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Categories: Features

The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial events in history, and many of its depictions on film have been incredibly influential. Joe Morgan picks two lesser-known films about the war and explains why they’re just as essential as the likes of “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter”.

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The war in Vietnam remains one of the most troubling and controversial periods in American history. Films that have successfully captured the chaos and futility of the conflict are considered some of the finest examples of Hollywood filmmaking and revered not only for their accuracy in capturing the horrors of war but also for the damage wrought by the conflict on the American psyche.

The end of the 1970s saw a cluster of films being made about the Vietnam conflict. The fall of Saigon, where the US army and its allies officially retreated from the Vietnamese capital after over a decade of occupying the country in an effort to prevent Vietnam from falling to communist forces which had full control over the North of the country, had taken place nearly three years before the first wave of Vietnam films emerged. The fall of Saigon marked a humiliating military defeat for the US and the signaled that the country’s entire policy in Vietnam had been a catastrophic and profoundly damaging failure.

The films most well-known for embodying the Vietnam genre are undoubtedly deserving of the praise and admiration they still receive some thirty years after their release date. Films such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon are masterpieces not only for their technical intricacies that brought the awful reality of the conflict to new audiences in graphic detail but also for successfully highlighting how psychologically traumatic the war would be for a whole generation of young men tasked with fighting it.

The popularity of these films mean that many others set in the conflict that are just as vital are sometimes overlooked, even if they remain as relevant as their most well-known counterparts. They are essential for anybody looking to understand how the conflict has been interpreted in American film, and deserve to be re-visited if only for the essential messages concerning the war that they depart with such conviction. 

Below are two such examples. One is far superior to the other, but both deserve to be watched, scrutinized and debated if admittedly for vastly differing reasons.

Boys in Company C (Sidney J. Furie, 1978)

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The Boys in Company C was the precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed Full Metal Jacket and was the director’s main source of inspiration.  Many of the raw ingredients that made Kubrick’s masterpiece so effective are contained in Boys in Company C but in a much rawer and less refined form. The film even contains a younger R. Lee Ermey as a fearsome gunnery sergeant who is tasked with turning the new recruits into soldiers, a role he would later craft to perfection in Full Metal Jacket.

Boys charts a group of young recruits who are about to fight in Vietnam. Some have been drafted while others have joined voluntarily. Like Full Metal Jacket, the troops begin as relatively innocent and well-intentioned but become steadily brutalized by their training and combat experiences. 

The war is depicted as a futile exercise that achieves nothing. Tension among the troops first comes to fruition when they discover that their first mission is to escort supplies for a general’s birthday party, despite being told that their mission was of extreme importance and vital to the war effort. When two soldiers in the company die in combat and discover their cargo consists of whiskey, party food and other trivial items, it serves as a perfect metaphor, one of several throughout the film, for the precise moment the soldiers come to terms with metaphors for futility and pointlessness of their struggle.

Like many of the Vietnam films that came after it a consistent theme that runs through Boys is the ineffectiveness of the army leadership and the damaging effect this has on both soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. The debt owed to this film by Full Metal Jacket means it is not only essential for fans of Kubrick’s masterpiece but also for those interested in some of the earliest examples of Vietnam war films that depict the conflict with even greater realism than some of the later, better known examples.

The Green Berets (John Wayne, 1968)

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To clarify, John Wayne’s The Green Berets is a truly awful film and should be thought of as completely separate from the film discussed above along with most other films set in the Vietnam period. Wayne, who is also the major star in the picture and well-known for his Republican, hawkish sympathies, wanted to make a film that increased public support for the conflict which President Lyndon Johnson had just begun to escalate substantially. He hoped to do this by evoking his image as the masculine, all-American hero bringing the fight to America’s communist enemies in Vietnam, as he had done with the Native Americans in countless Westerns and Japanese or Germans in Second World War films.

The result is a dire piece of political propaganda that is rife with awful clichés, horrible acting and obvious narrative and technical inconsistencies. Wayne crudely attempts to portray Vietnam as the straightforward battle between all American heroes and the evil Vietcong, making no attempt to even feign impartiality or objectiveness, let alone see the conflict from the opposing side.

Consequently, the Vietnamese that support the US are portrayed as “noble savages” and the Viet Cong as ruthless barbarians and sadists with no grey area in between; the latter even whoop and holler into battle as if they are a tribe of Native Americans attacking a group of cowboys in a Western.

Despite its hideousness, The Green Berets is essential viewing. It needs to be seen and debated far more widely than it has been so far. This is because it is practically the only film about the Vietnam war to take such blatantly pro-war message. Although it was made just as the conflict was escalating and so before the horror of the war had been truly realized, for it to take such a blatantly sympathetic approach to a conflict that was already proving to be far more complex and problematic than the plot of a cheap Western, is audacious at best and criminally disingenuous at worst. 

The Green Berets is ultimately a dreadful but necessary film, if only because it allows us a glimpse into the warped opinions of those that supported war so that those responsible for furthering the conflict can be judged accordingly. 

It also allows us to better appreciate the vastly superior films that came a decade after that saw through The Green Berets’ propaganda and reflected the war as it was in reality: a catastrophic failure and a tragedy that adversely affected the lives of generations of Americans and Vietnamese. 

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Joe is a Cardiff based writer, graduating in 2013 from the University of Glamorgan with a degree in Film Studies. He is also a contributor to The Upcoming where he also writes about film, as well as politics and current affairs. Follow him on twitter at @EustoniteJM

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Posted on Jul 6, 2015

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