and the Vietnam War Ironically,
the most controversial issue of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam
War, only began to be seriously examined on the screen in the late
'70s. Although many films of the late 60s and early 70s embodied the
bitter aftertaste of the war, the conflict itself remained strikingly
absent from the screen, as Hollywood, like the country as a whole,
had difficulty adjusting to the grim legacy of a lost and troubling
war. During the conflict, Hollywood produced only a single film dealing
with Vietnam--John Wayne's The Green Berets. Modelled along the lines
of such World War II combat epics as The Sands of Iwo Jima and earlier
John Wayne westerns like The Alamo, the film portrayed decent Americans
struggling to defend an embattled outpost along the Laotian border
nicknamed Dodge City.
America's active military participation in the Vietnam War ended in
1973, the controversy engendered by the war raged on long after the
firing of the last shot. Much of the controversy centered on the returning
veterans. Veterans were shocked by the cold, hostile reception they
received when they returned to the United States. In First Blood (1982),
John Rambo captured the pain of the returning veterans: "It wasn't
my war--you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what I had to do
to win....Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots
at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer...."
the 1970s and '80s, the returning Vietnam War veteran loomed large
in American popular culture. He was first portrayed as a dangerous
killer, a deranged ticking time bomb that could explode at any time
and in any place. He was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a veteran
wound so tight that he seemed perpetually on the verge of snapping.
Or he was Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), who adjusted to
a mad war by going mad himself.
the end of the '70s did popular culture begin to treat the Vietnam
War veteran as a victim of the war rather than a madman produced by
the war. Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) began the popular
rehabilitation of the veteran, and such films as Missing in Action
(1984) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985) transformed the veteran into
a misunderstood hero.
Where some films, like the Rambo series, focused on the exploits of
one-man armies or vigilantes armed to the teeth, who had been kept
from winning the war because of government cowardice and betrayal,
another group of Vietnam War films--like Platoon, Casualties of War,
and Born on the Fourth of July--took quite a different view of the
war. Focusing on innocent, naive "grunts"--the ground troops
who actually fought the war--these movies retold the story of the
Vietnam War in terms of the soldiers' loss of idealism, the breakdown
of unit cohesion, and the struggle to survive and sustain a sense
of humanity and integrity in the midst of war.
information on the cinematic treatment of the Vietnam War, see James
S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Coming to Terms with the Vietnam War:
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