From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film

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From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film Edited by Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991. 387 pp. Illustrated. $45.00 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).

I received this book on the day that the Persian Gulf War began, Operation Desert Storm, the war, according to President Bush, that will create a "new world order." Dittmar and Michaud begin their introductory essay to this collection of essays about Vietnam War films, "This book is about power. Implicitly, it is about the power to make war and to destroy lives. Explicitly, it is about the power to make images that may displace, distort, and destroy knowledge of the history in which those lives participated." It was both instructive and unnerving to read the twenty essays in this book while listening to American "officials" censoring and manipulating the words and images associated with the present war. Dittmar and Michaud also remind us that the title of their book "is meant to draw attention to the process whereby aspects of that war [Vietnam] have been appropriated into particular modes of representation by sectors of the American cultural industry."

The essays are arranged into four thematic categories: "Wide Angles: History in the Remaking," "Close-ups: Representation in Detail," "Other Frames: Subtext and Difference," and "Other Forms: Documenting the Vietnam War." The book includes two appendices, "Chronology: The United States, Vietnam and American Film," and "Selected Filmography: The Vietnam War on Film."

While the essays vary in style and approach, they share a concern for the relationship between history and its representation in film. This collection of essays focuses on how films are, the editors state, "bound by the commodity status of films produced under the conditions of capitalism." The Vietnam War and historical specificity have been influenced by American culture, ideology, world historical events, and the techniques of film production itself. These and other factors helped to shape every film about the Vietnam War from Green Berets (1968) to Full Metal Jacket (1987).

The first essay, "Historical Memory, Film and the Vietnam Era" by Michael Klein points to how revisionism and reinterpretation take place in a historical era. He reminds the reader of how historical myths about the Civil War era were represented in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Keeping in mind that Hollywood did not produce many Vietnam movies until nearly a decade after America's involvement in the war, Klein and other authors explore how the nation's political and public atmospheres play a deciding role in the content and images included in Vietnam War films. Klein discusses how Hollywood encodes the generic melodramas with an "eye to ideology." The Deer Hunter ( 1978) is "pervaded by racist and Cold War stereotypes." Hollywood's demonological approach to Asians in general, and Vietnamese "Communists" in particular has generated countless "vigilante" style characters who simply must fight the "yellow peril" with means other than conventional warfare. Klein uses Platoon as an example of a film that "substitutes a psychological and metaphysical interpretation for a historical understanding of the genocidal aspects of the war."

Leo Cawley's essay, "The War About the War: Vietnam Films and the American Myth," discusses the "mindless military rambunctiousness" of Americans and their love of John Wayne super-troopers and military technology as depicted in Hollywood war films. Cawley, a combat veteran in Vietnam, reminds us that most soldiers do not like super-troopers and that technology was not all that relevant in the Vietnam War. "In Vietnam films, experience is masticated into the form most easily incorporated into American mythology," Cawley asserts. Part of this mythology is also discussed by Harry W. Heines in "They Were Called and They Went: The Political Rehabilitation of the Vietnam Veteran. …