The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive times in American history. Not since the Civil War a century earlier had so many Americans found themselves on opposite sides. Often the rift was generational but not always.
But unlike during World War II, the film industry stayed away. Most of the films we know today that deal with the Vietnam experience were made decades later.
Film contributor and historian Dave Luhrssen has a new book called The Vietnam War on Film. It’s part of the larger Hollywood History series, which looks at how accurately films and television portray American history.
"Hollywood avoided the Vietnam War by and large until it was over with, and even then they were very nervous about it," notes Luhrssen. In fact, the only major motion picture to be made during the Vietnam War was The Green Berets in 1968.
Luhrssen admits he had a very different view of the conflict growing up in the era. Too young to be drafted, he was "hyper aware" of the Vietnam War, but he found himself re-learning the history as he conducted research for the book.
"I've matured to the point where there are no heroes and villains here exactly, there are heroic people on all sides who fought for what they thought believed in," he notes. "They fought for their country. They fought to survive. I wanted to honor the people who got through this war with some dignity."
While the best films all have some grounding in events that actually happened, Luhrssen says he had to be very cautious in examining some of the quintessential Vietnam films.
"Looking at it as a historian, I have to be very careful and very conscious — it's not just my impressions of the movie like I'm playing film critic," he says. "I'm also wearing my historian's hat and I wanted to be as accurate as possible."
Film is a distorting lens, says Luhrsse, and war films especially need to be recognized as fiction not historical documentary. He joined Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski to discuss some of the most important films about the Vietnam War and how they were of greater cultural significance:
The Green Berets was John Wayne's personal, admitted propaganda project that he produced, co-directed and starred in. Based off of a book of the same name, Wayne's screenplay underwent many changes to appease the Pentagon, according to Luhrssen.
"This movie was something of a catastrophe from a cinematic standpoint and from a historical standpoint," he says. "It looks like a very mediocre nostalgic World War II film with very little realism."
Although film critics hated it, the film became one of the top 10 box office successes of that year, according to Luhrssen. He says it came out at a time when many Americans were turning against the Vietnam War, but "at the same time there was a substantial number of people who either supported America's war aims or they took the side, so to speak, of the largely working class youths who were fighting this war," explains Luhrssen.
"There were actually scuffles and fights outside of some theaters, protesters versus people going in to see the movie, so it was a flashpoint in the struggle for the public imagination over what to do about this war," he says.
Released in 1979, "it was a huge success at the time, and it eliminated the fear in Hollywood that nobody's going to really want to see a movie set in Vietnam. That was still a prevalent view," says Luhrssen.
He says the film established a high artistic standard in filmmaking. "It presents the war in a very hallucinatory kind of way, getting into the sometimes damaged psychology of life on the ground in fighting this war," he explains.
It was filmed in the Philippines in an effort to have a more realistic environment. But filming constantly ran into troubles.
The film was Francis Ford Coppola's passion project. And to him, his experience there was fighting a war in a way. "And I see his point because he ran into a great many difficulties despite the large amount of money and equipment he had to play with."
Released in 1987, Full Metal Jacket was directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. And he was not interested in taking sides on the war, according to Luhrssen. "It was more a film about the tragedy and absurdity of it all. I think it's fair to say that Kubrick had a very developed sense of the absurd potentials of being alive, of being a human being and to me this is what he was looking at here," he says.
The film is divided into two parts: the first in a Marine boot camp and the second in Vietnam fighting in Hue. While the second half of the film didn't resound with audiences, Luhrssen says the boot camp portion has remained one of the most memorable in cinema history.
"[Kubrick] wanted to show the experience of men thrust into a very dehumanizing situation," notes Luhrssen. "This movie, oddly enough ... inspired the way Marine boot camps became. It actually, I think, had the opposite effect of what Kubrick intended that encouraged some young men to join the Marines because they wanted to experience something like the very rough environment depicted in the first half of the film."