A short time after the worst US war defeat in the nation’s history – the Vietnam War – a growing wave of films began emerging in attempts to grapple with America’s open war wounds. Some focused on allegorical cautionary tales such as “Apocalypse Now,” an epic masterpiece showing the war in Southeast Asia as a nightmare of misguided confusion and terror, and ultimately its senseless brutality. The caricatures depicted left an indelible imprint on viewers with Robert Duvall’s perverse character proclaiming that napalm in the morning “smells like victory.” Or the decorated war hero-West Pointer renegade colonel played by Marlon Brando who saw the evil Empire war for what it was worth and jumped ship to the other side to become a hero worshipped, warrior God to the indigenous deep jungle inhabitants. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 tour-de-force of an anti-war film became both a box office smash as well as Oscar nominated Best Picture with Coppola himself nominated as Best Director.
Just the year before in 1978 an Oscar winner for its stars was “Coming Home,” exploring the devastating impact of war on relationships. War’s collateral damage manifesting at home in the form of marital infidelity centered on stateside wife (Jane Fonda’s character), her wayward, war-fighting, PTSD-stricken husband (Bruce Dern) amidst the burgeoning intimacy of another war victim-paraplegic played by Jon Voight. The powerful reality drama in its raw emotional delivery depicted how different individuals participating in that debacle of a war each responded to their own pain, trauma and suffering. The film poignantly transcended its challenge as a potential soap opera-ish tearjerker to bring us as an audience closer home than we might comfortably want in understanding the war’s very real catastrophic consequences on vulnerable and frail human beings.
Also the year before “Apocalypse Now” came another Oscar winning portrait of the before- and aftereffects of Americans living through the Vietnam War in Michael Cimino’s 1978 “Deer Hunter.” Capturing the pro-war sentiment of a small steel mining town in Pennsylvania with a huge wedding celebration as a joyful tribute to three young men about to join the war effort, the second half of the film focuses on the costly toll that combat takes on the fragile human psyche and the deep sense of loyalty amongst war buddies. The mountainous treks in search of conquering the hunted act as a metaphorical backdrop to the complex nuance of male bonding juxtaposed by man’s inhumanity toward both all that is beautiful and natural as well as the brutality of man’s inhumanity to man. This film also offers deep human insight as another allegorically dark, cautionary tale of the heavy lessons of war.
Perhaps the most accurate Oscar winning depiction of what it must have been like as an American soldier trying to stay alive in the jungles of Southeast Asia was Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar winner “Platoon.” The graphic horror of war in all its senselessness including a glimpse into atrocities committed by the US military is brilliantly shown bringing out both war’s best and worst in human nature.
Oliver Stone once again won another Best Director Oscar for delving masterfully into the damaging effects of war in his 1989 “Born on the Fourth of July” based on the true life account written by war veteran and peace activist Ron Kovic. This story depicts so vividly with such powerfully raw emotion PTSD on both combat veterans and the rippling effects on their families. Again depicted is the patriotic small town fervor that never fails to accompany young men believing strongly in America’s righteous cause.
Whether succumbing to the old domino theory of stopping the Red Scare spread of nemesis Russia and China or the global terrorism of US-made al Qaeda, the US government has forever used in its propagandist arsenal movies from Hollywood. Prior to and even up to the Vietnam War with 1968’s “The Green Berets,” such mythic war hero acting legends as John Wayne have bedazzled and enticed many a young men into joining up and later dying for America’s chronic war cause.
Ron Kovic, like Pat Tillman and Bowe Bergdahl from the Afghan War, all fell victim to this same longtime jingoistic propaganda, faced the ugly truth about Empire wars, felt betrayed and suffered a crisis in conscience that compelled them to rebel against war. Whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden in their own ways bravely did too.
Still another powerful projection of the Vietnam War’s insanity was demonstrated in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 anti-war homage “Full Metal Jacket.” set during the Tet Offensive. Though there have been a number of other cinematic efforts to historically portray the Vietnam War for what it was, several deserving honorable mention include “The Boys in Company C” (1977), “Go Tell the Spartans” (1979), “Casualties of War” (1989) and “We Were Soldiers” (2002). But the aforementioned half dozen highly acclaimed motion pictures realistically best represent and truthfully present the Vietnam War in all its complexity, horror and tragedy, at least from the American point of view. More films could be done focusing on the one to three million Asian lives lost at the hands of America’s imperialistic war and the millions more who survived America’s crimes against their humanity. Though there are some Vietnamese films about the war, few have been seen by Americans.
In stark contrast to that war period, no post-9/11 film has even come close to telling the truth about either the Iraq or Afghanistan War. Probably the most accurate rendition was 2009’s Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker.” It follows the life of an American GI whose specialty is dismantling bombs. Its gritty portrayal of the Iraq War through one soldier’s experience comes across as extremely realistic in its cinema verite style. But it stays clear of revealing the war and occupation’s political debauchery, immorality and corruption, and barrenly empty in presenting the tragic human side and cost of war. The main character seems almost inhuman, mechanically going through his day-to-day high wire act with abandoned precision. Devoid of any anti-war element, whatever transmitted war message is neutered by its detached, matter-of-fact presentation, choosing to neither take a stand for or against the war. However, after the combat veteran returns home, the mundane emptiness of his everyday family life becomes no match for the adrenalin rush of wartime deployment as the protagonist succumbs to his irresistibly alluring addiction and most salient PTSD symptom. It portrays motivation for multiple tours, exactly what today’s Empire both wants and needs from its soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg stars in the recent “Lone Survivor” based on the true story written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of his harrowing combat experience in Afghanistan. Though it demonstrates the fraternal bonding love that soldiers in war experience together along with their remarkable courage, the film may as well be a recruitment add for Navy SEALs. Through one man’s story of survival, this film is designed to reflect the heroic passion and dedication America’s elite military possess in fighting American Empire wars. If anything, like mostly all war films nowadays, it glorifies the mission of America as the “exceptional” fighting force so that we at home can enjoy our ”freedom,” the same old cliche that has now become just another lie.