It’s been 45 years since the Vietnam War ended, but it has become a more notable place in cinema than any other conflict. An array of modern classics specifically looks at the brutality of war, but many have also taken the opportunity to peer beneath the surface of the people that fight within it. Despite such acclaim for these works, it’s the case that this catalog hasn’t been growing in recent decades. So what makes older works still so vital? And what stories does the conflict still have to tell?
Last year saw perhaps the most legendary Vietnam War movie reach its 40th anniversary, the mind-bending Apocalypse Now – a work that compels audiences due to its breadth and depth. Francis Ford Coppola’s film shows partly the horror of war but intermingles this idea with complicating madness where American soldiers are devolving into murder and apparent insanity. It’s a surprisingly amusing watch at certain parts as it moves into surrealism, but remains brave enough to explore the discomforting, surprising answer to the question: why is there such chaos?
Apocalypse Now earns a reputation of being a legendary work because of its staggering, unexplained, and philosophically profound answer. The climax has General Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) contemplate whether a lack of will might be the root of the war’s complexity; if men were able to disconnect their hearts from their minds, they would be able to bring the war to a conclusion. The implication is that the disorder of the battlefield comes from this inner struggle – and therefore the viewers are challenged to consider whether reason or instinct should prevail in life itself.
A much coarser, surface level look at the work is provided by Platoon, but one that speaks plainly to explain why Vietnam holds such a particular appeal. It shows, with a middle class soldier surrounded by working class men, how wars scar the human soul in a way that crosses social boundaries – and that this particular violent, uncertain conflict makes evident about the primal elements within humanity. There’s undoubtedly an interest in audiences to see the extent of how people can be pushed, whether for understanding or for cathartically dealing with the uncertainties of the world ever since Vietnam.
Moral turmoil and combat are so strongly linked that they have been the basis for broader stories about self-reckoning. Taxi Driver is shows a veteran whose enthusiastic veneer hides a seething hatred of society, whilst Cutter’s Way shows another veteran – likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — who catches wind of an unfurling conspiracy that all others disbelieve. These stories can be seen to evolve from the American loss of the war as these characters are interrogating their society in the same way as the American public. This doubt towards authority that has lingered in reality ever since only makes these emotionally true works even more compelling.
The seemingly perpetual dearth of modern Vietnam films, when previous ones have been so well received, seems partly a response to audiences unwilling to watch what they’ve already seen. The last major work was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, a look at a major, violent battle and the ramifications of the families involved. Despite its predecessors’ success, the movie didn’t even double its $100 million budget. Perhaps there’s no surprise since even in its marketing, We Were Soldiers seemed to offer nothing fresh, but just another serious-minded American perspective on familiar territory.
But it might be reasonable to assume that there’s only so much reality that people could once take. The more metaphysical work uses the war as a launchpad for universal questions, whereas that which is about the combat itself tends towards melodrama and surrealism – largely from the perspective of Americans. There’s been little effort to put forward works that interrogate US imperialism or the suffering inflicted upon the Vietnamese people; a failure to learn from history considering repeated conflicts since.
The closest that moviegoers have gotten to any significant criticism of the ethos that drove the conflict is Coming Home. It shows the struggles endured by those fighting, those who’ve fought, and those left at home – but has a surprising reality and insight. The most telling aspect is that gender expectation underpins the narrative. All of the characters forced into their mindsets and their actions by society-wide spoken and unspoken mandates. This swiftly suggests a key reason as to why people are keen to enter into the fray with such conviction, and most importantly it implies how tackling such expectations might be a route to peace.
There have been very few films that have looked at the Vietnamese perspective, though, most works leaving this to a mere tip of the hat. Embarrassingly, there’s only been one major US release in the form of Heaven & Earth, a drama by Oliver Stone about a Vietnamese woman caught up in the war, but it largely feels out of its depth thanks to tonal whiplash and misjudged melodrama. A better one is the Vietnamese production When the Tenth Month Comes where its success comes from eschewing horror towards more personal portrayal of grief and community. The difference, perhaps, is that the former is, no matter how well-intended, caught in the confusion of hand-wringing.
There’s an opportunity for American production companies to help the West engage in some long overdue reflection. Twenty years have passed since moviegoers seen a major work focused on the war, and a fresh take on it might reach a more receptive audience. But there are surely Vietnamese creators, too, wanting to put forward their understanding purely on their own terms – and American money might be the way to make that happen. There seems to be so little emphasis on regret for the war beyond the impact on veterans, but why would anyone regret it if they didn’t believe the cause was unjust?
Of course there have been incredibly striking and innovative creations, and there’s no doubt that the war has spurred a rich array of art. Indeed, the unpicking of the soul that’s been done so far has been some of the most confrontational and enlightening in cinema history; it’s easy to see why those works are still revered. There has, however, been a reticence to deal with some of the more complex, real, and ongoing implications of combat that has an important place in global history. Audiences have seen so much of the immediate horror of bloody battles in films, but the continuation of this real brutality shows that there are still lessons to be learned.