FILM : UCI Panel to Take Close-Up Look at War Psychology : Movies: Ron Kovic and director Oliver Stone will talk about the making of ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ Then panelists will discuss Hollywood’s treatment of war.
Do young men go off to war in part because they have seen Hollywood movies that glorify military combat? To hear Ron Kovic tell it, he and thousands like him did.
“I think a lot of us went to Vietnam with movie images of John Wayne in our minds,” he said last week. “On a reconnaissance patrol, I remember once imagining that I was John Wayne.”
Kovic, whose transformation from a decorated Marine to an anti-war activist is portrayed by Tom Cruise in the movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” paused at the memory of what he now considers an absurd, dangerous and puerile fantasy.
The 43-year-old Vietnam veteran, a possible Democratic candidate for the congressional seat held by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), has recounted that fantasy many times for reporters, because it drives home a point that he’s trying to make about misguided ideals and misplaced patriotism.
Probably, he will recount it again Wednesday night at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center, where he and director Oliver Stone are to speak about the making of the critically acclaimed hit movie as a prelude to a panel discussion about Hollywood’s treatment of war in general and its impact on public policy.
Before he went to Vietnam, Kovic said in an interview from his home in Redondo Beach, the movies that appealed to him were the sort that exalted war by sanitizing violence and glorifying death: “The Sands of Iwo Jima” with Wayne, “Guadalcanal Diaries” with William Bendix, “To Hell and Back” with Audie Murphy.
“I’ll never forget the scene with Wayne charging up Mt. Suribachi at the end of ‘Iwo Jima,’ ” Kovic said. “The Marine Corps hymn is playing in the background. When I was wounded, I never heard that hymn at all.”
Paralyzed from the chest down by a spine-shattering bullet on Jan. 20, 1968, Kovic returned in a wheelchair from his second tour of duty in Vietnam to his hometown of Massapequa, N.Y. His taste in movies began to change--not to mention his political views.
“The movies I grew up on in the ‘50s lied to us,” Kovic said. “That’s the right word: lied. They misled us. They manipulated us. They incited an entire generation of American boys through glamorous images of warfare to go to Vietnam. We were propagandized.”
What movies, he asked, had ever shown how it felt to come home from war seriously wounded? What movies had ever shown a family that didn’t want to deal with a wounded veteran? None that he watched on television or at his neighborhood theater, he said.
It wasn’t until the ‘70s, Kovic recalled, that he saw “The Best Years of Our Lives,” William Wyler’s 1946 depiction of three World War II veterans--among them a sailor whose hands have been blown off and replaced by hooks--coping with the aftermath of their military experiences.
“That was the first courageous attempt I know of to show what it is really like,” said Kovic, who was a consultant on Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home,” the 1978 movie with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda about a returning paraplegic Vietnam veteran.
Not that some movies of the ‘50s hadn’t bared the truth about war, such as Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men,” a study in rehabilitation starring Marlon Brando (in his first screen appearance) as a paralyzed GI from World War II, or “Paths of Glory,” Stanley Kubrick’s critique of systematic, military cruelty during World War I.
But they weren’t popular films, and it’s not surprising that Kovic, who was a working-class kid from the suburbs, had missed them.
Far more visible at the time were such paeans to military heroism as “Battle Hymn,” starring Rock Hudson as a clergyman who trains fighter pilots in the Korean War, or “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” David Lean’s Oscar-laden blockbuster about British and American prisoners of war in the Burmese jungle.
“Born on the Fourth of July,” which is based on Kovic’s 1976 autobiography, not only deglamorizes war but dares to question such sacrosanct institutions as motherhood and the nuclear family, whose prized, all-American virtues can’t always be depended upon to protect young men from their worst impulses.
It is Kovic’s mother, after all, whose competitive drive in the movie implicitly urges Kovic on as a high school wrestler, and helps foster his self-image as a patriotic defender of the nation against godless communism. The lack of humanizing influence is derived less from any political ideology than from a combination of conventional expectations and basic stage mothering--and that serves to underscore the point.
UCI Prof. John Rowe, who will be one of the panelists Wednesday evening, sees this aspect of the movie as one of its riskier--and braver--propositions. “It’s courageous to show that militarism is not just something passed from man to man or father to son in some kind of masculine psychodrama,” he said last week. “It is shared by all of us, both genders, including mothers. I think the movie makes a very serious point.”
Rowe added from his Newport Beach home that in his estimate, “Born on the Fourth of July” is the best Hollywood meditation on war to come along in more than a decade--superior to “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and to Stone’s own 1986 Oscar-winning “Platoon,” because “it coalesces specific resistance in the culture to the kind of complacency that we have now. It is a future-oriented film that identifies the direction of the ‘90s.”
Stone, though, prefers to describe the $18-million movie in far different terms, without any broad abstractions. “Born on the Fourth of July” is, he said, “not ultimately about pacifism” or even “the politicization of an anti-war radical.”
“If you had said to me those are the reasons to make this movie, I would have passed,” Stone, who co-wrote the script with Kovic, maintained in an interview Saturday from his Santa Monica home. “I would not have found that dramatically engaging enough.” Nor, Stone said, did he set out to make the movie for any of the social or political implications that observers such as Rowe and various movie critics have claimed for it.
“For me,” he continued, “the challenge of the movie was its personal canvas. I’m the biographer. I’m obviously telling Ron’s story. I’m not screwing with the facts, so it’s about a man who ultimately ends up coming out against what he formerly was. But it’s also about a boy who has ideals, who has a hero image and who goes out into the world and has that image shattered.
“He goes through a period of immense despair, and out of that despair, he summons enormous strength of character to become a greater person than he ever was before.”
Stone said further that he considers “Born on the Fourth of July” a companion piece to “Platoon,” likening the soldier played by Charlie Sheen in that movie to Kovic. “If Charlie had been wounded,” Stone explained, “he might have become Ron Kovic. Even though he wasn’t, I think he is going through many of the things Ron goes through. He might not be as dramatic in his swings. He might not become a spokesman. But he will go home and have the same problems with his mom and dad and brothers and friends.”
Since much of the character that Sheen played in “Platoon” actually was a fictional extrapolation from Stone’s own experiences as a combat soldier in Vietnam, the comparison would seem to have special significance. Indeed, the director’s steadfast dedication to putting Kovic’s story on screen seems a product of fraternal devotion as much as anything else.
“Oliver Stone made a promise to me when the movie fell through the first time in 1978,” Kovic said. “It was terrible for both of us. But he promised that if he ever broke through and got a chance to direct, he would come back for me. And he did.
“He called me after ‘Platoon,’ when he could have done any movie he wanted, and said three words: ‘I’m ready, Ronnie.’ This man kept his promise after 12 years. How many times does that happen? This is a movie about keeping promises.”
Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone will discuss the making of “Born on the Fourth of July” Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Bren Events Center on the UC Irvine campus. Their speeches, sponsored by the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, will be followed by a panel discussion with UCI faculty members Robert Scheer, Eric Rentschler, John Rowe and Carole Uhlaner and undergraduate Marianne Ide. Tickets: $4 ($2 for students). Information: (714) 856-5000.