Vietnam War


For many critics, the failure of The Green Berets to tell an accurate story of the war and to find and persuade an audience signaled the end of the combat film as a genre. For the duration of the war, Vietnam was represented on screen not by images of battle but by images of the war's veterans. Films focusing solely on individuals tended to depoliticize and personalize the conflict. The earliest of these were low-budget, independently produced "exploitation" pictures that incorporated Vietnam veterans into narratively simple, sensationalist, and action-oriented biker, blaxploitation, and horror films designed to capitalize on the topicality of Vietnam. Later these films would be joined by a few independent features, studio-produced exploitation pictures, and made-for-television melodramas. Taken together, they demonstrate the way that Vietnam was first imagined on screen as primarily a domestic problem for the United States and as a violent disruption of the status quo—another thematic trope that continued in representations of the war well after 1975.

Biker films produced by companies such as American International Pictures (AIP) featured violent veterans, often characterized as former Green Berets whose fighting skills are used in and against the United States. In such films, war's violence comes home with the veteran who fights against the police, the establishment, and other gangs, as in Angels from Hell (1968) or The Hard Ride (1971); or veterans may take over the role of the police as dispensers of vigilante justice, as in The Born Losers (1967) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971). Although such films had little to say about the war directly, their emphasis on the rage and violence of veterans is worth noting—particularly given the fact that they were most heavily distributed in those rural and urban areas of the United States where the draft hit hardest. Of particular interest in these terms are black-themed action or blaxploitation films that featured black veterans who return to battle the mob, drug dealers, and murderers of their family and friends. In the way that such films as Slaughter (1972), Black Gunn (1972), and Gordon's War (1973) focused on black communities and families alienated from white lawmakers and official sources of power, they blended references to the Vietnam War with representations of militant black power. In doing so, they obliquely referenced the politicization of black soldiers and civilians and their opposition to a war viewed as irrelevant to the needs and priorities of black America.

In addition to these action-oriented films, low-budget horror films likewise featured violent veterans as a metonym for war brought home to America. Such films as Psycho a Go-Go (1965) and The Crazies (1973) associated the war with psychosomatic transformations that produce monsters. The low-budget Canadian-produced Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night , 1972) voiced tacit criticism through its graphic horror, as an undead veteran systematically takes revenge on the family and community members who sent him to war.

Outside of generic exploitation formats, other low-budget independent productions dealt with many of the same tropes of war invading the home through the figure of the veteran. Such films offered space for directors blocked from mainstream production to comment on the war and its effects, for the low-budget milieu of the domestic melodrama or the art cinema feature allowed them to circumvent Pentagon support and the large-scale, studio-based funding required for films in the combat genre. For instance, when Elia Kazan was unable to obtain studio backing for his Vietnam War screenplays, he shot what he called a "home movie," using his own home as a set and a script written by his son, Chris. In The Visitors (1972), which mixes family melodrama with graphic violence, veterans visit an old buddy who testified against them for war crimes, kill his dog, and rape his wife before leaving. Brian De Palma's Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970) work for more comic effect with draft dodgers and psychotic veterans who blend in with the generally surreal landscape that is De Palma's vision of America during the war years.

By 1971 low-budget films featuring violent vets had become lucrative enough to attract the interest of Hollywood, in particular, the sequel to Born Losers , Billy Jack (1971), which by 1973 had grossed $60 million and attracted a family audience with its fight-for-peace vigilantism. Just as in the 1960s Hollywood studios had borrowed aspects of European art cinema to win over younger and more educated audiences no longer interested in its standard family entertainment fare, in the 1970s they imported plotlines, marketing strategies, and exhibition techniques from exploitation pictures. Along with simplified plots and sensational violence, they took up the theme of returned veterans-turned-violent vigilantes: in 1973 Magnum Force and The Stone Killer and their stars Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, respectively, ushered in a new generation of action heroes. By the mid-1970s the figure of the violent, often psychotic, veteran was so familiar that in Taxi Driver (1976) a brief mention of Vietnam provides ample motivation for the psychosocial and physical transformations experienced by its troubled protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).

At the same time that the combat genre was replaced by films that represented the war indirectly in the person of the returned Vietnam veteran, and low-budget exploitation films capitalized on Americans' emotional responses to Vietnam, some mainstream productions appeared to offer covert criticism of the war. The western, like the combat film, had long served as a vehicle for America's perception of itself and its history, offering mythic representations of the frontier, Manifest Destiny, the relation between civilization and wilderness, and the nature of heroism and masculinity. Released after revelations of the My Lai massacre in 1969, revisionist westerns like Little Big Man (1970), Soldier Blue (1970), and Ulzana's Raid (1972) appeared to reference such atrocities in their representation of violence between Native Americans and white settlers; in doing so, they critically reconsidered the mythic basis of American identity and offered a tacit critique of US policies in Southeast Asia. Such allegorical representations notwithstanding, explicitly antiwar films were as rare in American mainstream cinema as combat films were during the conflict. However, the year after US troops were withdrawn, the antiwar documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), which combined archival footage and interviews with veterans to excite emotional responses against the war, was widely distributed throughout the United States and won an Academy Award ® the same year.

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