Hollywood and Vietnam: 1965-1975–Decade of Silence and Conspiracy?

The first phase in the cultural treatment of Vietnam was marked by paucity of Hollywood films, a combined result of the administration’s manipulation of public opinion and artists’ fear of dealing directly with Vietnam.

The decade of 1965 to 1975 could be called a decade of silence and conspiracy.

TV Coverage

In the l960s, the only knowledge about Vietnam was transmitted by the news media. The Vietnam War has made television news the ultimate source of information. Indeed, never before has a news agency assume such immense power as television. By the late l960s, almost every household in the U.S. had one television set. There were controversies concerning the appropriate role of television news during the Vietnam War, particularly the dilemma between professional responsibility, i.e. the demand for accurate and “objective” reportage, and patriotism, which advocated censorship in the defense of national interests. Thus, on November 13, 1969, Vice-President Spiro Agnew attacked the media as “a small group of men in TV news,” that controls the images that 40 to 50 million American viewers receive of the day’s events.

The saturation of the American public with vivid images of Vietnam (the daily “body count”) on television and the war’s controversial status had precluded extensive artistic and cultural response. The Vietnam War has been the most extensively covered war in American history and the first to take full advantage of television as America’s dominant medium. Vietnam has acquired the “nickname” of “the Living Room War,” because it was watched by millions of Americans. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) observed with a good sense of irony that Vietnam was “probably the first war that was run as an advertising agency might run it.” In their coverage, the news media relied heavily on reports from Washington, but by printing the official “progress” reports, the media helped legitimize the government’s line. Up until l968 (the Tet Offensive), the press not only accepted, but also approved of the government’s version of the war.

TV Entertainment

Television aired few entertainment programs that touched upon issues of Vietnam. Two comedy shows, That Was the Week That Was and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, occasionally included material about Vietnam. But it would be erroneous to think that TV programming in the l960s didn’t acknowledge Vietnam. The difference between culture production during WWII and Vietnam was that in the former, the war and its issues were addressed directly and explicitly, whereas in the latter, most programs acknowledged the war indirectly and implicitly.

For example, never before had American television shown so many war-oriented programs with so many soldiers as protagonists. More than ten war drama series premiered on television between l961 and l968. The cycle began in l962 with ABC’s Combat, but continued with a steady stream of series. Combat, the most popular of these dramas, established an impressive record with 152 episodes.

In l966, five network shows dealt with the war: Three on ABC (Combat, 12 O’Clock High, and Rat Patrol), and two on CBS (Jericho and Hogan’s Heroes). All, except Jericho, achieved some success, and one, Rats Patrol, was the highest-rated show of the season. All shows, however, were set in the past; most in WWII, with some (The Americans) in the Civil War and one (The Lieutenant) in peacetime.

First Film about Vietnam

Marshall Thompson was responsible for the first film about Vietnam, A Yank in Vietnam (l964), which he directed and also starred in. A low-budget movie, it depicted American advisers helping the South Vietnamese against the Communist invaders. A nationalist guerrilla stated the message: “First came the Japanese. Then the French, and now the Communists. We’ve been fighting all our lives.” The film was made in the tradition of Hollywood’s Cold War movies–the good guys fighting the bad guys. However, it set the pattern of later films by depicting the events from an American point of view and by hardly showing the victims of the atrocities: the Vietnamese people.

French Response to Vietnam

French filmmakers were quicker than their American counterparts in dealing with Vietnam, perhaps because of France’s previous involvement in Vietnam, or the audacity of the New Wave, which revolutionized the language of cinema in contents and form.

In l965, Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important member of the group, made Pierrot le fou, which contained a sequence about the Vietnam conflict as a pantomimic burlesque.

Two years later, in l967, Godard was joined by other filmmakers of the New Wave (Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda) in the production of Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam). Among the film’s highlights were sympathetic interviews with Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. Castro upset the American establishment when he explained that, historically, guerrilla warfare always wins at the end. The film ridiculed Vice President Humphrey’s European tour and also poked fun at General William C. Westmoreland, seen on a badly tuned TV set. But Far from Vietnam depicted favorably the anti-Vietnam peace rally in Washington D.C., in spring l967.

The Green Berets

The major American cultural products about Vietnam in the l960s were the publication of Robin Moore’s The Green Berets in l965, and John Wayne’s film version of the book in l968. Both products cashed in on the public’s familiarity with the Green Berets. It was President Kennedy who perceived the need to fight the Communists in Asia with guerrilla forces, calling for the use of a new breed of American fighters: the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Green Berets were perceived to be Kennedy’s idea, even though he didn’t create them because the values they embodied–energy, vigor, devotion, and commitment–were congruent with his “New Frontier.”

Robin Moore, co-author of an earlier book on guerrilla war in the Caribbean, wrote The Green Berets as a tribute to the Special Forces. He himself took a training course of counter-guerrilla fighting, donned a uniform, armed himself with a rifle, and went to Vietnam. Moore’s book was based on his experience, which he fictionalized to avoid secrets of national security. Some critics complained that the book’s real villains were “counterpart” Vietnamese officers, presented as coward, hostile, corrupt, and inept. Others noted that Moore displayed in his book “contempt of most Vietnamese.”

The fact that The Green Berets became a best-seller surprised intellectuals of left-wing persuasion. Moore attributed the book’s success to the American people’s need for a hero image at times that lacked such heroes. The book also inspired a song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” whose sales topped 3 million copies in a few weeks, and it persuaded an influential movie star, John Wayne, to go to Vietnam and collect information for a movie.

Wayne’s view of Vietnam was rooted in his old hatred of Communism. Pragmatic, Wayne wrote to President Johnson that it was important that “not only the people of the U.S., but those all over the world should know why it was necessary for us to be there.” The star’s view of the conflict was even harsher than the Administration’s, because the screenplay’s first draft was rejected as being too strongly anti-Communist. Jack Valenti, then the President’s communications assistant, reportedly told Johnson: “Wayne’s politics (are) wrong, but in so far as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said.” Batjac, Wayne’s production company, thus received the Administration’s blessing and support.

James Lee Barret’s screenplay was only loosely based on the novel. Many changes, Moore claimed, were imposed on the script by the Department of Defense in order to keep up an unpopular war. Wayne said his motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.” “I wasn’t trying to send a message out to anybody,” he reasoned, “or debating whether it is right or wrong for the United States to be in this war.”

Wayne was accused, however, by liberal groups of glorifying an unpopular war, which irritated him: “What war was ever popular for God’s sake those men don’t want to be in Vietnam anymore than anyone else.” “Once you go over there,” he said, “you won’t be middle-of-the-road.” However, even Wayne set his film cautiously in l963, when the war was less controversial and the issues clearer. At that time, the official role of the U.S. was limited to “advise” the South Vietnamese Army. The narrative starts with the Green Berets’ training at the John F. Kennedy School for Special Warfare in North Carolina. Wayne’s Colonel Michael Kirby, a dedicated career officer, is contrasted with a pacifist war correspondent (David Janssen) who has doubts about the involvement in Vietnam. But at the end, the correspondent changes his mind and pitches in with the fighting men, committed as they are to its noble cause.

The Green Berets was simple-minded, and modeled on Wayne’s Western formula. The outpost was named Dodge City, after a popular Western staring Errol Flynn. And Wayne delivers such lines as “Out here, due process is a bullet,” in a vein similar to his Westerns. He plays yet another cavalry officer, this time fighting the North Vietnamese (instead of the Indians), but the morality is basically the same. Wayne’s motives for making the picture also seemed to be taken from one of his Westerns. “This is the right course” for the U.S. because “we gave our word,” a phrase taken from Fort Apache, in which Wayne’s hero gives his word to the Indians. Most critics panned The Green Berets, as film and as politics, but it was extremely popular, proving again that critics had no impact on Wayne’s standing at the box office.

Up to l968, the two media that dealt with Vietnam were television and theater, but not film. Focusing on the transmission of daily information, there were few cultural products about Vietnam. It would take another decade for American films to produce art works about Vietnam.

Historian Eric Goldman has called the late l960s “a watershed as important as the American Revolution or the Civil War in causing changes in the U.S.” The Vietnam War has been compared to the Civil War because of its ideological nature and the internal strife it created within American society. Vietnam pitted hawks against doves, hard-hats against peaceniks, militant against passive citizens. The decline of patriotism as a value in the late l960s led to some basic questioning of the American national character. Serious doubts were raised about the definition of the ideal American citizen. Traditional patriotism, one of the most durable values in American culture, not only became controversial but suspicious too. Incidents of Americans burning their flag, the national symbol, as protest against the war, became acceptable sights on television.

The l960s idealists have become so disenchanted with traditional attitudes and so disillusioned with foreign policy, that in the early l970s politics ceased to be a public concern and there was a decline in participation in the democratic process. The Vietnam War led to a growing cynicism about the political system, alienating millions of Americans from their own government. The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation just added to the frustration with Vietnam, resulting in Americans’ withdrawal from overt political involvement.

The main motifs in the country’s cultural reaction to Vietnam were cynicism and disillusionment. While Vietnam was the major catalyst, other significant events, such as the political assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the black ghetto’s unrest, students’ rebellion, the emergence of the New Left and counterculture, all challenged traditional beliefs and institutions. The counterculture sanctioned free sexuality, drug-using, draft-dodging, and flag-burning in defiance of bourgeois morality. The disillusionment with the American Dream, as defined by white middle-class men, was manifested in the production of art that stressed fragmentation, breakdown, and loss of consensus as to America’s role in world politics. This polarization, which replaced the old consensus, became the prevailing norm and took the form of challenging the dominant thematic and mythic paradigms.

“Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” was the way one critic described the suspicious relationship between the public and the government during the Vietnam years. The people’s deep mistrust of the government was a direct result of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Several films and TV programs incorporated into their narratives the anti-war movement’s feelings of mistrust of any form of political authority.

John Ford Documentary

That the government was out of touch with public opinion was clear from John Ford’s documentary, Vietnam! Vietnam! (l972) which, sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), represented the official line. Ford, one of the best filmmakers (winner of four Oscar Awards), was known for his Republican politics, which made him a natural choice for producing an “official” documentary. Like John Wayne, Ford visited in Vietnam in l966, but his contribution to Vietnam! Vietnam! was mostly in postproduction, supervising the editing and rewriting of the script, which was narrated by another Hollywood conservative, Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Vietnam! Vietnam! was longer (58 minutes) and more expensive (with a budget of $250,000) than other USIA documentaries. It consisted of a prologue (a montage of stills of some 50 headlines of the l960s, from the Beatles to the Pill to Vietnam); exploration of Vietnam’s background, culture, and the war; and cameos of politicians (Reagan, Johnson, McCarthy, Fulbright), ordinary soldiers, and hippies, all debating the war.

The documentary ended with a shot of a Vietnamese parade with 7-Up-can torches, while Heston narrated solemnly: “The flames were still bright on December 31, l969, but if that fire would be a permanent light of freedom or would be extinguished was not to be known within the decade.” Vietnam! Vietnam!’s interpretation of the war was so outdated by the time of its release (four years after it was made), that it caused the government embarrassment. After some screenings at USIA libraries and consulates, the film was withdrawn from exhibition.