Volume 5 Number 1-4
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History and Subjectivity, Part I:
What We Won't Learn from the Hollywood-Style Vietnam War Film
Michael Selig, Mass Communication, Emerson College
Not too many years ago, film critics and scholars decried Hollywood's avoidance of the Vietnam war. Not only did they perceive the absence of films about Vietnam as consistent with Hollywood's well-known aversion to controversial subjects, they also lamented the loss of the mass media as a forum for understanding the history of US intervention in Vietnam. In recent years, Hollywood-style "Vietnam war films" have been produced at an unusual rate (with considerable public attention), and the issue is no longer the absence of films on the history of US intervention in Vietnam, but the authenticity of the history these films tell. 1
This concern with authenticity should go beyond noting the obvious distortions that are commonly mentioned, like the geographical distortions of The Green Berets or the cultural distortions of The Deer Hunter. The questions regarding the authenticity of Hollywood's Vietnam war films should focus instead on two related issues: how the films attempt to present themselves as authentic, and how this authenticity is in fact a product of subjecting history to Hollywood's narrative conventions.
In The Political Unconscious, Frederic Jameson tells us, "History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis..." 2 In an era we have so easily conceived of as "post-Vietnam," Jameson's general pronouncement about "history" seems especially appropriate. There are many, no matter what their political persuasion, who say "we lost the war," a consensus recognition of frustrated national desire. The films about US intervention in Vietnam are structured around this confrontation between "desire" and "history." The difficulty, however, is that, as James William Gibson notes, "Unlike previous American experiences of war, there was no popular cultural archetype to account for successful Vietnamese resistance to foreign invaders." 3 In other words, the "fit" between desire as it is represented in Hollywood films and the events surrounding the US involvement in Vietnam isn't very good.
Why is it, then, that Hollywood has in recent years produced a seemingly unending stream of films "about Vietnam"? The obvious answer is that once a Vietnam war film was profitably distributed, others followed. Certainly, the divisiveness of the Vietnam-war era has given way not only to a consensus that "we lost the war" but also to the somewhat reluctant consensus that the war was "wrong." 4 This is a moral judgment, as will become clear later, and not a political one. In any case, there is no longer the worrisome potential for alienating a large segment of the audience by taking a stand "against" the war in Vietnam.
And yet, as much as the development of a consensus about US intervention in Vietnam might explain Hollywood's newfound and often self-congratulatory "courage" to produce films on the subject, it doesn't explain how Hollywood films construct a text that can negotiate the confrontation between desire and history in a pleasurable way. More specifically, how is history subjected to desire in the Hollywood Vietnam war film?
Vietnam as Melodrama
Ever since D.W. Griffith, the Hollywood cinema has been imbued with the conventions of the melodramatic. Within this generic narrative framework, Hollywood films have consistently struggled to resolve contradictions between desire and social order. According to Robert Lang, melodrama strives to understand "where the desire of the subject stands in relation to the interdiction of the Law." Further,
Melodrama's driving impulse is... to establish a norm, a form, a structure that is recognizable and reproducible. Its reproducibility and commercial viability are the guarantees that it... is a legitimate vision of the world.... [M]elodrama... reveals the greater complexity (and confusion) of our vision, of our attempt to order experience after the breakdown of the traditional Sacred and its institutions. 5
The melodramatic thus becomes the vehicle for Hollywood films to confront history, or more specifically, to confront historical change in a fashion that appears as "a legitimate vision of the world," that is, as authentic and authoritative. The melodramatic happy ending also promises at least a provisional halt to the dialectic of desire and history: it secures the gratification of the former despite the demands of the latter. As a way of dealing with loss, with what Lang calls the "breakdown of the Sacred," melodrama offers a victory over the forces of historical change. 6
The melodramatic provides the Hollywood Vietnam war film, then, with "a form... recognizable and reproducible" that allows the reshaping of a historical loss into a victory. This is a simple enough narrative task to accomplish if the "lost" war in Vietnam is merely a pretext for the cartoonish exploits of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris. 7 But for the seemingly more serious films about US intervention in Vietnam, the melodramatic restitution of order through the triumph of good over evil would seem to stand in contradiction with the history of a war that the nation now concedes was not only "lost" but was also "wrong." The Hollywood Vietnam war film, then, is saddled with the difficult task of not only trying to resolve a generalized contradiction between history and desire; it must do so in a way that will allow the (re)creation of a national identity within the melodramatic context of the good and the just.
National Identity and Masculine Subjectivity
As Robert Lang notes, "The melodrama... is first a drama of identity." 8 But the difficulties of reconstructing a "post-Vietnam" national identity within traditional melodramatic formula are obvious. After the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, a national identity built on the military victory and moral righteousness of US intervention in World War II seems a great self-delusion. As Lewis Lapham writes, "Prior to defeat in Vietnam, most Americans had been content to think of themselves as honorable people, unerringly drawn to the side of what was true and noble and right... the war proved them wrong in this judgment..." 9 This lack of military assurance and moral certitude is expressed in numerous Vietnam war films and other stories in the surprised exclamations of green recruits that "this ain't no John Wayne movie." (It's also the reason why the Rambos of post-Vietnam war America seem so exaggeratedly false.)
And yet, in the Hollywood Vietnam film the melodramatic still provides a vehicle for resolving the contradictions between desire and history through the characterization of the US soldier as the subject of Vietnam. By subject, I don't just mean the point of the narrative's focus, but rather something more encompassing. In recent psychoanalytic film theory, the "subject" has come to signify a certain relationship between the spectator and the film which is the basis for a pleasurable viewing experience. This relationship is generally mediated by a melodramatic protagonist or hero, who is constructed as the subject of the film by the use of a number of cinematic techniques. These techniques attempt to position the viewer to share the perspective and judgments of the protagonist. 10 These cinematic devices range from the sharing of information with the protagonist (e.g., clues to a murder in a detective film, to the predominance of point of view shots from the protagonist's perspective, to the employment of a voice-over narration which remarks on the action of the film's story. Of considerable significance, the subject is the means by which desire is acted out, especially as the protagonist's desires motivate the narrative's progression (e.g., the detective desires a solution to a crime).
In most Hollywood genre films, the subject constituted is male, and certainly this is the case with war films, including the Hollywood Vietnam war film. Further, the characteristic Hollywood Vietnam war narrative constructs a male subject out of a fairly conventional psychoanalytic scenario. As Raymond Bellour has pointed out:
The American cinema... finds itself enacting... the most classic paradigms elaborated for the subject of Western culture by Freudian psychoanalysis. Its massive attempt to socio-historical representation is basically shaped by... a classic Oedipal scenario... 11
This commitment to an "Oedipal scenario" does not necessarily only refer to the specific symbolics of the Oedipal as outlined in Freudian psychoanalysis (although this is common); more generally, it refers to the consistency with which Hollywood films are oriented toward constituting a stable and authoritative male subject and spectator position. 12
The Hollywood Vietnam war film is Oedipal most significantly in the way it constructs a male subject who progresses from innocence and inadequacy to knowledge and power. Most commonly this progression follows that of a conventional antiwar story, where the spectacle of combat and/or its aftermath provides the melodramatic background for a passage to manhood (e.g., The Boys in Company C; Go Tell the Spartans; Coming Home; The Deer Hunter; Platoon; Hamburger Hill; Full Metal Jacket; Good Morning, Vietnam; Casualties of War; and Born on the Fourth of July). In most of these films, youth and innocence are emphasized (a gesture toward historical authenticity 13); in many of them, the ascension of the film's subject to a position of authority and power necessitates the fragging and/or some other symbolic death of a paternal officer or sergeant (e.g., Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Off Limits). Even in films where the central male subject is not a green recruit, as in Apocalypse Now and Bat 21, the narrative develops in a similar fashion. Both Willard and "Bat 21" become lost in a landscape that overwhelms them. Their presumed knowledge of Vietnam and the war is recast as naivete, and they are forced to reconstitute their sense of self and of the war in the context of events that threaten to subsume them.
As a consequence of its commitment to a melodramatic Oedipal scenario, the narrative progression of the Hollywood Vietnam war film subjugates history to the desire of a distinct male subject, a subject who is made to represent the character of the nation as a whole. This oedipalizing of history attempts to "make sense" of Vietnam and of the history of U.S. intervention by subjecting it to a familiar and pleasurable story, one which offers a sense of triumph in the acquisition of knowledge and power, that is in the subject's passage to manhood. By subjugating history to the demands of an Oedipal narrative, then, a victory can be contrived for a history which is experienced as a loss, desire can be satisfied while "the particulars of social history" are sacrificed. 14 Further, the representation of a subjective experience of the war becomes the basis for each film's authenticity, buttressed by a cultural prejudice which views direct experience as fundamentally authoritative, the "IWT factor" ("I was there") as it's sometimes called. 15
This subordination of history to subjectivity permits the reconstitution of a national identity based on moral judgment rather than political actions, an identity that is fundamentally ahistorical. In the Stallone and Norris movies, individual identity and national identity mirror each other in a one-to-one relationship, built on the restitution of a traditional masculine subject who transcends not only credible physical limitations but the facts of US intervention in Vietnam as well. This is not unlike the conventional Hollywood war film during and after World War II, where the desire of the film's subject(s) is made to mirror that of a nation at war.
In the more serious Hollywood Vietnam war films, the male subject's desire increasingly develops in opposition to the war and to those around him. Unlike the development of a cohesive fighting platoon in the World War II film--where the progressive diminution of individual difference reflects the force of a "melting pot" ideology--in the Hollywood Vietnam war film, the individual becomes increasingly separate from a platoon in conflict (e.g.,Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War). These conflict usually represent not only racial and ethnic difference, but also reflect varying attitudes toward the US military presence in Vietnam. Even in films without the tensions between platoon members, the narratives are often constructed in terms of character conflicts which represent different moral positions on the war (e.g., Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now; Luke and Bob Hyde in Coming Home).
Thus, although some Vietnam war films write history as an American victory carried out by the film's subjects (e.g., Rambo, Uncommon Valor, POW: The Escape), the seemingly more serious Hollywood Vietnam war films tend to construct a distance between the subject and the film's action. Rather than a willing and victorious participant, the subject is more often an observer whose sense of self is challenged by a startling vision of US intervention in Vietnam as a military fiasco and/or moral abomination. His most characteristic attributes are confusion and disillusionment, as he comes to regard with suspicion the actions of his fellow soldiers and especially his superiors (e.g., Apocalypse Now; Good Morning, Vietnam; Platoon; Off Limits; Full Metal Jacket; Casualties of War; Charlie Mopic).
This characterization of the film's subject as a distanced observer is most commonly accomplished through the use of a voice-over narration. In The Boys in Company C, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and The Iron Triangle, the voice-over constitutes the primacy of the GI's perspective. His experience of the war and the acquisition of a moral certitude which condemns it are communicated primarily through this device. Even in some films without voice-over narration, the story is constructed so as to authorize the judgments of a not-so-willing subject. In Charlie Mopic, for example, this is accomplished through the film's story of the making of a documentary. Rather than a voice-over creating a distanced and authoritative perspective, the contrived documentary-like camerawork and the presence of a (fictional) documentary crew of two produce the distanced point of view which the spectator shares. In Bat 21, which also lacks voice-over narration, the radio communication between the downed reconnaissance officer, "Bat 21," and the spotter who flies overhead offers the opportunity for expressing a new and different view of US intervention in Vietnam, one which apprises us of his horror and remorse at its impact on the Vietnamese. 16 In both of these films, even though the subject is not a "grunt" he is made to experience combat directly, and thus the films still draw on a cultural prejudice for subjective experience to contrive an authoritative perspective on the war.
In the Hollywood Vietnam war film, then, the spectator is offered a position that, paradoxically, both shares in the action of the war but remains distant from it. Thus, a perspective on US intervention in Vietnam is constituted which is authoritative and apparently authentic because it is grounded in subjective experience. By offering the spectator the distanced position of the film's subject, the film allows the viewer the pleasure of vicarious participation in the conventional melodramatic spectacle of combat, while morally condemning the country's past actions and refusing responsibility for the political and historical background to the war. Thus, an illusion of a "democratic" national identity--one that fights for the underdog and respects cultural and racial difference--can be reconstituted through the conflation of the soldier-subject's moral judgments with that of the spectator and the nation as a whole.