Vietnam War


Fewer representations of Vietnam veterans appeared on screen for several years after the withdrawal of troops, but this changed with a series of films, such as Who'll Stop the Rain (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Birdy (1984), that featured violent or victimized veterans who stand in for the war's effects on America. Coming Home , for example, narrowly focuses its antiwar message on the damage inflicted on the bodies and minds of American soldiers. It seeks to resolve the problems of war—which it imagines primarily as problems of masculine identity—within the conventions of melodrama, by working through a love triangle that includes two veterans with very different perspectives on the war and their role as soldiers, along with the political-but-bankable star, Jane Fonda.

b. Detroit, Michigan, 7 April 1939

Francis Ford Coppola is an independent whose career has undergone wide fluctuations both in critical and popular reception and in financial resources. A major figure of the so-called "movie brat" generation, he emerged in the 1960s among the wave of filmmakers who had studied film formally before making them. Known primarily for The Godfather trilogy— The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and The Godfather: Part III (1990)—Coppola's greatest achievement in film may be his Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now (1979).

Raised in a family involved in the arts, in the early 1960s Coppola studied film at UCLA, a program that has produced a number of other important filmmakers. While still in film school he worked on several films, including his first feature, Dementia 13 (1963) for B-movie king Roger Corman. Coppola's thesis project, the youth comedy You're a Big Boy Now (1966), was distributed theatrically by Warner Bros. He established his own production company, American Zoetrope, in 1969, but the company foundered financially and eventually filed for bankruptcy. The Conversation (1974), about a troubled surveillance expert, which he wrote and directed, garnered both Oscar ® nominations and a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival; the film displayed Coppola's art-film aspirations, but the commercial success of The Godfather —at one point it ranked as the most successful film of all time—was more influential on Coppola's career.

Apocalypse Now , loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness , is the story of a Special Forces captain (Martin Sheen), who is assigned to travel up the Nung river in Cambodia during the Vietnam War in search of an infamous rogue officer (Marlon Brando), who has established his own violent cult society somewhere upriver, and "terminate him with extreme prejudice." The making of the film was plagued by a number of legendary difficulties (as well as a ballooning budget); as a result of long delays in production, the film loses a degree of narrative coherence but gains in its place an almost hallucinatory power in evoking the absurdity and confusion of a war that few Americans understood.

Coppola's career since Apocalypse Now has been uneven. One from the Heart (1982), his first film after Apocalypse Now , is fascinating as a stylish musical set entirely in an expressionist Las Vegas, but it failed to connect with audiences. The overblown Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) was more successful at the box office; his two adaptations of S. E. Hinton's novels about youth growing up in 1960s Oklahoma, Rumble Fish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983), are among his most interesting work. Coppola also has produced films by other important directors such as Wim Wenders and Akira Kurosawa and been involved in a number of publishing ventures.


The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), Gardens of Stone (1987), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)


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Barry Keith Grant

The most notable change in the cinematic representation of Vietnam after the war was that mainstream filmmakers

Francis Ford Coppola.

appeared to feel confident enough in their audience to put Vietnam combat on screen for the first time. Late 1970s war films reflected Americans' ambivalence about—and its exhaustion from—the war. The Boys in Company C (1978) and Go Tell the Spartans (1978), both relatively modest but carefully scripted encounters with the madness of that war, attracted little critical response. By contrast, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) both won multiple awards for their epic treatments of the war and its insanity. Cimino's film portrayed the effects of war on a community of second-generation Ukranian-American steelworkers, employing a blend of naturalism (in setting, acting, cinematography) and fantasy (motifs of the "one shot" of Russian roulette) designed to evoke an emotional response to its image of shattered innocence and belief. The stylistic excesses of Coppola's film, offering a nearly surrealist image of the war, were used in a similar way to evoke a subjective sense of the war's losses. Garnering praise for their style, performances, and direction, both films were also strongly criticized for their lack of historical specificity. Instead of a historically accurate depiction of the war, they offered a mythic space in which national and personal ideals were explored and challenged. Rather like Hollywood's representation of the West in frontier days, such representations were best understood not according to their historical veracity, but in terms of their applicability to the contemporary values and beliefs of the audience.

The films that followed in the early 1980s likewise constructed a mythic Vietnam: the POW/MIA revenge films Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) all combined the spectacular elements of action cinema with right-wing nationalistic fantasy to refigure the vigilante of 1970s exploitation cinema as a lone veteran who returns to Vietnam, this time "to win." In each case the focus of the veteran/soldier's quest is the MIA/POW: soldiers unaccounted for after the repatriation of POWs in 1973 were, according to the logic of these films, still alive; likewise, the Vietnam War had never ended. A complex figure, despite the simplicity of its film treatment, the MIA/POW of these films stands in for all that was lost during the turbulent period of the war, including trust in the government in the wake of the revelations of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. The vigilante heroes of these films fight as much against government corruption as they do against evil communists; the films offer narrative engagements with the numerous conspiracy theories that circled around America's conduct of the war and its treatment of its own soldiers.

During the latter half of the 1980s, a more recognizable war returned to the screen in such films as Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1989), Casualties of War (1989), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and 84C MoPic (1989). These works made a stylistic shift from the action-adventure films that preceded them in the first part of the decade; they were marketed and praised for the realism, authenticity, and verifiability of their presentation of war. Employing the generically familiar traits of the World War II combat film, they reference extra-cinematic authorities, eyewitness accounts, and real historical events to buttress their claims to historical truth. They provided a sense of authenticity in their settings, with 1960s fashions, consumer goods, and recognizable locations. They were perhaps most persuasive—and influential on the war film—in their representation of the visual and aural texture of battle; We Were Soldiers (2002), which depicts the war's first major battle of 1965, is evidence of their ongoing influence. While a film like Apocalypse Now affected viewers with the surreality of its image of Vietnam, these films focused instead on its visceral character: their sense of verifiability was confirmed by camera movement that referenced combat and documentary reportage; and their soundtracks heightened the effect with period rock music, bone-shaking weapons' fire, and the slap-thud of Hueys.

Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) offered a surrealist vision of the war in Vietnam.

Yet, at the same time that they offered a Vietnam never before seen—or heard—on screen, the representations of combat in these 1980s films were indebted to earlier representations of the war that likewise invoked the individual, eyewitness experience as the key to understanding it. Similar in these terms was the TV-documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987), made for HBO and later given theatrical release. Featuring dramatic readings of letters from soldiers, their families, and their loved ones, it emphasizes personal experience over politics and ideology to produce a therapeutic text of remembrance. Its critics viewed it as a profoundly political film, however, for the way that it forestalled any critical or oppositional stance toward the war via its emotional engagement with the soldiers' experience.

In the 1990s and 2000s, following the American victory in the Cold War and its—somewhat anticlimactic and short-lived—triumph in the Persian Gulf, the Vietnam War was less prevalent on screen, despite the fact that documentaries such as Daughter from Danang (2002)—which recounted the reunion of an Amerasian woman and her Vietnamese mother—served as a reminder of the ongoing effects of war on both soldiers and non-combatants. Some critics observed that the popularity of Forrest Gump (1994) signaled the end of America's struggle with this chapter of its history: its slow-witted protagonist's affability and ignorance effectively smoothed the edges of every major event of the 1960s in which he unwittingly participated—including the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, Coppola's remixed and restored Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) seems as relevant as its 1979 predecessor as a film that recognizes and confronts the madness and excess of war: Vietnam was not the first—or last—conflict to inspire such films, but they are an important part of its legacy in American cinema.

SEE ALSO Genre ; Historical Films ; Violence ; War Films

Adair, Gilbert. Hollywood's Vietnam: From "The Green Berets" to "Apocalypse Now" . New York: Proteus, 1981.

Anderegg, Michael, ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television . Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Auster, Albert, and Leonard Quart. How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam . New York: Praeger, 1988.

Berg, Rick. "Losing Vietnam: Covering the War in an Age of Technology." Cultural Critique 3 (1986): 92–125.

Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Hansen, Miriam. "Traces of Transgression in Apocalypse Now." Social Text 3 (Fall 1980): 123–135.

Howell, Amanda. "Lost Boys and Angry Ghouls: Vietnam's Undead." Genders 23 (1996): 297–334.

James, David. "Rock and Roll in Representations of the Invasion of Vietnam." Representations 29 (1990): 78–98.

Smith, Julian. Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam . New York: Scribner's, 1975.

Springer, Claudia. "Defense Department Films from World War II to Vietnam." Cultural Critique 3 (Spring 1986): 151–167.

Studlar, Gaylyn, and David Desser. "Never Having to Say You're Sorry: Rambo's Rewriting of the Vietnam War." Film Quarterly 42, no.1 (1988): 9–16.

Walker, Mark. Vietnam Veteran Films . Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Amanda Howell

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