No Hollywood relationship is more complicated than the one between war and film. The new 3-part Netflix documentary Five Came Back looks at this topic, focusing on the 5 big-name directors that the war department enlisted to do propaganda/documentaries for World War II. The films that resulted from this project ranged from simple propaganda to realistic accounts that almost never saw the light of day (due to military censoring). The directors, Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston, all witnessed combat first-hand, in addition to concentration camp horrors, stirring a range of emotions from shock to guilt and fostering questions about the nature of humanity and the morality of war on film. If filmmakers were conflicted about how to portray WWII, when Vietnam came along the feelings about war, and how to portray it in art, became so much more complex. Today we ask the question: Post-Vietnam, how has Hollywood portrayed war on film?
This is our biggest topic yet and it will be hard to contain to a short blog post. The first film I ever saw in the theater was Midway in 1976. I’d be lying if I said I remember my reaction to it, but I know now it was a competently made film about the Pacific war turning point, and, as the movie poster states, showcased glory, spectacle, and drama. A few years later, filmmakers began to show the more horrific side of war, and often the futility of it. Then came the spate of 80’s Vietnam POW movies where America retroactively won the war, and then I saw what I consider the greatest war movie ever in 1987.
I saw this film on a Friday night with a group of guys that I worked with at the grocery store. All of us were between 16-18 so you can imagine the eye-opening shock this film delivered to kids that would be soon be signing their selective service cards. No war film is “real”, but this sure felt like it. As far as I know, this is the only post-Vietnam big-budget war film that was written and directed by a former soldier from the war. The grunt-level view was terrifying, disturbing, but captivating at the same time. No one went to the bathroom during this film, and the car-ride home was uncharacteristically quiet. Oliver Stone did an amazing job capturing the Vietnam jungle experience, and he also unflinchingly showed the sometimes horrible deeds of the 18-year-old kids thrust into a war with unclear objectives and murky justification. Ho Chi Minh was no world-conquering Hitler figure, and lacking a clear answer to “why we fight” led to low morale, despair, and myopic self-preservation. While some have objected to the Barnes vs. Elias “born of two fathers” plotline, it was a way to present two viewpoints to waging war: one, the “get it done, whatever the cost” approach, and the second asking “is it all worth the cost?”. Charlie Sheen’s Chris was the Everyman, the audience surrogate, who was torn between the two philosophies and ultimately had to embrace both in order to survive. Platoon was not the first film to tell us “war is hell”, but it was the first one to truly make us feel it.
DJ: I like the Barnes vs. Elias dynamic. This to me is the best pure Vietnam War movie so far. It captures the reality of what it was really like and what the soldiers were dealing with.
Black Hawk Down (2002)
Following Platoon were a slew of Vietnam-based films, such as Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War, Born on the 4th of July (Stone again), and Kubrick’s amazing epic Full Metal Jacket. Then, inexplicably, for almost 10 years Hollywood moved away from war films until Saving Private Ryan appeared in 1998 and took things in a new direction. It committed to showing the “realism” of battle while going back to a more straightforward, heroic portrayal of soldiers. In 2002, Black Hawk Down was a very well received film both critically and financially. It was post 9/11, and this “true story” of soldiers pinned down in Somalia definitely showed us a new type of soldier – one that was highly skilled, technologically outfitted, courageous, and morally upstanding. The conflict in this film was more about flawed tactics and military/political bureaucracy than the faceless, dark-skinned, ragtag Somali combatants. Ridley Scott is a master of directing screen action, and he received an Oscar nomination for this. Yet, while I admire the film for its technical achievement in recreating battle, I don’t recall characters I cared about or walking away from this with even a shred of the thoughts/emotions I felt when I saw Platoon. Francis Ford Coppola said that he felt most films were “anti-war” by nature, but he went on to say that when you stage a combat sequence, like his famous helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, the director is essentially sensationalizing war for audience entertainment.
DJ: Solid film, whatever happened to Josh Harnett?
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
After a number of films covering both the European and Pacific fronts of WWII, I wondered if there was a need for Hacksaw Ridge, despite it being based on a true story. It turned out to be an emotional and somewhat original entry into the long line of war films. Like Saving Private Ryan before it, you can’t help but be moved by the heroic sacrifices soldiers have made in the service of their brothers in arms and their country (if you don’t fight back tears during the closing interviews with the real-life soldiers of this story, you don’t have a heart). So on the surface, it feels like director Mel Gibson succeeds in marrying the war-as-hell/”is it worth the cost?” questioning with the heroic soldier treatment that was re-established with Saving Private Ryan. The battle scenes, while gruesome, are expertly and suspensefully staged, which leads me back to the question of: “Is it okay to be entertained by battle sequences?” In the documentary Five Came Back, it is revealed that John Huston staged much of the battles in his 1945 short documentary San Pietro. The problem is that he passed it off as captured battle footage. Spielberg, commenting on this issue, doesn’t have a problem with it – positing that it might be more effective to evoke battle conditions by staging it, vs. what could be safely captured on film during a real battle. I see his point, but I’m not sure I agree with passing it off as “real footage.” Despite the hundreds of war films shown in theaters over the years, I don’t believe the full scope of war has truly been explored yet. I would like to see more films that try to get at why human civilization so easily engages in war and why, as consumers of pop culture, we are so easily entertained by it.
DJ: I have to admit I haven’t seen it. I think the marketing job on this was horrific, I only took notice when it was nominated for an Oscar. I also have a bias against Mel Gibson, couldn’t fathom that a studio would allow him to make a good film again.
Some of the first war movies I saw were the ones from the 50’s and 60’s, fairly sanitized versions of WWII, I think of PT-109, real-life war hero Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back, Mister Roberts, and The Green Berets. The Green Berets was actually a Vietnam movie, John Wayne starred-in and directed it, and it was pure propaganda, not even close to showing what Vietnam was really about. As I got older into the late 1970’s and early 1980’s more realistic depictions of war were being filmed, often shocking and meaningful. My father was a Vietnam Vet and so we often hooked up the rented VCR and watched these films: Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, The Boys in Company C, to name a few… including the “back” to Vietnam movies, Uncommon Valor, First Blood or Missing in Action. It’s difficult to depict the atrocities of these wars and to make you understand what really happened. One honorable mention is not so much a theatrical release but Ken Burns documentary on WWII is pretty great, it’s long but really takes you through the experience through the eyes of the soldiers. I also heard Burns has an 18 hour Vietnam documentary slated for September 2017 which I am looking forward to.
The Boys in Company C (1978)
“To keep their insanity in an insane war, they had to be crazy.”
Released in early 1978, it’s technically the first of the more realistic Vietnam War films. It’s also easily the most underrated Vietnam War film. It was directed by Sidney Furie whose claim to fame is directing Superman IV The Quest for Peace. Full Metal Jacket owes something to this film as it certainly follows the boot camp template also the narrative device of a private journaling his experiences. R. Lee Ermey, in his first movie role and a real-life veteran, starred as a sergeant in both pictures and is riveting. The rest of the actors are mostly unknown, Craig Wasson, best known for Body Double, and Andrew Stevens from the 80’s TV Show Code Red. It does have some stereotypical characters, touching all the ethnic bases – as if platoons had one Italian guy from Brooklyn, one hippie, one African-American, etc… It definitely depicts the chaos and corruption of the war. Platoon and Full Metal Jacket do this better but I always think of this movie first, it had that effect on me and laid the groundwork for more modern war films. It does lose me a little with the Soccer game and its consequences in the climax of the film. It doesn’t quite push the envelope that the later films do but no discussion of Vietnam films should leave out The Boys in Company C. Now it just needs a proper Blu-Ray release.
MG: I’m glad you chose this film, as it is an underappreciated trailblazer, particularly for Vietnam films. When it came out, it was derided for depicting the soldiers and the war itself with too much nobility, but that’s a bit of a simplistic take. Sure, it’s not the hard-hitting brutality and moral quagmire of later Vietnam films, but it was not the straight-up propaganda film of Green Berets either.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
“You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us”
If Apocalypse Now is not my favorite movie it’s in the top 5. It’s about as perfect as a movie can get. Francis Ford Coppola released a redux version adding many minutes to an already long film and it’s still great. Coppola adapted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about a boat trip in the late 1800’s Africa to find a man who had lost his morality. It’s an incredible novel and for Coppola to be able to adapt it with the Vietnam War as the backdrop is amazing. The movie begins with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) drunk out of his mind while The Doors The End plays in the background. He breaks a mirror and cuts his hand and it’s such a shocking and effective opening scene. Sheen was really drunk and really cut his hand and Coppola kept filming. Willard has signed up for another tour and then receives a mission to go deep into the jungle and find Colonel Kurtz who has descended into madness and is running his own tribe. He is asked to terminate him with extreme prejudice. Along the way, he has many encounters, loses his boat crew and then finally reaches Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Coppola says that Brando was nuts, often just ad-libbing his own lines and very difficult to work with. Brando makes it work and his scenes are haunting all the way up to “The Horror”. If you want to watch a Vietnam War movie that gives you a realistic approach of the war this is not it, watch Platoon or Full Metal Jacket instead. The story comes first, the war second, but it shows the madness and the complexity of what that war meant. Coppola and Sheen almost died making this film and there is a great documentary about the making of this called Hearts of Darkness. If you can see this on the big screen with a 70mm print I would recommend it, the scene with the helicopters flying into Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is iconic.
MG: Coppola famously said: “My film is not about Vietnam, it IS Vietnam.” He was criticized by some for that comment, but I think he was saying the madness and insanity of the production was similar to that of war. This is one of the only films I have ever seen that explores the philosophy/psychology of waging war in a supposedly “civilized” world. That was the message of Heart of Darkness – are we just savage beasts at heart, and thus all the rest of what we call civilization is just a facade?
Enemy at the Gates (2001)
“He isn’t dead, and do you know why? Because I haven’t killed him yet”
So my last selection is something completely different, to quote Monty Python, it’s a modern World War II film about a Russian sniper and a German sniper dueling during the winter of 1942 during the Battle of Stalingrad. At the time, it featured some young up and coming talented actors: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Wiesz and also veterans Bob Hoskins, Ron Pearlman and Ed Harris as the German sniper. The movie is based on a real-life sniper Vasily Zaitsev (Law) but most of the film is fiction including the German sniper. The battle scenes are very well done. It’s well acted and tense, especially in the last act. Law and Harris are fantastic, they have a lot of scenes without talking and they both are great at acting with their eyes. You can see the respect each has for the other person’s skill. Critics were lukewarm on this film and I am not sure why. It’s another underrated film that needs a bigger audience. The Russians are trying to use Vassili to give their people a hero to give them hope that they will win this war. The cat and mouse, by Law and Harris, is the attraction here and it’s well-done, edited well and as tense as it should be. There is a romantic triangle between Weisz, Fiennes, and Law and surprisingly it works. The opening battle sequence has the realism of Saving Private Ryan’s albeit not as long or as well done. I think of this movie often and it’s in my cache of films I always stop on when I am flipping channels and come across it.
MG: Definitely an underseen film about an underrepresented part of the war, at least outside of Russia. American soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy was heroic and important, but Hollywood would have you believe that it was the key event that defeated the Nazis. The reality is that the Russians unfathomable sacrifice in defending their country against invasion is what eventually wore down the Nazi war machine. What that country went through was brutality and suffering like nothing ever experienced in the modern world. A definitive American film on that part of WWII is still needed.