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David E. Whillock (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Defining the Fictive American Vietnam War Film: In Search of a Genre," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1988, pp. 244-50.
[ In the following essay, Whillock analyzes themes and images in Vietnam combat films and points out the disparities between...
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David E. Whillock (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Defining the Fictive American Vietnam War Film: In Search of a Genre," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1988, pp. 244-50.
[In the following essay, Whillock analyzes themes and images in Vietnam combat films and points out the disparities between these films and World War II combat films.]
What should the Vietnam War look like on film? What were the motifs, visual, and thematic, that would emerge as dominant, that would reappear in film after film—with greater or lesser variations—to evolve into a codified 'Vietnam style'?
Gilbert Adair Vietnam on Film
The "visual style" that Adair alludes to is the concept of genre and its application to films about Vietnam. One of the major academic pursuits in critical discourse is the application of categories to certain "like" narratives in literature and cinema studies. This "pursuit" has become a major source for critical discourse in film. However, while such discourse should be predicated upon precise standardization, terms such as genre are often used with idiosyncratic designation.
Three areas that deserve attention when attempting to apply a precise standardization to films about the Vietnam war are found in three general questions: what is the technical term "genre" and how is it applied to critical concerns in film study; is there a commonality of these films that would categorize them into groups for comparison and contrast; and what, if anything, is the standardization that is constant throughout the categories developed. A discussion of the term "genre" and its specific application to film studies will be beneficial in answering the question: Is there a Vietnam war film genre?
Historically, the term genre was borrowed from literary criticism; etymologically, it came from Latin/French roots related to the concept of "kind" or "type". The Greeks used the term to describe the three main topics of poetry—lyric, epic, and drama—each represented a distinct form of presentation. Through transformations of such literary critics as Northrop Frye, the term evolved to distinguish between the novel, short story, essay and possibly film. A more modern application is found in Thrall and Hibbard's classic Handbook to Literature which contends that "Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics existing among works of the same kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter…." These definitions underscore the idea of "type." Critically there is a distinction between certain kinds of feature films as compared to other feature films (i.e. a western from a detective story) but these definitions do not focus on the precise standardization that would separate one narrative structure from another.
The distinction between the use of genre in literary criticism and film criticism is found in the writings of film critics John Cawelti, Stanley Solomon, and Stuart Kaminsky. Kaminsky in American Film Genres presents an argument for this distinction. He writes that the "usage [of the term] will result in a change of meaning for the word genre, particularly when it is applied to film analysis." Instead of the literary distinction between genres as the form of presentation (novel, short story, essay or radio and television play), a film genre will be distinct by a film's motifs and styles within the presentation (such as comedy, western, detective, science fiction and war films). Thus, for a film genre, subject matter is a valued critical dimension. However, the distinction cannot be based on a single motif or style, but a series of motifs and styles which are similar in all members of the classification. These styles will give a body of "like" films structure and design that will be immediately recognized as a western genre or, in this discussion, a war-film genre.
In order to adapt the use of generic criticism to film, the basis of determining what a film genre is should be clarified. Kaminsky suggests that genres in film criticism must be rigorously defined.
Genre in film, if it is to have meaning, must have a limited scope, a limited definition. These films must have clearly defined constants so that the traditions and forms within them can be clearly seen and not diluted into abstractions.
A soap commercial that has a man with a horse and a cowboy hat located in a desert is not necessarily a western. As Kaminsky points out, there has to be a strict distinction, a set of operating elements, to make the film or the commercial a western. The basic implication to this definition is that there needs to be a corpus or body of films that include enough of the "defined constants" to constitute a genre. Thus, a film genre will have recurring motifs that are alike. For the film critic, these motifs are a combination of two distinct elements: icon and convention.
An icon is defined by Solomon [in Beyond Formula, 1976] as a "visual symbol used from film-to-film." These are physical symbols that represent something else, a deeper reality. For example, a visual symbol (icon), such as the badge in the Western, stands for something deeper than its surface image: the badge stands for law and order in an otherwise wild and uncivilized western town. Thus, each distinct genre will have its own specific recurring icons which share meanings.
The second element found in a generic film is the convention. [In The Six Gun Mystique, 1971] Cawelti defines the conventions as "… elements which are known to both the creator and his audience before hand—they consist of things like favorite plots, stereotyped characters, accepted ideas, commonly known metaphors and other linguistic devices, etc." Among the most common conventions are familiar themes, characters, and narrative structure.
To consider a body of works as a constituted genre all three critics agree that there have to be enough elements of what Kaminsky calls "defined constants." These elements are the recurring icons and conventions (motifs and themes) from film-to-film. By investigating these recurring icons and conventions, the question of what a Vietnam war film should "look like" can be considered.
There are two opposing arguments about the study of Vietnam war films that the critic must confront before a critical analysis is attempted. The arguments are, first, that there are too few Vietnam movies to warrant study; and second, there are too many indistinct films about the Vietnam war to warrant study. This is because nearly every American feature film made during the conflict, specifically in the decade of 1965–1975, directly or indirectly reflects some aspects of the war's political make-up and therefore could be relevant to the Vietnam war. As our purpose is to discuss the Vietnam war film and its possible generic form, a discussion of these opposing arguments might prove fruitful in focusing the discussion.
The first argument that there are too few films to study as a corpus of work has some (albeit little) credence if the critic focuses the study on the films that specifically confront the war. These few films would place their characters and story development in the physical surrounding of Vietnam during the conflict. What is of particular interest about these specific films is that there was only a single film made during the actual conflict. This film, The Green Berets (1968), is one of nine that were eventually released for an American audience. The other seven include The Boys of Company C (1977), Go Tell the Spartans (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Killing Fields (1983), Purple Hearts (1984), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Hamburger Hill (1987).
Why so few? In part, this may be due to the lack of coherent means of dealing with the war. One speculation worth considering is articulated by Julian Smith in his book Looking Away: Hollywood and Vietnam. He says that "for lack of a formula, a way to handle the war, Hollywood turned elsewhere." In essence Hollywood turned away from movies about the direct confrontation of the war towards the effects of the war at home. This "lack of formula" can possibly be traced back to the age old literary problem of "closure." While formulas of films about other wars have been successful, films about the Vietnam war leave the viewer with a sense of unfinished business, that is, the feeling that loose ends are not tied and the prospect of possible closure fades with the end credits.
Lawrence Suid in his dissertation "The Film Industry and the Vietnam War" [Case Reserve University, 1980] discusses another possible cause of the lack of Vietnam war films:
Not only have few films been made that deal with Vietnam in any way, but even fewer have portrayed combat in any significant way. As much as anything, this reflects the nature of the war itself. In other American wars of the 20th century, there was a clearly defined homefront and clearly defined war zone. Perhaps in some way reflecting the lack of battle lines in Vietnam itself, the combat war seems tightly interwoven with the nation's response to it at home.
The second reason, a "lack of distinction" between the war fronts, leads us into the argument that there are too many films about the war and that these films are very indistinct: they overlap all problems, that are portrayed through violence at home, of the Vietnam war.
This argument, concerning the inclusion of films which reflect the war on American society as a whole, is indeed a strong consideration when discussing the possibility of a Vietnam war film genre. Siegfried Kracaur in From Caligari to Hitler underscores the ability of a film reflecting a society's mass desires when he writes: "The films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than any other media." The cinema becomes a crucial index to the desires and concerns of a society's mass population. The Vietnam war films are no exception. They reflect the seemingly indistinguishable concerns of Vietnam as a combat zone, the returning vet, the furor over the involvement in Southeast Asia, and the growing violence that threatens to shred the very fiber of American freedom and ideology. Yet, while every film produced during that time underscores a possible ideology or apology, there are four distinct categories that become evident when investigating films with a common theme of the Vietnam Era. They include: The Vietnam Veteran; the effects of the war at home; the revenge film (POW film), and the combat film. A closer discussion of each category focuses on the distinctions more clearly.
The films investigating the Vietnam veteran, and his struggle in the reintegration into society is the theme of many Vietnam films. The veteran has been chosen through society's disapproval of combat films to tell us what the war is really like. The individual in these films is changed by the war experience and challenged to come back to the folds of society and accept the rules and guidelines that give it existence. However, this unconditional acceptance of routine life does not come easy and only through time and understanding does society and the veteran reach a mutual understanding. Some of the films that represent this thematic category include Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Gardens of Stone, and Heroes.
Films that reflect the effects of the war at home are those that use the Vietnam veteran for violence, or the Vietnam war as a catalyst for violence in the United States. The returning veteran in these films is the misunderstood hero or anti-hero. The veteran is asked to conform immediately without any concern for his past experiences in combat or his "chip on the shoulder" attitude about authority. Some of these characters are more patient than others and are slow to anger. However, the veteran will eventually reach his point of no return and begin his violent struggle. Films in this category include Rolling Thunder, First Blood, Taxi Driver, and Billy Jack. The other type of effects of the war at home is reflected in the anti-culture films of the period. These films include college uprisings and road trips (usually on a motorcycle). These films nearly always include naked bodies and plenty of leather and drugs. Examples of these films include Easy Rider, Chrome and Hot Leather, and The Strawberry Statement.
The revenge films are another important category of films. They add closure to the Vietnam experience. With their myth-building narratives, these films convey the illusion that the war is understood ten years later and that one man has the ability to succeed in the jungles of Southeast Asia when the combined efforts of the United States military failed to do so. The Vietnam war in these films becomes a simple problem to understand. The war is presented as a catharsis of our national frustration through the individual's ability to completely destroy the enemy in the hero's self-styled mission to save the POW's and restore American pride simultaneously. The viewing American public can now see the war and from the vantage point of a winner, they now can put the Vietnam war in perspective with newer and more successful military ventures both on and off the screen. Select films that underscore this category are Uncommon Valor, Good Guys Wear Black, and Rambo: First Blood Part II.
At the other end of this same ideological thought is a film that portrays the prisoner of war in a more "realistic" way. This film (to date there is only one) attempts to achieve its Manichean philosophy through the recounting of the POW experience and the atrocities that these men endured by the North Vietnamese, visiting Cuban advisors, and Hollywood celebrities. The film is Hanoi Hilton.
The combat film portrays Americans in the midst of the conflict during the years of our Vietnam involvement. These films place their characters for the majority of the film in war-torn Vietnam or Cambodia and the narrative of all of these films takes place during the years of American involvement in the conflict. The combat films include The Green Berets, The Boys of Company C, Go Tell The Spartans, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields, Purple Hearts, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill.
Though these distinctions may separate the vast number of films of the Vietnam era into categories, the question of genre is still not resolved. By examining the combat films of the Vietnam war in juxtaposition to the generic structure (icons and conventions) found in the combat films of the Second World War, insight into the question of genre may become clearer. Several considerations in this examination include the possibility that the Vietnam war combat film is indeed a distinct genre; the combat films are a subheading in the overall genre of war films; or that these films are neither a distinct generic form nor a subheading of the war film genre.
As discussed earlier, an icon is that physical visual element within like films that recurs and shares a common meaning. In the war film, icons are usually the machinery of war. In the Second World War combat films, the icons would include the .45 automatic, the M-1 carbine, and the American military dress. In comparison, the Vietnam war combat film icons would include the M-16, the Huey-B helicopter, and the more modern version of the American combat military dress. Each of these visual elements represents in some fashion the machinery of the American military versus the military machines of the opposing countries.
In the Vietnam war film specifically, these icons represent the American military omnipotence versus the village culture of the Vietnamese. As presented in the American Vietnam war film, the visual elements underscore the binary opposition between the American modern technological army and the guerrilla warfare of the Vietcong. The icons in these films is a constant visual reminder of the amount of technology used so inefficiently. This point becomes a common innertextual discussion in the combat American Vietnam war film. The ability for technical "overkill" in Vietnam was not enough for an assured victory. This innertext is found specifically in The Boys of Company C, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. While the icons found in the Vietnam war film remain alike, the conventions begin to underline the discrepancies among the separate combat films of the Vietnam war.
Conventions have been defined as "familiar shared images and meanings" which "assert an ongoing continuity of values" [Cawelti]. These "shared images and meanings" consist of the themes and motifs common from film-to-film. Kaminsky, in his discussion of the war film genre, states that there are five conventions that are similar in all war films. These conventions include the mission, the justification for involvement of the war, the development of the symbiotic relationships within the unit to survive, the stark and open landscape, and the elevation of characters above the madness and violence of the war.
In the combat Vietnam war film, this list of conventions does not apply. Based on an analysis of three of these—the justification for involvement of the war, the stark and open landscape, and the elevation of characters above the madness and violence of the war—the argument can be made that there is not at present a Vietnam war genre, or that the Vietnam war film is not a sub-genre of the war film.
The concept of justification that permeates the war films about World War Two does not exist in most of the Vietnam war films. The only film that involves itself with justification is The Green Berets. In the last scene, Wayne's Colonel Kirby discusses life and death philosophy with a Vietnamese mascot named Hamchuck. As the "Ballad of the Green Berets" swells in the background, and the sun sets on the ocean with a visual of Wayne and mascot outlined in the foreground, the mascot asks Wayne (Kirby) what will happen to him (the mascot). Wayne gives the mascot the green beret of a fallen comrade (and the mascot's keeper) saying that he will take care of him; after all says Wayne "you are why we're here." How much more justification would anyone want?
By contrast, in Apocalypse Now there is an intense monologue by Kurtz to Willard about the ineffectiveness of the American involvement both militarily and politically. For example, he tells of a village that cut the arms off of the children who received shots from the American troops. In most of the films about the Vietnam war, the futility of American involvement is a working convention. The later films about the American involvement in Vietnam are ideologically at the opposite pole in justifying the war. In a sense these later films (from The Boys of Company C to Full Metal Jacket) are a justification against the war.
While Apocalypse Now investigates the futility of the war without considering a mediating factor between the two binary positions, Platoon gives an attempt to "heal the wounds" caused by the opposing views. After presenting the two points of view about the war through the characters of Barnes and Elias, the closing monologue by the film's mediator and narrator, Chris Taylor, is an attempt to seal the ideological cracks of the 1970s. After surviving a night time Vietcong attack and a direct hit of napalm on his position by the United States, Taylor (Charlie Sheen) privately debates both sides of the war. Within this discussion he presents himself as a child "born of two fathers" (the two ideological positions) and only by coming to terms with himself will the opposing positions be successfully resolved. Only through self acceptance will the chasm over the war be bridged. While the war is not justified (it is in fact condemned), the direct confrontation between the two points of view are permutated to a closer resolve.
The second convention, the stark and open landscape, also does not exist in the Vietnam film. The Vietnam film takes place in a dense jungle where the enemy is hidden or nonexistent. Indeed, one of the conventions of many Vietnam war films is the lack of visual contact with the enemy. Only his effects are left to be dealt with. Unlike the World War Two film, there are no formal rules in jungle fighting. The differences between the World War Two film and Vietnam in location is best exemplified when comparing The Sands of Iwo Jima, with Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In Iwo Jima the jungles of this Pacific Island are devastated or nonexistent. The symbol of the destruction of war and the loss of life is expressionistically shown. The location of Iwo Jima is an extension of the clarity for the justification of why we are fighting (all things are clearly visible). Conversely, the Vietnam film is full of beauty and dense jungle. One scene in Apocalypse Now views a helicopter thousands of feet from the ground; the jungle is green and lush and perfect for the hidden enemy; the bombed out craters are filled with water and have become lakes in this mixture of Disneyland and hell. In Platoon, as the American soldiers move their way through the dense jungle, their view is extremely limited by that lush jungle. In one scene, Taylor nearly walks into a Vietcong bunker complex without seeing it in advance. The jungle becomes a perfect cover for the enemy, and a representation of the "lack of clarity" for the war in Vietnam.
The last convention is the elevation of characters above the madness and violence of war. The World War Two film uses its justification to elevate itself above the madness. After all we are fighting for the just cause of liberty. There is for the war film a passionate cause, justifiable, for the destruction found in the war film.
The Vietnam War film, excluding The Green Berets, does not have the same sense to elevate the characters above the madness and insanity of the war. The Boys of Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields, Purple Hearts, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket all portray their characters as conspirators within the "dirty" war. In Apocalypse Now, Willard becomes more like the animal he seeks the closer he gets to his prey. The insanity is part of the reason for the war's existence. This insane madness gives the film its theme and its lure. In Killing Fields both Schanberg and Pran are witness to on-the-spot executions by the Khmer Rouge and the "mistaken" bombing of a Cambodian village. The sense of insanity of both of these films spirals deeper when the audience witnesses an attack on the village in The Killing Fields by Khmer Rouge and the soldiers are drinking bottles of Coca-Cola as they fight. In Apocalypse Now, the Chief is killed when his modern assault boat is attacked by hidden natives with archaic spears. In Full Metal Jacket the whole premise of the movie is the concept of comic insanity in a war gone mad with no end in sight.
Applying the definitions of icon and convention, there is presently no Vietnam War genre. Using Kaminsky's generic description of the war film, the Vietnam war film is not a sub-genre of the overall war film genre either. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the problematic resolve to use old cinematic language for new concepts. The producers of The Green Berets were interested in gaining support for the war through a tried and true formula. They attempted to present to the American public the Vietnam war wrapped in the language of the Second World War. After the hostile acceptance of the film, Hollywood decided to be less controversial and left the presentation of the combat in the Vietnam war for a future generation. The studios went to the veteran and coming home films to discuss the war in Vietnam.
The next attempt to present the Vietnam war on film developed a new cinematic language. [In an endnote, Whillock states: "This is not to ignore the other important films about the Vietnam era. The Deer Hunter and Coming Home deserve high regard in the way they presented the effects of the war at home. However, the focus of this writing is on the combat films and the language used in their presentation."] While The Boys of Company C and Go Tell the Spartans were quick and dirty films that tried to get an advantage from the secrecy and controversy over the long production of Apocalypse Now, they remain important because of the form in which they presented their content. No longer were the formulas of the Second World War films attempted in the films about Vietnam. Instead a new approach was taken and built upon throughout the later films. These common themes include the oppositions between the American and Vietcong's methods of war (civilized warfare versus savagery); distinctions between environments in the films (controlled environment versus uncontrolled environment); and character relations (the representation of binary ideological points of view). Despite the presence of common themes and motifs in the later films about combat in the Vietnam war, they are not yet fully formalized as conventions. With the new interest in Vietnam war films, these themes may indeed become the formula for the combat Vietnam war film.
J. W. Fenn (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "The Vietnam War: Plays of Initiation," in Levitating the Pentagon: Evolutions in the American Theatre of the Vietnam War Era, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 137-67.
[In the following excerpt, Fenn focuses on David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1968) and Streamers (1976) as he remarks on themes and structures common to Vietnam War dramas.]
The significant dramas dealing with the actualities of the Vietnam War were written by playwrights who had firsthand knowledge of the conflict. These authors, of whom few had written previous works for the theatre, undertook to dramatize the ordeal and its consequences for both the combatants and the home community. These writers confronted the fact of war directly and chronicled in dramatic terms its psychological horror. Their plays, which attempted to portray the magnitude of the event and its immediate and long-lasting effects on both the individual and the collective American psyche, best illustrate how the theatre eventually managed to come to terms with Vietnam.
The dramas that deal directly with the War experience, are essentially of three types and are characterized, both thematically and dramatically, by variations on structural principles described by Arnold van Gennep in his Rites of Passage. In the plays dealing with the men who served in Vietnam, a tripartite pattern is observable—that of separation, experience, and reintegration. Typically, these plays document the consequences for an individual as he undergoes the transitional stage of induction into the army, the extracultural exposure overseas, and reintegration into the society from which he has been alienated as a consequence of his military training and experience. Major themes of these pieces include the individual's psychological reconditioning as he is indoctrinated into the military order, the trauma of his overseas experience, and the problems associated with reassimilation into a society whose ethics and values, perceptions, and modes of behavior have become alien to him.
A recurring motif associated with the rites-of-passage motif that typifies all of these plays is that there is a failure of myth and ritual to support and sustain the process of transition, which invariably creates problems of adjustment in the men who undergo the ordeal. The novitiates find themselves in an existential void, isolated and alienated, separated by their experience from the old order, but never fully integrated into the new. Man's attempt at gaining or regaining a place in a cultural construct is prevalent in virtually all major plays dealing with Vietnam. Works focusing on the theme of separation rites are represented by David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1968) and Streamers (1976); those describing rites of experience include H. Wesley Balk's and Ronald J. Glasser's The Dramatization of 365 Days (1972), David Berry's G. R. Point (1975), and John DiFusco's (et al) Tracers (1980). Rites of reintegration are prominent in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones (1969), Adrienne Kennedy's An Evening with Dead Essex (1973), Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag (1975), James McClure's Private Wars (1979), and Emily Mann's Still Life (1980).
The term "passage" in Gennep's Rites of Passage is better rendered in English translation as "transition." Van Gennep undertook an analysis of the ceremonies that accompanied an individual's "life crises" and noted that a pattern, or schema, was present. He distinguished three major phases of this schema: separation (séparation), transition (marge), and incorporation (agrégation). In the general pattern of transition from one state of existence to another there are three main phases: the act of separation from the previous environment, instruction and a gradual conditioning as the novitiate is taught the "ground rules" of the new social order, and a process of reintegration into the society in which he will function as a fully-accredited individual. The relation of the individual to his collective group or society is dependent on modes of social intercourse that are established through rites of transition.
In the Vietnam plays of separation the military is depicted as a self-contained social unit, as distinct from the society that it serves as one culture is from another. Draftees undergo rites of initiation that replace the social codes of the civilian order with a new set of behavioral patterns predicated on a different set of requirements for survival. The recruits are effectively integrated into a new social hierarchy through a systematic desymbolization and replacement of the signifiers of their former cultures, and they are assimilated into a new society that has its own distinct terms of reference. The recruit is stripped of his premilitary identity, programmed with new criteria of desirable behavior, and in essence is acculturated to a new social order predicated on a cultural mythology separate and distinct from that of the civilian world.
David Rabe was a war veteran, who, after his tour of duty was over, intended to return to Vietnam as a press correspondent. Yet he admits to extreme difficulty in his attempts at recording his impressions of the battlefield, citing the inability of language to describe them: "In no way could I effect the cannon, the shuddering tent flaps." He notes [in his introduction to The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, 1973] that trying to describe the sensations at the time was similar to attempting to replay "desperate and painful events in your skull while they continued to occur in front of you." In his Vietnam plays Rabe places less emphasis on reconstruction of battlefield scenes, but describes instead the painful psychological transformations undergone by the combat troops who underwent and endured mind-wrenching experiences.
Both of David Rabe's "initiation" plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1968) and Streamers (1976), deal with the process of induction into the military and the irrevocable changes that the men undergo in this process. The set of mythic constructs upon which reality is based is shown to be every bit as arbitrary and unreliable as those of the civilian world. Both plays illustrate the concerns that became so prevalent in the works dealing with the consequences of Vietnam for both the individual and his society: the stress resulting from the social conflict put excruciating and irresistible pressure on the fabric of reality itself. The overwhelmingly dominant themes of the war plays became those of both individual and social disintegration, internecine conflict, psychological fragmentation, alienation, and isolation; and a loss of cultural identity.
In the opening scene of Hummel, a grenade, later identified as a "M-twenty-six-A-two fragmentation" type, is thrown into a bordello in which the title character is consorting with a prostitute. The grenade has been thrown by a "Sergeant Wall," with whom "Pavlo," a PFC, has had an altercation concerning rights to the brothel girl, "Yen." The fragmentation of social order implicit in such an act corresponds well—in both a dramatic and thematic sense—to the destructive mechanism of a fragmentation grenade accommodating the physical disintegration of both man and his weapon, and the psychological fractionalization associated with the breakdown of social order. The nature of the weapon and the state of Pavlo's mind create a raw irony as corporeal and psychological disintegration occur simultaneously.
The subsequent action of the play is developed through a series of flashbacks drawn from Pavlo's fragmented consciousness, a disjointed collection of his perceptions that date from his childhood and mark his progress through his army training and war experiences. These disjointed expressionistic flashbacks chronicle the soldier's conditioning as a civilian, his experience as a recruit in basic training, and his life as a front line soldier. Emerging from the dying Pavlo's mind, these flashbacks are orchestrated by a choral figure and alter ego named "Ardell," a Black sergeant who appears immediately after the explosion, and returns periodically during Pavlo's military indoctrination to comment on his situation and to advise him on his course of action.
Ardell orders Pavlo to attention, and the soldier springs from his dying position to answer in ritualized military terminology questions concerning his identity and status. He names the officers of his company, battalion, platoon, and squad by rote, and adds his height, weight, and complexion type. Ardell immediately takes Pavlo to task about the occasion of his death and his failure to avoid being killed by the grenade:
Ardell: You had that thing in your hand, didn't you? What was you thinkin' on you had that thing in your hand?
Pavlo: About throwin' it. About a man I saw when I was eight years old who came through the neighbourhood with a softball team called the Demons, and he could do anything with a softball underhand that most big-leaguers could do with a hardball overhand. He was fantastic.
Pavlo's death is subsequently demonstrated to be a consequence of his confusion of cultural realities. In his mind, the grenade has become only a harmless baseball, and instead of disposing of it or taking evasive action as his military training would demand, his response is delayed because of his uncertainty about the cultural construct in which he is functioning. In effect, his out of context "basic training"—his cultural conditioning, has killed him. The "Pavlovian" conditioning process of basic training has overlapped with that of the previous culture and proved to be a source of confusion, inaction, and ultimate destruction.
There are also sexual concerns associated with Pavlo's confusion and uncertainty in his own identity; these problems are directly related to both his civilian and military basic training, and are revealed to be the source of his impotency and his problems in relating to women. Ardell's "You had that thing in your hand, didn't you?" reflects Pavlo's inadequacy in the bordello. In his fight with the sergeant, Pavlo kicked Wall in the groin, and the incapacitated NCO resorted to the use of the grenade. The internecine war has its roots in sexual frustration—a constant source of anxiety associated with the soldiers' reconditioning to new codes of sexual standards and behavior in the cultural construct of military society. A definitive characteristic of Rabe's plays, as well as of many others that treat the War, is the consistent theme of the sexual repression of the American male—the fixation on a somewhat vague and uncertain perception of manhood—and the consequences stemming from this confusion….
The process of basic military training is revealed to be a paradigm of the conditioning mechanism of the larger culture, and the most obvious and significant ramification is the equation of sexual maturity and vitality and the exercise of martial power. Rifle training is continually couched in sexual references:
This an M-sixteen rifle, this is the best you country got…. You got to have feelin' for it, like it a good woman to you…. You got to love this rifle, Gen'lmen, like it you pecker and you love to make love [sic].
Sexual passions and the passions of killing are a popular equation in Vietnam War dramas, and also in nonfictional accounts where soldiers have reported experiencing orgasms in the heat of battle.
The theme of sexual repression of the American male provides much of the subtext of Hummel. For most of the recruits, initiation into the military is closely related to rites of puberty, and the power inherent in the gun is readily associated with terms of sexual libido. A corporal who has been to Vietnam arouses Pavlo with the observation, "Can of bug spray buys you all the ass you can handle in some places … You give 'em a can of bug spray, you can lay their fourteen-year-old daughter." For many men, in fiction as in fact, the first sexual encounter occurs within the context of military experience. Staged concurrently with the sergeant's instruction on the use of the rifle is a brothel scene in which Pavlo embraces Yen. Rabe's stage direction suggests, "Something of Pavlo's making love to Yen is in his [the sergeant's] marching."
Pavlo's death in the brothel results from the fragmentation of his lower body and genitals, and the mutilation of the sexual organs is a frequent theme both in the dramas and in nonfictive accounts of battle. This threat, while representing a serious danger under actual war conditions, is closely associated with the subliminal fears of the human male, and a basic concept of Freud's anxiety theory of "castration complex." The mutilation of the sexual organs is also prominent in certain of van Gennep's analyses of rites of passage, and changes in social status, particularly maturity, are often accompanied and demonstrated by such mutilation. In the war dramas, injuries of this kind are imbued with a symbolic significance, since they infer not only the emasculation of the individual, but also the enervation of his culture.
Pavlo is revealed to be a misfit in civilian life, and his problems follow him into the army. Unsuccessful with women in the civilian world, he also has problems with rifle drill:
You mother rifle. You stupid fucking rifle. Mother! Stupid mother, whatsamatter with you? I'll kill you! Rifle, please. Work for me, do it for me. I know what to do, just do it.
His inability to relate to women is reflected in his lack of coordination in handling his rifle. Threatening, then cajoling, his pleas to his rifle assume the attributes of an adolescent's verbal foreplay. He brags to his fellow recruits about an affair that he had with a girl before joining the army, but it is unclear whether the story is contrived in order to enhance his manhood in his comrade's eyes, or whether it actually represents his civilian initiation into manhood.
In an effort to belong, to become one of the group, Pavlo invents stories calculated to elicit the awe and respect of his fellows. He tells of his uncle Roy, who, he says, has been executed at San Quentin:
He killed four people in a barroom brawl usin' broken bottles and table legs and screamin', jus' screamin'. He was mean, man. He was rotten; and my folks been scared the same thing might happen to me; all their lives, they been scared. I got that same look in my eyes like him.
Pavlo also relates to his fellows tales of criminal exploits: he has, he says, stolen twenty-three cars. In response to his juvenile bragging, he elicits the comment from his fellows: "Shut up, Hummel!… you don't talk American, you talk Hummel! Some goddamn foreign language!"
Pavlo genuinely tries to become part of the new system: he studiously memorizes his General Orders; he volunteers for menial duties, and he undergoes supplementary physical training. His actions, however, have the opposite effect intended. Failing to realize that the assimilation of an individual by a group can only be realized through proper ritual and communal assent, he does not succeed in his attempts at integration with his fellow men and with the military system. Pavlo's problem is that he attempts to accomplish through a process of rationalization what must be undertaken subconsciously: an implicit surrendering to the rituals of incorporation inherent in the drill and its cadence.
In the course of Pavlo Hummel the conditioning process of the military is seen to be a product of the repetitive mind-numbing but habit-forming process of close-order drill. The intellectual facility of the mind must be subsumed to the process of conditioned automatic reflex, in essence, Pavlovian conditioning. In the rhythms and lyrics of the drill cadence are expressed the recruits' identity, function and sense of purpose. The Drill Sergeant commands: "I GONNA DO SOME SINGIN', GEN'LMEN, I WANT IT COMIN' BACK TO ME LIKE WE IN GRAND CANYON—AND YOU MY MOTHER-FUCKIN' ECHO." Marching refrains include: "LIFT YOUR HEAD AND HOLD IT HIGH / ECHO COMPANY PASSIN' BY"; "MOTHER, MOTHER WHAT'D I DO? / THIS ARMY TREATIN' ME WORSE THAN YOU"; "SAW SOME STOCKIN'S ON THE STREET / WISHED I WAS BETWEEN THOSE FEET"; "STANDIN' TALL AND LOOKIN' GOOD / WE BELONG IN HOLLYWOOD." Even the passage of time is measured collectively: "LORD HAVE MERCY I'M SO BLUE / IT SIX MORE WEEKS TILL I BE THROUGH." Through the rhythms and the repeated chants expressed communally by the men as they march, they are moulded into an homogeneous and distinct society.
The first act of the two-act play presents Pavlo's problems in becoming assimilated into his new social order. In an expressionistic scene, he fantasizes with his psychological mentor, Ardell, about aspects of biological warfare training. In testing Pavlo's reactions to hypothetical situations, Ardell vividly describes a "radiation attack." Pavlo recoils in horror, "No, no," but, as men rise about him, the denial becomes a response to an accusation of a stolen wallet. Pavlo's stories of theft have now been taken at face value, and he is severely beaten by the other recruits. His failed attempts to integrate into the new society stem from his insistence on his individuality, which is antithetical to the process of regimentation in the military order. He subsequently realizes that integration is not a function of individual striving, but of collective assent.
In his search for belonging Pavlo desperately wants to be privy to the esoteric knowledge that he believes is part of the military mystique. He senses that identification with the military will validate him as a man, and will endow him with the self-esteem and sexual prowess that has eluded him in civilian life. In conversation with the returned Vietnam corporal, he is told of an event that happened incountry: an old Vietnamese with a young girl approach a US patrol; the girl is crying. As they draw near, according to the corporal, a US sergeant drops to his knees and "lets go two bursts—first the old man, then the kid—cuttin' them both right across the face, man you could see the bullets walkin'. It was somethin.'" Pavlo does not understand why the sergeant shot the two Vietnamese, and the corporal explains: "Satchel charges, man. The both of them front and back. They had enough TNT on them to blow up this whole damn state."
The incident becomes the source of a consuming passion for Pavlo: he must understand how the sergeant was aware that the pair was carrying explosives. In wonderment, he accosts a fellow recruit,
Can you imagine that, Hinkel? Just knowin'. Seein' nothin', but bein' sure enough to gun down two people. They had TNT on 'em, they was stupid slopeheads. That Sergeant Tinden saved everybody's life.
He is sure that integration into the army and experience in action will lead him to the arcane knowledge that Sergeant Tinden possesses, a knowledge which has eluded him in civilian life….
Both Pavlo's civilian and military lives are portrayed as a series of disillusionments as "facts of the mind" continue to be contradicted by the immediate experience. The central dramatic metaphor of the play continues in force as Pavlo resumes his quest to gain esoteric knowledge and to establish definitive parameters of existence. When he is shipped overseas to Vietnam, he is designated a medical orderly, but is dissatisfied with that posting because he is denied the battle experience that he feels will lead him to the desired arcane knowledge. Fellow members of his medical unit treat him with disdain when, in an attempt to demonstrate his battle expertise, he suggests setting up "fields of fire" about the camp hospital. It is only after he goads his Captain about the latter's training as ROTC rather than OCS that he is transferred to an active combat unit.
The later movement of Act II consists of a surrealistic montage of scenes of battle, demonstrations of Sergeant Towers's drill instructions, events occurring in the bordello, and periodic appearances by Ardell. The juxtaposed and overlapping scenes illustrate the quickening pace of Pavlo's psychological disintegration as his mind begins to recall and to replay formative incidents in his life. The montage effect reduces human consciousness to a series of mental impressions that lack rational structure, coherent relationship, logical progression, or chronological order or continuity.
The avid pursuit of his quest for knowledge has the effect of Pavlo distinguishing himself on the battlefield through his heroic efforts as a medical orderly retrieving the wounded and the bodies of the dead. In the act of recovering the body of a comrade, he himself is wounded by a knife thrust from a fleeing Viet Cong. As he lies, bleeding, Ardell appears and chastises him over his quest for the esoteric knowledge that Pavlo thinks will give him critical insights into the nature of existence. As Pavlo moans in agony, Ardell comments:
The knowledge comin', baby. I'm talkin' about what your kidney know, not your fuckin' fool's head. I'm talkin' about your skin and what it sayin', thin as paper. We melt, we tear and rip apart. Membrane baby. Cellophane. Ain't that some shit.
Ardell points out the elemental distinction between innate knowledge, the knowledge of the "kidney," and the arbitrary perceptions which are products of the mind, and limited to it….
Under the stress of battle experience, Pavlo's sensations become more distorted and jumbled. He shoots a Vietnamese farmer believing the latter to be approaching with satchel charges under his clothes, but his judgement call is never vindicated. Ardell notes, "You don't know what he's got under his clothes." Pavlo's mental equilibrium totally disintegrates in a confusion of images when, believing he is shooting at the Vietnamese farmer, the target image changes to a fellow soldier, and ultimately he incurs the wounds himself. Taking aim at the farmer, he cries:
I fuckin' shoot him. He's under me. I'm screamin' down at him. RYAN, RYAN. And he's lookin' up at me. His eyes squinted like he knows by my face what I'm sayin' matters to me so maybe it matters to him. And then, all of a sudden, see, he starts to holler and shout like he's crazy, and he's pointin' at his foot, so I shoot it. (He fires again.) I shoot his foot and then he's screamin' and tossin' all over the ground, so I shoot into his head. (Fires.) I shot his head. And I get hit again. I'm standin' there over him and I get fuckin' hit again. They keep fuckin' hittin' me.
Pavlo's mental disintegration is complete when he can no longer distinguish cause from effect, illusion from reality, or friend from foe.
The problem and consequences of not being able to identify and distinguish one's enemy are further revealed when Ardell, commenting on Pavlo's inability to differentiate between the farmer, the soldier, and himself observes, "When you shot into his head, you hit into your own head, fool." Ardell adds that Pavlo shot the farmer not because he had made a judgement call, but because the Viet Cong had shot his comrade, Ryan, two weeks earlier. Pavlo's action is not based on an intuitive and esoteric knowledge, but purely on blind, brutal vengeance. The Drill Sergeant tells of an incident that happened in the Korean War in which a group of American POWs cast one of their wounded into a snow bank to freeze because his screaming disturbed their sleep. He tells the men, "You got to watch out for the enemy."
The essence of Ardell's and Tower's speeches is that war so conditions men to brutality that discernment of truth is neither problematic nor necessary. The men are programmed to react automatically to a given situation, and judgmental humanistic values have no place in combat. Sergeant Tinden, in the tale recited by the corporal, would have shot the old man and young girl in any case, either on pure suspicion, or in an act of vengeance. The esoteric knowledge that has inspired Pavlo's quest is revealed to be that of unthinking, conditioned, and unquestioned brutality. Knowing and identifying one's enemy is the key to survival. For the soldier, the enemy is the indecision and uncertainty that springs from humanistic instincts that are incompatible with the realities of war….
Pavlo's insecurity can be traced back to his childhood conditioning in the family environment. At the time of Pavlo's leave, after his basic training, Mickey taunts him with, "You know, if my father hadn't died, you wouldn't even exist," and, in reference to the mother, adds,
All those one-night stands. You ever think of that? Ghostly pricks. I used to hear'em humpin' the old whore. I probably had my ear against the wall the night they got you goin'.
Pavlo's search for identity has a very real base in a legalistic as well as in a psychological sense, and it becomes further apparent that his motivation for joining the army was the result of a direct confrontation with his mother. In the bordello, after Pavlo has kicked Sergeant Wall in the groin, he turns to Ardell, and boasts,
Did I do it to him Ardell? The triple Hummel? Got to be big and bad. A little shuffle. Did I ever tell you? Thirteen months a my life ago…. What she did, my ole lady, she called Joanna a slut and I threw kitty litter, screamin'—cat shit—Happy Birthday! She called that sweet church-goin' girl a whore. To be seen by her now, up tight with this odd-lookin whore, feelin' good and tall, ready to bed down. Feelin'—
Evidently the mother, in response to Pavlo's first association with a girl, Joanna, has projected onto Pavlo's relationship those very attributes that she has been accused of herself. In having sex with a Vietnamese girl, in the most degrading manner possible, Pavlo is taking revenge on all that is implied in his mother's idolization of the screen images that have portrayed America's heroic exploits in former wars. In addition, given Pavlo's imaginative nature and the unsubstantiated, tenuous truth of the relationship between Joanna and Pavlo, the mother may well have not been attacking the relationship itself, but her son's self-sustaining myth of the relationship, his own "life-lie." The ultimate revelation is that Pavlo has fled into the army in search of all the things that have eluded him in civilian life, and that what was unattainable in his previous existence, remains even more elusive in his new milieu.
The fragmentation grenade explodes and Ardell relates subsequent events involving the preparation and transport of Pavlo's body home. At the end of his speech, he turns to Pavlo and asks whether he has anything to say:
Ardell: What you think a gettin' your ass blown clean off a freedom's frontier? What you think a bein' R.A. Regular Army lifer …?
Ardell: And what you think a all the 'folks back home,' sayin' you a victim … you an animal … you a fool?
Pavlo: They shit!
Pavlo then expands his observations into his own existentialist philosophy: "It all shit."
Pavlo has found neither purpose nor substance in his military career and faces the same existential void that he found in civilian life. Access to another culture, the substitution of one form of conditioning for another, has neither increased his knowledge nor made him more capable of coping with existence. Like many other plays of the period and genre, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel deals less with the actualities of the War than with the problems of the individual in a given social structure. Individual problems of integration, of belonging, of identity, purpose, and function are exacerbated but not caused by larger external conflicts. The conclusion, "It all shit," reflects the absurdist existential condition of the individual, who, overcome with the complexities of existence, pursues a futile and desperate search for recognition, belonging, and fulfilment.
Rabe's later play, Streamers, while similarly depicting problems of initiation into a new cultural construct and the existential limbo that surrounds all of human experience, portrays characters who seem to be unaware of the process in which they are entangled, and who fail to arrive even at Pavlo's limited conclusion concerning the nature of existence. In Streamers, there is no communally agreed upon existential norm to which the individual can aspire: the inductees are isolated in their own consciousness and alienated from each other in the matrix of the holding camp where they are temporarily stationed. Rabe's philosophy and motif in his works owe much to Beckett, and Streamers, in particular, is heavily indebted to Waiting for Godot.
Although Streamers is an extremely complex work in its examination of the relationships between individuals in a given society, it is technically the most realistic play of Rabe's Vietnam trilogy. Rather than springing from the mind of a dying soldier, the action is chronologically structured according to the dictates of the "well-made play." Dialogue is realistic, the setting natural, and the situation credible. It is that very facade of normality, however, that serves as a counterpoint to the subliminal aspects of the work. Although the events are grounded in an objective realism, the characters themselves exist within individual subjective frames of reference between which there is little communication, resonance, or empathy.
The title and central metaphor of Streamers is inherent in a parody of Stephen Foster's song "Beautiful Dreamer." An adaptation of Foster's lyrics expresses the existentialist philosophy of the work: "Beautiful Streamers" is sung by two alcoholic Regular Army sergeants who have become totally acculturated to the routine of army life, and who unconditionally accept the parameters of life experience as defined by military protocol. The lyrics reveal the veterans' fatalistic attitude and are ultimately only an expression of hollow bravado; they are a verbal denial of the presence of death that lurks in the minds of airborne troops, for whom the thin ribbon of fabric trailing from a pack indicates a parachute that has failed to deploy. The men attempt, through a communal liturgical expression, to overcome the ever-present terrors associated with their military calling.
Beautiful streamer, / Open for me,
The sky is above me, / But no canopy.
Counted ten thousand, / Pulled on the cord.
My chute didn't open, / I shouted "Dear Lord."
Beautiful streamer, / This looks like the end,
The earth is below me, / My body won't [b]end.
Just like a mother / Watching o'er me,
Beautiful streamer, / Ohhhhh, open for me.
An expression of resolution in the face of death, the lyrics reflect the existential philosophy of the soldier; a man who has supposedly been conditioned to his own mortality by his army training. In the context of the play, the human condition is defined through the experience of the intense but brief period that exists between the moment of emergence from the secure matrix of the airplane to the impact that marks the end of mortal existence. The image owes much to Beckett, as the umbilical cord or "streamer" symbolizes the link between the womb of the airplane and the tomb of the earth. As Vladimir observes in Godot, "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps … the air is full of our cries." In counterpoint to an unremitting existential dilemma the one constant is the relentless force of gravity.
The single set of Streamers is a barracks-room in an army camp in Virginia. The action involves recent boot camp graduates presently being held in a "holding company"—the transitional stage between the completion of basic training and to a regular unit overseas. The unit ensconced in the room is a microcosm of American society: men of disparate backgrounds are forced into a crucible by the dictates of military necessity incurred by the omnipresent war. Vietnam provides justification for such military installations, since the fighting of wars requires their continued existence; in terms of philosophical symbolism; it is also the source of an ominous, all-encompassing fear that dominates the lives of the soldiers. In this miniature world reside men whose tensions and anxieties are normally dissipated in the larger civilian culture; however, within the confines of the claustrophobic barracks environment social distinctions and inequalities that are normally controlled or diffused are exacerbated and erupt into random and chaotic violence….
Streamers encompasses a microcosmic world that reflects the problems extant in American society when the stresses associated with Vietnam were beginning to erupt in violent confrontations in the street. In a sense, this work is also an analogy, as it describes, in terms of the barracks-room, the situation in contemporary America where racial strife, doubts about the society, and Vietnam occupied the individual and collective consciousness. For the men in the barracks-room, however, social tensions are real, immediate, and personally threatening. Not yet comprising an homogeneous group, they continually attempt to cope with the mental stress of cultural isolation. In the dramas of battlefield experience, that isolation becomes all the more terrifying as the immediate threat of carnage and destruction further exacerbates psychological disintegration.
W. J. Hug (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Images of the Western in Selected Vietnam Films," in Continuities in Popular Culture: The Present in the Past & the Past in the Present and Future, edited by Ray B. Browne and Ronald J. Ambrosetti, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 176-90.
[In the excerpt below, Hug discusses the links and correspondences between Vietnam War films and Hollywood westerns.]
Film makers have often portrayed twentieth-century America at war in images reminiscent of the nation's frontier past. Gary Cooper's Sergeant York, the peaceable, soft-spoken primitive whose skills in the wilderness make him a hero in the trenches, is a son of the Leatherstocking transported to the Western Front. Slim Pickens as the fanatical cowboy bomber pilot of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove begins the nuclear holocaust with an apocalyptic last ride astride a warhead. In more recent films about America at war—those depicting the war in Vietnam—the nation's conquest of the frontier and its involvement in Southeast Asia have been linked with particular consistency. From John Wayne's Green Berets, with it Special Forces camp called "Dodge City," to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, wherein marines in Vietnam joke about themselves as players in a western movie, references to the American West and the western recur time and time again.
One likely explanation for this recurrence lies in the fabric of broad correspondences between the circumstances of the Vietnam War and those of the conquest of the American frontier. As John Hellmann has shown in American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, these correspondences made Southeast Asia a latter-day correlative or extension of the American West, and the American soldier a correlative of the western hero. Both the frontier experience and the Vietnam experience involved American military efforts to extend and maintain socio-political "spheres of influence." In both cases, the targets were primitive, non-Anglo-Saxon cultures inhabiting primeval landscapes. Both cultures were stereotypically assumed to be ethnically inferior—"redskins" in one instance, "gooks" in the other—and therefore in special need of Americanization, particularly the South Vietnamese, who after the French withdrawal from Indochina lay in danger of communist subversion. In the American West and in Southeast Asia, the nation's military effort was relatively large-scale, bureaucratically managed, and fought with technologically advanced weapons, from repeating rifles and gatling guns to napalm; in contrast, native responses generally consisted of sporadic guerilla campaigns frequently conducted with more primitive weapons, like bows and arrows or booby traps. While western fiction and films often high-light later stages of the Americanizing process—the arrival of settlers, the establishment of law and order in small, frontier communities—the initial stages—subduing the wilderness and the natives, confining them to reservations—are always assumed facts and thus part of every western's context. In Vietnam films, these initial stages are consistently in the forefront, as the narratives highlight American soldiers' combat experiences against the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, or their relations with the Vietnamese natives in the rural villages.
Perceived in these terms, stories about Americans on the frontier and stories about Americans in Vietnam involve similar tensions. Most broadly, these can be subsumed within the tension between civilization and wilderness; in more specific terms, they may include the tension between white and non-white, between the technological and the primitive, between complex and distant bureaucracies and simpler, localized administrative structures. The play of these tensions emerges most vividly in the stories' protagonists. Like the archetypal American hero of the West, the American hero in Vietnam is almost inevitably a man in the middle: he must choose whether to employ his considerable skills in violence to promote the spread of the American Way with its promise of safety, stability, and equality on the one hand and its imperialist and capitalist ambiguities on the other, or to retreat in favor of the wilderness, where good and bad emerge in far more elemental forms. In the majority of westerns and in at least one Vietnam film—Wayne's Green Berets—the issue is simple, even simplistic, a choice so obvious as to leave no choice. The American Way, as embodied in the stoical sheriff or the tough Special Forces commander, is so virile and morally upright as to be irresistible, while the denizens of the wilderness—whether they be red or yellow—are so savage as to be utterly repulsive. However, in some Vietnam films as in some of the more ambitious westerns, the choice is not this clear-cut. In these works, the American endeavor to civilize the wilderness is distinctly flawed, perhaps by administrative corruption or clumsiness, or a powerful individual's obsession. In western narrative, the scheming banker, the swindling Indian agent, and the rapacious cattle baron have appeared so often as to be cliches. In stories about Vietnam, the noncom or the commander with a we must-destroy-the-village-in order-to-save-it mentality has become more and more familiar. On the other hand, the wilderness in such works often has a pastoral allure embodied in the nomadic or agrarian simplicity and close-knit communities of the Indian or Vietnamese villagers.
Confronted with situations as complicated as these, the hero's choice becomes a far more difficult proposition. The moral awareness which is essential to his heroism enables him to distinguish the flaws in the pioneer endeavor and the appeal of the wilderness. His growing alienation from endeavor makes his participation in it more and more of a dilemma—he cannot accept the very system he feels duty-bound to defend. In the best Vietnam narratives as in the best westerns, the dilemma is irresolvable. The hero may die fighting for a cause he sees as tainted, or, having defended it successfully, he may withdraw, into the wilderness and/or perhaps into himself. In these situations he becomes a figure of potentially tragic stature.
Of course this summary of correspondences between western and Vietnam narratives identifies only in the broadest terms the characteristic tensions of civilization and wilderness and the hero's involvement with them. These issues may be handled in very different ways from one story to another. Narrative structure, point of view, portrayal of character, socio-political perspective may all vary widely, as may the mode of presentation—i.e., tragic, epic, elegiac, comic, parodic, etc. To take three instances from western narrative as examples, Cooper's romantic saga of the Leatherstocking is certainly tragic and elegiac; Owen Wister's pseudo-realistic novel The Virginian is, in terms of its happy resolution in the hero's marriage, classically comic; Mel Brooks' postmodern send-up of the western, Blazing Saddles, vacillates between the parodic and the satiric. Yet all three adhere generally to the suggested paradigm. Less diversity has emerged in Vietnam films produced thus far. Since the war became such a painful element in the national consciousness, the notion of portraying American soldiers' experiences in Vietnam in an upbeat fashion has seemed grotesque. Nevertheless, some diversity has emerged. In two of the more ambitious films yet made about the Vietnam War, the correspondences between Americans on the western frontier and Americans in Southeast Asia are given distinctly different modes of presentation. In Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, the dilemma of the young Green Beret Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro) is portrayed in tragic and elegiac terms reminiscent of Cooper. In Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the swaggering leader of an air Cavalry unit, is depicted in terms of the western mock-heroic.
Since The Deer Hunter's release in 1978, many reviewers and critics have noted the deer hunter/Deerslayer parallel: like Natty Bumppo as well as his literary and cinematic progeny, Michael Vronsky is a solitary hero uncomfortable in his society and allied with the wilderness, from which he derives his skills in violence and his strict code of behavior. These are embodied in Michael's notion of "one shot," his catch phrase for the grace, skill, and integrity necessary to stalk and kill a deer with a single bullet. Circumstances dictate that he, like the Leatherstocking, must defend his society against the primitive inhabitants of the wilderness; Michael emerges from the conflict a melancholy and perhaps even tragic figure whose fate raises troubling questions about the society he has fought for. Some critics have taken The Deer Hunter's relations to the western still further, linking the film not only with Cooper's novels but with the classic Hollywood westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, works with far less ambivalent social and political implications. In these discussions, The Deer Hunter emerges as something of a swan song for the Hollywood western, a eulogy for the simplicity and vigor of the frontier endeavor as depicted in such films. Though the parallels drawn between Cimino's film and those of Ford and Hawks are sometimes far-fetched (The Deer Hunter and Rio Bravo?), they have been valuable not only in defining The Deer Hunter within its cinematic tradition, but in suggesting the possibility of broad correspondences, of the sort outlined above between western and Vietnam narratives….
If Cimino's Deer Hunter portrays the western hero tragically and elegiacally to mourn America's endeavor in Vietnam, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now portrays him satirically to ridicule it. Though neither of Coppola's main characters—the military assassin Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) or his victim Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando)—is depicted overtly in western terms, both are caught up in versions of the western hero's classic predicament. In his own way, each is at odds with the pioneer cause he fights for, the American effort to civilize and democratize the wilderness. Willard has witnessed and understood the absurdity of the war effort, yet for him no other sort of life is any longer possible. As he admits in the film's voice-over, he'd gone stateside after his first tour in Vietnam only to find himself incapable of returning to the domestic roles of husband and father, so he and his wife divorced. Furthermore, the nation as he thought he'd known it no longer existed, so he'd asked for another tour in Vietnam. Like the western hero unsuited to civilized life and suspicious of civilization, Willard returns to the wilderness. Kurtz, the special Forces colonel whom Willard is assigned to kill, represents an analogous case. Frustrated at the bureaucratic clumsiness of the American war effort and at the bureaucrats' pretensions to a lofty morality in conducting it, he surrenders to the primitive ferocity of the wilderness. Kurtz becomes a renegade, crossing into Cambodia so that he may carry on the war with the utter savagery he believes essential to victory.
To draw forth these western implications latent in his major characters and to comment on the Vietnam conflict itself, Coppola creates a minor character who is explicitly, even bombastically western—Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), head of the air cavalry unit that carries Willard and his boat on one leg of his quest to kill Kurtz. Unlike these men who have found themselves at odds with America's pioneer endeavor in Vietnam, Kilgore revels in it, to the point of arrogance. As Gilbert Adair has noted, Kilgore plays to the hilt the historical and cinematic role of swashbuckling cavalry officer leading the fight against the savages on the frontier. His uniform, his style of leadership, his relations with his men, and even his enthusiasm for surfing suggest an extravagant and ultimately satiric rendering of the George-Custer-cum-Roy-Rogers western hero of the Saturday matinees—a simplified, homogenized descendant of the classical western hero, utterly pleased with his part in the ambivalent conflict of civilization and wilderness. Kilgore's dandyism in dress and manner recalls the flashiness of the historical Custer and of the Hollywood cavalry officers who were his progeny. The broad-brimmed Stetson, the yellow dickey reminiscent of the cavalryman's bandanna, the pistol and holster on the hip, the swaggering oblivion to personal danger—all ironically conjure the heroic image of the gallant soldier conquering the western plains. He strives to impart the western mystique to his command as well, maintaining a company bugler also replete with Stetson, and even orchestrating nights around the campfire. In a scene recalling countless western films, Kilgore strums a guitar as he and his men lounge around a fire amidst the Asian wilderness, drinking and swapping stories of their exploits. In battle he is every bit as fearless as his idealized and vacuous predecessors; after his unit attacks a Vietnamese coastal village and lands to mop up, he stands upright, oblivious to enemy artillery and small-arms fire, while his men duck for cover. All of this, in a film about another time and another war, could be straight heroism; in Coppola's depiction of Vietnam, however, it becomes mock-heroic. The conventional elements in Kilgore's character are so overstated—particularly from the more skeptical perspective that grew out of Vietnam and Watergate—as to be bombastic pretense. Kilgore becomes the satiric embodiment of the corrupted pioneer endeavor he defends….
Though Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter approach the Vietnam conflict through different modes of western presentation—the satiric as opposed to the tragic and elegiac—their mutual reliance on images and themes from the western produces visions of the war that dovetail. Both films employ the western to comment on perceived absurdities of the American involvement: Coppola's lampoons them, while Cimino's laments them. In their depictions of the nation's effort in Vietnam as failed extension of America's effort on the frontier, the two films not only resonate with ironic echoes of Wayne's Green Berets; they define a leitmotif for later Vietnam films like Oliver Stone's Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Through the character of Barnes (Tom Berenger), a sergeant fanatically committed to the war, Stone associates visual and aural imagery reminiscent of the frontier with a militant right-wing stance. The film's more urban and politically liberal white characters have no recognizable accents and spend their free time smoking marijuana as they listen to rock music; Barnes, however, speaks in a thick western accent, plays poker and drinks whiskey saloon-style, while he listens to country-and-western music, most notably Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." The corruption of this latter-day cowboy's jingoist notion of Vietnam as a new frontier emerges vividly after he allows an atrocity in a Vietnamese village: when Elias (Willem DaFoe), a kindly and liberal sergeant outraged at the crime, threatens him with court-martial, Barnes kills his accuser and blames the Viet Cong for the death. As another embodiment of America's pioneer endeavor gone wrong, Barnes is not far removed from Kilgore.
Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket handles western references in similar and sometimes more overt ways. In fact, two particular scenes late in the work explicitly define the historical, psychological, and cinematic relations between the Old West and Southeast Asia which all these films address. Preliminary allusions to the West and the western establish the motif: the opening credits roll to a country-and-western song "Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam" proclaiming "America has heard the bugle call" just as it had on the frontier—both Kilgore and Barnes would love it. The film's central character, an anonymous marine draftee (Matthew Modine) does swaggering imitations of John Wayne's cowboy persona, for which he earns the name "Joker" from his drill instructor; another draftee whom we learn comes from Texas is christened "Cowboy." Later, after Joker has arrived in Vietnam, a fellow marine has his camera snatched as he and Joker haggle with a prostitute outside a Saigon cafe called the "Las Vegas": moral decadence in Vietnam is linked to the most famous resort town of America's New West and the decadence often associated with it.
These seemingly random allusions—and in fact the western references in every film we've considered—are thrust into context by two scenes near the end of the film. Joker, now a reporter for Stars and Stripes, is sent with a camera crew to cover a marine counterattack in the city of Hue during the Tet offensive. As he and a cameraman film a unit of troops huddled behind a pile of fallen brickwork, they come upon a marine whom Joker had known in bootcamp. With a wry gallows humor, the soldier peers into the camera and asks Joker in a tone of mock-reverence, "Is that you, John Wayne?" His buddies immediately pick up on the joke and extend it:
"I'll be General Custer."
"I'll be a horse"—this from a black marine.
"Who'll be the indians?"
"We'll let the gooks be the indians."
This little scene, lasting less than a minute, comically condenses the complex of interrelations between the frontier and Vietnam which Kubrick's film and these others to varying extents address; Kubrick's verdict on the American involvement emerges in an episode that soon follows. After shooting the combat footage, Joker and his crew tape interviews with several marines concerning their feelings about the War; among them is another of Joker's friends from bootcamp, Cowboy, the soldier from Texas. In light of the previous western allusions in the film, his comments, which posit an implicit contrast between his home state and Vietnam, take on particular significance. "I hate Vietnam," he says, peering into the camera in quiet, puzzled disappointment; "there's not one horse in this whole country." In Cowboy's frustration at a petty disparity between Southeast Asia and his home in what was once the Old West, Kubrick creates an ingenious miniature of the disillusionment that permeates all of these films. In one way or another, the War in Vietnam becomes in each of them America's failed effort to resurrect the frontier. The western will probably remain a viable motif in representations of the nation's future conflicts.