Vietnam – A Different Kind of War, A Different Kind of Movie
“Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror,” proclaims Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now. The horror of war has not always been illustrated fully by the film industry. Yes, movies such as Saving Private Ryan include grievousness and death, but they also contain a certain element of heroism and glorification. American movies that depict wars other than Vietnam mainly serve to glorify soldiers for their valor in battles. Many Vietnam movies, in contrast, portray a different kind of soldier: regular humans flawed by temptation and rash decisions, who eventually become dehumanized by the psychological effects of the war. In the aforementioned quote, Colonel Kurtz attempts to describe the atrocities he witnessed in the Vietnam War. This quote would not be found in a movie regarding any other American war, but Vietnam movies, like Apocalypse Now, were produced with such a dismal light because of the cultural revolution during the time of war.
Movies released before the Vietnam era especially concentrated on the glorification of war. The Longest Day, filmed in 1962, depicts D-Day as a glamorous and monumental day for the Allied Forces. The trend continues with Hollywood’s recent film Pearl Harbor featuring two young, courageous men who prove their heroism by defending their homes and neighbors against the attacking Japanese forces. The men are static characters; the war has no real psychological effects on them. The character Benjamin Martin in The Patriot is originally against the Revolutionary War, but in the same way as many other war movies, he learns to agree with it and its purpose. The protagonist in The Patriot is a dynamic character in this manner, but he changes in a reversed order from what is seen in many Vietnam movies. Martin subsequently leads his army into victory in a thrilling battle scene. The soldiers shown in these movies of American wars are depicted as obedient, loyal soldiers who are proud to fight in a war with a purpose bigger than their own. The movies relating to the Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II and most other American wars include themes of death and devastation, but ultimately glorify the American soldiers for their valiant service because America supported the wars, and the deaths incurred were for the greater good.
The Vietnam War conjured up a new, dark feeling of war for Americans as reflected by movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. The Vietnam War created controversy not only among American civilians but also in its soldiers. Americans, especially the youth, were becoming less obedient and beginning to question traditions. Prior to Vietnam, if the President stated that America was going to war, the majority of the nation backed him without question. In the Vietnam era, however, when the President stated that America was going to war, Americans asked “Why?”. This change in attitude is reflected in the movies depicting to the Vietnam War.
Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon is partially based on his own experiences in the Vietnam War and shows the soldiers confused and divided between what and for whom they should be fighting. They are aloof from the reality they know and some turn to drugs as a means of escape. The soldiers burn down villages as well as brutalize and kill innocent civilians. The soldiers have become dehumanized by the war, as similarly depicted in the movie Full Metal Jacket, which uses extremely dynamic characters to prove that point. The infantry troops begin their tour of duty as an eclectic group of everyday people. As the movie progresses they transform into characters stripped of their individuality and compassion not only because of their experiences in war but also because of their condescending drill sergeant. The crew in Apocalypse Now starts out ignorantly excited about their mission; however, by the end of the movie they can hardly discern morality. They have become so accustomed to death that going back to normal civilization is absurd from their perspective. Similar to characters in Platoon, the character Lance in Apocalypse Now attempts to escape his madness by using drugs. The movies of Vietnam collectively show that the human soul is very malleable and fragile, and when presented with a certain situation, even the most pure soul can be dyed black. The soldiers in the movies do not reflect that proud feeling of fighting for something bigger than themselves, but instead resent war and its violence. No other war has ignited so many movies of this nature than the Vietnam War.
The soldiers of the Vietnam War fought for the freedom and democracy of another country. Because many American citizens did not approve of the purpose and sacrifice of the war, the military did not have the support it needed to create the drive and inclination in its soldiers. Vietnam was unique in that many of the United States soldiers were fighting simply so that they could return home. Large war protests across America ignited a feeling of pity for the soldiers overseas in Vietnam. This lack of purpose and national pride permeated into the actions of the soldiers as some killed innocent civilians without question because of the frustrations and psychological effects they experienced. Many of the Vietnam movies attempt to capture the very feeling found in these certain soldiers during the war. Even though the soldiers of the Vietnam War were heroic in that they risked their lives for the sake of others, the American film makers decided not to focus on the soldiers’ courage this time, but instead painted a scene of humans trapped in an atrocious war without a purpose. My conference paper will further explore the culture of the Vietnam era, and explain how and why it had such a dramatic impact on the portrayal of characters in Vietnam War films.