Hot on the heels of Platoon was Full Metal Jacket (1987) directed by Stanley Kubrick. This film has two distinct halves: the first half is about the physically and psychologically grueling basic training of a group of Marines. The second half is about the soldiers’ experiences in Vietnam, which is where all the negative portrayals of Vietnamese culture come into play. After one of the mentally disturbed recruits blows his brains out at the end of the basic training first half, the film cuts to Saigon, and we are immediately treated to the main character, Joker, being accosted by a Vietnamese prostitute who spouts out the famous line “Me so horny. Me love you long time.” Rafterman, Joker’s photographer, gets his camera stolen by a Vietnamese civilian who rides away on a Honda motorcycle. Rafterman complains about the Vietnamese’s lack of gratitude, to which Joker replies, “It’s just business.” In a series of mock TV interviews, soldiers comment on how little the Vietnamese appreciate their efforts: “We’re shooting the wrong gooks.” Then the next scene has a South Vietnamese soldier bringing a Vietnamese prostitute to American soldiers. Such scenes perpetuate the stereotype that Vietnamese civilians were unappreciative and immoral crooks who weren’t worth helping. Later on, Joker encounters a mass grave of civilians executed by the VC. This shows us first hand how heartless and amoral the VC are. We don’t see the VC fighting to protect themselves from an invading army. We see them as butchers of innocent people. The final combat scene has the American soldiers being attacked by a VC sniper woman. In the end, the sniper woman is killed, and the American soldiers stand over her like the perpetrators of a gang rape, displaying their sexual and physical dominance. This is symbolic of the view that America is big and strong whereas Vietnam is weak and submissive. The film clearly sets back the progress of fair and balanced portrayals of Vietnamese culture.
The film wasn’t received well critically. The film was so over-hyped that it was inevitably panned as aimless, partitioned, and episodic. Even the cinematography was criticized as being uninteresting. Although the screenplay was praised for its well-written dialogue, the movie didn’t seem that authentic to veterans. Vets were displeased with the accuracy of the Vietnam parts, yet they were happy with the basic training portrayal. Platoon proved to be a hard act to follow, as critics ultimately considered Full Metal Jacket a disappointment all around, and this hurt the film at the box office, where it grossed a little over $46 million. Perhaps one reason for the film’s lackluster gross is that, at the time, the American audience was ready for more sympathetic portrayals of the Vietnamese, so they weren’t pleased by the negative stereotypes present in Full Metal Jacket. Today, most people see Full Metal Jacket as a deep examination of the psychology of war rather than a depiction of the Vietnam War, so the film is ranked #100 on IMDB’s Top Movies of All Time.
The final film about Vietnam to be considered is Good Morning Vietnam (1987) directed by Barry Levinson. The film takes place in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict (the period of “police-action”) and is about a wacky radio DJ (Williams’ Adrian Cronauer) who shakes up the airwaves with his unique sense of humor and head bopping tunes. Most of his superiors are upset with his politically incorrect jokes and irreverent behavior, but the troops love him. Cronauer falls in love with a South Vietnamese girl Trinh and ends up teaching an English class and befriending her brother Tuan to impress her. Eventually, Cronauer proves to be too controversial for his superiors to handle (and it turns out his friend Tuan is a VC terrorist) so he’s shipped away. In this film, Vietnamese civilians are finally portrayed as normal, living, breathing human beings: they drive cars and bikes, watch movies, and eat and shop in marketplaces. Kids play with water in the streets; old men play board games. Villagers work in the fields; people go to school. The film shows Vietnamese civilians in different everyday slices of life, something previous films had always failed to do. The viewer even gets a dose of cultural insight: Trinh brings along an entourage of chaperones on her first date with Cronauer, and Cronauer gets a taste of authentic Vietnamese fish balls. And for the first time in a major motion picture, the religious aspect of the Vietnamese people is depicted: Buddhist monks pray in front of a large statue of Buddha, outside a village. Inside the village, people are eating, smiling, laughing, and kids are playing. Although at first, Cronauer exoticizes and objectifies the Vietnamese women (he calls them “pretty, fast, and small”), when he gets to know Trinh better, he (and the audience) sees her as a human with a soul and traditions, not a sex object. Also, Cronauer becomes such good friends with Tuan that he sees him as a comrade, and even sticks up for Tuan when a GI calls him a “gook.” One character, Jimmy Wah, a homosexual Vietnamese restaurant owner (who has a fetish for soldier’s ankles and Tony Bennett), might be considered a demeaning caricature, but I think of him as a colorful personality that shows the Vietnamese are as varied and diverse as the rest of us. As things get worse, the audience feels sorry for the Vietnamese civilians. The once busy and bustling Saigon is reduced to riots and rubble before our very eyes, and protestors are unfairly abused. There’s even a nonnegative portrayal of the Viet Cong in the jungle: the VC are shown in plain daylight, and they don’t look menacing or devious. In fact, they look like a bunch of normal teens, albeit with large guns. Finally, a movie that depicts the VC for who they really were, instead of showing them as nameless shadows. Although Tuan (a traitor working for the VC) set off an explosion that killed two Americans, he isn’t portrayed as a heartless monster. Instead, the audience sympathizes with him because we learn that his family and friends were killed by Americans. To the audience, Tuan is a child who is a victim of the war’s collateral damage. Perhaps the line that best sums up the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the Vietnamese is what Tuan says about the soldiers who killed his loved ones: “We’re not human to them. We’re only Vietnamese.”
The film was a wonder at the box office. It only cost $13 million to make, but ended up grossing over $120 million. Critics were mixed on the film; some thought it to be too sappy and predictable, whereas some thought it was heartfelt and touching. The film’s box office success showed that the American public was willing to look at the Vietnam War with more levity and also willing to view the Vietnamese as actual people with families, emotions, and lives. The film was such a landmark in painting human portraits of the Vietnamese that it is a sentimental favorite to many.
Persian Gulf War
With a new war, Hollywood had a new people to demonize: Arabs. A significant difference between the Persian Gulf War and the Vietnam War is that even before the Persian Gulf War, there were negative depictions of Arabs and Muslims on the silver screen. Set in 1936 Egypt, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) depicts good and evil Egyptians. The movie has scenes throughout that reveal Egyptian beggars and laborers. Egyptian women are portrayed as mute, passive, and homely. There are Arabs who help Indiana Jones immensely: they rescue him from a snake pit and protect him from the Nazis. However, this is overshadowed by the depictions of the evil Arabs (who, in the film, work for Nazis) as incompetent buffoons whose lives are expendable. We are treated to a scene where Arabs are defeated by a woman with a frying pan. Perhaps the most famous scene in the movie is when a tall Egyptian with a swinging sword confronts Indy, and Indy puts down his bullwhip, casually draws his gun and shoots the Egyptian dead. In March 1997, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Harrison Ford on her show, and she told him “My favorite movie scene” of all time is where “you shoot that Arab.” She then chuckles and reeneacts the scene for her viewers, and shows the clip of the scene to her audience, who applauds. One year later, in Oprah’s AFI top 100 films special, she again plays the clip of the shoot-em up scene. One of the makers of the film, George Lucas, realized the error of his ways years after the film was released: he “takes seriously the notion that entertainers have an obligation to promote positive moral values in their works. Talking earnestly about what artists ‘teach’ with their creations,“ Lucas “criticizes himself for the scene played for laughs in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones drops his bullwhip and casually guns down an Arab swordsman.” 4 The film was selected by the AFI as one of the top 100 American movies, and it is one of the biggest blockbusters of its time, grossing over $240 million. The film is also #16 on IMDB’s All Time best list.
The first James Bond film to feature a Muslim antagonist is Octopussy (1983). In the film, an exiled Muslim Kamal Khan plots with a Russian General to blow a nuclear device in an American Air Force base. Among Bond fans, the film is one of the most loved Roger Moore’s Bond films, and grossed over $180 million worldwide. Back to the Future (1985), a comedy/action-adventure movie about time travel, manages to inject negative Arab stereotypes as well. Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Brown brags about scamming Libyans who wanted him to build them a nuclear bomb (he instead steals their plutonium and gives then a case full of spare pinball machine parts). It is worthwhile to note that in 1985, the only Mideast nation with nuclear weapons was Israel. In the movie, two Libyans in a van find Doc and Michael J. Fox’s Marty and try to gun them down. A crazed Libyan machine-guns Doc and he drops dead, prompting Marty to screen “Noooo! Bastard.” Then the Libyan says some gibberish and is about to shoot Marty, but his gun jams and his dense partner can’t start the car either. The Libyans try to launch a rocket at Marty (who is driving the Delorean) but they miss as Marty says “Let’s see if you bastards can do ninety” and the car is transported into the past. Arabs are stereotyped as bumbling, sinister terrorists and referred to several times as “bastards”, strangely echoing the earlier portrayals of the Vietnamese. The film was seen by more than 53 million people and grossed over $210 million domestically, and $348 million worldwide. Back to the Future (which spawned 2 sequels) is considered a classic to most filmgoers, and is ranked #144 on IMDB’s Top Movies of All Time list.
Then the Persian Gulf War started in August 1990, lasted less than a year, and ended in March 1991. In contrast to the Vietnam War, positive film portrayals of Arabs and Muslims began to appear soon thereafter. In June of 1991, Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves opened, starring Kevin Costner as Robin Hood and Morgan Freeman as Azeem, Robin Hood’s Muslim warrior friend. Azeem “fights better than twenty knights” and explains that as a Muslim “it is vanity to force other men to our religion.” When asked why his skin is dark, Azeem replies “Allah loves wondrous variety.” Azeem declines an alcoholic drink, saying “Allah forbids it.” Throughout the film, the Muslim is a champion: he utilizes a telescope, delivers a baby, and introduces gunpowder into a decisive battle. Robin Hood praises Azeem: “You, truly, are a great one. You are an honor to your country.” In the end, Azeem saves Robin Hood’s life (actually repaying him Robin saving his life earlier). Not only is the Muslim character positively portrayed, but he is also defended by Robin Hood. When Robin Hood’s men initially meet Azeem, they call him a “savage” and “barbarian,” but Robin Hood counters those slurs and tells them to treat Azeem as an equal, which they do. Obviously, the filmmakers had the intention of being more culturally sensitive to Muslims in this film, and it seemingly paid off: it grossed over $165 million and is widely considered to be one of the top Robin Hood movies ever.
But only one month later, the progress in cultural and religious portrayals of Muslims and Arabs made by Robin Hood would be almost immediately setback by the release of Hot Shots!, the wacky slapstick comedy starring Charlie Sheen (who coincidentally starred in Platoon). This bears an alarming resemblance to how Full Metal Jacket setback the progress of nonnegative portrayals of the Vietnamese started by Platoon. Hot Shots!, and it’s sequel, Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) depict Arabs as buffoons and features ethnic slurs. Arab pilots have nicknames that reference Arab cuisine: names on their helmets include Toboule, Baklavah, Pita, Hummus, Kabab, Couscous, and Babaganoush. The pilots don’t speak Arabic, they speak gibberish. They speak broken English when saying “burnoose,” “shish-ka-bob,” “Allahu Akbar,” and “Paula Abdul.” The inept Arab pilots crash their planes into mountains and into each other. When a nuclear bomb decimates Saddam Hussein and a nuclear power plant, the audience is expected to cheer. The sequel to the first takes the battle from air to land, continuing the ethnic stereotyping and cultural ignorance. The movie lampoons the Persian Gulf War as American “Cowboys” fighting Iraqi “Indians.” Saddam’s refrigerator contains “2% Camel Milk” and “Falafel Helper.” Iraqi soldiers are dirty and unshaven, and wear black and white kuffiyehs. They torture American soldiers with electric shocks while a black-veiled Iraqi woman translates the tortured soldier’s false message into sign language for the news cameras. Again, the stupidity of Arabs is put on display, as an Iraqi soldier swallows a live grenade, scores of Iraqis are taken out by an airborne chicken and a flying punching bag. In one scene, hundreds of Arabs are easily killed, and these words appear on screen: “Bloodiest Movie Ever,” “Body Count 287.” The two movies combined for a gross of about $220 million worldwide. These movies had teens and adults alike making fun of Arabs and making light of the whole Iraqi conflict.
The next few years after the war ended in 1991 confirmed a regression in cultural sensitivity towards Muslims and Arabs with the influx of terrorist-antagonist thrillers like Patriot Games (1992), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and The Siege (1998). All these films featured high profile actors and filmmakers, which guaranteed public attention. I consider these movies to be the Rambo movies of the 90’s. Patriot Games starring Harrison Ford features Arab terrorists (along with Irish terrorists) being annihilated as American forces bomb a Libyan camp. The satellite photos show the bombing and the terrorists being obliterated, and the scene is reminiscent of a video game where the victims are non-entities. As Jack Shaheen writes: “Patriot Games was released just after the Gulf War, and it echoed that war’s sanitized TV coverage, in which Iraqi victims were presented to viewers no differently than fallen objects from video games.”13 The film grossed almost $180 million worldwide. True Lies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big budget action bonanza that perpetuates the negative image of the Palestinian people as a despicable, sick, and twisted culture. The antagonist Muslims in the movie are fanatic terrorists who blow up the Florida Keys with nuclear weapons, and the terrorist group is called “Crimson Jihad” suggesting that Jihad must necessarily be related to violence. Schwarzenegger’s character Harry tells his wife that they’re going to kill some Arabs, in the hopes of cheering her up. On the television, Arabs are bombing cars and killing innocent civilians, and the newscasters say: “They can go anywhere in the United States. There’s nothing, no one to stop them.” The Muslims in the movie are abusive towards women: the leader slaps the villainess and calls her a whore, takes an African-American woman hostage, and tries to kill Harry’s daughter. Arabs are portrayed as cruel, mass murdering robots as well as utterly inept, bumbling idiots. The terrorists accidentally kill themselves routinely, and an uzi that is accidentally dropped down the stairs takes out scores of terrorists. The film was a critical and box office smash. It marked Arnold’s return to form by grossing over $364 million worldwide, and critics all over were proclaiming it to be the wildest ride ever. Yet there was an immediate backlash. When the film was initially released, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was one of several groups to hold a protest at a Washington, D.C., theater. The groups attacked the film for its "depiction of Middle Easterners as homicidal, religious zealots". Their signs read “Hasta Las Vista Fairness,” “Reel Arabs are not Real Arabs”, and “Open Your Eyes and Terminate the Lies.” A demand for the boycott of the movie was called, as well as a ban of its distribution in fifty-four Arab and Muslim countries. One columnist wrote that Arabs are “apparently the last people except Episcopalians whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse.” Radio personality Casey Kasem wrote a letter to the director and star of the film, saying that the film’s racism was “an insult to anyone’s intelligence. We’re trying to make people more sensitive to the fact that when you vilify one group, you vilify all groups.” The movie studio’s small attempt to counter all this was to place a small disclaimer at the end of the credits of the film, saying “This film is a work of fiction and does not represent the actions or beliefs of a particular culture or religion.” Another movie credit worth noting is that it thanks the Mayor of D.C., the Department of Defense, and the US Marine Corp for their cooperation.
Although not as wildly successful, Executive Decision starring Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell also put extremely evil Palestinian terrorists on display. A Palestinian fanatic holds the Koran in one hand and a bomb in the other as he walks into a hotel and blows up, killing innocents. Muslim terrorists hijack a plane and murder innocents in the process, including a US senator. Much of the violence is attributed to Islam: implying the Koran encourages the killing of innocent people, one of the terrorists says “It says here in the Koran.” The lead terrorists says “It’s the sword of Islam… sent to deliver a blow to the belly of the infidel,” and exclaims “We are the true soldiers of Islam.” As a sign of the times, however, two of the Muslim actors managed to convince the director to tone down some of the intensely hateful depictions of Islam. The original script was apparently much worse than the one that made it onto the final product. This shows that around this time, filmmakers were starting to get input from Muslims and Arabs about how they should be depicted.
Reviews were mixed, with many of them bringing up how they were tired of Arabs and Muslims being demonized in movies. Here’s a sample:
“The same generic, Allah-praising Muslims who pop up in thriller after thriller. Enough already!...It would be nice to have a change of bad guys in the movies… to prevent this ethnic group from being demonized.”
“I have a problem these days with our new stage villains turning out to be Palestinians at every turn.”
“….ethnic and national bogeymen, our Arabic friends get it in the neck every time”
There was a LA Times essay by Grace Song that said that the film associated mainstream Islamic practices with terrorism, which “fuels the fire of racism against Muslims… The security and comfort of our Islamic Faith has become the symbolic embodiment of terror.” To give a sense of the climate at the time, just before the film’s debut, a writer in the Wall Street Journal claimed that America’s Muslims were supporting Middle East terror, and that President Clinton was consorting with the American Muslim Council, a group that “champions Islamic terrorist groups in the US.” Two days after the film debuted, two Denver DJs burst into a Denver mosque and harassed worshippers, broadcasting it all live. Warner Brother’s defended the film’s stereotypes by saying the movie was make-believe, and that they “did not and do not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings by this movie,” and added that “these are unfortunately the headlines of the moment.” Some progress was made, however. A few days before the film’s premier, Warner Brothers invited Muslim and Arab leaders to an early screening, where the Council On American-Islamic Relations asked the studio to edit offensive scenes. Although the studio did not comply, saying it was too late, they decided two weeks later to make eight changes for the film’s video and television versions. The studio also wrote to the Council, saying that in the future they would seek their assistance in advance of production of future projects involving Arabs and Islam. Perhaps the American public was sick of the negative Arab portrayals as well, since the film only grossed $57 million, a disappointment considering its $55 million budget.
In fact, the box-office flop trend continued with The Siege, which cost a whopping $90 million to make, but only grossed $41 million. It comes as no surprise, since The Siege depicts devious Muslim terrorists as well, and by now the American public was sick of the cliché. In the film, Arab immigrants, Arab-American auto mechanics, university students, and a college teacher terrorize and kill more than 700 New Yorkers. They destroy the FBI building (killing government agents), blow up movie theaters, bomb a bus, and kill school children. Roger Ebert writes: “The prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film are insidious…There is a tendency to lump together ‘towelheads’ (a term used in the movie)…Given how vulnerable Arab-Americans are to defamation, was this movies really necessary?” The Council on Arab Islamic Relations met with the filmmakers before producing the movie, and edits were suggested. These suggestions were largely ignored. When the film was released, it met with harsh critical reviews, and journalists and activists alike denounced the film for its negative Arab stereotypes. Released a year later, the 13th Warrior (1999) learned from The Siege’s mistakes, because it featured a Muslim hero (played by Antonio Banderas). Paradoxically, the film also bombed, grossing only $32 million while costing $85 million to make. Perhaps moviegoers weren’t just sick of negative portrayals of Muslims and Arabs; perhaps they were sick of seeing them in movies, period.
Hollywood, however, still saw potential. Maybe terrorists were old hat, but what about that old, dependable genre – the War film. Following this period of terrorist flops, filmgoers are treated to a slew of war-themed films that feature mixed depictions of Arabs and Muslims. Starting with Three Kings (1999) starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, we are finally treated to depictions of Arab life and their unique suffering in the Gulf War. Based on its critical success and sympathetic portrayals of Arabs, I consider Three Kings to be a cross of Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam, but set in the Gulf War. The audience is shown portraits of life in the Mideast, and, although not as light-hearted as the depictions of the Vietnamese in Good Morning Vietnam, the Arabs are finally seen as human beings whose lives had been unjustly turned upside down. The audience finally feels for the characters, and we cheer on the protagonists as they help the displaced Iraqi civilians. Although not every Arab character is portrayed positively, the filmmakers tried the best they could to consult with Arabs and Muslims before filming ever took place. Warner Brothers had kept the promise they made after releasing Executive Decision, so they listened to Arabs and Muslims who had input on how the portrayals should be done in the film, and actually incorporated changes and suggestions. By the time the film was done, the film had received approval by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. When the film was released, it was awarded with thorough critical praise, and even President Clinton and Roger Ebert claimed it was one of the best movies of the year. Strangely, it did not fare as well at the box office. It grossed a little over $60 million, but cost $48 million to make. Closely following was Rules of Engagement (2000) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. This film, however, threatened to completely erase all the positive progression of Muslim and Arab portrayals achieved by Three Kings. It’s analogous to what Full Metal Jacket did to Platoon (albeit Full Metal Jacket is considered art, while Rules of Engagement was considered trash by the critics). The film is about a fictional Yemen-U.S. conflict, and the message of the movie is clear: Yemeni citizens are all hateful marine-killers and anti-American terrorists, and the murder of 83 Yemeni civilians was justified. Reviewers immediately saw the blatant racism of the movie, as one critic pointed out: “Little attempt is made to humanize the Yemeni, On screen….they are stock villains, human cattle ready for herding and slaughter to demonstrate the right and might of the U.S. policeman’s role.” Organizations such as the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Council on American-Islam Relations were immediately up in arms because of the film’s negative stereotypes, and protests and letters and phone calls were made to the studio. The box office reception was cold as well: the film grossed $61 million, while costing $60 million to make.
All along, adults weren’t only the ones who were watching these negative depictions; kids were as well. As evidenced by Disney’s Aladdin (1992), children weren’t spared subjection to portrayals of the negative Arab stereotype. The films protagonists (Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan) are anglicized whereas all the other Arabs are “ruthless, uncivilized caricatures.” Arab guards and merchants are all drawn with oversized noses and sinister eyes. All civilians are either thieves, harem maidens, or ugly vendors. Jafar (the main antagonist) and his flunkies all speak with bad accents and are heartless crooks out “to slice a few throats.” Arab guards chase the young boy Aladdin for stealing bread, and they yell “I’ll have your head for a trophy, you street rat,” suggesting Arabs have no regard for human life. A vendor threatens to cut off Jasmine’s hand because she took an apple to feed a starving child, suggesting that Arabs have no compassion for others and only care about money. In reality, Islam teaches that any person who steals out of poverty or hunger should never be punished, and are advised to give generously to such people. And hand chopping is only done in criminal cases in Saudi Arabia. The opening lyrics speak for themselves: