By Michael Dodd
Throughout the history of humanity there have been two constants: creativity and conflict. As long as there have been wars there have been artistic depictions of them, and this is true of virtually every known civilisation. This parallel provides a unique insight into our psyche, our humanity and where both can lie at a particular point in history. For though war and representations of war have proved consistent, the manner of both can vary wildly.
In American cinema no conflict has produced more persistently stark portrayals than the war in Vietnam. With definitive characteristics, tropes and archetypes the Vietnam War movie has become an indelible part of Hollywood pop culture. How did this instantly identifiable sub-genre begin, and what can its earliest works tell us about the direction that the cinematic movement would take?
The earliest example of a Hollywood take on battle in South East Asia is the 1958 picture The Quiet American, based on the novel by Graham Greene. With the focus on the First Indochina War of 1946-54 and not the second, two decade long conflict which would later become known in popular lexicon as the Vietnam War, this movie can be considered a prequel to the entire Vietnam War Film movement. Predating the movement as it does it can come as no surprise that The Quiet American suffered from rewrites which diluted the anti-war message and criticism of American involvement in South Asian geopolitics present in Greene’s novel. Such commentary would go on to prove constant in the Vietnam War Film movement. The fact that such reconfiguration of plot occurred, and was met with little resistance from critics and moviegoers, three years into the second Indochina conflagration demonstrates that anti-war sentiment as relating to Vietnam was not yet a popular American campaign. It was certainly not something that the movies were to explore in great detail, at least for the time being.
The grit and downright horror that would mark later works of the movement are also largely absent from A Yank in Vietnam (1964). Writing for the New York Times, film critic Howard Thompson decried the hero-gets-the-girl plot as “standard Hollywood fare” in which the conflict is merely the background for the archetypal Hollywood romantic adventure. In much the same way, the notorious John Wayne picture The Green Berets (1968) can be seen as a depiction of the clichéd Cowboys versus Indians trope, but represented through American troops versus the Vietnamese. To this day Wayne’s belligerent, jingoistic movie is the only legitimately pro-Vietnam War film ever made in Hollywood, but by the time it was released anti-war sentiment had become a popular ideological struggle. The Vietnam War was proving a redundant arena for classic Hollywood storytelling.
There are, however, notable early instances in these early years of tropes that would come to be heavily associated with the movement. As early as 1965 an example of Hollywood cinema tackling the subject of the problems faced by veterans returning home from the war could be found in Motorpsycho. With a plot focused heavily on the exploits of a disturbed Vietnam veteran, this picture is arguably archetypal in that it introduced the “crazy Vietnam vet” to Hollywood audiences.