Hollywood and Vietnam: Allegories

Following the huge success of The Longest Day (l962), Twentieth Century-Fox attempted to make another blockbuster, The Sand Pebbles (l966). Set in l926, an American gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River gets involved with Chinese Warlords in its rescue of American citizens and missionaries. There were hints and parallels with what happened–and was still happening–in Vietnam, but screenwriter Richard Anderson and director Robert Wise were not exactly sure what kind of message they wanted sent to the audience.

Even so, the film suggested that the American diplomacy of interference in the affairs of other people (who don’t want to be rescued), was based on racism and arrogance, superior attitudes toward an inferior race. And Steve McQueen’s cool, tough anti-hero, particularly his mistrust of authority, reflected the way many Americans felt toward the war and their government.

But even McQueen’s powerful screen persona, as the inscrutable and alienated sailor, and a romance with Candice Bergen, couldn’t help the movie commercially. Undeterred, Fox launched an unabashed publicity campaign, which helped the film get 8 Oscar nominations, though it lost in every category. An expensive production shot in Taiwan, The Sand Pebbles failed miserably at the box office.


Patton, the l970 Oscar-winning film, was also ambiguous in its message, aiming to please both right-wing and left-wing viewers by encouraging each group to read the film in its own way. But unlike Sand Pebbles, this shrewd strategy proved to be effective in Patton. Made on a $12 million budget, with an original script by Francis Coppola and E. H. North, it presented a multi-faceted view of WWII General Patton, as a noble hero, demented psychopath, genius strategist, and megalomaniac devoid of feelings.

The film was significantly named Patton: A Salute to a Rebel, but the narrative never asked whether Patton was a rebel and what kind of rebel he was. On the one hand, Patton was presented as a monstrous madman, a super patriot thirsty for action and blood. But he was also shown as a no-nonsense man, devoid of hypocrisy or sentimentality, impatient with bureaucrats, and contemptuous of human shortcomings (he allegedly slapped shell-shocked soldiers who showed cowardice). This dual personality permitted contradictory interpretations: Patton was described as “a magnificent anachronism,” and “a sixteenth century man lost in twentieth century.” The filmmakers never bothered to ask whether Patton was the kind of leader the country needed. Though ambivalent in tone, the overall impression was of admiration: Patton was hungry for power, but he was also a man who wrote poetry and cited from the Bible. President Nixon liked Patton so much that he watched it several times; he perceived the film as a reaffirmation of his policies and screened it for his staff for inspirational purposes.

The film’s battle scenes were shot in grand, epic style, using 70 mm screen and hundreds of extras, a style that contributed to the glorification of war as a great adventure. Young viewers, looking for easy solutions, might have gotten the impression from this movie that the problems of American foreign policy (including Vietnam) were ultimately a function of megalomaniac characters or disturbed personalities (Westmoreland comes to mind as a modern-time Patton). Patton also stirred patriotic sentiments among impressionable viewers in its presentation of foreigners: Russians and British soldiers were presented as inferior to Americans.

The opening sequence of Patton was particularly impressive: standing in front of a huge American flag that dwarfed him, Patton says: “All Americans love the sting of battle. That’s why we’ve never lost a war.” This statement was ironic, for the film opened in February l970, when reports from Vietnam indicated that the U.S. was losing the war and there was no chance of winning. But this ambivalence paid off commercially as well as ideologically. The filmmakers were afraid to alienate any segment of the public, aiming to reach, as most Hollywood movies, the largest potential audience. It was a shrewd move to contain the character’s (and the filmmakers’) ambiguity within the narrative itself.

George C. Scott, in a brilliant performance, dominated every frame, to the exclusion of the other actors, whose roles were underwritten and underdeveloped. It was a one-character, one-star, movie. The country’s response, in the midst of the Vietnam controversy, was overwhelming: the film grossed over 28 million dollars in domestic rentals. Patton won 7 Oscar awards out of its 10 nominations: Best Picture, director Schaffner, actor Scott (who refused his Oscar, though not because of Vietnam), screenplay, art direction, editing, and sound.


Despite Patton’s huge success, the major event of the war cycle was Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. (l970), which was supposedly about the Korean War, but was clearly made in reaction to Vietnam. Set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (thus the title), it was a brilliant anti-War satire with its reductio ad absurdum of the military mystique. M.A.S.H. was made in the tradition of Hollywood service comedies, such as Mister Roberts (l955), Operation Mad Ball (l957), and Wake Me When It’s Over (l960), but it featured a modern sensibility, expressed in narrative and stylistic innovations.

Thematically, M.A.S.H.’s target was not the enemy, but military bureaucracy. It depicted in utmost detail the irreverent behavior of two bright surgeons (Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland), who could only maintain their sanity and normalcy by playing lunatic games and devising seemingly idiotic schemes. The gore of the operation room, a metaphor for the slaughter in Vietnam, surpassed all previous cinematic images. The film juxtaposed their off-duty adventures with their duties as surgeons, which basically amounted to patching up the mutilated bodies of wounded soldiers from the combat zone.

Shown at the l970 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, M.A.S.H. went on to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Sally Kellerman, the only player to receive a nomination, despite a large number of superlative performances, became a household word in her role as Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the uptight Army nurse. M.A.S.H was the kind of entertainment that captured the public imagination in a way that most regular films don’t; it was a media event. In fact, the film was so successful that it was immediately made into a television series (starring Alan Alda), which ran for 11 consecutive seasons (and still can be seen in reruns on Cable.

Impudent and bold, M.A.S.H. satirized the glorification of war, military bureaucracy, social hypocrisy, repressed sexuality, and other old-fashioned norms that have lost their validity. Like the aforementioned countercultural films, it showed mistrust and disrespect for any authority–military or civilian–and any morality–religious or secular. For example, when Trapper John (Elliott Gould) struggles to save the life of a wounded communist, a nurse protests, “Doctor, this man is a prisoner of war.” “So are you, nurse,” he quickly replies, “You just don’t know it.”

Catch 22

With all its lunacy, M.A.S.H. was grounded in a recognizable reality, unlike Mike Nichols’ Catch 22, also part of the cycle, which combined realism and surrealism in depicting the madness of war. M.A.S.H. was extremely popular at the box-office, grossing over 36 million dollars in domestic rentals (the third most popular film of the year). By contrast, Catch 22 achieved only moderate success, with 12 million dollars.

It was easier for the public to read Joseph Heller’s l955 best-selling novel than view its screen adaptation. Too intense, featuring black humor that was far too symbolic, Catch 22 carried its anti-war message to an extreme. Set in the mediterranean during WWII, the Air Force officers are killed one by one. Viewers could not relate to the characters on any level, emotional or intellectual.

It was hard to capture in visual images the book’s more philosophical and existential issues. For example, in one scene, Yossarian wanders through the streets of Rome, trying to find a way “out.” Another character, Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, is depicted as a king of black marketeers. The mastermind of an international syndicate, Minderbinder buys and sells from all sides, save the Russians, who are Communists. He also organizes the ultimate amoral business transaction by having his own base bombed, and alerting the Germans to an imminent American raid.

The alienation of Catch 22’s heroes was so excessive that viewers showed detachment. In M.A.S.H., the surgeons weren’t devoted to the military, but there was no doubt about their professional competence. It was their off-duty behavior that was hilariously “strange.” Catch 22 failed to show the distinction between on and off military duty. The film showed that author Heller was not only outraged by the totality of war, but also convinced, as one critic noted, that “the U.S. was tragically involved in the repetition of the absurdity of European history: its warfare, its class structure, its monomaniacal pursuit of wealth, and its childish reliance upon authority in matter of religion and politics.” These messages may have been too much for audiences to digest in l971, while the Vietnam War was still going on in full volume.