America’s artistic involvement in Vietnam has mimicked its military presence there: After a slow start, it escalated rapidly. The only significant difference appears to be one of duration — the war wound down, but there’s no end in sight to its aftermath in the arts. Between 1963 and 1973, three movies broached the touchy subject — the negligible A Yank in Viet-Nam, Burt Reynolds’ Operation CIA, and John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Since the making of Platoon in 1986, there have been at least 17 more. To keep track of the information explosion, veteran Phill Coleman opened the nation’s first Vietnam computer data base on July 4, 1988. ”Between 1945 and 1971, there were about 325 books about Vietnam published in the Western world,” Coleman says. ”By December 1988, about 3,000 had been published.” In the war of words, peace is definitely not at hand.
How did we get into this cultural quagmire? Back in 1968-69, when the most important show on TV was the Vietnam War, the most popular series were Laugh-In and that raw slice of martial life Gomer Pyle. The industry was acutely aware of the apocalyptic drama on the nightly news, but series TV couldn’t begin to bring the war home until it had been somehow domesticated, reconciled with America’s wish to think well of itself. A show like Tour of Duty was unthinkable as long as teenage males faced real tours of their own.
Instead, television approached the war metaphorically: Captain Kirk’s souped-up B-52 roamed the cosmos kicking allegorical Commie butt on remote planets — for their own darn good. The movies followed suit. In 1958, Hollywood felt free to travesty Graham Greene’s prophetic novel The Quiet American, which warned us to get out while we were still only up to our toes. The film version, on the other hand, urged us to dive right in.
By the ’60s, Indochina was a good deal more troubling as film fodder. In 1966 alone, four people (including Gen. Curtis ”Bombs Away” LeMay) tried and failed to produce Vietnam movies. Alas, in 1968 John Wayne managed to make The Green Berets, renowned for its finale in which the sun sets in the east.
Most films of the era did not want to know about the war. Either they aped TV, reassuring us with fables of righteous wars past (The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express), or they made allegorical references to Vietnam: The Sand Pebbles, Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, M*A*S*H.
When movies tried to get real about the war, it was with what psychologists call approach-avoidance. Alice’s Restaurant (1969), among others, nibbled on antiwar sentiment, while wacko vets became stock characters in action pics like The Stone Killer (1973).
It wasn’t until 1978 that the reality of Vietnam invaded feature films. Coming Home admitted that vets were not necessarily psycho killers; The Boys in Company C and Go Tell the Spartans offered sympathetic portraits of men in combat. But profits were inversely proportional to the degree of realism: Grunt’s-eye-view movies did minimal box office, the sentimental Coming Home did $28 million, and the wildly unrealistic The Deer Hunter raked in $63 million. Apocalypse Now (1979) delivered horrific satire by the megaton, but what must account for its $78 million take was its escapist appeal — its psychedelic freak-out value.
Denial was still riding high at the turn of the ’80s. Brilliant Vietnam novels by Gustav Hasford (The Short-Timers, 1979) and Larry Heinemann (Close Quarters, 1977) promptly went out of print. Oliver Stone’s financing to produce Born on the Fourth of July, starring Al Pacino, vaporized at the last minute. Jim Carabatsos’s Hamburger Hill had to wait for a decade, along with Stone’s Platoon. Instead, we were served up the jingoistic fantasies of Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), and Rambo (1985).
When jingoism subsided, Nam consciousness continued to swell. Granted, Hollywood’s hostility to the subject forced Platoon (like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Boys in Company C, and many others) to be financed by foreigners; but Americans bought the act. Platoon‘s dovish $138 million came close to Rambo‘s hawkish $150 million. The combined take of Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July is $91 million and climbing.
The movie boom has been echoed in print. Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers now has 400,000 copies in print (thanks to Kubrick’s film version, Full Metal Jacket), and a sequel, The Phantom Blooper, has just been published. Larry Heinemann’s second Vietnam-inspired novel, Paco’s Story, is a National Book Award winner.
Even TV has opened its cyclopean eye to Vietnam. What clinched the success of the first broadcast of The Wonder Years was its poignant conclusion, a teenager’s brother’s death in Vietnam. China Beach and Tour of Duty, which render the experience safe to the point of somnolence, hang on at a lower ratings rung.
Robin Williams’ Good Morning, Vietnam may represent the fullest possible reconciliation of the nation’s impulse to face the war and domesticate it at the same time. After earning $124 million in theatrical release, Good Morning, Vietnam has found immortality on video. The tape’s sales exceed two million, making it one of the top 20 videos of all time.
For all the ubiquity of Vietnam in popular culture of late, there is still one angle America has overlooked: the other side. As Frances FitzGerald, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Vietnam history Fire in the Lake, says, ”Never has there been a Vietnamese protagonist. They’re always either strange figures on the attack or else they’re victims.” The next step in our obsession with the Vietnam War logically ought to concern the victors.