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The enduring war picture

By Frank Beaver
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“No one won the last war and no one will win the next.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

What is there about the war picture that has made it so attractive for filmmakers and filmgoers? And how is it that the war picture — whatever the conflict that inspired it — seems to offer unlimited possibilities for on-screen regeneration?

I’ve been thinking about this subject quite a bit lately. I returned home from my year of duty in Vietnam in October 1963, 51 years ago. The passage of time has given me a rare half-century perspective on that most lengthy and complex war. I’ve read the books, seen the movies, and gone back twice to meet the people (most of whom were born after the Americans left). I have visited the war museums there, and marvel at how this beautiful country has evolved in the post-war decades.

10 of my favorite war pictures:

  • U.S. Civil War:
    Glory (1989); Gettysburg (1993)
  • The Second Boer War: Breaker Morant (Australia, 1980)
  • World War I: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930); La Grande Illusion (France, 1938); and The Paths of Glory (1957)
  • World War II: The Bridge on the River Kwai (U.K., 1957); Das Boot (Germany, 1981); Hope and Glory (U.K., 1987 — suitable for family viewing); and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

What do you consider an indispensable, must-see war picture?

In time I came to think the movies had done a fairly good job covering the essence of America’s presence in Vietnam. The topic inspired films about preparatory training and indoctrination (Full Metal Jacket,1987); the impenetrable Southeast Asian jungles (Platoon,1986); the utter insanity of the war (Apocalypse Now,1979); and its fool-hardy combat strategies (Hamburger Hill,1987). Of course, the war’s aftermath inspired a number of stark films about the psychological detritus that continued to affect returning soldiers (The Deer Hunterand Coming Home,both 1978).

Throughout, talented documentarists sought to explain the political positions that led to the Vietnam War, and to the protracted win-at-all-cost policies that sustained the conflict for a decade-and-a-half. Together, these and a host of other films revealed how important it was for Americans to gain a comprehensive understanding of the war in both personal and historical terms.

Endless opportunity

Even so, just as with even older wars, opportunities continually arise to tell new and important stories that illuminate additional perspectives and awareness. Such is the case with Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam,which I saw earlier this month. The title carries a double meaning.

The film covers three weeks in April 1975 and recalls the efforts of a small sympathetic group of Americans, still in Saigon two years after the military had departed, to help evacuate more than 3,000 men, women, and children. These were people who, because of close alliances with Americans in their country, would have been persecuted if left behind.

The main locus of the documentary is the American Embassy, overseen by its genteel and overly cautious ambassador Graham Martin and what’s left of his staff. As approaching North Vietnamese tanks move closer to Saigon, having executed numerous non-sympathizers on the way, a frenzied rush of South Vietnamese citizens clamber over the embassy gates and into the compound. There, they await transport to nearby ships and planes unaware of the command from Washington to evacuate only Americans. Despite that order, the evacuation continues and a race against time ensues. This device provides a tense and dramatic arc as Kennedy’s film blends historic facts with the personal stories of the Americans and South Vietnamese who played a part in the evacuation drama.

I could only marvel at the fact that Kennedy had located so much distant, on-the-spot amateur and newsreel footage. She combines that vintage film with talking-head interviews for a remarkably powerful humanistic document about a residual war event that could have been easily overlooked and forgotten.

Looking back

Personally, I couldn’t help but think back to the South Vietnamese who were part of our daily lives as soldiers at the Army Security Agency’s Third Radio Research Unit (3rd RRU) in Saigon.

We were there as intelligence advisers in a unit first authorized in 1961 by Kennedy’s uncle, President John F. Kennedy. Our mission was to provide strategic information to the South Vietnamese army about Viet Cong unit locations and movements, gained through Morse Code interception and direction tracking. (Not glamorous CIA snooping!)

Living quarters for the 200-plus men comprised a small cantonment area a hundred yards or so from the Tan Son Nhut Airport, the site where the airplane evacuations shown in Last Days in Vietnamtook place a decade later. We had a good number of U.S.-employed South Vietnamese workers who drove the officers’ cars, prepared meals for us, laundered our clothes, and tended to the cantonment facilities.

Seeing Last Days in Vietnamcaused me to wonder: Did these South Vietnamese who worked in our military compound fall victim to post-war recrimination? Were they sent to re-education camps like so many others with American war associations?

There are reasons to ask. Evidence of Viet Cong hostility toward our presence in Saigon in support of the Southern army occurred in early 1964 when a bomb planted under the seats at our softball field exploded. The blast killed two 3rd RRU soldiers, including my good buddy Wayne Glover, who had chosen to extend his duty in Vietnam. Maybe our cantonment workers weren’t considered high-level enough to merit post-war punishment, but Kennedy’s documentary got me thinking about those Vietnamese we had come to know and would leave behind.

Following on the heels of Last Days in Vietnamare three new and very different films about World War II:

  • David Ayer’s Fury,a harrowing tale of a Sherman tank unit on a behind-the-lines mission during the last days of the war;
  • Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game(Nov. 21)  about the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazi Enigma code. Turing’s war-hero status was, for a time, diminished by an “indecency” conviction for a homosexual relationship; and
  • Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken(Dec. 25), the story (from Laura Hillenbrand’s book) of Olympic athlete and war hero Louis Zampernini, who survived six weeks on a Pacific Ocean raft and two-and-a-half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

An ongoing fascination

As a distinctly unique film genre, the war movie has profited narratively from the epic and docudrama affinities of the motion picture medium. It’s also a genre that commonly carries nationalistic and cultural meanings. It has spawned the mythic and patriotic heroics of John Wayne-styled World War II movies, and it has manifested itself in period tales of social upheaval, bravery, and clan fealty in culturally significant Japanese Samurai-warrior epics. Its narrative potential for noteworthy, entertaining storytelling has been broad and diverse.

Alongside more traditional war picture narratives are those produced by filmmakers with the intention of positing anti-war sentiment. The futility and ambiguity of war have been dark, recurring ideas in numerous classic film treatments. The narrative schematics of these films tend to depict young, untested soldiers heading bravely into battle, sometimes returning as heroes, but more often as disillusioned veterans, broken in body and spirit.

Dozens of variations of this Red Badge of Courage-view of war have appeared on screen. Most of the best Vietnam-centric war pictures have taken that thematic path as have many contemporary films set in the two World Wars.

A variety of subgenres also have contributed to the war picture’s expansive history:

  • War as biography: Lawrence of Arabia(1962), Patton(1970), The Pianist(2002), and Lincoln(2012)
  • Romance with war as a backdrop: A Farewell to Arms (1932,1957), Casablanca (1942), and The English Patient (1996)
  • War as black comedy and absurdism: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(1964), M*A*S*H(1970), and Tropic Thunder(2008)
  • War as tragedy, set in the Nazi concentration camp: Sophie’s Choice (1982), Shoah(1985), Schindler’s List (1993), Life Is Beautiful(1997), and Sarah’s Key (2010).

 Rich fodder for film lovers

Clearly all these film types and narrative approaches suggest the far-flung complexities of war and its universal implications for both the battlefield soldier and for humankind. War on the screen seems to have no end point, perhaps because, as Eleanor Roosevelt in The Wisdom of Eleanor Rooseveltsaid so simply, “No one won the last war and no one will win the next.”

This statement offers a truism about the inconclusiveness of war, and for the filmmaker this means unending possibilities for stories that seek new perspectives and awareness about history’s many wars.

Last Days in Vietnam achieved that goal and upcoming World War II pictures Fury, The Imitation Game,and Unbrokenwill surely seek to do the same.

Frank Beaver

Frank Beaver

FRANK BEAVER is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

COMMENTS

  • Lee Katterman

    “We Were Soldiers,” 2002 film about the Battle of Ia Drang (November 1965)

    Reply

  • James Pearson - 1978

    In the documentary category there is “The Fog of War” (2003) which vindicates those Vietnam era college students who struggled to preserve their draft deferments believing that American involvement in the war was unjust.

    Reply

  • Stan Bidlack - 1969

    Yet another brilliant piece of work from Prof. Beaver! What a compelling and insightful analysis he has crafted.

    Reply

  • Stan Bidlack

    What a wonderful analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed the heck out of it!

    Reply

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