Hollywood and Vietnam: Vietnam as a Western Movie

The Western film, a permanent staple of the film industry, has been a varied and flexible structure. As Philip French observed, “The Western is a great grab-bag, a hungry cuckoo of a genre, a voracious bastard of a form, open equally to visionaries and opportunists, ready to seize anything that’s in the air, from juvenile delinquency to ecology.” In the l960s, several directors used the Western as a vehicle for propagating social protest.

The radical politicization of Western movies was due in large part to the Vietnam War. For example, there was complete reversal in American movies’ attitude toward the Indians. During the studio era (roughly from the late l920s to the late l950s), Indians were almost universally portrayed as “the red menace,” a dangerous threat to White Civilization. But after decades of being depicted as “wild savages,” Native-Americans underwent major transformation, now perceived as innocent victims of a white establishment headed by corrupt military and political leaders.

The new Westerns took the Native-Americans’ point of view, in sharp departure from Westerns of previous decades, which embodied dominant culture values. The melting pot ideology, a solution for integrating a pluralistic society, was abandoned in favor of ethnic separatism. Martin Ritt’s Hombre (l967) set a new trend by depicting a white hero (Paul Newman) who, reared as a child by Indians and grown to manhood in white society, finally elects to live with the Indians. Hombre was not only critical of white society, it also showed Indians to be morally superior.

Similarly, in The Stalking Moon (l968), a retired cavalry scout and an Indian chief struggle over the allegiance and identity of the Indian’s mute son. Carol Reed’s The Last Warrior (l970) depicted Indian resistance on a reservation. In Tom Laughlin’s Born to Lose (l967), and its sequel, Billy Jack (l970), the hero is a half-Indian Vietnam vet, who redeems his community of corruption.

Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (l969) was arguably the most important Western of the decade. “A Western that enlarged the form aesthetically, thematically, and demonically,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic. “It is the first masterpiece in the new tradition of the ‘dirty Western,'” noted Richard Schickel in Life magazine, “a film that may emerge as one of the most important records of the mood of our times.”

But The Wild Bunch was also perceived by some critics as a political allegory of the American involvement in foreign countries. Set in Mexico of l9l3, Peckinpah claimed that he was “just trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times, or what happens when killers go to Mexico.” However, the leader’s name, Pike Bishop (William Holden), reminded many of California’s Bishop James Pike, the conscientious, humanistic dropout known for his anti-War views. Peckinpah’s apocalyptic vision of the Old West, with its anarchism and violence, was a perfect evocation of Vietnam.

Aiming at demythologizing the American West, no character is romanticized or glamorized, and this applies to the outlaws as well as the railroaders and businessmen. Holding that life in the Old West was violent, Peckinpah felt it was necessary to depict it graphically in order to condemn it as a way of life. Using death in slow motion, The Wild Bunch was, as Pauline Kael noted, “a traumatic poem of violence,” consisting of images of “great subtlety and emotional sophistication.”

The narrative offered commentary about men who had helped to build the West but time is now passing them by. It’s l9l3 and the end of the frontier era, a case of running out of space, physically and emotionally. Wanted for murder and bank robberies, the outlaws realize that the country is running out of tolerance for their way of life. “We gotta start thinkin’ beyond our guns,” says Pike, “those days are closin’ fast.”

But the film also explored the values of male camaraderie through the deep, ambiguous relationship between the leaders of the two groups, Bishop Pike and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who are mirror protagonists. The chief message is that of group loyalty in treacherous times. “We’re gonna stick together, all of us,” Pike orders, when a youngster wants to get rid of an older member. “When you side with a man you stick with him till he’s finished, or else you’re nothing but some kind of animal. You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us!”

The tone is ambiguous, advocating nihilism and elemental heroism in the men’s ultimate commitment to their group. This portrayal also influenced the viewers’ attitude toward the outlaws: a mixture of relief and sorrow when they are killed, exhilaration and condemnation of their violent conduct, admiration and contempt for their individualism.

The film is not ambiguous, however, in its commentary on the community, depicting its citizenry as passive, apathetic, foolish, and ignorant–another allusion to the apathy of the average American during the Vietnam era. It may be significant that the only active members are children, though they are seen playing, torturing, and burning scorpions and ants. Thus, violence permeates the everyday life of every member, including children, customarily viewed in American films as naive and innocent. In Peckinpah’s world, just as in Vietnam, no one could remain innocent.

Other Westerns

The Wild Bunch revitalized the Western genre, launching a number of interesting films. In A Man Called Horse (l970), the consciousness of a noble Englishman (Richard Harris) is reawakened by a stay among the Sioux Indians. The hero of Little Big Man (1970) is a veteran of the Old West (Dustin Hoffman), who grows up in his adoptive Cheyenne family and shuttles back and forth between white and Indian cultures. The film takes a mock-heroic approach to its hero’s identity crisis, mixing irony and pathos.

Little Big Man was the first film to cast an Indian actor, Chief Dan George, in a major role, as Old Lodge Skin, Hoffman’s grandfather. And it was also the first to portray General Custer as a caricature: the narrative climaxes with his foolish defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Paying tribute to Indians’ rights and acknowledging their culture also characterized Soldier Blue (1970), based on the novel Arrow in the Sun. At its center is a white girl (Candice Bergen), who becomes critical of American culture after being abducted by, and living with, the Cheyenne.

Both films offered parallels with Vietnam in their treatment of the deliberate policy of exterminating Indians. They suggested that in their insensitivity and brutality, the white massacres against the Indians were similar to the My Lai and other massacres in Vietnam.