Why Hollywood turned broken men into heroes after the Vietnam War

America's losing the Vietnam War shattered the 'heroic myth' that Hollywood had spent decades creating, according to historians and researchers. What followed was an era of films attempting to recapture past glories.

Hollywood films portraying the 'heroic myth' no longer resonated after Vietnam, critics say

Christopher Walken starred in the Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino. The 1978 film scooped up five Academy awards, which became known as 'The Vietnam Oscars.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*Originally published on May 18, 2020. This is the second of a three-part series on IDEAS called Myths on Screen: Hollywood at War.

While the Second World War offered Hollywood plenty of heroic stories, widespread discontent over U.S. involvement in Vietnam made for a tough sell — so the studios changed track.

In the two decades that followed the "good war," Hollywood produced hundreds of Second World War films, evoking the valiant efforts of American troops, often with the input of the military.

But with the U.S. losing the war in Vietnam — and American soldiers being seen more like war criminals than heroes — production of war epics ground to a halt.

Hollywood pivoted to stories of veterans broken by the horrors they experienced — without the military's editorial oversight on the scripts, according to Tanner Mirrlees, an associate professor of communication and digital media studies at Ontario Tech University.

"They are dealing with complex and sensitive issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, disabilities among veterans," he said.

Jon Voight and Jane Fonda hold their Oscars for Best Actor and Actress for their roles in Coming Home. (AFP/Getty Images)

Critics have called the post-Vietnam period the "Hollywood Revolution" because of the gritty truth portrayed on the silver screen.

In 1976, a year after the war's end, Robert de Niro won acclaim for his portrayal of a paranoid military veteran struggling with insomnia and depression in Taxi Driver.

Two years later, the Jane Fonda-produced Coming Home followed the lives of three Vietnam vets disillusioned with the war they waged, and dealt with disability and mental health in a way previously unseen in cinemas.

But even if Hollywood movies tackle topics like soldiers' deteriorating mental health, they gloss over the larger geopolitical issues at play, says Mirrlees.

"These movies very much individualize and psychologize and pathologize the war, but don't give us the bigger backdrop that would help us understand the forces driving that war, and the real consequences for those on the receiving end of the bombs falling — those being the Vietnamese people," he told IDEAS.

The 'heroic myth'

In the winter of 1978 came the release of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, which told the story of three steelworkers overcome by the horrors they saw half a world away.

"For this kind of heroic myth, they are unable to face their own internal damage. They are unable to look at themselves and say, 'My God, we did this,'" said Dan O'Meara, co-author of Movies, Myth and the National Security State.

"It means that you cannot cleave to this heroic myth. You have to accept the complexity of life — you have to accept that men can also have a weak side and need to have a weak side... a compassionate side."

The Deer Hunter took on particular significance in American culture as it came to be seen by some as a powerful anti-war film.

Robert De Niro arrives at the U.K premiere of The Deer Hunter in 1979. (John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But there were serious rumblings of discontent at the time. Outside the Los Angeles Music Center, the night the Academy Awards honoured the film with Best Picture and four other Oscars, police arrested 13 members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War who believed the film was a lie.

Some critics call it a "criminal violation of the truth" — and O'Meara believes the film contains some of the best examples of cinematic propaganda ever made.

Referring to a scene in which Vietnamese guards force American prisoners of war into playing Russian Roulette, and betting on who will live — and who will die, O'Meara said, "there is not one recorded incident."

Two other scenes turn the historical record on its head, portraying Americans as victims of Vietnamese soldiers when, in fact, it was American soldiers victimizing the Vietnamese, he says.

"What is made clear in the film … [is] that an American war crime is turned into a Vietnamese war crime against America," O'Meara said. "This, to me, would make Donald Trump blush."

"It is fake news of the most astonishing variety."

Add to that absence a lack of Vietnam War films written from the perspective of the Vietnamese, which is a symptom of U.S. cultural and economic dominance, according to Nicholas Cull, a historian and professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. 

"Americans want to see themselves, and Hollywood will make a movie just like the last movie. It's like watching the birds flocking together where they're imitating each other and then one veers off and all the rest follow," he said.

"People say they want something fresh until they actually have to put up money for it and then they'd rather put up money for a sequel or for a remake or a reboot or something which has a guaranteed return."

'Rewriting' the past 

As the appetite for war movies waned, so too did the U.S. military's reliance on movies set in the battlefield.

"I think it changed the face of the war movie," said Tom Secker, co-author of National Security Cinema. "The Department of Defense had to start supporting products that were not necessarily war films, but were pro-military films."

Though scarred masculinity proved to be a big ticket for film studios, by the 1980s it was eclipsed by titillating action films espousing a pro-military stance.

Paraphrasing film critic Pauline Kael, O'Meara argues that "Americans had grown tired of going to the cinema to see their own sins."

So hard bodies, vengeance and victory began to flow through movies like Rocky 2, Die Hard and The Terminator. In 1986, the action-packed Top Gun helped revitalize the military's image, which had been badly tarnished by its failures in Vietnam.

More than a decade later, Hollywood returned to the tried-and-true Second World War epic with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. 

A scene from the 1995 film Die Hard With a Vengeance, starring Bruce Willis. (Getty Images)

That film was both a critical and box office success — more than 6.5 million moviegoers streamed into theatres on its opening day — and Spielberg spoke about the importance of ensuring the film was authentic. The U.S. military approved of the film, handing Spielberg its highest civilian honour, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

But University of Leicester lecturer Richard Godfrey expressed concerns about the film's twisting of history, including its portrayal of D-Day.

"It isn't explicitly depicted as a U.S.-only affair, but there doesn't appear to be anybody who isn't American taking any scenes in the film," said Godfrey. 

"Gone are the British, the Canadians, the Poles."

Godfrey argues that recent war films, including Saving Private Ryan, attempt to erase the truth about Vietnam by "rewriting" the past.

American forces storm Omaha Beach during the Second World War D-Day landing in France in a scene from the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan.
American forces storm Omaha Beach during the D-Day landing in France from the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Critics argue the movie twisted history to present an almost exclusively American military mission. (David James/The Associated Press/DreamWorks)

"It's the ghost that both inspires and reconceptualizes America's place in conflict and in the world … that can be found in a return to the preceding war — the good war, the Second World War," he said.

The future of the military's time on screen may not be in a battlefield, however. Secker believes the future of war films won't be about war at all. 

"It's about metaphors for war. Perhaps the enemy is a Muslim or a giant monster, a robot," he said.

"It's that idea the world is a threatening, dark place, and we need the military to protect us from the threats out there — and as long as the movie maintains that logic, it will get military support."

Written by Jason Vermes. Episode produced by Mary O'Connell.

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