Vietnam: Mentally Disturbed Characters in American Movies

Part One in a Series of Articles about Hollywood and the Vietnam War.

As a film industry, Hollywood is both a commercial and an ideological system since the “products” it creates are stories that bear symbols, values, and meanings.

It’s therefore interesting to analyze what have Hollywood movies about Vietnam tell their audiences, specifically in regards to the character of the Vietnam vet. One expects Hollywood movies to reflect the changes in the political administrations and the prevailing zeitgeist.

To examine the effects of those changes on the portraiture of the Vietnam War and its veterans, the historical era was divided into sub-periods, largely defined by the dominant political administration.

In the years of 1970 to 1976, which were characterized by cynicism and disillusionment during the Nixon administration, three of the five Vietnam films had mentally disturbed characters: “Outside In” and “Welcome Home, Soldier Boys,” in 1972; and “There is No 13,” in 1974.

From 1977 to 1981, during the Jimmy Carter administration, when the country experienced feelings of guilt and ambivalence about the Vietnam War, four of the six films included characters with mental disturbances: “The Boys in Company C” and “Rolling Thunder,” both in 1977, and “Apocalypse Now,” in 1979. This coincided with a rise in literature on the Vietnam War in which Americans were coming to terms with the various problems related to the War. One could say that between 1977 and 1979, the wounds of the Vietnam War were opened and subjected to greater scrutiny.

Then, a revision of history began to take place during the Reagan regime, from 1982 to 1986. Of the seven Vietnam War films, none depicted mentally disturbed characters until 1986, when two pictures showed such characters (“Combat Shock,” “POW The Escape”). This was a time when Reagan’s popularity declined due to the Iran-gate scandal.

There is a resurgence of the theme of mental disturbances between 1988 and 1989 in the Ronald Reagan-George Bush phase, from 1987 to 1990, which is marked by collective feelings of remorse and the need to remember the Vietnam War with all its pains and sorrows. Of the ten Vietnam War films, only two had mentally disturbed characters: “Off Limits” in 1988 and “Jacknife” in 1989.

Television and literature are less conservative than motion pictures, yet those films which were based on autobiographies, biographies, novels, or actual incidents or characters did not depict mentally disturbed characters, with the single exception of “Apocalypse Now” in 1979.

Five of the total of 11 films, which contain mentally disturbed characters, or approximately 50%, end in the deaths of their lead characters. All but one dies after the War rather than in combat. When characters die after the War, it is perceived as a mode of punishment for the unpopularity of the War; as if it were the soldiers’ fault. These five films are: Outside In and Welcome Soldier Boys in 1972, The Deer Hunter in 1978; Apocalypse Now in 1979; and POW The Escape in 1986.

A vet is a character in Vietnam War films depicting mentally disturbed characters, as shown in eight of the 11 films: Outside In and Welcome Home, Soldier Boys in There is No 13, Rolling Thunder, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now; Combat Shock, and Jacknife.

The focus of these films is generally on individuals rather than on a group. The Boys in Company C is the only picture of the 11 with a group focus.

Four of the 11 are set in combat, with Apocalypse Now set both before combat and during the war. The four others set in combat include: The Boys in Company C, The Deer Hunter, POW The Escape, and Off Limits.

Flashbacks are used in five of the 11 films: Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, There is No 13, then after a five-year break, Rolling Thunder, Combat Shock, and Jacknife. All 11 films are explicitly about the Vietnam War.

Types of Mental Disturbance

Different kinds of mental problems are depicted in those pictures:

Outside In: A draft dodger commits suicide upon discovering that he is still classified 1A after he has served his prison sentence for avoiding the draft.

Welcome Home, Soldier Boys: A group of vets die after irrationally losing their tempers over a minor incident and therefore engaging in a firefight in which they kill most of the townspeople in a small southern town. Ironically, the National Guard represents their killers.

There is No 13: The vet’s psychological state from having been witness to physical and psychological horrors during the war are shown to the viewers in flashbacks and flash forwards, through his dreams, thoughts and fears.

The Boys in Company C: A marine becomes hooked on drugs, and officers’ insensitivity to the dangers for the soldiers is depicted.

Rolling Thunder: A vet searches for the murderer of his wife and son in this violent film.

The Deer Hunter: A vet commits suicide after surviving the war. The sane person is the one who was accustomed to killing, in a hunting setting, before becoming a soldier. The insane person is the one who never adjusted to the death and destruction.

Apocalypse Now: An officer is deemed insane, and another officer is sent to kill him. Other demented officers are encountered on the journey to find the original target. A person depicted as sane has a private army of tribesmen.

Combat Shock: A vet who participated in a massacre in Viet Nam has nightmares.

POW The Escape: A mentally disturbed soldier tries to steal from other soldiers, and is redeemed in death as he throws himself on a grenade. The sane people are killing each other over material goods. A decent and sane officer also ends in death, at the hands of another officer.

Off Limits: The insane person, possibly an officer, is murdering prostitutes in Saigon. An officer, possibly the same one who is being pursued as a murder, throws people out of a helicopter.

Jacknife: Vets react differently to their war experiences, one as an alcoholic, one as emotionally maladjusted.

Appendix I: Films Used

The films analyzed in this article are explicitly about the Vietnam War during the period of 1969-1990:

1969:

Hail, Hero!

1970:

The Losers

1972:

Limbo
Outside In
Parades
Welcome Home, Soldier Boys

1974:

There Is No 13

1977:
The Boys in Company C
Rolling Thunder

1978:

The Deer Hunter
Go Tell The Spartans

1979:

Apocalypse Now

1981:

Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder

1983:

Uncommon Valor

1984:

Missing In Action (I)
Purple Hearts

1985:

The Annihilators
Missing In Action II: The Beginning

1986:

Combat Shock
POW The Escape

1987:

Gardens of Stone
Good Morning, Vietnam!
Hamburger Hill
The Hanoi Hilton

1988:

Bat 21
Dear America
Off Limits

1989:

84 Charlie Mopic
The Iron Triangle
Jacknife

Appendix II: Films with Mentally Disturbed Characters

1972:

Outside In
Welcome Home, Soldier Boys

1974:
There Is No 13

1977:
The Boys in Company C
Rolling Thunder

1978:
The Deer Hunter

1986:
Combat Shock
POW The Escape

1989:

Off Limits
Jacknife