Reflections of America: A Brief Vietnam War Film Primer
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is the latest entry in the subgenre of films about the Vietnam War and its aftermath, a conflict that — as a source of artistic inspiration — is unique among its peers in its tendency to function as symbolism. Painting with a broad brush, American war films (especially those set during the two World Wars) are often about the war itself, in all its literal and visceral glory, or lack thereof. The best films about the Vietnam War however, are less about the war and more about America — as both a country and an idea. It’s a complicated subject to tackle, and one that seemingly fell out of vogue among filmmakers and studios this century after a protracted run in the 1970s and 80s in particular, but Da 5 Bloods is very much in the vein of the great Vietnam War movies that it follows (and often overtly references). Lee’s Vietnam vets are beautifully drawn characters, to be sure, but they also represent a country still mired in hatred and bigotry, one that would prefer to sweep all its uglier aspects — everything from mistreatment of veterans to full-fledged racism — under the rug and hope they just resolve themselves. For Lee and his peers, the details of the conflict matter much less than what that conflict meant, what it wrought, and what it says about the so-called “Land of the Free.” As we’ve made clear, Da 5 Bloods is a crucial text in the examination of America; below are five additional films about the Vietnam War that deserve to be a part of that essential primer — while they vary in scope and subject, each in their own way attempts to shine a light on what lies beneath the surface of the American Dream.
Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)
One of the earliest film depictions of a troubled Vietnam War veteran, Targets follows two very different men: Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, playing a version of himself), an aging horror star considering retirement due to his understanding that the public finds the news much more frightening than the movies, and Bobby Thompson, a young all-American veteran who one day sets off on a seemingly random killing spree. Targets is loosely based on real events, but by anchoring Thompson to Vietnam — at a time when the war was still years from ending — the film draws an ominous conclusion about the destructive effect the conflict was having on individual and collective psyches.
First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
Nowadays, the name Rambo immediately calls to mind a symbol of bombastic and jingoistic excess, but the permeation of Sylvester Stallone’s headband-wearing, machine gun-toting super-soldier into popular culture on the backs of four critically maligned sequels fails to acknowledge just how sharp and melancholy the original film is. Yes, the bulk of the plot involves Stallone’s John Rambo using guerrilla tactics to pick off the police officers hunting him through the foliage of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s the reason they’re hunting him that makes the film so poignant: his only crime was being a veteran without a stable home. Arrested because he refused to leave town when told — a town he traveled to in hopes of seeing an old friend, one he learns has died from Agent Orange exposure during the war — First Blood is one of Hollywood’s most devastating portrayals of how America has abandoned those to whom they owe the most.
Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
Oliver Stone’s Best Picture winner isn’t subtle — a voiceover by protagonist Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) makes sure the film’s themes are hammered home — but subtlety can be overrated, especially with cinema this powerful. Based on Stone’s own experiences in the war, there’s a sense of authenticity — however heightened — in the tale of an infantry platoon hoofing it through unfamiliar terrain, but at its core Platoon is about the struggle for the soul of America. Through Taylor’s eyes we see the country both for what we want it to be (an idealized, humanitarian proponent of justice, embodied by Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias) and for what it may really be (a violent, xenophobic force, personified by Tom Berenger’s Staff Sergeant Barnes). It’s no mystery which side Stone wants to believe in, but he makes it abundantly clear that he’s less than confident that aspect of the country’s persona can win out in the end.
Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989)
I’ve written extensively about Casualties of War previously, and I maintain that it stands as one of the more underappreciated films about the conflict. Adapted from a 1969 New Yorker report, Casualties follows a group of American soldiers who kidnap a Vietnamese woman and proceed to commit a slew of atrocities. A single member of this platoon refuses to take part and attempts to take a stand against his squadmates, but is ultimately helpless to prevent their crimes. De Palma is unsparing in his portrayal of the entire hierarchy of the American military complex as fully complicit in abetting and protecting their own at the expense of any they deem beneath them — a depiction that may have been too much for audiences to stomach at the time but remains depressingly relevant today.
Dead Presidents (Albert and Allen Hughes, 1995)
Along with Da 5 Bloods, Dead Presidents remains one of the only films about Vietnam to focus on the experiences of Black soldiers both during and after the war. As the Hughes Brothers’ answer to The Deer Hunter, the film follows Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) as he graduates high school, fights in Vietnam, and returns home to an America that somehow cares even less about him than it did before. Dead Presidents pitches Curtis’ turn to crime as depressingly inevitable: when you give everything to your country and aren’t even afforded the opportunity to make a life for yourself afterwards, what else are you supposed to do? For a film that starts out relatively hopeful, the culmination is as bleak as they come — a stark reminder of just how little American institutions care about the principles of fairness and equality they claim to espouse.