"Do We Get to Win This Time?": POW/MIA Rescue Films and the American Monomyth

By Sutton, David L.; Winn, J. Emmett | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

"Do We Get to Win This Time?": POW/MIA Rescue Films and the American Monomyth


Sutton, David L., Winn, J. Emmett, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


On the evening of January 23, 1973, in a national radio and television address, President Richard Nixon announced the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement between the United States of America and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Nixon explained that all American prisoners of war would be released and there would also be "the fullest possible accounting for all those who are missing in action" ("Agreement" 153). In the years that followed such an accounting never materialized. Since then stories about American POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia have persisted. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Senate established a select committee to bring closure to this lingering question from the Vietnam War. Sutton points out that the committee concluded that there were no American POW/MIAs being held in Southeast Asia but not all Americans were convinced.

In the 1980s several films with a basic plot structure that centered around the rescue of American POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia appeared. Budra, in "Rambo in the Garden: The POW Film as Pastoral," argues that the POW/MIA rescue film is a sub-genre of the Vietnam film genre. This essay examines the films Uncommon Valor (1984), Missing in Action (1985), and Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985) and finds that these films helped to lay the foundation for the POW/MIA rescue genre. However, more importantly, this paper argues that a key factor in the popularity of these films with American audiences lies in their ability to resolve the POW/ MIA question while also giving Americans a symbolic "victory" in the Vietnam War. For at the conclusion of these films some of the American POW/MIAs finally come home to be reunited with their families, and the Southeast Asian Communists are brutally defeated by an American warrior. In short, as Rambo suggests in First Blood, Part II the Americans get to "win" this time.

There exists some debate about whether American Vietnam war films makeup a recognizable genre (e. g. Whillock). Budra points to the similarities between the narratives of these films and the narrative conventions of the classic Western genre with its ties to the American monomyth. The typical story in these films consists of the rescue of American POWs from the Vietnamese and is closely followed by several of these films and continued with slight variations in others. This essay uses these familiar narrative conventions to demonstrate that one of their appeals to American audiences is their use of key images found in the classic American monomyth.

The films Uncommon Valor (1984), Missing in Action (1985), and Rambo: First Blood, Part 11 (1985) were foundational for the POW/MIA rescue film as a subgenre. American audiences flocked to these films, especially Rambo: First Blood, Part II, despite the lack of critical acclaim. Although their plots differ in some details, the Vietnam War POW/MIA rescue movies contain key images found in the classic American monomyth. In their research into the artifacts of American popular culture, Jewett and Lawrence found the consistent pattern of the monomyth:

A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity. (xi)

Jewett and Lawrence see the American monomyth as a secular version of Judeo-Christian stories of redemption "combining elements from the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil" (xii-xiii). The heroes of American popular culture act as Christ-like figures. Because of this proximity to religious imagery, popular culture heroes possess a power over their admirers "that should be compared with more traditional forms of religious zeal," and belief in the abilities of popular culture heroes to do justice "imparts the relaxing feeling that society can actually be redeemed by anti-democratic means" (Jewett and Lawrence xii-xiii). …

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