When 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 blurred.
The 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 Platoon). What mattered was the strength of the purgative.
February 21, 2009
John 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.