Hollywood and Vietnam: Countercultural Films

In the late l960s, the few films that alluded to Vietnam dealt with the draft. They were mostly comedies, using bittersweet humor, rather than anger and protest. Brian De Palma began his career with the small, independently made Greetings (l968), a film that captured the irreverent mood of the time, described by one critic as “an overground sex-protest film.” Ironically, the film, made specifically for younger audiences, received an X rating, limiting admission to older viewers.

De Palma on Vietnam

Robert De Niro plays Jon Rubin, a naughty youngster who, despite efforts to avoid the draft, goes to Vietnam and winds up starring in a television newscast. Episodic, Greeting contained several sketches about military conscription, computer-dating, adult movies, jogging in circles around policemen in Central Park, and even the Warren Commission whitewash. One member of the clique spends his time shooting holes at the Commission report. In “Sooth-the-Nation” television address, President Johnson tells Americans: “I’m not saying we’ve never had it so good, but that is a fact.”

A Bronx secretary, who goes on a date via computer services, lists everything she’s wearing for the date and what it cost, down to her nail polish. The funniest sequence describes an encounter with a salesman of “dirty” movies (the title of the film is “The Delivery Boy and the Bored Housewife”), who sells his product in a Coca Cola package, because “dirty” movies go better with Coke.

The mad, disarming, but inoffensive, Greetings was followed by a more skillful sequel, Hi, Mom! (l970), also by De Palma. In this one, the De Niro character is back from Vietnam, attempting to pursue his “Peeping Tom” art career with a new kind of porno film. Unsuccessful, he gets an acting job in a “total theater” production about the black experience–as interpreted by white suburbia.

Hi, Mom! contained black humor, particularly about the art of making and selling pornography; its sharpest jabs were about sex. But the film also explored the militarization of Washington Square; some viewers criticized dynamiting in light of the recent self-immolations in the Village. Still, there were many insights, such as one about the white “black power” activist who demurs before painting his body entirely black. Or the pornographic impresario, who wants to make “the first children’s exploitation film, but nothing dirty, nothing smutty.”

Made independently on a shoestring budget, by the then unrecognizable De Palma and De Niro, and lacking the sponsorship and advertising of a major studio, both Greeting and Hi, Mom! had limited commercial appeal.

Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant

A much more important film was Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (l969), inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s popular talking-blues ballad, “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a summation of a generation that was anti-establishment and anti-Vietnam. An experiment in collectivist life, the film begins by celebrating the virtues of communes. Set in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a surrogate family, headed by the married Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) includes hippies, college dropouts, and other “deviants” who can’t conform to mainstream society.

Its hero is Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary folk singer, who connects among the film’s disjointed sequences. Arlo wears long hair, smokes dope, and gets in trouble with any form of authority: the college, police, and military. In one sequence, Arlo is at a Draft Registration Center, surrounded by youngsters who pretend to be rapists, homosexuals, and psychopaths, all trying to escape the draft. The military is ridiculed for its narrow bureaucratic procedures and commitment to destruction; Arlo shrieks to the military shrink, “I wanna kill!” The incomprehensible military forms serve as a metaphor for “red tape” bureaucracy. When Arlo is arrested for illegally dumping garbage, he’s subjected to advanced police technique, a metaphor for the technology used in Vietnam.

The film sides with the youth counterculture, using the ballad of its title to chronicle social ills (bureaucratic hypocrisy, repressive authority, rigid police) of the time. But it also contains criticism of and disillusionment with youth culture. At the end, after attempts at an alternative lifestyle to the nuclear family, the commune collapses. Ray believes that buying a farm in Vermont would solve the problem. “If we’d a just had a real place,” he says, “we’d all still been together…without buggin’ each other…we’d all be some kind of family.”

Ray is a dreamer who has not lost his naivete, but he also understands the tension between private and collective life. He envisions a utopian commune, “where everybody can have his own house, and we could all see each other when we wanted to, or not see each other, but all be there.” Ironically, the members leave the commune shortly after Ray and Alice’s second marriage, a ritualistic ceremony designed to promote integration.

Easy Rider

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), the anti-heroes of Easy Rider, the most commercial film of the cycle, were new screen protagonists: hippies on motorcycles in search of “America.” Their names resonate with Westerns made about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. However, instead of Easterners going West (“Young Man Go West!”), Wyatt and Billy ride from West to East. What’s left of the ethos of the Old West are two drug dealers, who make enough money from drugs sold to a capitalist, to pay for a fun trip to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Drug dealing is not regarded as more deviant or corrupt than the activities of a mainstream institution like business. Billy, in fact, says that “dope peddling” is no worse “than the Wall Street tycoon spending eighty percent of his time cheating the government.”

The two men adhere to a cult of youthfulness, hedonism without any responsibility, familial or marital. A road movie, Easy Rider begins as a hymn to the openness and vastness of the land, and ends as a tragic vision of the American Dream. Billy and Wyatt are contrasted with the “straight” world, rednecks who can’t tolerate their looks (long hair), ideals (spontaneity and freedom), and culture (rock music). The backward bigots embody elements of crowd mentality and mob behavior.

In one scene, Wyatt and Billy stop to repair a flat tire at a poor rancher’s house. Through cross-cutting, the film conveys the two contrasting lifestyles: the rancher and his horse and the two men with their motorcycle. Surrounded by a huge family at dinner, Wyatt tells the rancher: “It’s not everyman who can live off the land, you know, doing his own thing his own time. You should be proud.” But this statement is not convincing, as clearly it’s not a lifestyle for him.

Later, the two are juxtaposed with the members of an agricultural commune. They express interest, but they can’t adopt this collective lifestyle. It’s hard life: the film offers an unglamorous view of communal life. “You know, this could be the right place,” says one member, urging that “time’s running out.” At first it appears as an alternative, reminiscent of the back to the soil movement during the Depression. But Billy wants to go, and the inarticulate Wyatt says almost apologetically, “I’m hip about time, but I just gotta go.” But where they are going and what their goals are remain unclear.

The movie celebrates romantic individualism, but it’s also a cautionary tale: excessive (irresponsible) individualism might have detrimental effects. Unlike Alice’s Restaurant, Easy Rider makes no direct allusions to Vietnam (the word is never mentioned). But both films are products of the Vietnam era in experimenting with new lifestyles and new cinematic forms. Alice’s Restaurant and Easy Rider point out the problems of communes as alternative lifestyles to white, middle-class culture and patriarchal nuclear family.

Other Countercultural Films

Other countercultural films of the late l960s examined the disruptive effects of the Vietnam War on social-political values. The Strawberry Statement (l970) trivialized James Simon Kunen’s personal memoir of the Columbia University riots, by featuring a hero who joined the sit-in at the university because that’s where the attractive girls were.

At the center of Getting Straight (l970) is a sophisticated student, a Vietnam vet, who believed that “getting laid was a radical act.” This film correlates social protest with sexual politics: the climax depicts a university riot during which the hero gets laid. Both films were panned by conservative critics, who thought they hyped and sensationalized the students’ rebellion by focusing on sex. However, the films captured the students’ value-confusion and society’s moral chaos, two unexplored themes.

Gregory Peck produced but didn’t star in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (l972), a modest work about the trial of Father Daniel Berrigan, his priest brother, and seven men who were charged with breaking into a draft center and burning Army Files as protest against the War. Peck took the film from one studio to another until Paramount finally distributed it–without much advertising. Failing to find bookings, the film was removed from the screen in the few big cities where it was shown.