Such Movies...should perhaps be seen less as about the Vietnam War...than part of it – part, at least, of how it was perceived by Americans. Gilbert Adair, Vietnam on Film

The Vet Strikes Back
One Vet's Interpretation of
The History of the Vietnam Veteran in the Movies

Twenty years after the Tet Offensive, films that deal with Vietnam or the Vietnam veteran are either ignored entirely or are as controversial as the war itself. It seems impossible to make a movie with Vietnam as a setting or as a part of the main character's background without subjecting the film to political interpretation and, once that interpretation is made, to the polarization of supporters and detractors on a scale unwarranted by the artistic merits of the product. Despite Elmo Williams' claim that "there is only one reason why studios make films and that is to make money' the producers, writers, directors and even the actors have readily indicated political biases in their off-screen comments.

From the earliest appearances of Vietnam in the movies, our attitudes were shaped by the prevalent film biases. “The white man's burden" as assumed by Alan Ladd in Saigon ('47), was only a small part of our post-war missionary zeal. China Gate ('57) clearly documents a rabid post-McCarthy anti-communism. The Quiet American ('57), The Ugly American ('62) and even Operation CIA ('65) didn't diverge from the direction of our foreign policy.

The efficacy of the visual media as a socializing agency for initiating Americans cannot be overestimated. Indeed, . . . concepts such as heroism, morality and manhood are, if not invented, at least repeated and socially maintained with a high degree of symbolic consistency by the media. 
Lloyd B. Lewis, The Tainted War

Other movies laid the foundation for our willingness to "ask not what your country can do for you...." Michael Herr (Dispatches) wrote about "all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies...You don't know what a media freak is until you've seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks."

If the soldier went off to the War with John Wayne values, the veteran came back to a world where the Duke was dying, if not already dead. The disintegration of the Studio system and the rise of the Independent Producers, the breakdown of the MPAA Production Code, new regulations at the Pentagon and the higher financial risks involved with "spectaculars" all combined with the changing moral climate of the sixties.

The film industry was slow to react to the Vietnam war. Perhaps it felt that it was difficult to compete with the realism of TV news. (By failing to supply moral leadership during the Vietnam era, Hollywood facilitated the maturation of television as a rival social force.)

If myth-making about War was a disservice inflicted on the Vietnam veteran by the film media before he went to Vietnam, that disservice was compounded when he returned. The Veteran and the Vietnam War were assigned Hollywood roles as convenient stereotypes, a shortcut to plot and character development.

These stereotypes were further distorted by the writer's perceptions, and filtered through technological and financial constraints, directors, backers, cameramen and actors. With some notable exceptions, movies about the war and its veterans were not made by Vietnam veterans and rarely relied on the input of such participants to provide veracity. Each of these filters brought his or her own biases to the table. The image of the Vietnam Veteran that dominated these films at the end of the sixties and well into the seven-ties was the nightmarish projection of the fears of the non-combatant toward the returning veteran whose job he had taken, whose wife he had seduced, whose injury on the battlefield was a badge of his betrayal.

"For your type, "(The Agent] said, "we start with the biker picture, then your pathological killer, then your patient picture. By then you're established, you can do whatever you want."
"Patient Picture...?"
"Gives you that human dimension," he explained, "rounds you off after the psycho."
Donald E. Westlake, Sacred Monster

The Vietnam Veteran is first encountered in the Biker movies. To reflect on the origin of this particular genre: Hollywood seemed to have discovered the teenage audience with the Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause and, in its infinite wisdom, determined that the motorcycle was the common factor that made these films successful. Using a connection with Vietnam to give "social significance" to the films, Biker Vets rode the silver screen from 1967 to 1971. At this time, Hollywood still hadn't decided how to treat the veteran – in some movies, the Vet was the bad guy biker (Angels from Hell '68); in others he mounted his own chopper to rout the baddies (Satan's Sadists '69) – but in either case the vet brought the violence of war with him.

The biker/outlaw is an American folk hero image, so we shouldn't be surprised to see the role enlarged to befriending/protecting the counter-culture (Billy Jack) or the exploited minorities (Slaughter, Gordon's War), or the virtue of teenage hookers (Taxi Driver). This, in turn split into two distinct trends, the Vet as a vigilante and the Vet as a psychopath. Sometimes, he's both. Again, the veteran was an excuse for major directors like Elia Kazan (The Visitors, '72). Steven Spielberg (Whispering Death, '71), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, '78) or grade Z bombs to experiment with violence in a "socially redeeming" setting.

The third stage of Donald Westlake's analogy is seen in the more recent films. The veteran's stereotype has evolved into the patient, with varying degrees of "the human dimension". The Vietnam experience is used as a cinematic shorthand for character development. A tour of duty in 'Nam explains why a character will walk into a train moments into the film (Distant Thunder) or the sociopathic tendencies of a man who prefers snakes to people (Stanley). But there is a new tendency to dismiss the Veteran as one who no longer has the capacity to endanger society or one whose violence tendencies have been channeled to his immediate environment, i.e., his friends, family or himself or into some socially acceptable role, such as law enforcement. Is there an element of snobbery in the relegation?

"Who the hell are you — an avenging angel?"
"No, I'm just an ex-grunt who's eaten enough dirt to last me a lifetime. Dying isn't so bad; everyone's got to do it. And once you realize that, it gives you a big edge on those scumbags, because they think they're going to live forever."
Lawrence Sanders, The Timothy Files, 1987

Vietnam service appears tangentially in the back-ground of Mickey Rourke to rationalize his love-hate relationship with objets d'Orientale and his propensity to violence in Year of the Dragon. Other movie and television policemen/private detectives get Vietnam service ribbons for similar reasons. The druggies may be replacing the psycho vet as a symbol of evil in today's films; the vet/cop is there to supply the iron fist of creative violence when the velvet glove fails to work.

Often incredible (to the vet) plotlines are supported by the mythology surrounding Vietnam and the Vietnam veteran. The screenwriters, first, and the film-going public, second, will suspend their disbelief beyond ordinary bounds with the mention of Vietnam. In House ('86), there is a workable concept for a horror picture/psychological thriller. A writer struggling with flashbacks/survivor's guilt/family disintegration works them out by writing a book in his childhood home. Realism gave way to the absurd; the final product couldn't decide whether it was going to be a parody of horror pictures or a bloody slasher movie and failed on both counts. In the same year the British Riders of the Storm came out with Vietnam Veterans staying airborne for 15 years operating a pirate radio station in a converted bomber to save the world from the war-mongers.

Television did not need Vietnam as long as the war was a big drawing card already on the seven o'clock news. There were minor attempts to transport it into Prime Time as early as 1969. George McGowen directed Lee Majors (The Ballad of Andy Crocker, '69) and Martin Landau (Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol, '71) offered bowdlerized versions of the returning veteran stories being shown at the local movie houses. The Forgotten Man ('71) was the first of the Vietnam-oriented TV "melodrama of the month" message movies that appeared with increasing frequency as the war disappeared from the news broadcasts. By 1986, there were at least 5 such movies in one year, dramatizing such diverse topics as Agent Orange (Unnatural Causes), POW homecoming (Intimate Strangers), homeless (Samaritan), race relations (Resting Place) and military survivalists (Code of Vengeance II).

On television the Vietnam Veteran is always a psychopath who hallucinates and thinks he is in a fire-fight. The police and SWAT teams are gentle and patient. Not wanting to hurt the veteran who is armed and shouting again to his platoon they wait it out and capture him with great cleverness. The veteran is led off. He will receive the best medical treatment. There are wonderful psychiatrists waiting to help. Some lies are hilarious.
Gloria Emerson, Winners and Losers

TV also experimented with reviving the war as a soap opera. In 1981, a big budget ABC Friday Night Movie Fly Away Home, written and produced by television veteran Stirling Silliphant had the earmarks of a TV series pilot that couldn't find a timeslot. The appeal of the Vietnam war as a long running series was supported by the interest given to documentaries during the early 80's (Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War ['80], PBS' Vietnam: A Television History ['83] and NBC's The Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite ['86]). Several dramatic formats have been tested — Five O'Clock Follies (8?), Glory Years ('85), War Correspondents? ('8?), Tour of Duty ('87) and China Beach ('88) — and the latter pair have managed to survive network infighting and critical opposition, at least until this writing, with predictably low or declining levels of authenticity.

Twenty years of stereotyping has taken its toll. While Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now recognized as a legacy of the Vietnam War, a mutant strain of this affliction, Post Celluloid Stress Disorder (PCSD), has affected participant and non-participant alike. The Stockton, CA, massacre earlier this year may have been an instance of an Oliver Stone overdose.

Are the movies inventing new freaked out vets? Or maintaining a stereotype of the Vet as a loser in life? Hollywood's effort at an Affirmative Action program hasn't done much to rehabilitate the image of Blacks and Indians, so what can the Vietnam Veteran expect in the next two decades of film?

Steve Sherman
Houston, TX
November 1989


"And the guy's a war hero. Now, are you going to hold all that against him?"
"Not in the Eighties we can't; it's back in style."
Deborah Winger and Jeff Demunn (?) in Betrayed