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  Viet Nam Generation
Journal & Newsletter

V4, N1-2 (April 1992)

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Linda Dittmar & Gene Michaud, From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film

New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990

Reviewed by Jean-Jacques Malo, with Dan Scripture

In the last fifteen years hundreds of books have been published on the Viet Nam War. They range from memoirs, to novels, to comic books. There is, however, one area where very few books dealing exclusively with Viet Nam have appeared: cinema. Nonetheless, a number of books have been published that have one chapter treating the relationship between the war and filmmaking (John Hellmann's 1986 American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam is a very good example); other writers, such as Susan Jeffords in her 1989 The Remasculinization of America, have analyzed this association in a larger context linking cinematic narratives to print. Before the publication of Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud's collection, only three volumes have been devoted to cinema and Viet Nam. Julian Smith's extremely thorough 1975 Looking Away: Holywood and Vietnam paved the way for Gilbert Adair's 1981 Hollywood's Vietnam, as well as Albert Auster and Leonard Quart's 1988 How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam. They all tackle feature films. In view of this scarcity of studies, Dittmar and Michaud's book is very welcome.

Theirs is an anthology of essays that came out of a three-day conference on "The War Film: Contexts and Images," held at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 1988. Their goal, as stated in the preface, is "to provide new ways of 'seeing' the representations of [the Viet Nam] conflict, and [they hope] that this process will in turn result in a fuller understanding of the past and positive action for the future." The publication of this compilation accomplishes just that.

This said, a book like this puts me, as a filmographer, in an awkward position. The editors have given us, for the first time, a collection of intelligent and responsible essays on the dramatic interaction between social and ethical cataclysm produced by the war in Viet Nam, and our national escapist pastime--the movies. Nineteen essays (plus the co- editors' insightful introduction) address widely differing issues ranging from documentaries, to the Viet Nam War construction of Chuck Norris, to interpretations of well- known films. The investigators have defined their area of expertise and have accomplished their goals with penetrating perspicacity, and students of the Viet Nam era are the better for it.

So what is the problem? The problem is that very few people in Hollywood and academia realize, that following Dittmar and Michaud's own principles of classification (p. 350), there are about 500 U.S. feature movies related to the experience of the war in Vietnam, and another 100 available from Viet Nam. The co-editors' selected filmography (Appendix B) lists only 171 films (including documentaries) from all over the world. None of the essayists seem to realize the extant of the corpus. No one seems to remember that, contrary to the general belief, by the time The Green Berets was released in 1968, over 30 Viet Nam War movies had already been made, even though Appendix B lists 20 of these films. Where do we find a discussion of the global representation of the returned veteran, when there were more than 140 theatrical releases made by 1975 that dealt with the War or its veterans, before the release of better known films, like Taxi Driver, in 1976? Many of these films are also listed in Appendix B. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the essays address a relatively limited part of the available corpus, far more limited than Dittmar and Michaud's own selected filmography in Appendix B. Perhaps even more important, we can see that there is already a tacit canon of Viet Nam War films, a canon that is neither challenged nor legitimized in a systematic way in any of these essays.

From Hanoi To Hollywood is thus symptomatic of the strengths and weaknesses of Viet Nam War film scholarship in general. Someone has to ask why most of the writers of these essays don't venture beyond the "orthodox" films, the ones that have already received extensive critical attention? The prominent exception in this collection is Martin F. Norden's excellent essay about Cutter's Way, "Portrait of a Disabled Vietnam Veteran: Alex Cutter of Cutter's Way."

We still need to ask whether we need more papers on Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, the Rambo series. (The Deer Hunter is already one of the most written about films in history.) Everyone knows Oliver Stone's two mega-hits: Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, but has anyone ever seen or read about his first Viet Nam War movie? In 1967 he made a short entitled Last Year in Vietnam while he was a film student of Martin Scorsese's. One is led to reflect on the motives of these writers and on the motives of film writers in general. Is the preoccupation with mainstream films simply an example of jumping on the bandwagon? Could it be ignorance of the vast store of other less well-known films that deal with the Viet Nam War? Why is there so little scholarship available on the hundreds of minor films that refer--sometimes directly and profoundly, sometimes obliquely--to the Viet Nam War? Rather than read more critical analyses of films that have already been exhaustively decoded, wouldn't it be more interesting to acquire some sense of the scope of the entire body of work dealing with the Viet Nam War? Wouldn't it be more interesting to read, for a change, an analysis of smaller productions, the less successful films, the unorthodox and extravagant personal statements that represent a much broader spectrum of the human experience than the one promulgated by Hollywood?

At the end of their introduction to the volume, Dittmar and Michaud address this problem of an emerging canon of films about the Viet Nam war. They are aware that "certain omissions...haunt this volume." They are especially concerned with the need for "fuller analysis and theorizing" of "the marginalization of class, race, gender, and ethnicity in the discourse of the Vietnam War." They let us know that they tried to get "a variety of perspectives and to bring attention to as many relevant films as possible," being especially concerned with films not from major studios, independently produced documentaries, and less well-known Hollywood films. But they also tell us that "the fact [was] that essays on Cutter's Way and Hearts and Minds were not readily available while proposals for critiques of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Rambo: First Blood Part II abounded." They are well aware that most of the volume concerning mainstream films "says much about the ways the commercial film industry sets the agenda for scholarship." They go on to argue that, although insufficient, refusing to accept mainstream films at face value, refusing "to leave unexamined precisely what thee films present as unexaminable" is nevertheless of real value, and it is, and the work abounds with thoughtful and provocative ideological critique.

There is, however, a problem with the argument of the final paragraph of their introduction, a problem that shows why it is so important to go further than they have in critiquing the emerging canon, and so important to address a much wider corpus of films. Dittmar and Michaud give as their final concern their "considerable distress...that the thinking gathered here will not reach more than a few of those for whom the issues it raises are most immediate: working class men and women whose material circumstances make them most susceptible to the military's promises of opportunities for training, travel, and a better future." (We will put aside the fact that guaranteed health care, dental care, vision care, food, clothing, shelter, education, a career of sorts, job security, less institutional ethnic and racial discrimination than in any other part of American society, not to mention a month's paid vacation per year, are also powerful attractors to working class men and women. After all, socialism, however flawed, is supposed to attract working class men and women.) Instead, we will look only at the consequence of this concern for the emerging implicit canon.

This consequence is quite simple: these folks are the ones who see all these other films that academic critics almost never view or address. These are the folks who watch the B movies, the TV movies, who rent the non-mega hits at video stores. Even more important, they see the "mainstream" films, that is, the major mega-hits, in a context of having seen many other films about the Viet Nam War. If one wants to understand (and perhaps reach) this non-academic audience, it is necessary to address and analyze this much wider body of films. Dittmar and Michaud see the importance of all these other films in the popular culture, but do not clearly see the political implications for the emerging canon in the general tendency not to address them. In other words, the construction of the emerging canon, by working from a different viewing context, already excludes those for whom the thinking is supposed to be important.

It must be recognized that among the problems in departing from the readily available films, whether mainline or not, is the difficulty of finding the less well-known works, the films from independent studios and producers. While the co-editors of From Hanoi To Hollywood have staked out as their domain the films that define the War mostly in Hollywood's terms, there would be another kind of value and challenge in reading an essay on Steven Miller's Sons. Miller's 1987 film was made almost entirely by veterans in the Pacific Northwest. It portrays very vividly the effects of the war on the lives of veterans and their families without indulging in the superficial glamour or the contrived phoniness often created by the Hollywood studios. Sons is one of the most sincere and poignant films of the last few years, and the story of its production--it was made for only $20,000--is astonishing. Sons is available on video from YES Entertainment.

It would be refreshing to see the same diligence that Dittmar and Michaud have brought to bear on the major films applied to the lesser arcana. But am I blaming the editors for their choices? No. Their options were limited and they did a professional and responsible job of assembling a most interesting collection.

From Hanoi To Hollywood reveals--both by its thoroughness and by its limitations--that there is still much room for exploration. Bring on the B-movies, the independent productions, the documentaries, and the short films. Let us hope that the success of their effort, and the interest in their book will lead to more and broader studies dealing with the Viet Nam War and the cinema. The trend has already begun as evidenced by Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (edited by Michael Anderegg) and Vietnam Veteran Films (by Mark Walker), which have just been published. Everyone interested in the phenomenon that was the Viet Nam War must applaud the level of accomplishment represented by From Hanoi To Hollywood, and be encouraged by the prospects of more to come.

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