Photo by Tanner Cole
When I heard the news,...
This is the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, when U.S. destroyers and North Vietnamese patrol boats supposedly clashed repeatedly in international waters on August 2-4, 1964, off the coast of Vietnam. The alleged series of attacks led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, fatefully setting the stage for a U.S. military escalation in Vietnam without a Congressional declaration of war.
Critics dispute the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, with some condemning it as a false flag operation. In his “People’s History of the United States,” historian Howard Zinn wrote that the “episode was a fake. . . . The highest American officials lied to the public.”
Just as the Bush regime used weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to invade Iraq thirty-nine years later, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident opened the gates of hell for one of Washington’s longest and most disastrous wars. (See former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recant in Errol Morris’s Oscar winning 2003 “The Fog of War.”)
Hollywood had already begun paying attention to Vietnam before 1964.
In 1948’s “Rogues’ Regiment” Dick Powell plays a U.S. intelligence agent who joins the French Foreign Legion to hunt a Nazi war criminal believed to be in Vietnam. Gene Barry and Nat King Cole join the French Foreign Legion to fight the Viet Minh in Sam Fuller’s 1957 “China Gate.” Angie Dickinson is the Eurasian wife of Barry, who dumps her after their “half caste” child is born with Asian features.
In the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein World War II musical, “South Pacific,” dashing Marine Lt. Cable (John Kerr) makes love with beautiful Liat (France Nuyen) at Bali-ha’i. Liat and her mother, Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), are identified in the James Michener novel the film is based on as “Tonkinese.” One of the screen’s steamiest romances was between an American military officer and North Vietnamese teenager six years before the Tonkin Gulf Incident.
Starring in “The Quiet American,” Audie Murphy wooed Phuong (Giorgia Moll, who was actually Italian) in the 1958 Saigon-set version of Graham Greene’s novel.
A decade later, after LBJ escalated U.S. intervention, many Vietnam features and documentaries were released. The first came out during the year of the Tết Offensive, 1968’s “The Green Berets,” co-directed by and starring John Wayne. The pro-war movie was so blatantly propagandistic that the Defense Department asked Wayne not to list it in the movie’s credits, in order to deflect inquiry into military support for a film ballyhooing U.S. Southeast Asian policy. (Nevertheless, according to David Robb’s “Operation Hollywood,” the GAO investigated and dovish Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal condemned the Pentagon for subsidizing an agitprop production with taxpayer dollars.)
“The Green Berets” was as phony as its Georgia locations (which doubled for Indochina!) and it’s no wonder -- like that other chicken hawk, Sylvester Stallone, AKA Rambo, Wayne avoided military service.
According to Garry Wills’ “John Wayne’s America,” during World War II the Duke pursued his acting career and dodged Selective Service notices while Hollywood colleagues such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable enlisted.
Rambo and John Wayne aside, hawkish movies are uncharacteristic of most Vietnam films, which, like many World War I productions, have antiwar themes. Pacifist and protest pictures question not only the nature of war, but U.S. foreign policy itself.
As the only war America lost (up until Iraq and Afghanistan anyway) Vietnam still has deep cultural resonance.
In the new James Brown biopic, "Get on Up," the soul singer meets with LBJ in the White House, then embarks on a USO tour of Vietnam, where his plane comes under fire.
Top 10 List
Here’s a list with links to clips of the top ten Vietnam War Films from Hollywood, France and Vietnam:
1. Bring the War Home: “The Strawberry Statement”
Vietnam was such a contentious issue that it divided America into hawks and doves, exacerbating a “generation gap” as young people subjected to the draft questioned whether an immoral war was worth fighting. Many opted to resist going thousands of miles away to fight in steaming jungles and burned their draft cards. Pete Seeger summed up their sentiment up, singing in ’67: “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, And the big fool said to push on.” Hollywood catered to students, a lucrative target market, with a cycle of campus unrest films. In 1970 there were no less than five of them.
Perhaps the most representative is “The Strawberry Statement,” which adapted Simon Kunen’s diary-like account of the 1968 Columbia University student strike, starring Bruce Davison and Kim Darby. They join student activists occupying a faux Columbia gym (the university wouldn’t let the filmmakers shoot on campus) to protest their school's complicity in war research and its plan to turn a college-owned park in Harlem into a ROTC building. Police and National Guardsmen raid the gym, and mercilessly beat and tear gas long haired students as they sing John Lennon’s antiwar anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”
2. Best Documentary: "Hearts and Minds"
The Vietnam War was noted for televised coverage that brought the conflict into America’s living rooms. It also inspired numerous documentaries by intrepid filmmakers who went to “enemy territory” in North Vietnam, including: Dutch director Joris Ivens’s 1965 “The Sky and Earth” and “17th Parallel” in 1968; the British journalist Felix Greene’s (Graham’s cousin) 1967 “Inside North Vietnam”; Cuban Santiago Alvarez’s 1968 “Hanoi, Tuesday 13th” and 1969’s “79 Springs”, about Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps the finest of these nonfiction films is 1974’s “Hearts and Minds,” which won the Best Documentary Oscar. A scathing attack on the anti-communist ideology that paved the way for U.S. intervention, it shows how the war pitted Americans not only against Vietnamese, but also against each other (a recurring theme in these films). The most poignant sequences are when suffering and grief-stricken Vietnamese are starkly contrasted with Gen. Westmoreland’s racist, cavalier comments about how Asians don’t value human life as much as Westerners do.
3. Redemption: “Coming Home”
In the first great feature about Vietnam, Jane Fonda—who took shelter in the Metropole Hotel’s bunker during Nixon’s 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi—starred as Sally Hyde, wife of brainwashed Captain Hyde (Bruce Dern). She fell in love with paraplegic veteran Luke Martin (Jon Voight); both find redemption by protesting the war. Suggested by Ron Kovic’s odyssey, Hal Ashby’s profoundly poignant 1978 classic scored Oscars for Fonda, Voight, and co-screenwriter Waldo Salt (who’d been blacklisted) and was nominated for five others, including Best Picture. “Coming Home’s” cinematographer Haskell Wexler directed 1969’s “Medium Cool” (which combined fiction with actual footage of the riots at the Democratic National Convention) and the 1974 documentary “Introduction to the Enemy” with Fonda and Tom Hayden.
4. The Horror, the Horror: “Apocalypse Now”
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 resetting of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” from the Congo to Indochina may be the best big-screen adaptation of literature in cinema history. Much of this epic’s power is derived from its visceral depiction of U.S. war crimes, especially a helicopter raid raining destruction down on a Vietnamese village. The aerial attack’s objective: Securing a beachhead so a surfer (Sam Bottoms) whose initials are LBJ can catch the waves there. As the Yankees wreak havoc upon villagers, gung-ho Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) infamously exclaims: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” During the chopper blitz a tape recorder blares Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to terrify the Vietnamese, although Coppola’s masterpiece helped set the trend of using great rock songs (such as the Doors’ “The End”) in Vietnam War movies’ soundtracks. In Marlon Brando’s last great role, he co-stars as enigmatic Col. Kurtz, who has been driven off the deep end by “the horror” of war, with Martin Sheen as the assassin Capt. Willard, Dennis Hopper as a drugged out photojournalist and a teenaged Laurence Fishburne as a jittery machinegunner who opens fire on unarmed peasants in a sampan concealing what turns out to be a puppy.
5. At War with Ourselves: “Platoon”
This modern morality tale has a nitty-gritty grunt’s eye view of combat as wide-eyed recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) observes sergeants Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Barnes (Tom Berenger) square off against each other, with Elias opposing Barnes’ atrocities. “Platoon” scored four Oscars, including for Best Picture and Best Director (Oliver Stone, who was a decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran). The naïve witness Taylor, who tries to do the right thing, seems to be writer/director Stone’s alter ego.
6. Bad Dreams: “Casualties of War”
Based on an actual incident, playwright David Rabe -- who’d previously written the Vietnam-themed features 1973’s “Sticks and Bones” and 1983’s “Streamers” -- wrote this hard-hitting 1989 drama directed by another Hollywood heavyweight, Brian De Palma. As sadistic Sgt. Tony Meserve, Sean Penn kidnaps the young Vietnamese woman Than Thi Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) in the Central Highlands to be his squad’s sex slave, and Oanh meets a horrific fate. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) objects to the gang rape and tries to bring the war criminals to justice in this gripping, sorrowful saga that touches upon PTSD.
7. Antiwar Wheelchair Warrior: “Born on the Fourth of July”
Ron Kovic inspired “Coming Home,” but this 1989 biopic helmed by Oliver Stone (who won a second Best Director Oscar) is Kovic’s own story, based on his autobiography, and is one of the most moving antiwar movies since 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Both open similarly, with impressionable boys being brainwashed to go to war by their elders -- in Kovic’s case to fight communism. In this trenchant critique of Cold War ideology and the macho mentality, Kovic (portrayed by Oscar-nominated Tom Cruise) is wounded in ’Nam, returns home in a wheelchair, experiences awful treatment in a VA hospital and becomes disillusioned. However, he regains a sense of himself by joining the peace movement; using his Marine Corps skills he leads a charge of disabled vets against Tricky Dick at the 1972 Republican Convention. Kovic finds redemption and meaning in life by rolling down the path of the antiwar crusade.
8. Vietnam, Mon Amour: “Indochine”
Indochina’s former colonizer, France, has also produced Vietnam films, such as Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1992 big budget “Diên Biên Phu”, about the Viet Minh’s 1954 decisive defeat of the French. Regis Wargnier’s two and half hour-plus epic “Indochine,” which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was released that same year. “Indochine” is a sort of French “Gone With the Wind” about Vietnam during its colonial era, set against the rising revolutionary tide. Catherine Deneuve was Oscar nominated for playing French rubber planter Éliane Devries; a single woman who romances a French officer and adopts a Vietnamese girl, Camille (Linh Dan Pham), who eventually joins the independence movement. Stunning cinematography at locations such as Halong Bay in the Tonkin Gulf display Vietnam’s beauty.
9. Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came: “Sir! No Sir!”
David Zeiger’s 2005 documentary chronicles widespread resistance in the U.S. armed forces to being imperialism’s pawns during the Vietnam War. The nonfiction film includes clips from 1972’s “FTA” (“Free The Army” or, alternately, “Fuck The Army”) concert film featuring a traveling troupe of pro-peace performers, led by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, that staged vaudevillian antiwar skits, songs and dances near U.S. military bases. Only a week after its release Nixon suppressed distribution of “FTA,” but a third of a century later Zeiger’s doc led to its re-release.
10. Is This the Enemy? “The White Silk Dress”
The Vietnamese have made extremely powerful, poetic, poignant films about their wars, and 2006’s award winning “The White Silk Dress” is arguably the best. In this story with mostly female characters, about a family struggling to survive during the French and American wars, Vietnam-born writer/director Luu Huynh uses the titular garment or áo dài, Vietnam’s national dress, as a lyrical symbol of nationhood. At one point, after the áo dài is cut into pieces it is restitched together, as a metaphor for reunifying northern and southern Vietnam.
The 142-minute epic opens in 1954 at Ha Dong near Hanoi, where the hunchback Gu (Khanh Quoc Nguyen) and the lovely Dan (Truong Ngoc Anh, of 2005’s “Bride of Silence”) are servants working for a vicious Vietnamese master who collaborates with the French. After he’s assassinated Gu and Dan, who have become lovers, flee and stumble upon the scene of a massacre; they elude the French by playing dead amidst the corpses. After the Viet Minh’s triumph at Diên Biên Phu the film jump cuts to 1966 at Hội An, a trading town near Đà Nẵng, where the impoverished Gu and Dan live in a thatched hut, striving to make a living as mussel sellers and to raise a family of four daughters. Dan undergoes Buñuelian sexual humiliation to earn money; when she’s caught after curfew with what appears to be a Viet Cong leaflet Dan is arrested and brutally beaten by South Vietnamese security forces.
In 1966 an aerial attack lays waste to their daughter’s school. After another bombardment surviving members of the beleaguered family take flight with other peasant refugees. In a montage sequence actuality clips of atrocities, such as famous footage of a napalmed naked Vietnamese girl running, depict devastation. In a magical realist ending the film jump cuts again to 1975; many Vietnamese women wearing áo dài are seen striding forward, symbolizing Vietnam’s liberation and reunification. The skillfully shot $2 million film (a big budget production by Vietnam’s standards) uses deft camerawork, alternation between desaturated and vivid colors and moving acting to render an artistic testament by and for those who were the victims of massive crimes against humanity, yet survived. Watching the Vietnamese side of the story unfold onscreen with so much humanity one gets the sense that having won the war, they are now winning the peace.