight of the Vietnamese people. This insensitivity and the movie’s artistic merit thus cancel each other out.
For this reason, I don’t value or devalue this movie and wouldn’t preserve it.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, also on the American Film Institute’s list of the best 100 movies of all times, has a similar problem: Its image of Vietnam is also prejudiced.
The movie is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, the context of which is the European colonization of Africa which is the same in nature as the Vietnamese situation: Like Africa, Vietnam too was colonized by the Europeans - the French - and later intervened by an European-like superpower, the US.
The central character of both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now is a white-skinned guy named Kurtz who rule over a bunch of darker-skinned natives with intelligence and ruthlessness.
The African natives in Heart of Darkness and the Vietnamese in Apocalypse Now are described as primitive barbarians whose brutality both terrify and inspire Kurtz, drawing out the capacity for ruthlessness in his presumably more civilized nature. This is where the problem of both works lie.
Conrad’s novel is eloquent work, giving insights into human nature and rightly critiquing European colonization of Africa. Coppola’s movie is a technical feast of sight and sound, showcasing modern warfare with all of its destructive power in order to condemn it. Yet in both cases, the artists unwittingly create and achieve at the expense of the subaltern: the Africans and the Vietnamese. These works don’t dispel, but perpetuate the West’s prejudiced perception that contributed to cause the very destruction that they seek to condemn.
In Apocalypse Now for instance, Kurtz says he once saw the Viet Cong hacked off and piled up the arms of the innocent children that the US had inoculated for polio in sheer cold blood and that if he could have 10 divisions of such men, he could end the war quickly.
My question is: Is this a fact? Is there any historical evidence that the Viet Cong in reality did something like this? Or is this just a myth spun by the Americans during the war that Coppola borrowed? One may say that the artist can surely make things up.
Definitely. But a responsible artist only makes things up when the stake isn’t too high, when the price others have to pay isn’t too heavy. Any work dealing with the Vietnam War, which cost the lives of about 2 million Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans, deals with a high stake.
The Vietnamese in particular, who had much more to lose to this war, shouldn’t have to pay more for some artistic license of a movie, let alone a high-profile work that has become a monument in popular Western culture. In this, I agree with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and other African critics who don’t consider Heart of Darkness a great work of art because it perpetuates the racist image of Africa as a “dark” continent.
In Apocalypse Now, there is another misleading analogue that should be pointed out. In one final sequence in which is Kurtz is killed off with a machete by Captain Willard who has received an order to kill Kurtz because the latter has broken off from the US military and fought the war in his own way, the movie is cut back and forth between Willard’s act and the Central Highlands natives slaughtering, chopping up a water buffalo.
This crosscutting between the two scenes are obviously meant to compare the similar nature of the two acts.
The idea of the movie is: Human beings are the same, wherever they come from. The Vietnamese slaughter the water buffalo and the Americans slaughter each other and Vietnamese people.
The water buffalo slaughter is based on a real ritual of a tribe in the Philippines observed by Coppola and his wife while shooting the movie there. Strictly speaking, this ritual isn’t Vietnamese. But suppose Vietnam has similar rituals, there is still a difference in degree, and even in kind, between killing animals and killing other people - those from your own species. The later is more cruel, I think. Coppola’s analogue is not very convincing and does another disservice to the image of Vietnam.
In term of respect for Vietnamese people and history, Oliver Stone’s well-known trio about the war, Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, and Heaven and Earth don’t stumble like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. The fault I find with his movies, and The Quite American, isn’t related to the Vietnam War. It has more to do with the nature of men, or at least, the fictional male characters in the movies.
In these movies, I see these common themes: naïve, idealistic young American men go to war only to be disillusioned; and old, jaded American (or European in the case of The Quite American) men finding solace in young Vietnamese women’s bosoms.
It seems to me one thing explains the other, that is, if we aren’t too naïve in the beginning, we won’t turn too jaded in the end and may thus avoid a great deal of trouble. If there is another war movie, I’d prefer seeing a new kind of mentality rather than this common naivety-turned-disillusion mindset.
For a change, I’d recommend Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn instead. This is a thoughtful work that pays attention to the small things. What is different about this film is that it is less about combat than about a prisoner of war’s daily struggles.
The story is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a U.S. fighter pilot. Dengler is shot down over Laos and taken captive by the Laotian communists who were closely associated with the Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War. Surviving torture, hunger and illness, Dengler manages to escape and find his way back to his ship. Throughout the film, it’s Dengler’s small and smart improvisations such as how to make a key out of a nail to the unlock the hand-and-leg cuffs that make all the difference.
The best Vietnam War movie in my list, however, is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a brilliant, darkly humorous movie about the training and experiences of the US marines in the Vietnam War. Unlike The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket doesn’t critique the US at the expense of the Vietnamese. There is no glaring portrayal of the Vietnamese that offends and raises questions.
A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 work, Full Metal Jacket. Critiquing the American military training and involvement in Vietnam with brilliant dark humor, Full Metal Jacket is the best American film classic about the Vietnam War, according to our film critic.
The best thing about Full Metal Jacket, however, is that Kubrick provides audiences with different levels of distance to see and question what they are seeing on screen. This is important because as I’ve suggested above, movies often serve some intended or unintended agenda. Kubrick tries to be objective and succeeds better than other filmmakers in my list.
Full Metal Jacket is charged with irony and criticism of the American military training. The training of the marines for Vietnam is effective but brutal, driving a vulnerable recruit to kill the trainer, then commit suicide.
Among those who are able to make it is the main character, called the Joker for his philosophical tendency that doubts everything, such as human nature. This doubtful Joker character is a great technique, providing one level of distance for audiences. As he is cast as the hero, we tend to see things through his eyes and doubt with him.
A higher level of distance can be seen in the latter half of the movie. There is a documentary-like sequence in which the American soldiers, including the doubtful Jocker himself, are interviewed by a reporting crew about why they are in Vietnam.
Responding to this question, the Joker says, “I want to see exotic Vietnam, the jewel of Southeast Asia. I want to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture and…kill them. I want to be the first kid on my block to have a confirmed kill.” Here for the first time we see the fault of the Joker, who has been our most clear-headed, anti-war character so far. His answer reveals he is still so much part of the American culture that got itself involved in Vietnam.
A poster of Full Mental Jacket directed by Stanley Kubrick
But what more do we expect? What more do I expect, from this Joker, from Kubrick, or even from cinema and art in general? Even though filmmakers try to make movies to critique war, they are still alive when they make movies. The war victims were already killed. It’s always easier for artists and audiences who don’t suffer too much from war to look at it second-handed, analyze it, say great things about it, make cinema about it. But for those who do indeed suffer a lot, reliving war through cinema may be too much. The catharsis art provides may be cancelled out by the painful things it revives. So ideally, and if we are to be truly moral and not hypocrites, there should be no war, or war movies.