When Alan Landsburg's production company put together a television documentary called "John Wayne Presents the Movies of World War II" a few years ago, the editors had something more than 400 films to sample, as I remember. The special ultimately included glimpses of more than 100 films. You would have trouble finding 100 films in which the word Vietnam occurs in the dialogue.
Vietnam was indeed the living-room war, the first ever; but the nightly television news coverage was one of the reasons, although not the principal reason, why Vietnam was not a movie-house war.
Amid all the 10th-anniversary commemorations of the fall of Saigon, there is eerily little to be said about the films of the Vietnam War. Well-made and very popular movies about World War II kept coming well after the war was over, like William Wellman's "Battleground" in 1949 and Darryl F. Zanuck's personal project, "The Longest Day," whose success pulled Fox back from the brink of bankruptcy in 1962.
But the equivalent of "The Best Years of Our Lives" for Vietnam was "Coming Home," a story of bitterness and disillusion only partially assuaged by love and courage.
The one attempt during the war itself (1968) to make a Vietnam film on the World War II model (in which the acceptance of the war itself was enthusiastic and unquestioning) was of course John Wayne's "The Green Berets," which was critically hooted and not a major box-office success.
The reasons for Hollywood's silence during Vietnam itself were cynical or pragmatic, depending on your taste. Movies, like colas, are marketplace commodities and although, unlike colas, they aspire to be an art form, they have to reach a mass, consenting audience.
But from early days there was no strong national consensus about the Vietnam involvement, only a deepening national division that the film makers, whatever their private persuasions (with the exception of Wayne), avoided like live grenades loose in a foxhole.
One of the earliest and best of the Vietnam films that began to appear after the U.S. pullout was "Go Tell the Spartans" in 1978, directed by Ted Post from a story and script by Daniel Ford and Wendell Mayes, respectively. It linked the sacrifices of brave men in losing situations to the courage of other brave, doomed men down the centuries, and, like the soldiers themselves, the film died unsung.
The movies--and television--reflect the prevailing attitudes in society by silence as well as by statements. The two strongest pieces of film making that have come out of Vietnam so far, "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now," both concentrated on the surrealist, nightmare aspects of the war, although in both cases the surrealism was invented or borrowed (the Russian roulette in "The Deer Hunter," the lift from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in "Apocalypse Now") to confirm the nightmare.
Yet except as nightmare visions of the war as fought, both films were ambiguous and muddled. One English political writer called "The Deer Hunter" an insult to the memory of every American who died in Vietnam (John Pilger in the New Statesman, quoted in David Shipman's "The Story of Cinema").
What was never clear was whether Michael Cimino's survivors, singing "God Bless America" around the kitchen table, represented a scene of terrible irony or a reaffirmation of patriotic ideals. Although Cimino later insisted he meant no irony, he had made his horrors too graphic. The oversimplification of the conflict and the comic-book depiction of the Viet Cong made for images of gruesome impact, though on reflection the images seem to have been ends rather than means to a statement.
Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" caught several kinds of conflict: a collision of cultures that found high technology attacked by natives with arrows; a limited war being fought amid a hedonistic peace, and reflecting both (surfing, drugs, Playmates and death); an ambiguous war, again, for which no new ground rules exist so that a cynical despair hangs over Martin Sheen's mission and Brando rightly speaks of "the horror."
What it all meant was vague, but the film's ability to thrust the viewer inside the apocalyptic nightmare was, for much of the journey, total.
It's always risky to attribute collective thinking to Hollywood. The industry is too competitive and secretive, although items of conventional wisdom do surface from time to time. A few films now reflect the lingering frustration and anger over Vietnam. Gene Hackman in "Uncommon Valor" and, evidently, Sylvester Stallone in the upcoming "Rambo" are score-settlings, sorties into Vietnam that reverse the roles and let the Americans be the covert and effective infiltrators.
Yet it is clear that if the lessons of Vietnam were not lost on the society, they weren't lost on Hollywood either. "Under Fire" challenged the philosophical idea of the American presence in Central America (and closely reflected the actual formative events in Nicaragua). It was the kind of statement film that was not, I think, explicitly made about Vietnam, so far as I remember.
It was not a box-office success, nor was "The Year of Living Dangerously," which looked back to the turmoil of Southeast Asia in the mid-'60s.
"The Killing Fields" seems to be doing better, thanks to the massive press attention and Academy honors it has had. It is a horrific glimpse of the Communist takeover and of the prison camps, but it plays as a personal drama rather than as a film of advocacy. A reasonable readout is, in fact, that the tangled dynamics of Southeast Asia were not of American making and to date do not look susceptible of American solution.
What stays in mind, even beyond the fireworks of "Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse," is the quietly wrenching drama of television's "Friendly Fire," with its own intimate and fleeting glimpses of the nightmare as it was lived and with its portrayal, within one family, of the wider national shift in attitudes toward Vietnam. Nothing more eloquent, and reflective, has yet emerged. Vietnam in a real sense has remained the living-room war.