Hollywood Goes to Vietnam
As soon as Platoon, Oliver Stone’s movie about the Vietnam war, was released a year ago, it was showered with praise. Critics commended it for its unsparing realism; columnists exulted over the coincidence of its timing, just at a nadir in the fortunes of the Reagan presidency; editorial writers applauded its rejection of the “glamorization” of war which they identified with Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. In no time at all Stone’s film became the subject of innumerable feature articles, cover stories, and television programs. Correspondents who had reported on the war from Vietnam as well as soldiers who had fought in it raised their voices to endorse the claim that now, almost twenty years later, we were seeing the Vietnam war “as it really was.” In due course Platoon was awarded four Oscars (including those for best director and for best movie of 1986), earned well over $100 million at the box office, and seemed ready to enter the pantheon as, in David Halberstam’s words, “both a great American movie and a great war movie.”
Though the maker of Platoon was a man whose other credits included a didactic treatment of the conflicts in Central America, with Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy cast as the heavy, few reviewers dissented from Stanley Kauffmann’s judgment (in the New Republic) that Platoon itself was “genuinely apolitical.” To be sure, the movie’s most memorable features were the sight of young Americans being blown to pieces and scenes of demoralized soldiers murdering one another for want of a readily targetable enemy, but whose fault was that? As Oliver Stone explained in accepting his Oscar, he had made his film so as to prevent the occurrence of another tragedy like Vietnam. So laudable an aim could not possibly be described as “political.”
Three more Vietnam films followed hard on the heels of Platoon in 1987: John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill, Lionel Chetwynd’s The Hanoi Hilton, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. If the critical consensus by the end of the year was that, of the four, Oliver Stone’s was the one to get things about right, this was not because of any distinctive choice of subject matter or uniqueness of scene and action. On the contrary, Stone’s infantry platoon engaged in “search-and-destroy” missions near the Cambodian border in 1967 has its exact analogue in Hamburger Hill in the assault by units of the 101st Airborne Division on Dong Ap Bia in May 1969—an action which, like that in Platoon, issues in the virtual annihilation of everyone who takes part in it. The Hanoi Hilton similarly conveys the face of defeat, in this case by detailing with excruciating vividness all the tortures and humiliations inflicted on captured American servicemen in the infamous Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. As for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the one sustained action sequence in that film also involves the near-decimation of an American military unit, this time of Marines, at the hands of a lone sniper. As in Platoon, scenes suggesting a low level of morale, discipline, and combat effectiveness are also to be found in both Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket. Where Oliver Stone has his men smoking pot, falling asleep on guard duty, and running away from the enemy, Stanley Kubrick’s highly trained Marines disobey orders, are unable to read maps properly, and recklessly endanger their own and just about everyone else’s lives.
In fact all four films, though far from the robust tradition of Stalag 17, The Longest Day, or The Battle of the Bulge, are entirely about men in combat or in captivity; none makes an explicit attempt to enter into questions of ideology or even of strategy. Instead, their moral and visual force derives precisely from their depiction of young Americans getting killed or captured in a “meaningless,” “unwinnable” war. In this they certainly articulate today’s “apolitical” view of the Vietnam war.
For the divisive debates over Vietnam are now very much a thing of the past. No one any longer bothers to extol the virtues of the North Vietnamese. No one bothers to deny the fact of Communist atrocities. Very few will even question the assertion that the mildly authoritarian regime of a Thieu or a Diem was infinitely preferable to what subsequently befell the people of the South. Yet the American endeavor to prevent or postpone that fate falls under no retrospective justification. In these recent movies the simple fact that young American men were turned into bloody pulps seems to be enough to condemn the undertaking. Even the dread Rambo is concerned not with the whys and wherefores of the ten-year American involvement but merely with the task of getting imprisoned soldiers out of Vietnam.
One should be precise about the shift in attitudes toward the war that has taken place and that is reflected in Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and (to a lesser extent) Full Metal Jacket. It is not that the American venture is considered any the less absurd or even immoral than before, but whereas one once heard much about Western imperialism, or about the criminal killing of Asians by white men, now one hears more and more about the fate of the unfortunate GIs who had to endure the terrible hardships of the swamps of Southeast Asia, with neither rewards, nor thanks, nor even any sense of self-esteem to keep them going. Forgotten about or reviled during the war by the public back home, by the media, by their own senior officers, by the politicians, the American GIs have lately emerged as victims rather than as villains of the typical Vietnam scenario.
What they are not, however, is heroes. Just as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington refrains from commemorating the deaths of American soldiers, but merely records the demise of some 58,000 individual Americans, thereby rendering their dying as pointless as if it had been caused by a succession of air crashes, so the story of the Vietnam war as reflected in recent movies has become the story of a ghastly mistake, in consequence of which a lot of young men had been compelled to pay, “meaninglessly,” with their lives or limbs. The point is reinforced in all four films by the use of largely unknown actors whose “deaths” will inevitably carry for the audience the suggestion of indiscriminate slaughter.
In choosing thus to characterize the war in Indochina, the films simply collapse at least ten years of American involvement into a single “Vietnam experience,” each of whose individual bits and pieces must carry a full load of significance. In these films it does not seem to matter very much whether the action takes place in 1967 (Platoon), in 1968 (Full Metal Jacket), in 1969 (Hamburger Hill), or over nine years of captivity in North Vietnam (The Hanoi Hilton). The effect is as if one were to make a film about the overall experience of British fighting men in World War II based solely on the rout at Dunkirk in 1940.
This, as it happens, is what Oliver Stone tries to do in Platoon. Set near the Cambodian border in 1967, the film traces the moral and spiritual journey of a young recruit, Private Chris Taylor, who is a member of a platoon engaged in “search-and-destroy” missions. The men themselves appear to be split into two warring camps. On one side are the supporters and followers of Sergeant Barnes, a tough bruiser given to hard drinking and to complaints about the restrictive rules of engagement that the wimpish politicians have imposed on him. On the other side are the adherents of the humane and civilized Sergeant Elias. Barnes and his men drink bourbon; Elias and his friends smoke dope. Barnes refers to the Vietnamese as “gooks”; Elias would not let a racist remark fall from his lips.
But the real issue is not one of personalities. Barnes, according to Elias, “still believes in the war” (whatever that may mean), whereas he, Elias, has become disillusioned with the whole enterprise beyond the point of endurance. The American side is hopelessly outclassed by the North Vietnamese on the battlefield, while off the battlefield fragging (the killing of officers by their own men using fragmentation hand grenades) and drug abuse seem to be the order of the day. In the light of all this it is no wonder that we find the idealistic Taylor, who dropped out of college to join up since he did not think it fair that “only the poor kids and not the rich kids should serve in Vietnam,” befriending Elias.
The clash between the two sergeants reaches its bloody denouement following an interrogation of villagers that goes wrong. The village appears to be in the hands of the Vietcong, or at least provides them with food, sanctuary, and men. Barnes, a veteran of many campaigns, is obviously near the breaking point: he shoots an old woman in cold blood, and threatens to kill a little girl. A hapless young lieutenant who has become totally dependent on Barnes and has more or less ceded command to him, stands around aimlessly, neither approving nor disapproving. It is left to Elias to salvage the situation. He rescues the girl and a fight between the two sergeants ensues. Elias informs everyone that he will file a report detailing Barnes’s atrocities, with an obvious view to having him court-martialed. Within a day or so of this announcement Barnes murders Elias during a botched operation (most American operations in this film are botched).
These events serve as a kind of revelation to young Taylor, who has gradually become convinced of the immorality of the whole American undertaking in Vietnam. The mantle having fallen upon him, he urges Elias’s followers to avenge the master’s death by fragging Barnes. When they refuse—arguing, not unreasonably, that since the man has been wounded seven times, it is unlikely they will succeed where the mighty North Vietnamese have failed—he decides to do the job himself. This he accomplishes in almost the very last scene of the film, after the platoon’s position has been overrun by the Communists and the men have to be bailed out by B-52s.
Stone’s falsifications in this movie begin with his choice of 1967 as the year for showing the futility of the American involvement in Vietnam. The effect is to imply, wrongly, that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was a direct response to defeat on the battlefield. Similarly, in portraying fragging and the use of drugs as daily occurrences among men constantly involved in combat, Stone brings forward by some four years the outbreak of these delinquencies, symptoms in fact of an army lacking opportunities for combat (because more and more of the fighting was by then being done by the South Vietnamese). The invincibility of the Communists on the one hand, and American vulnerability on the other hand, are thus ludicrously exaggerated. One need hardly make the obvious point that the massive North Vietnamese invasion of 1975 would not have been undertaken had there still been American units in the South which could not be overrun. Indeed, the fact of the North’s having to launch so enormous an invasion was testimony to the failure of its fifteen-year effort to topple the government of South Vietnam by means of guerrilla warfare.
The Westmoreland strategy that was pursued up until 1968 of aggressively seeking out the Communist guerrillas in their strongholds in the hills or in the jungles, of wresting control of villages and hamlets, and of evacuating populations from Communist-controlled areas, did (whatever its other shortcomings) bring about the virtual decimation of Communist forces, losses which the North Vietnamese were able to sustain only because they were driven by a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship. (From January 1965 to December 1967 their losses were on the order of 250,000; in 1968 alone the casualty rate was said to be around 291,000.) Throughout this time the morale of the American soldiers was, not unexpectedly, rather high. It was only from about 1970 on, when U.S. servicemen were being mainly deployed as support troops and were consequently spending most of their time in rear areas, that officers began to experience serious difficulties in motivating them to get into any combat at all. And as the date of the eventual American departure began to loom ever closer, the soldiers inevitably preoccupied themselves with the goal of not being the last American killed in Vietnam.
But this was still a long way off. By compressing the story of ten years into two or three skirmishes stretched out over a few days, Platoon creates the false impression that it was the Americans rather than the Communists who were suffering the really severe casualties. It also misleadingly suggests that the demoralization of the GIs was caused by a succession of defeats and the prospect of gradual annihilation.
Of course, it is not as history that Stone would presumably wish his film to be judged. In the conflict between Elias and Barnes, many critics discerned an enactment of the struggle between good and evil that takes place within every human soul. And to add a dash of profundity, in this struggle neither good nor evil finally triumphs—or at least so the ending of the film would suggest. Up to that point, everything that transpires urges us to take the side of Elias against Barnes: Elias hates the war, Barnes loves it; Elias is a nice fellow, Barnes is a monster; Taylor loves Elias, he hates Barnes. Then in the last scene we hear Taylor, in a voice-over, recalling the past from a present vantage point: “I think now on looking back we did not fight the enemy in Vietnam. We fought ourselves. The enemy was in ourselves. I am a child born of those two fathers who are still fighting for my soul.”
This odd ending is distinctly similar to what Stone did in his earlier film, Salvador. There, his hero—a left-wing photojournalist—belabors us for two hours with every cliché under the sun about the perfidies of American foreign policy, and then suddenly, turning on the hitherto exemplary and admirable Marxist guerrillas, starts yelling: “You’re becoming just like them! You’re becoming just like them!” The effect, depending on how one wants to interpret it, is balance, or ambiguity, or just confusion. So in Platoon perhaps Stone intends us finally to credit Barnes with greater moral stature than he himself has bothered to do up until then, or at least to think of Barnes, too, as another victim of the war. Or perhaps not.
In any event, it is notable that aside from the interrogation scene, obviously intended to make us think of My Lai, the only explicit political statement in this film is of the resentful, socially embittered kind which could quite easily have come from Rambo. Early on, Taylor reflects: “The guys in this platoon are the guys nobody cares about. They are the poor and unwanted, yet they fight for freedom. They’re at the bottom of the barrel and they don’t know it.” This is rather similar in tone to Rambo’s rueful comment: “I’m a guy who’s expendable. Someone you invite to a party who doesn’t show up and it doesn’t matter.” Such sentiments implicitly repudiate any large view of the war as an expression of American political purpose. But the operative word here is “implicitly”: there is nothing in Platoon like the tirades against American foreign policy that characterize Salvador. This, no doubt, is another reason why critics could call Platoon “apolitical”—because it does not explicitly espouse the notion that the ultimate source of evil lay in the American decision to take up arms.
Where Platoon portrays men split between good (meaning antiwar) and evil impulses, the soldiers in John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill are one and all good men, who fight and die bravely although they neither know nor care what it is they are fighting and dying for. Yet precisely because they are young, likable, and decent, the vivid scenes of their mutilation are unavoidably charged with a bitterness more intense than anything in Platoon. Moreover, where in Platoon “meaninglessness” is a quality exclusively characteristic of the American war effort in Vietnam itself, in Hamburger Hill it is made to embrace the life of the people back home, including the media and the “peace movement.” Just as the soldiers in the film react to the horrors around them by repeatedly intoning “It don’t mean nothing. It don’t mean a thing,” so when one of them goes home for a visit and finds his wife living with a peacenik, or is harassed by college kids, or is pelted with excrement by pretty young girls, all he can say in explanation is “It don’t mean nothing.”
John Irvin spent some time in Vietnam in 1969 making a film for the BBC and he formed a somewhat sentimental attachment to the young soldiers who fought there. It is admirable that he should now make a film honoring the American dead and rescuing them from calumny, but it is also difficult to applaud an enterprise that seems to find no other source of meaning in that long, protracted conflict than the courage in adversity displayed by American infantrymen in one massive military operation. In the film the men are depicted as being ground down by the Communists up on the hill as well as by their own men from helicopter gunships and, in the metaphoric sense, by the letters from home which inform them of the hatred and contempt that await them should they survive and return. All this is moving enough—but by resolutely refusing to entertain the possibility of meaning, Irvin fails to accord his characters the honor he rightly believes they deserve.
Irvin’s movie concentrates entirely on the successful if costly assault in May 1969 on Dong Ap Bia (military designation Hill 937), better known as “Hamburger Hill”—an operation that drew widespread criticism at the time from, among others, President Nixon. In so doing, Irvin, like Stone before him, consciously leaves the impression that one episode or series of episodes epitomizes the overall American effort in Southeast Asia: the abiding image from the film is the sight of American bodies, both live and dead, repeatedly rolling down the hill, as if the entire attempt to wage war in Vietnam were in some fundamental sense a defiance of the laws of gravity. But the reason the real “Hamburger Hill” operation became a minor cause célèbre at the time was due to an altogether different set of circumstances.
Once the conclusion had been reached in Washington that the Vietnam war was “unwinnable,” it made little sense to go all out for a frontal assault on a hill just because the enemy happened to be there. Such things belonged to a bygone era that had come to an end with the recall of General Westmoreland on June 30, 1968. President Nixon’s orders to the new commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, were that “the primary mission of our troops is to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam.” In lieu of military victory, “pacification” began to be pursued with great zest, and in practice, this also meant leaving villages in the hands of the Communists and not risking casualties in trying to “liberate” them.
This, and only this, is what made “meaningless” the decision of Major General Melvin Zais to seize control of Hamburger Hill. Had his action been undertaken two years earlier, it would have been no more “meaningless” than any other costly operation in any other war.
Still, John Irvin’s attempt to cram into a few days as much of the “Vietnam experience” as possible is more successful than other such efforts. Platoon follows Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in focusing on the deterioration of American morale as a consequence of a daily succession of nightmares within Vietnam itself. Hamburger Hill, by contrast, is the first film to show that the soldiers’ self-doubts and general sense of bewilderment are a response not only to their battlefield experience but also the expression of a debilitation triggered by the activities of American noncombatants. In addition to what is happening to them in Vietnam itself it is the barrage of antiwar statements by prominent public officials back home, the “peace” demonstrations, the news of leftist Americans lending themselves to North Vietnamese propaganda, the loss of girlfriends to antiwar civilians, which make them feel that this is not the war they should be fighting.
Precisely these same features of Hamburger Hill are no doubt what also account for the mixed critical reception it provoked, although it is technically and visually a superior film to Platoon. Indeed one suspects that were it not for the (universally acknowledged) power and vividness of this movie, John Irvin’s allusions to antiwar actions so embarrassing to recall would have got a much rougher ride still—something similar, in all likelihood, to the vituperations that greeted Lionel Chetwynd’s The Hanoi Hilton.
This film is set in the infamous Hoa Lo prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi and, like Hamburger Hill, it distinguishes itself from other treatments of the war in showing Americans able to endure daily hardships without ceasing to be the same basically decent people they started-out as. It is not with this point that the critics quarreled, however. The Hanoi Hilton goes even further than Hamburger Hill in its harsh portrayal of the “ingratitude” of the people back home. Where John Irvin directs his hostility against generals and antiwar activists in about equal proportions, The Hanoi Hilton punctuates scenes of American pilots being tortured by their North Vietnamese captors with scenes of their being harangued by visiting Americans who assure them that they are being well treated.
This was altogether too much for most critics. Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic opened his review: “The Hanoi Hilton is filth. It exploits the sufferings . . . of American POWs . . . in order to promote a distortion of history: that the peace movement in the United States . . . prolonged the imprisonment of those men by impeding American victory.” Yet all that Lionel Chetwynd appears to suggest is that the “peace movement in the United States” played an important role in the political and psychological war that Hanoi was waging. Obviously, among the groups opposed to the war there were greater and lesser degrees of genuine concern for the casualties, of gullibility about the aims of the Communists, of downright connivance in the propaganda offensive of North Vietnam. But the plain truth is that sympathy for the plight of the servicemen held in captivity was hardly high on the list of priorities.
That Kauffmann’s view was echoed by virtually every other critic suggests that Chetwynd’s arrow hit home. Audiences, however, were not moved by this film, and it was withdrawn within a matter of weeks. This was not really all that surprising: even if it had been technically more proficient and better acted, watching it would have remained a deeply depressing, not to say harrowing, experience.
It is a pity that in treating so important a subject Chetwynd did not make a better movie. Rather than focusing on individual characters he allows his attention to wander so as to take in just about everyone in the prison. He fails to introduce any real drama, instead working woodenly with a chronological structure encompassing the ten years or so of the men’s incarceration, within which he dutifully records all the important events in the outside world along with the details of every single torture that they endure. There is only so much a moviegoer can take, and sitting through over two hours of repeated doses of pain clearly exceeds the quota.
Yet once again it was not these aesthetic deficiencies that riled the critics. A number of them, including Kauffmann, seemed to take at face value the claim of the prison commandant that since the U.S. had not officially declared war on the North Vietnamese, the Geneva Convention relating to the treatment of POWs did not apply to any Americans captured, who were simply being dealt with as “war criminals.” Such arguments were made in the past and have been refuted in the past; it is rather dispiriting to find them being taken seriously today. (Article 85 of the Geneva Convention provides that “prisoners of war prosecuted under the laws of the Detaining Power for acts committed prior to capture shall retain, even if convicted, the benefits of the present Convention.” The North Vietnamese, who ratified the Convention in 1957, entered a reservation to this article, to the effect that “prisoners of war prosecuted and convicted for war crimes or for crimes against humanity . . . shall not benefit from the present Convention.” But the key words are prosecuted and convicted. The North Vietnamese made no attempt to try the pilots on charges of war crimes, and confessions extracted under torture are obviously not the same thing as prosecution and conviction. Thus the North Vietnamese were in violation not only of the Geneva Convention but also of their own reservation.)
Every one of the tortures recorded in The Hanoi Hilton has been attested to by the POWs who returned: maggots in the food, electric shock treatment, the withholding of rights to the exchange of mail, repeated beatings, sadistically inadequate medical care, years of solitary confinement, hanging by the wrists from the ceiling, public parades of prisoners through lines of rock-throwing fanatics. Yet when these stories first began to emerge they were met with disbelief and contemptuous dismissal, for persons of stature and celebrity had been to Hanoi, and had come back to say that no torture was taking place there.
In reminding us of this shameful episode The Hanoi Hilton makes an important contribution to recreating the Vietnam war “as it really was.” In this movie we get some idea of the importance of propaganda in Communist strategy, and of the immensely significant contribution that Western “well-wishers” made to the war effort. Major Ngo Doc explains: “What we will not win on the battlefield your journalists will win for us on your doorstep. We will win the war in Berkeley, California and on the Washington Mall.” The lines sound tendentious, but he is merely articulating a strategy Ho Chi Minh had worked out as long ago as the 1920′s in China, one which had proved so efficacious in his struggle against the French.
Aside from The Hanoi Hilton, the recent films on the Vietnam war hardly treat the other side’s view at all. In Hamburger Hill the activities of the “peace movement” are seen entirely from the bitter and bemused perspective of the soldiers daily being asked to sacrifice their lives on behalf of an apparently ungrateful nation. As for Platoon, its political understanding of why and against whom the war was being fought begins and ends with young Taylor’s mot: “We did not fight the enemy in Vietnam. We fought ourselves.” This appears all the more evasive when one recalls that two earlier Vietnam films, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, did make some attempt to go beyond the internal American conflict and to understand the real enemy that had to be faced.
Thus, in The Deer Hunter, the sadistic games of Russian roulette which the captured Americans are forced to play, whether or not they have any basis in fact, at least convey some idea of what sort of regime the Communists had in mind for the people of the South. This was much more powerfully developed in Apocalypse Now. It is the Communists, says the crazed American Colonel Kurtz, who understand that otherwise kindly people can be made to perform the most barbaric acts, “without feeling, without passion, without judgment,” and it is because of this understanding that their ultimate triumph can be foretold. Apocalypse Now does, in its obsessive focus on the military dimension, lose sight of the political aspect of the North’s struggle against the South and against the United States, but at least, like The Hanoi Hilton, it treats this conflict in terms that go beyond the usual round of American soldiers and their assorted problems.
Most film-makers prefer instead to stay within their normal cozy preoccupations. Thus, in his Full Metal Jacket there is little of Vietnam but a very great deal of the Stanley Kubrick of Clockwork Orange (1973) and The Shining (1980).
Madness, violence, quirks in the American national character have long been the themes Kubrick has felt most comfortable with. Show him a war and he feels obliged to meditate on the awful psychopathology of man killing man. This is precisely what he does in Full Metal Jacket, his first movie in eight years. In most respects the film is quite similar to both Platoon and Hamburger Hill, but with two exceptions. First, it presents the American side as irredeemably bad (though, to be fair, without actually endorsing the side of the enemy). Second, its theme is not the usual one of the malign influence of the war on the American character, but rather the opposite, the malign influence of the American character on the war. The story concerns the turning of young men into trained killers. The first forty-five minutes take place in a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp in North Carolina, in the company of a sadistic drill sergeant and a group of youngsters with closely shaved heads but no real names, no friends, no interests. As the men are steadily stripped of all human attachments, one of their number, Private Pyle, goes steadily insane; upon finally being accepted into the Marines, he kills first his drill instructor and then himself, although why he alone should have failed to understand that killing is something a Marine does to “gooks” and not to his fellow Americans is never explained. Kubrick simply drops the subject and transports us next to South Vietnam, a land apparently singled out by history to become an out-patient clinic for the madmen America unleashes upon the world.
The weakness of Kubrick’s structure is now suddenly made clear. In order to show young men being turned into murderous automatons he has had to eschew any attempt at individualization (with the exception of the weirdo Pyle); now, however, he has to rustle up some characters around whom to spin a story. One of these, Private Joker, who is employed as a journalist for the army newspaper Stars and Stripes, functions as “the innocent eye” in the film, expressing the audience’s horror at what Americans in Vietnam are like. To expose what they are like, Kubrick parades before us a succession of types, each one creepier than the last. There is the Blimpish editor of Stars and Stripes who insists that his staff employ the euphemism “evacuees” instead of “refugees,” and “sweep and clear” instead of “search and destroy.” There is the dim-witted colonel who declares: “I’ve never asked anything more from my men than to obey my orders as if they were the words of God. We’re here to help the gooks because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.” There is the helicopter machine-gunner who enjoys using up tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of ammunition just for the joy of it: “Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who stands still is a disciplined VC. Ain’t war fun?” There is the GI who reflects wistfully: “When we get back to the real world we’re going to miss not having anyone around worth shooting.” Somehow, one gets the message.
The film’s denouement takes place in a burned-out building after the near-annihilation of the unit by a lone girl sniper. Finally the girl has been located; she is wounded, and it is left to Joker to put her out of her misery. She turns out to be the first person Joker has killed. Any hope we may have entertained that he, as least, will be more humane than the others is dashed as he joins enthusiastically in the Mickey Mouse song and we hear in a simultaneous voice-over: “I’m in a world of shit . . . yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”
Kubrick’s film is better made and more gripping than any of the other releases, though infantile in the labored discovery that war involves killing, and hopelessly self-contradictory in its portrayal of a group of blindly obedient killers suddenly and inexplicably transformed into an ill-disciplined, incompetent, dim-witted lot. Kubrick’s may also be the only film about Vietnam to portray Americans as evil before they arrive there, and for this it surely deserves an award of some kind for moral consistency.
In Platoon some of the men are corrupted by the war but have the chance to redeem themselves, and incidentally their country, by turning against it. In The Hanoi Hilton and in Hamburger Hill the men remain uncorrupted; it is rather the people back home who in various ways fail them. But there is no chance of any redemption in Full Metal Jacket, since not only are the men incorrigible killers but once in Vietnam they bring evil and corruption with them, laying waste entire cities if not with firepower then with thievery and prostitution. What Kubrick’s film has in common with the others are his ascription of these qualities not to politics but to nature (American nature, that is) and the conception of the entire “Vietnam experience” as one prolonged leap into the meaningless and the absurd.
It may be that for the time being, the only justice we can expect from Hollywood on the subject of this complex and terrible conflict, perhaps the most purely ideological war ever fought, will be the sort dispensed by films like The Hanoi Hilton and Hamburger Hill, which do not aspire to do anything more than acknowledge the sacrifices made by young Americans in Southeast Asia. This at least is something to put against the wonted, bogus celebration of the “heroism” displayed at campus protests, riots in Chicago, “peace” rallies, and marches on Washington. But one cannot help wishing that someone, somewhere would make a movie that would attend to the ideas and interests that originally inspired the deeds of those young Americans, not to mention the ideas and interests of the real enemy who had to be faced in Southeast Asia, and who shows no sign of disappearing.