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Apocalypse Now was at the front of a new era in combat films that focused on lower-ranked infantrymen, realistic action, morally complex issues and national trauma.

Experiencing Vietnam Through Movies

By Todd Decker
9/5/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

The Vietnam War dramatically changed the way combat was portrayed in American film.

The Vietnam War was a national trauma that fundamentally altered American culture—including motion pictures. In Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam, the author explores 35 Hollywood war movies, from Apocalypse Now to American Sniper, and describes how sound of all kinds—dialogue, sound effects, music—is used to depict American soldiers fighting abroad. In this excerpt, he discusses the general characteristics of serious war films that were made after Vietnam and sought to re-create for American audiences the experience of American soldiers fighting overseas. He calls these movies “prestige combat films.”

At the most basic level, prestige combat films, or PCFs, tell stories of U.S. soldiers fighting abroad in actual historical conflicts. Excluded are feature films about the American Civil War, which lack a foreign enemy, and fantasies of American forces at war with imagined foes (the alien invaders of Independence Day). Also omitted are movies that depict the U.S. military in a fantastical context, such as Top Gun, a 1986 movie that never pauses to reflect on the seriousness that would have attended a dogfight between American F-14s and Communist MiGs in the 1980s and instead celebrates winning. PCF narratives engage seriously with historical fact and insert the viewer, assumed to be an adult, into a complex context. As the director Oliver Stone said of Platoon two years after its 1986 release: “It became an antidote to Top Gun and Rambo,” a series of films that first appeared in 1982.

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Nearly every PCF presents the battlefield from the point of view of the individual soldier, frequently from the lowest rank: the grunt. Central characters in these films seldom rise above lieutenant. The PCF is generally not about officers and never about famous figures of military history—as were many war films made during the 1960s. To borrow the words of the military historian John C. McManus, the PCF typically strives to capture “the very essence of the infantryman’s decidedly personal war.” Describing Platoon,  Stone said, “I did a white Infantry boy’s view of the war.”

Many PCFs about Vietnam redirect the heroic narratives of the combat film, as forged during and after World War II, toward a war story that ends in failure and defeat, a deeply ambiguous outcome for a nation as accustomed to victory as the United States. Vietnam, scholars have noted, marks “the disruption of the American story” and remains a “traumatic site which violates all images and assumptions of American identity.” Or as Michael Herr put it in his 1977 Vietnam memoir, Dispatches—zeroing in on the sense of national shame with not a trace of sentimentality—“There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war.”

Disruption, trauma and shame are all manifest in most PCFs, regardless of the war they depict. As David Kieran, a historian who has written about the Vietnam War, argues, “The evolving and contested memory of the American War in Vietnam has shaped Americans’ commemoration of other events in ways that inform their understanding of themselves, the nation, and the global interests and obligations of the United States.” The Hollywood war film offers a space to explore how the experience of Vietnam has resonated across American memory.

And the memory these films build is explicitly national. Media scholars Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran have noted, “Watching a film is also about the people with whom the experience is shared, as well as the moment in time and the place in which it occurs.” The assumed audience for a PCF is American. Hollywood’s commercial focus on a global audience is largely set aside in the PCF subgenre.

Similar to war memorials, PCFs recognize the sacrifices soldiers make for the nation. The experience of viewing these films—the time spent watching, especially when done collectively in a movie theater—becomes part of the viewer’s specifically American identity, somewhat like a journey to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Most PCFs spend valuable screen time on memorializing sequences. Some, like Hamburger Hill, Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers, visit real memorials. We Were Soldiers, based closely on the November 1965 battle of Ia Drang, ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, the officer in command played by Mel Gibson, stands before the panel on the Wall where the names of his soldiers killed in the battle are listed. Their names, familiar to the viewer as characters in the film, are shown, and a title card pinpoints the location of the American dead on the Wall, implicitly inviting the audience to go and stand in Moore’s—and Gibson’s—place. If they cannot, watching We Were Soldiers serves as a surrogate act of remembrance.

Some PCFs add images of the fallen and those who survived. The HBO limited series Band of Brothers, which recounts the combat service of a celebrated unit of paratroopers in Europe during World War II, includes actual veterans of the unit in documentary-style interviews at the start of almost every episode. With even greater impact, Lone Survivor, an account of Operation Red Wings in the mountains of Afghanistan, closes with images of the 19 Navy SEALs and special operations aviators who died on a single day in 2005. The images are personal, in the context of a feature film uncomfortably intimate.

PCFs incorporating images of actual soldiers and veterans intensify a common trope in Hollywood combat films reaching back to the beginnings of the genre: enhancing the closing credits with a visual roll call, one final glimpse of each man in the film’s story. Almost all of the combat films about Vietnam made in the 1980s incorporate this old war movie device. The visual roll call that ends Platoon left many Vietnam veterans in tears—a common human-interest story in local newspapers during the film’s theatrical release. 

The action-adventure genre has dominated Hollywood’s business model since the mid-1970s, around the time the PCF emerged. The PCF, with its de rigueur inclusion of violent combat action, is without a doubt a form of action-adventure filmmaking. But while standard commercial action films might set ever-higher box-office records, they typically earn low marks from critics and seldom win anything but technical awards at the Oscars. Serious combat movies, by contrast, manage to be both action films and critical successes judged worthy of major awards, recognition that buttresses their claim to prestige.

PCFs are typically special projects initiated by a director or a producer—less often a writer or actor. Most PCF makers are driven by a desire to represent American soldiers at war in a manner that contributes to the larger, ever-changing national conversation around soldiers and veterans—a crucial element in their films’ claims to importance. Preproduction pitches, press packs, publicity and media discourses consistently present PCFs as more than mere movies.

The PCF often springs from a sense of moral urgency, typically in response to veterans and their families. Vietnam veteran Jim Carabatsos’ script for Hamburger Hill, about the May 1969 battle at Ap Bia Mountain, bounced around Hollywood for years before producer Marcia Nasatir took it up, in part because her son had fought in Vietnam. Nasatir hired director John Irvin, a documentarian with experience in Vietnam, who noted, “All I can say is the film is a labor of love. It was made out of a great sense of compassion for the kids who fought there.” As Carabatsos explained when he was still trying to get Hamburger Hill made, “It’s for the guys who were there, for their families. I’m hoping maybe some wife [of a veteran] will understand her husband a little better, or some kid will understand his father a little better.”

This moral urgency linked to action filmmaking dates to the earliest prestige Vietnam movie to enter production: Apocalypse Now, released in 1979. Director Francis Ford Coppola pitched Apocalypse Now in this way to United Artists: “This is a high-quality action-adventure spectacle. . . .It’s big and entertaining, mature and interesting.” In the press kit, Coppola articulated his goal “to put an audience through an experience—frightening but violent only in proportion with the idea being put across—that will hopefully change them in some small way.”

In his introduction for the printed program distributed at Apocalypse Now’s premiere showings in 70 mm film, Coppola stated, “It was my thought that if the American audience could look at the heart of what Vietnam was really like—what it looked like and felt like—then they would be only one small step away from putting it behind them.” Coppola makes an astonishing claim for what a film can do in the public sphere: The experience of seeing Apocalypse Now could begin to heal the trauma of Vietnam.

Many PCFs have had long lives, shaping how generations of young men think about war and soldiering. Their impact was amplified by the arrival of the VCR in the 1980s. Iraq War veteran Colby Buzzell says in his 2005 memoir My War that his generation “grew up watching [movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Black Hawk Down] over and over again and can recite word for word countless lines from each, and most of us were probably here in the Army because we watched these movies one too many times.” The PCF is a part of popular military culture, even as filmmakers continually adjust its representation of the military.

While action films, Hollywood’s bread and butter since the late 1970s, are typically not morally complex, PCFs are or aim to be. This flows in part from the context and content of their stories. As critic Andrew Sarris said, “The war film is the one cinematic genre that can exploit massively homicidal violence while professing to make a moral statement about it.” The PCF, forged as it was in a delayed cinematic reaction to Vietnam, can push such “moral statements” into new territory, where an American defeat must be accounted for and where the actions of the U.S. government and military can be open for debate. Most PCFs dwell on the soldier and the veteran, filtering any larger questions through the experiences of individual characters with whom the movie audience can identify and allowing viewers to selectively read these films.

Most of the time the response sought by PCFs is one of thankfulness for the sacrifice of the fallen, the posture proper to ritual acts of memorialization.

No list of famous movie quotes is complete without Lt. Col. William “Bill” Kilgore’s line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” from Apocalypse Now. But that’s an exception to

(Alamy)

PCF dialogue, which typically avoids the memorable one-liner. The men seldom talk like action-movie cartoon characters. And when they do, the colorful language is put to meaningful work toward larger goals.

In contrast to action film norms, the overall tone of the language in PCFs is restrained and plain. These are not especially articulate or clever-speaking fellows. They generally don’t shout obscenities while firing on automatic or sling witticisms along with their weapons. With some notable exceptions, the PCF is defined on the dialogue track by a reserved sort of male speech and verbally constrained central characters.

Contrasting tones of voice and personas often display certain kinds of leadership. The contrast between excited, usually inexperienced, soldiers who shout and experienced soldiers who speak in measured tones recurs in several films, at times as a matter of disciplining young soldiers to remain calm under pressure. While calling in an airstrike, the young radio operator in Hamburger Hill shouts, “Blow the sh– out of them,” to which the voice on the radio replies, “Use proper radio procedure.”

There is one great exception to the PCF practice of moderating generic action-film speech: the drill instructor or sergeant. The cinematic origins of a shouting drill instructor reach back to the 1957 film The D.I. actor Jack Webb—who directed and produced it and appears with a cast of active-duty Marines deployed to the film as actors (similar to Act of Valor in 2012)—made ample room in his performance for the drill sergeant’s offstage humanity. Military discipline is presented as a learned performance: To be a soldier, first learn to act like a soldier, but never to the loss of depth as a person.

R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in The Boys in Company C also makes plenty of room for humanity. We see him offstage showing genuine concern for the lives of his men. The innovation in this film is the excessive profanity that almost every reviewer noted. “It seems like every-other-word is a swear word,” one reviewer said. “While this may be Vintage Marine Talk, the cumulative effect is soon wearying and takes an unnecessary toll on an audience.” It depends, of course, on the audience. Another reviewer described Ermey as “a former Marine drill instructor who acts with a naturalness to be admired.” It’s hard to imagine a reviewer making the same comment about Ermey’s more famous performance as drill instructor Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, where he gives a completely stylized performance with no offstage moments.

War films have always taught audiences—chiefly young men—how war works. People watching these films also learn the lingo and litanies of soldiering. A basic plot trajectory provides ample opportunity for such education. New and inexperienced soldiers or replacements show up prominently in Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. They need things explained, and their learning curve becomes that of the audience. As veteran Jim Carabatsos notes late in the script for Hamburger Hill, “The new guys are picking up the cadence and slang of the ’Nam.” Films with extended training sections, such as The Boys in Company C, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers and Jarhead provide a group immersion experience: The audience learns with the men.

Certain military sayings and poems have had a recurring place in the PCF, linking films to each other and to military tradition. “The Rifleman’s Creed,” written by Marine Corps Maj. Gen. W.H. Rupertus in the early 1940s, remains part of Marine recruit training. Beginning with the line “This is my rifle,” the poem shows up in several films. Each inflects the text differently.

The Boys in Company C only nods toward the “Creed,” with the fragmentary line “without my rifle I am useless” signaling those in the know. Full Metal Jacket incorporates the “Creed” in full. Drill Instructor Hartman has the men climb into their bunks as if on the parade ground with rifle in hand and recite the “Creed” together as pillow talk to their rifles. To ensure that the men spoke in perfect unison, director Stanley Kubrick had actor Matthew Modine, playing Joker, record the creed “to a click track—a metronome cadence used,” in Modine’s words, “to keep us all in sync.” Then, while shooting the sequence, each man in the shot listened to and recited with the recording by way of a wireless earpiece.

The Vietnam War was particularly rich in soldier slang. Most films in the 1980s PCF cycle draw on this lingo, a strategy that ties these films to the realities of soldier life (as well as to the literature of the war) and links the films to one another. It’s difficult to know if a film from later in the cycle is quoting an earlier film or simply tapping the same rich vein of authentic soldier talk. For example, The Boys in Company C tosses in a fragmentary reference to a common soldier adaptation of Psalm 23: “Yea tho’ I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil. ’Cause I’m the baddest motherf—er in the valley.” The ever-menacing Sgt. Tony Meserve, played by Sean Penn, recites the full text in Casualties of War.

The phrase “sorry ’bout that” turns up regularly in the literature of Vietnam: in oral histories such as Headhunters: Stories from the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry in Vietnam, 1965–1971; in literary memoirs like Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War; and in novels like Daniel Ford’s Incident at Muc Wa (source for Go Tell the Spartans), where the phrase is spoken seven times, each time by a different soldier at a different rank, always in response to a bad situation. The dismissive imperative “sorry ’bout that” takes on a central role in Casualties of War. Just before Brownie, an experienced soldier is shot, he tries to teach Pvt. 1st Class Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox)—who’s been in country three weeks—when to use the phrase and how to say it. The goal is to harden Eriksson toward the Vietnamese people. The young man never quite gets it right. 

Todd Decker is a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis. The author of four books on American commercial music and media, he has lectured at the Library of Congress, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and LabEx Arts-H2H in Paris.

Published in the October 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine.

2 Responses to Experiencing Vietnam Through Movies

  1. CINCJOE says:

    BS – one man’s opinion – these “pcf” were made for two reasons – entertainment & $$ – next weekend when Ken Burn’s new series – The Viet Nam War” airs on PBS will set the bar – one will have to watch the full 10 episodes to understand – appreciate or defecate – bottom line – WAR SUCKS – PEOPLE DIE….

  2. ek ErilaR says:

    In my opinion, Hamburger Hill is the only Vietnam film that rings true.

    Contra Cincjoe, I don’t expect much from Ken Burns. The Civil War was very good but everything he has done since has been very disappointing.

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