I returned from the war in Vietnam, I wrote a film script as an
antidote to the myth that the war had been an ill-fated noble cause.
The producer David Puttnam took the draft to Hollywood and offered
it to the major studios, whose responses were favorable — well,
almost. Each issued a report card in which the final category, “politics,”
included comments such as: “This is real, but are the American
people ready for it? Maybe they’ll never be.”
By the late
1970s, Hollywood judged Americans ready for a different kind of
Vietnam movie. The first was The
Deer Hunter which, according to Time, “articulates
the new patriotism.” The film celebrated immigrant America,
with Robert de Niro as a working class hero (“liberal by instinct”)
and the Vietnamese as sub-human Oriental barbarians and idiots,
or “gooks.” The dramatic peak was reached during recurring
orgiastic scenes in which GIs were forced to play Russian roulette
by their Vietnamese captors. This was made up by the director Michael
Cimino, who also made up a story that he had served in Vietnam.
“I have this insane feeling that I was there,” he said.
“Somehow… the line between reality and fiction has become
Deer Hunter was regarded virtually as documentary by ecstatic
critics. “The film that could purge a nation’s guilt!”
said the Daily Mail. President Jimmy Carter was reportedly
moved by its “genuine American message.” Catharsis was
at hand. The Vietnam movies became a revisionist popular history
of the great crime in Indo-China. That more than four million people
had died terribly and unnecessarily and their homeland poisoned
to a wasteland was not the concern of these films. Rather, Vietnam
was an “American tragedy,” in which the invader was to
be pitied in a blend of false bravado-and-angst: sometimes crude
(the Rambo films) and sometimes subtle (Oliver Stone’s
What mattered was the strength of the purgative.
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.