The Vietnam War was not only waged by soldiers on the battlefield. Long after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the traumas of war continued in the intimate memories and scarred bodies of those who fought, and in the nightmares of civilians whose lives were destroyed or irrevocably changed. The Vietnam War has also had an enduring and contentious national legacy, which still shapes military policy, political debates, and the way war is portrayed in journalism, literature, and film. We will explore the creative outpouring of responses to the Vietnam War in film. We will ask how filmmakers represented the experience of those on the battlefield and the home front; how they fought symbolic battles over the interpretation and memory of the war; and what legacy they created for future generations.
Michael Cimino’s death in 2016 brought back memories of The Deer Hunter and other impactful Vietnam War films. It wasn’t until after Saigon’s fall that Cimino and other directors began grappling with the conflict. Right from the start, Hollywood struggled with the Vietnam War, a conflict that deeply divided public opinion and defied easy representation onscreen. The 1968 John Wayne film The Green Berets, released at the height of the conflict, was an old-fashioned war drama and ignored the moral gray areas of the increasingly confused war effort. Other movies dealt with the issues only indirectly or focused on the state side anti-war counter culture that was growing parallel to the conflict. It wasn’t until well after the last chopper left Saigon in 1975 that Hollywood attempted more in-depth and nuanced looks at the conflict, with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter leading the way. Things came full circle in January 2014 with Last Days In Vietnam, an American documentary film written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy—about forty years after Saigon fell.
Our selected films will be viewed “at home” (using Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or a similar service), and then discussed in class. Discussion topics for each film will include:
- How our filmmakers represented the experience of those on the battlefield and the home front
- How they fought symbolic battles over the interpretation and memory of the war
- What legacy they created for future generations.
- Place within the overall “world of film” and among Vietnam War films
- Time and place, setting of the film, plot summary, the cast, etc.
- The film’s unique characteristics, techniques, technology or breakthroughs
- Key themes, characters, events, symbology, imagery, etc.
- Messages, political or social commentary, and interpretative frameworks
- Mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing/montage and music/score
- Critics’ reviews and commentaries on the film (as available)
- Important scene viewing from the DVD (Optional—as time allows)
Given the usual S/DG time constraints, this S/DG will take a broad—rather than an overly deep—look at these often challenging films. At the end of the semester, the desired outcome is to understand better these overall works, within both historical and film studies contexts.