Movie Cycles: Hollywood and Vietnam

After John Wayne’s right-wing Vietnam movie, The Green Berets, Hollywood went into a phase of silence that lasted about a decade. Some filmmakers, mostly of left-wing persuasion, addressed issues that were pertinent to Vietnam but they did it in disguise.

In the late 1960s, three film cycles, all radical and revisionist, made strong allusions to the Vietnam War.

The First Cycle

Two major movies, Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant (both in 1969), announced the new trend of countercultural films. This cycle took an anti-establishment turn, containing films about the students’ rebellion (Getting Straight), the Democratic Convention in Chicago (Medium Cool), and other youth-oriented themes.

The Second Cycle

The second cycle consisted of Western films, which dealt with the plight of Native Americans. The genocide of the Indians by the white civilization was used as a metaphor for the war and its atrocities against the Vietnamese. The cycle began with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and continued with Ralph Nelson’s Soldier’s Blue (1971) and Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

The Third Cycle

The third cycle consisted of revisionist war movies that attempted to demystify the Vietnam War. One attribute of these movies (Patton, in 1970, is a good example) was their contradictory ideological messages to the point where they could be liked by viewers of both leftist and rightist tendencies. The greatest success of the cycle was Robert Altman’s blockbuster M.A.S.H. (1970), which nominally was set during the Korea War. These and other movies (Mike Nichols’s Catch 22 in 1971) criticized the Army’s bureaucracy, the military-industrial complex, and by implication, the aggressive, imperialistic nature of American foreign policy.

Thematic Similarities

Beyond thematic differences, the films of the three cycles shared some strategic devices in common. They used episodes of the past to illuminate current issues and events. Thus, Bonnie and Clyde was situated in the Great Depression, The Wild Bunch in Mexico of 1913, and M.A.S.H. in the Korean War. But all three shed light on the upheavals in American society of the late 1960s.

Most films of the late l960s and early l970s were imbued with cynicism and irony that called for an attitude of detachment from their viewers. This strategy differed from classic films of the studio system, whose “realism” was based on the assumption (and illusion) that audiences should identify emotionally with the narratives and protagonists. The new movies reflected the growing alienation in the U.S., a society that lost its moral consensus and clearly defined values.