The Stunt Man: An Overlooked Commentary on Vietnam

By Birdwell, Michael | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Stunt Man: An Overlooked Commentary on Vietnam


Birdwell, Michael, Literature/Film Quarterly


"Where I was. we only raped Gooks."

-Cameron, from the film version of The Stunt Man

Both the film The Stunt Man and the Paul Brodeur novel of the same name use the war in Vietnam as a central motivating device for their main character, Cameron. Oddly, critics of the novel and film have downplayed the importance of the war or have dismissed it altogether. Rather, most have chosen to focus their attentions upon the frame-the story/film within the film/story-or the recurrent themes of paranoia and of reality versus illusion.' Yet the Vietnam War provides the glue that holds the story together in both versions. The treatment of the war and the central characters changed drastically from the novel to the film.2 Both novel and film state that in order for Cameron (and, by association, the audience) to survive, he must be reborn. However, the statements made about the war in the two versions are decidedly different. Brodeur's novel is humorless and bleak, an existential indictment of the war that ultimately says there is no escape from the war or its destruction, even at home. Rush's film, on the other hand, employs suspense and humor to implore the audience to confront its memory of the war, heal wounds, and move on.

The novel, published in 1970, presented Cameron as a twenty-six-year-old graduate student drafted one month before his eligibility expired. Brodeur's Cameron, a brooding, bookish man, is nearly paralyzed by his over-rationalization of the world around him. Scared of the war, cheated by having his number come up so late, he never makes it to Vietnam. In fact he goes AWOL before he even makes it to basic training. Sent on an errand by the black D.I. when their bus breaks down en route to camp, he runs away dreaming of Canada. Wishing to make an example of Cameron for his evasion of the war, authorities doggedly pursue him. The luck of running onto a film location and being absorbed into its community for a brief time (by replacing a Stuntman that he believes he may have killed) offers him only an angst-ridden prolonging of the inevitable. Cameron is constantly reminded of the war as radio or television reports about it drone on throughout the novel.

The Cameron of the film is feral where Brodeur's is cerebral. The novel's Cameron is prodded into action by the geriatric, glaucomic movie director. Gottschalk, and his sadistic cinematographer, Bruno da Ke. The cinematic Cameron, a seasoned combat veteran dubbed "Lucky Bert" by the film's mercurial director, Eli Cross, reacts atavistically to his surroundings, then later ponders their import. Brodeur never lets the reader forget that his Cameron loves books. Brodeur's Cameron muses over his past life as a graduate student, whereas the filmic Cameron. when asked if he reads, responds curtly, "short words."

Columbia bought the rights to the novel before the book was published in 1970 and offered the project to A.I.P. alumnus Richard Rush. The studio hoped to offer a topical film that would appeal to a counter-culture audience. A film about a pensive, gentle pacifist forced into service, then trying to escape the army, had relevance. A sagging box office led the studio to scrap any project that could not guarantee immediate success, however, and they stopped production on The Stunt Man. Rush optioned the novel and peddled it all over Hollywood to unenthusiastic receptions (Peary 229). Meanwhile, the war was winding down. The Vietnami/.ation of the war during the Nixon administration slowly reduced the numbers of American men going into combat, and public support for the war reached its nadir. Americans, who could voyeuristically peek in on the war from the comfort of their living rooms, felt increasing disdain for the conflict. The public became saturated with Vietnam, and studios regarded the subject as box office poison.

Richard Rush and screenwriter Lawrence Marcus, unwilling to abandon the project, continued to revise the script (nine times)4 until they received independent backing to produce the film in 1978 (Peary 230). …

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