Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Lights, Camera, Vietnam: Depiction of the Vietnam War in Selected Movies
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor doc. PhDr. Tomáš Pospíšil, Dr. for his valuable advice and comments. I would also like to thank my girlfriend for proof-reading the final text and for providing priceless moral support and encouragement.
War educates the senses, calls into action the will,
perfects the physical constitution,
brings men into such swift and close collision
in critical moments that man measures man.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,
only as one who has seen its brutality,
its futility, its stupidity.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower
Table of Contents
1. Introduction 1
1.1. “The Only War We Had:” Why the Vietnam War? 1
1.2. “24 Frames a Second:” Why Films? 3
1.3. “More than Meets the Eye:” A Note on Accuracy of Depiction 4
2. Platoon 7
2.1. Plot Summary 7
2.2. Overview 8
2.3. “Is War Hell?” The Battle Experience 10
2.4. “A War of Casualties:” Relations with Civilians 13
2.5. “What School Won’t Teach You:” War as Life Experience 19
2.6. Summary 22
3. Full Metal Jacket 23
3.1. Plot Summary 23
3.2. Overview 24
3.3. “All as One:” The Process of Dehumanization 25
3.4. “Better You than Me:” Deglorification of the War 34
3.5. Summary 39
4. “And the Battles Will Rage On:” Conclusion 40
5. Works Used and Cited 43
6. Appendices 48
6.1. Appendix 1: John Rambo v. Animal Mother 48
6.2. Appendix 2: The Rolling Stones: “Paint It Black” 49
6.3. Appendix 3: Lee Iacocca’s Speech 501. Introduction
The aim of this thesis is to analyze how the Vietnam War is depicted in two American-made films: Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). The films will be analyzed separately in both historical1 and cultural context. Attention will be paid to individual issues dealt with and depicted in each of the two films as well as to general mediation of the war in each of them. A conclusion will be drawn as to what the two films have in common, how they differ, whether they share any central issue or topic, and what image of the Vietnam War these films (might) create. However, before attempting this analysis, I deem it necessary the following questions be answered and notes made.
1.1. “The Only War We Had:” Why the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War was the longest military conflict the United States has ever engaged in: starting with first military advisers leaving for Vietnam to aid the French in 1950 and ending with the last Marine helicopter taking off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975 (The Vietnam War), it lasted for quarter of a century. It involved more than two and a half million U.S. military personnel stationed in South Vietnam during this era (“Vietnam War Statistics”) and cost more than $150 billion (“The Fall of Saigon”). After the guns went silent, nearly 59,000 American soldiers were left dead and more than 303,000 wounded, not to mention the millions of Vietnamese, both soldiers and civilians (“Vietnam War Statistics”). These numbers, when compared with the First or the Second World War (“America’s Wars”), do not seem so shocking.2
However, the significance of the Vietnam War was not in its death toll, but in its aftermath and the far-reaching consequences it had for the United States. Unlike the First and the Second World War where the Americans fought alongside other Allied forces, the Vietnam War and almost its entire burden was left to and subsequently felt by the United States.3 Therefore, it might rightfully be called the “truly American war,” or, as Lanning terms it, “the only war we had” (155). Schulzinger claims it was a “watershed event for American politics, foreign policy, culture, values, and economy in the 1960s that the Civil War was in the 1860s and the Great Depression was in the 1930s” (ix). It profoundly affected the way Americans perceived and thought about themselves, leaving “our myth of national greatness […] deeply scored and tarnished” (Frey-Wouters and Laufer xx). The Vietnam War was the only one in American history “rejected while it was being fought by a substantial portion of Americans,” creating “the twentieth century’s most massive protests against government policies” (Schulzinger x). All these features made it very different from any other war the United States has ever fought and the conflict still occupies a special position in American history.
Moreover, unlike the more recent Gulf War, for example, it is an event old enough to have already created a substantial cultural response (in both fiction and non-fiction literature, documentary, feature and TV films, songs, poetry, and recently even video games), yet still “alive enough” to be of interest.
The aforementioned factors make it “a very special war,” consequently making the Vietnam War films unique and distinct from any and every other group of films—war-related or not—in American film history (Dittmar and Michaud 4-6). For these reasons, I have decided to concentrate on the Vietnam War films.
1.2. “24 Frames a Second:” Why Films?
From countless cultural representations of the Vietnam War, films have been both the most well-known and the most common, and, according to Anderegg, “the Vietnam War […] has thus far been given its imaginative life primarily through film” (1).
This is mostly due to the fact that the conflict was being extensively covered by television news and became “a tragic serial drama stretched over thousands of nights in the American consciousness” (Anderegg 2). Consequently, it provided filmmakers with countless images and visual icons—all well-known to the general public—which are present in many Vietnam War films: the Huey helicopters extracting or deploying combat troops, the dense green jungle, villagers in conical hats, rice paddies, water buffaloes, burning, half-destroyed buildings and huts. The presence of these images in many Vietnam War films has one goal: to recreate the conflict as “immediate” and “close” as possible (Dittmar and Michaud 2).4
As Anderegg also points out, Vietnam War films managed to catch the attention of the general public and to interest even those “for whom film can only be a tendentious and cynical product of American capitalism” (1). These films, however, managed to do much more than just catch the attention. For many people these films were and still are the primary force shaping their understanding and perception of the conflict in SE Asia (Lanning ix).
These facts, coupled with the recent trend of preferring television, films, and the internet to reading books (Italie), mean that the image of the Vietnam War amongst the general public has been, is, and—most likely—will be primarily shaped and influenced by films. Thus, taking all these facts into consideration, I have chosen to focus on films rather than some other cultural manifestation of the Vietnam War.
Regarding the choice of the two films analyzed in this thesis, they both meet the following criteria. First, they are directly connected to the Vietnam War in their theme, topic, and plot. Second, both films are well-known, judging by the profits they made and still continue to make, both in the United States and abroad (BoxOfficeMojo). In addition, due the fact that these films are also available on VHS, DVD, and recently more and more easily accessible via the Internet, it is safe to assume that they are well-known to a wide audience outside the cinema, thus having significantly impacted millions of people and their views of the conflict. Moreover, they are what might be called “the essential Vietnam War films,” providing—along with films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Born on the Fourth of July—“the most compelling statements about the war” (Anderegg 1). As their aim is primarily not to entertain the audience, let alone promote or glorify the war, they are seen as retrospectives trying to “say something” about the conflict, to look back and analyze it, to take a stand, present a viewpoint, express an opinion (Anderegg 3).
In addition, the choice has also been made with regard to the genre of the films. Both are typically regarded as combat films/war dramas and are often judged against and compared to each other. Yet, as shall be seen, these films are very different from one another.
And finally, as in every process of selection, my personal taste also played a role.
1.3. “More than Meets the Eye:” A Note on Accuracy of Depiction
So as to avoid confusion later on, a note on accuracy of depiction and its relevance to this thesis should be made. The accuracy with which the films depict the Vietnam War, be it considering weapons, uniforms, authenticity of the setting, or other facts of this kind whatsoever, is of little relevance to the analysis in the following chapters. There are several reasons for having adopted this approach.
First, films (e.g. Platoon) can—accurately enough—depict certain issues and thus provide an “insight” into or draw attention to a problem, in which case, this is noteworthy (see 2.2. and 2.3). Nevertheless, they cannot be taken as historical sources—let alone evidence—without serious scrutiny and examination being employed, since the role of films is not to accurately recreate their subjects. This is to be left for documentaries and history books.5 Moreover, it is typical of films to “fictionalize […] the historical events and characters which serve as their referents in history,” consequently creating narratives where “everything is presented as […] both real and imaginary” (White 18-19), making it even harder for the viewer to distinguish between facts and fiction.
In addition, the Vietnam War was a “strange war,” being substantially different from all previous conflicts in American history. Unlike the First and the Second World War, it lacked a clear and easily definable political objective and purpose, as well as a military strategy and the ultimate goal; it was fought in a far-away country which was in cultural terms often totally incomprehensible to the Americans; in addition, many soldiers often thought they were fighting for people who were not worthy of their effort and seemed not to care about the war; in military terms, the conflict was a guerilla war, lacking conventional battles and a clearly identifiable distinction between friends and enemies (Auster and Quart 77-78). All these factors meant that the war was—and still is—an event not easy to comprehend. Hence not only does a realistic depiction pose a problem, but the contradictions and controversies of the conflict often manifest themselves in films as well. And, as with every event that fades into the past, it is important to realize that “what is essential here is not what actually happened, but what is believed to have occurred” (Frey-Wouter and Laufer 316).
As a result, in terms of accuracy, very few films meet even the most basic criteria.6 In fact, Lanning claims that the majority of Vietnam War films is so inaccurate that “if any groups of films […] had delivered the same lies, exaggerations, and stereotypes, the streets would have been filled with protesters and the theatres picketed across the nation” (x). However, these things “added,” stereotypes created, and inaccuracies resulting from the use of dramatic license are yet just one of many cultural responses to the war, making another indirect statement about the conflict, its perception, reception, understanding, and interpretation. Moreover, their presence must be reckoned with, since “clichés, stereotypes, conventions, and evasions and displacements […] are the life and blood of popular culture, particularly the movies” (Auster and Quart 84).
When considering accuracy of depiction, it must be borne in mind that “film […] cannot accurately reproduce historical events. Its simulation of the actual circumstances of the war is necessarily mediated […] by those engaged in a given film’s production and reception” (Dittmar and Michaud 10). With regard to the films in question, Platoon, despite depicting combat and field life with unprecedented accuracy and precision, is, at the same time, quite a schematic representation of good and evil, presenting these two phenomena as precisely defined, with no middle ground in between. Similarly, Full Metal Jacket, although it “anchors the most accurate Vietnam-era basic training on film” (Lanning 229), must be seen as “blending of reality and stylization so prominent in [Kubrick’s] work” (Falsetto 72). Thus, “at issue […] is not simply the believability of these films as records of the past, but what do these films tell us as artifacts about ourselves, [and] our culture” (Dittmar and Michaud 10).
So what do these films tell about the Vietnam War? And how does the American culture react to the war via these films? The following chapters will try to answer these questions.
2.1. Plot Summary
Private Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam and is assigned to a rifle platoon within the 25 Infantry Division operating near the Cambodia border. While on a night patrol, the platoon gets into a firefight with several NVAth soldiers. During the fight, one member of the platoon is killed and two others, including Taylor, are wounded.
After spending some time in the base camp, the platoon is again sent into the field on another patrol mission. This time, the soldiers encounter a bunker complex which the enemy had abandoned just minutes before their arrival. After losing two men to a booby trap,7 the unit moves to a nearby Vietnamese village to investigate reports of enemy activity. Having found no enemy but several food and weapon caches, the soldiers set the village on fire and relocate the civilians, killing two in the process. This accident deepens a long-lasting animosity between Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), dividing the soldiers of the platoon into two groups, each supporting one of the officers.
On a third combat patrol, the platoon is ambushed, and—having suffered heavy losses—quickly retreats and is extracted by helicopters. During this fight, Elias, having been left behind, is shot by Barnes. However, he does not die instantaneously and—despite being seriously wounded—tries to reach the extraction zone. Elias dies in a clearing, being shot several more times by NVA soldiers, before the eyes of the whole platoon which is, by that time, safely on board the helicopters leaving the combat zone. This further polarizes the two factions within the platoon and even leads to a fist fight between Taylor and Barnes, but the conflict remains unresolved.
Towards the end of the film, the platoon—as a part of a larger force—is sent to counter the attack of the 141 NVA regiment. During this encounter, nearly the whole U.S. force is annihilated in a pitched night battle. In a desperate attempt to hold off the enemy attack, the U.S. commander (Captain Harris played by Dale Dye) calls in an air strike on his own position, the scene ending in a fiery inferno that only very few survive.
In the last scene taking place the next morning, Taylor kills Barnes and thus avenges Elias’s death. Being seriously wounded, Taylor is put on a medivac helicopter and flown out of the combat zone. The film closes with a voice-over concluding that “those of us who did make it have an obligation […] to teach to others what we know and […] to find the goodness and meaning to this life” and with a “Dedicated to the men fought and died in the Vietnam War” screen (Platoon).
Out of the two films under discussion, Platoon is what might be called the more typical representative of a combat film/war drama, thus being analyzed first. The film tells “the familiar young soldier’s story” (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 234), i.e. draws on previous films about the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War, using “time-honored narrative and cinematic conventions” and employing “narrative structure, character construction, and cinematography” of famous World War II films such as Bataan (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), Walk in the Sun (1945), or The Story of GI Joe (1946) (Dittmar and Michaud 4; Auster and Quart 132). However, Platoon is far from being the typical combat film/war drama of earlier periods.
Stone managed to distance himself and his film from the “celebratory heroic of traditional action-oriented American combat films like The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)” (Miller 153) and created a film very different from what the viewers might expect, “counter[ing] the excesses of jingoistic films like Rambo II and Missing in Action” (Klein 25). The film does not end in victory, but climaxes with a mutual destruction of both the U.S. and the NVA forces, signifying a draw. In addition to undermining the myth of the U.S. army’s invincibility, Platoon also focuses on other issues which were not found in previous—and in very few if any subsequent—war films: the massacre of the Vietnamese civilians and the destruction of their village draws attention to the controversial issue of U.S. military policy employed in Vietnam and calls this policy into question; the conflicts between the soldiers within the platoon where “working together is not offered as a realistic proposition” (Dittmar and Michaud 5) expose the problems of failing morale and internal division present in the army. The film also addresses a wide range of other issues: the nature of combat and battle experience, the adaptation process of newly arrived recruits, the issues of class and race in relation to the Vietnam War, drug abuse, different attitudes towards the war and its conduct, and many others.
The film has also set the standards for realistic depiction of combat in war films, containing “the most realistic jungle combat scenes ever filmed” (Lanning 157), being “the first real Viet Nam film” (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 235) showing Vietnam “how it really was” (Bates 106). Dale Dye who played Captain Harris served as the film’s military adviser; he put the whole cast through a two-week “basic training” so as to get the mental a physical aspects of the war as real as possible (Haflidason).
Out of these many issues, three in particular will be discussed in more detail: the battle experience of individual soldiers, relationships and interaction with civilians, and the depiction of war as an important life experience.
2.3. “Is War Hell?” The Battle Experience
Platoon, as already pointed out, was highly acclaimed by various critics for its realistic depiction of combat. However, though combat scenes constitute a significant portion of the film, more is presented than just combat per se.
Since great attention has been paid to every detail from clothing (including military badges and insignia) and equipment to language and the age of the soldiers (Lanning 293), what the viewer is presented with is probably one of the most complete, complex, and accurate pictures of the Vietnam War ever created in a fiction film. This picture, however, goes far beyond pitched jungle battles and chaotic firefights.
The film opens as Taylor and other newly arrived recruits get off the plane at a military airfield in Vietnam. In less than two minutes—without any transition, most likely signifying the shock new recruits must have suffered and dealt with—the viewer is shown the jungle: “tightly cropped images of mud, insects, leeches, elephant grass [Saccharum ravennae], heat, fear, and frayed nerves” (Bates 106), with the soldiers literary cutting their way through the dense forest undergrowth. These images, coupled with the depiction of other physical strains such as dehydration and exhaustion, all, as one Vietnam veteran pointed out after having seen the film, “ring true to my own Vietnam experience” (Bates 170).
By issuing a very believable statement about the physical environment of Vietnam, the film highlights the fact that the jungle (or in a generalized sense the landscape) was as much the enemy as the Vietcongst and the NVA.8
The narrative structure of the film also highlights another important aspect of combat, countering the popular “war is hell” image created and perpetuated by most war films. The narrative of the film is based on alternating short combat scenes with longer scenes of base camp life. Firefights quickly alternate with images of soldiers digging fox holes, “humping,”9 taking guard duties, setting ambushes, shaving, eating, and performing myriad other everyday non-combat activities. The alternating narrative pattern along with very fast or no transitions between combat and non-combat scenes communicates a very important message: war is not hell as it is often said. “War is boring. […] It’s basically not scary. It’s just monotonous. […] It’s monotony punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” a Vietnam veteran pointed out (“Soldiering On”). Another concurred on this point: “We occasionally drew sniper fire […] and mortars sometimes sent us scrambling […] for the sandbagged bunkers. Otherwise the tropical heat and boredom were more relentless enemies than the local Viet Cong” (Bates 221).
Taylor’s voice-over converts the same message: it is “just another day” when “we get up at five a.m., hump all day, camp around four or five, dig a fox hole, eat, and put on an all-night ambush” (Platoon). It is not another horrible or terrifying day. It is just one of many days. Monotony, boredom, constant danger, insecurity, and the mental as well as the physical strain have a profound effect on the performance and the morale of the soldiers. As Taylor confesses in another voice-over “I try every day to keep not only my strength, but my sanity” (Platoon).
But Stone goes beyond the depiction of these issues as isolated realities. He moves on and contextualizes these facts, presenting them as both the results and at the same time as the causes of other everyday realities and phenomena of the Vietnam War.
One of these phenomena is the writing of letters. During the film, two soldiers write home. One of them is King (Keith David), the other is Taylor. Though the function of Taylor’s letters is explicitly to create the space for the voice-over narratives and thus present the thoughts of the main character, implicitly they fulfill another function. Letters in themselves, seen in their simplicity and not as a narrative structure, are just another reality of the war, another aspect of everyday life.
During the war, letters functioned as a kind of bridge, as one of the last connections with the outside world, with the world that had existed before the war. Receiving a letter determined “if it’s a good day or not.” Letters became the last refuge of many soldiers. In the words of a Vietnam veteran, “I’m writing because I have to. Or I’ll go out of my mind.” Another confessed in a letter he wrote home that “I appreciate all of your letters. For a while as I read your letters, I’m a normal person. I’m not killing people, or worry about being killed” (Dear America). But letters were not enough to keep the soldiers functioning as they were supposed to and a decline in morale was an inevitable consequence of the prolonged pressure.
Some critics, interpreting Platoon in historical rather than cultural context, see the film primarily as “stark depictions of some of the most controversial and intensely debated aspects of the American soldiers’ performance in Vietnam” (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 234).
Exploring the issue of drug abuse during the war, Stone brought to light the fact that at least one in every two soldiers serving in Vietnam had experimented with drugs, having used marijuana, opium, heroine, or abused morphine (“Soldiering On”). As Taylor is introduced to the soldiers’ community, he is offered marijuana. As was the custom of the day, confirmed by various documentaries (Dear America, “Soldiering On”), he smokes it through a barrel of a rifle. Drugs were an everyday reality of the war designed to relieve tension and alleviate stress. It should be noted, however, that most soldier did not become permanently addicted. They were either treated for drug addiction during the time of their service or simply did not continue to use drugs after they had concluded their tour of duty (“The Unsung Soldier”).
Internal tension and stress within the military epitomized by the animosity between Barnes and Elias, fragging (firstly proposed by Barnes’s squad member against Elias, later by Taylor against Barnes),10 drug abuse, and other issues testify to the general decline of morale and internal problems of the U.S. military during the late 1960s and early 1970s.11 These problems, however, were not confined to and isolated within the military and often manifested themselves outwards, towards the civilian population of Vietnam.
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