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The war America once wanted to forget has suddenly become the latest video sensation. The 10th anniversary of the cessation of the Vietnam conflict has inspired a rash of media coverage. It also has provoked—or coincided with—a rush on video stores to rent or buy the films of the past decade that reflect the shift in perceptions about the war. Much has changed.
Sylvester Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II, a gung-ho portrait of the Vietnam vet as superhero, is the top moneymaker in movie theaters now. The box-office-dominating youth audience, whose memory of Vietnam is a blur, can respond without a twinge to Stallone's comic-book heroics. Stallone excuses his grandstanding in the name of healing wounds: "There was a bad time a few years ago when some people stopped waving the flag and acted as if America were second-rate. It was a big mistake." But a visit to your local video outlet can open those wounds again.
The first movie to deal with Vietnam—and the only major Hollywood film on the subject made during the time of the actual conflict—was John Wayne's The Green Berets (Warner Home Video, $69.95). Shot in 1967 at Fort Benning, Ga. with full Pentagon cooperation, the film was an unapologetic salute to the Army's Special Forces. Wayne, as star and co-director, shows no confusion about the war. At the end he slips a green beret on the head of a homeless Vietnamese child who asks what will happen to him. "You let me worry about that, Green Beret," drawls the Duke. "You're what this is all about." It's astonishing how hellishly irritating that unthinking Uncle Samming seems even after all these years. Wayne's film was every bit as politically purblind as Stallone's Rambo but not nearly as popular. The war was too close to home, and doves lit into the Duke with hawkish fervor. New York Congressman Benjamin S. Rosenthal claimed in 1969 that the movie had become "a useful and skilled device employed by the Pentagon to present a view of the war which was disputed in 1967 and is largely repudiated today." Wayne fought back: "All those 'let's be sweet to our enemies' guys are doing is helping the Reds and hurting their own country.... Instead of taking an opinion poll, the liberals ought to count the tickets we sold to that picture."
Despite the box-office success of The Green Berets, the studios shied away from Vietnam support cinema. This was the era of protest, alienation and Easy Rider, the beginning of the youth audience as king. Wayne's older, loyal fans were out there, but unless he stayed on his horse, Hollywood refused to come a-courtin'.
Even after the war dragged to an end, the subject of Vietnam remained closed. In 1977 two films began to change that. The focus was on the returning veteran, a disturbing but less political subject. Henry (the Fonz) Winkler chose to make his starring film debut in Heroes (not yet available on video). He and Harrison Ford played vets facing the problem of fitting back in. William Devane took the war a step further by playing an ex-POW who goes berserk in Rolling Thunder (Vestron Video, $79.95). Both films, despite powerful moments, failed dismally at the box office.
One that did not fail and remains the best treatment on readjustment is 1978's Coming Home (CBS/FOX Home Video, $69.95). This film, which won Oscars for screenplay and for Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, expressed its feelings bluntly: The war was wrong and we lost. Voight, as a crippled vet, gives a moving speech to some college students at the film's climax: "I have killed for my country, and I don't feel good about it. Because there's not enough reason, man. To feel a person die in your hands and see your best buddy get blown away. I'm here to tell you, it's a lousy thing, man."
Coming Home lost the Best Picture Oscar that year to another, less propagandistic and more personal Vietnam film called The Deer Hunter (MCA Home Video, $79.95). By focusing on the lives of a handful of Pennsylvania steelworkers before, during and after their Vietnam duty, director Michael Cimino brought the war home to a patriotic audience who too rarely questioned the morality of their country's actions. To Cimino's veterans, remarkably well acted by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and the late John Cazale, war remained a way to test courage. By the end of this long (180 min.), sometimes infuriatingly obtuse epic, the men and their families have been shattered, but the survivors can still rouse themselves for a chorus of God Bless America.
Jane Fonda roundly criticized the Cimino film for racism. The Viet Cong were shown as faceless villains, their side of the story unheard in all those hours of The Deer Hunter. Director Francis Coppola in effect made up for those sins of omission a year later with Apocalypse Now (Paramount Home Video, $59.95), loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Coppola used Vietnam as a symbol for the horror of all wars. Martin Sheen played a soldier trained not to look at issues; such men made effective killers. Marlon Brando, as the renegade officer that Sheen was sent into the jungle to find and terminate, has gone mad from such thinking. There is something surreal and bone-chilling about the frenzied cry of "Why don't we kill them all?" from American soldier Frederic Forrest after he has helped massacre Vietnamese women and children.
The public, living with the news stories of Lt. William Calley Jr., preferred not to think about such things at the movies. Despite its growing popularity as a video, Apocalypse Now had to struggle merely to recoup its $30 million cost at the box office. Film studios, with audiences unwilling to pay for a hefty dose of disillusion, sought instead an aspect of Vietnam they could play up for old-fashioned heroics. They found it in soldiers who were still missing. There at last was something to root for. A low-budget 1983 film called Uncommon Valor (Paramount Home Video, $59.95) started the box-office ball rolling. Gene Hackman starred as an ex-Army officer who rounds up a group of Vietnam vets to invade Laos to find his MIA son.
Then came the original karate kid, Chuck Norris, with two similarly themed flicks in 1984 and 1985—Missing in Action (MGM/UA Home Video, $79.95) and the recent Missing in Action 2—The Beginning (not available yet on video). Norris' brother died in a POW camp, and his passion for the subject cannot be questioned. It's too bad his interest didn't extend to accuracy. The Viet Cong are depicted as cartoon karate villains. They stand by patiently while Norris intones such lines as: "For the atrocities you inflicted on the American prisoners of this camp, I sentence you to death." Of course the sentence is enforced with Chuck's lethal feet and hands. Trivial, yes, but the public didn't have to believe it to buy it. The two Missing in Action flicks have grossed almost $20 million, and the first remains a staple at the video rental shops.
Stallone now looks to beat Norris at his own game. His First Blood (Thorn/EMI Video, $39.95) in 1982 set the stage. Stallone's John Rambo was a crazed ex-Green Beret with a mission: to keep fighting the war until victory. "Nothing is over," he shouts in First Blood, after wiping out a small American town of clods who refuse to understand him. In Rambo (not yet on video), he finds a way to legitimize his behavior: Rescuing MIAs can restore respect to vets who fought because their country told them to and came home to be scorned. "For our country to love us as much as we love it," says Rambo, "that's what I want." By reducing the Vietnam war to a clear-cut issue of patriotism, audiences can—if they choose—forget the complications raised by Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. But it's no mystery why Stallone and Norris are at the head of the Vietnam video parade. This time we win.
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