Hollywood and Vietnam: Impact on Collective Consciousness

Wars have always had pervasive influence on American culture and the arts. They have provided artists (painters, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers) with the essential ingredients of human drama and the opportunity to probe into universal issues: life and death, courage and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, heroism and villainy.

War is the Best Subject of All

“War is the best subject of all,” Ernest Hemingway had said, because “it groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait half a lifetime to get.”

The Vietnam War impinged on the national conscious and unconscious of the American people, by making self and collective examination important virtues. As Robin Wood has observed, one cannot attribute to Vietnam the origins of the feminist, black, and other protest movements, but one can attribute to it the sudden confidence and assertiveness of these movements, as if they could suddenly believe, not merely in the rightness of their causes, but in the possibility of their realization.

Vietnam’s monstrousness undermined the credibility of “the system” as a whole. Mass protests went beyond outrage at an unjust war to include the questioning of authority itself. The social unrest spread to the challenging of the social structure that validated it. The Vietnam War led to a general crisis of confidence in mainstream institutions (patriarchy, the nuclear family). And while the crisis didn’t result in a revolution or a coherent alternative system, it pushed American society into a state of disintegration and basic reevaluation of its values.

Because Vietnam was a different kind of experience, its impact on the American cinema has been more complex and pervasive than other wars. But this unique–the longest, most ambiguous–war has added innovative elements to American life. Vietnam politicized American culture in radical ways, comparable in effects to the Great Depression, another major event.

Vietnam has left its imprint on every art form and medium, though the first to reflect and deal with the war was television, possibly because it was the first war to be fought on television. This article showed that, during the most crucial years of the war, Hollywood didn’t make movie about it.

The issues’ complexity and the war’s controversial status had resulted in the production of movies that didn’t deal directly with Vietnam, but were used as allegories, making allusions and providing commentary about it.

Thus, the graphic portrayal of violence in Bonnie and Clyde can also be attributed to the real-life violence in Vietnam. The film’s violent acts can be seen as a metaphor for both Vietnam and the political assassinations (John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King). More specifically, as Auster and Quart pointed out, the firefights between the Barrow gang and representatives of the law was no different from what was seen in television news night after night. The famous slow-motion death of Bonnie and Clyde was analogous to the numerous slow-motion screenings of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

The disillusionment that began with Kennedy’s assassination, followed by the high-level government deceptions of Vietnam and Watergate, have changed forever the way that the news media–and the public–look at American political power. The attitudes of the American public toward history, theirs as well as other peoples, have also changed as a result of Vietnam.

Critics believe that American foreign policy was based on the arrogant assumption that history can be manipulated, that it can be created and recreated according to the needs of the moment. The harshest opponents of the involvement in Vietnam stress the a-historical orientation of American society, its tendency to ignore the traditions of Vietnam as a country.

As Frances Fitzgerald noted in Fire in the Lake: “historical memory was never the forte of Americans.”

Some detachment may have been needed: In the late l970s, over a decade after the Vietnam War had begun, the American cinema finally began to engage in an active collective reconstruction of a new consciousness about Vietnam. In two decades, the meanings of the Vietnam experience and the stereotypes of the Vietnam vet have changed from one extreme to another. Examining the American cinema during and after Vietnam thus provides a useful record of how American society has come to terms with a traumatic, problematic phenomenon.