|Religious and Cultural Tolerance in Pre and Post War Hollywood Blockbusters
EDGE, Fall 2003
Workshop: Wed, 11 AM
Every weekend, droves of sugared-up children, restless teenagers, cynically-hip twenty and thirty-somethings, exhausted middle-agers, and bored retirees pay the local AMCs and Century Theatres an average of $8 a pop to sit in a crowded, darkened room in front of a massive projection screen for approximately two hours. This begs the question, what keeps these viewers attentive, and coming back for more (movie studio executives ask themselves this same question every day). Is it because the movies they watch draw upon collective feelings and experiences, touching them on an emotional level? Or is it because the movies provoke and stimulate their minds, and encourage them to think about things in ways they’ve never considered? That is, are movies cultural indicators that represent society’s views at large? Or are they vehicles of expression that influence society’s perceptions? There are convincing arguments for both interpretations, and perhaps both arguments are simultaneously valid, but one thing is undeniable: film is a significant constituent of society’s subconscious. This fact has led many people to believe that filmmakers should consider the moral consequences of their films. Many claim that portraying negative cultural and religious stereotypes on film leads to the strengthening of these stereotypes in society’s collective psyche, either by confirming the stereotypes or proliferating them. Others claim that the current atmosphere in Hollywood is overly-PC, thus conceding realism, artistic license, and entertainment value in films. These people claim that the hyper-sensitive environment restrains creativity, waters down the mental impact of film, and weakens film’s connection to society’s collective attitude. My aim is not to prescribe what should be done. I am not one to judge whether or not cultural and religious sensitivity is more important than an uncompromised, artistic vision. What I wish to do is make predictions about the direction Hollywood is headed for in terms of religious and cultural portrayals. These predictions will be based on descriptive analyses of cultural and religious portrayals in past Hollywood movies and how they were responded to by the public.
Religious and cultural tolerance is most volatile in periods of conflict. I will examine two of the most tense and precarious eras in recent American history: the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. These are eras in which the American public’s attitude is generally one of fear, uncertainty, and apathy, all of which often lead to ignorance and hate. I believe that by examining religious and cultural portrayals in cinema before and during each era, and then comparing it to portrayals after the era, we can observe the change in public attitude and awareness, as well as the change in filmmakers’ messages and how that influences viewers as well as future films.
The big-budget studio production (commonly referred to as “blockbuster”) is an interesting subtype of film to choose for analyzing how film can be a societal gauge as well as a societal stimulus. On one hand, blockbuster filmmakers must know their target audience and incorporate their audience’s views and tastes into the film in order to garner a higher probability of box office success (after all, this is Hollywood, and the bottom line is always money). On the other hand, since big-budget productions generally get wider releases, draw bigger crowds (whether it’s through marketing, word of mouth, critic’s reviews), and are perceived as being more polished, blockbuster filmmakers are also aware that their films have much more of an influence on society than any other type of film. This interesting duality of purpose is exactly why I chose to concentrate on Hollywood blockbusters.
The system of film selection I’ve established for this paper is that I only choose movies with cultural and religious portrayals of Vietnamese, Arab, and Muslim people, and the movie must have been in the top 10 of at least one box office weekend chart.
Hardly any films were made about the war while it was being waged. Footage of real firefights in Vietnam was broadcast on the news all the time, but the theaters weren’t showing much of the conflict at all. The only notable movie released during the war was The Green Berets (1968) starring John Wayne. The movie was very patriotic, almost propaganda-like, in it’s portrayal of U.S. troops fighting the righteous fight against the evil Viet Cong. It is, in a sense, an old-style John Wayne western with the Viet Cong as the savage and ultimately justly defeated Indians. The movie’s main focus was to give a sympathetic portrayal of American soldiers and the effort in Vietnam during a time when the term baby-killer was commonly applied to those in the service. Although the Vietnamese troops in the movie weren’t closely filmed (in fact the enemy soldiers were mostly Caucasian actors wearing Vietcong black pajamas and conical straw hats) the behavior and actions of the Viet Cong were inhumanly cruel. The audience is bombarded with images of evil Vietcong soldiers savagely raping and torturing women and young girls, as well as killing defenseless villagers. There’s a scene where the VC kill all the males of a village because they wouldn’t join the cause. Not only that, but they behead the village chieftain as well. Other scenes depict the Viet Cong burning entire villages, and torturing and killing anyone (including children) who resisted. Also, Vietcong soldiers kill the missionaries who run an orphanage, prompting the Green Berets to take care of the stranded orphans. Which brings us to the stereotypical portrayals of the South Vietnamese as being weak, incompetent and dependent on American help. The South Vietnamese are plainly the helpless victims in the movie, ranging from orphans of the war to powerless villagers to South Vietnamese soldiers who fight alongside the Green Berets. Clearly, the South Vietnamese desperately need the help of American soldiers to combat the barbaric Viet Cong. In addition, the Vietnamese women are portrayed as exotic, sexual toys used for the enjoyment of men. In the film, a Vietnamese model seduces and then kills a Viet Cong officer in bed to avenge the murder of her parents.
The film tried to attain an almost-documentary type of realism, though big production Hollywood style. Through Lyndon B. Johnson, Wayne acquired the help of the Army, so that their consultants and hardware would give the film a realism--an authenticity--impossible to match. While it's true that some of the action sequences look good, the movie was too clichéd (especially when Wayne takes care of the cute orphan), and by 1968 the American media--if not the public at large--understood that the war wasn't a matter of circling the wagons and breaking out superior firepower. The news coverage of the war showed that what was really happening in Vietnam was that the South Vietnamese culture America had sought to preserve was being burned down and destroyed by the war.1 So it was generally accepted that the film failed to rally the audience behind the American effort the way the filmmakers had originally planned. The movie also met a scathing critical reception, and though the theme song, Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Beret," topped the Billboard chart for a few weeks, the movie was widely picketed, generally vilified and quickly forgotten. The film managed to rake in about $8 million at the box office.
Several years after America had pulled out of the Vietnam War, loads of films were coming out that dealt with the aftermath of the conflict. The first important film to come out of this period was The Deer Hunter (1978), starring Robert DeNiro. The Deer Hunter was about three close friends from Pittsburgh who are enlisted in the airborne infantry of Vietnam. In Vietnam, they are captured by the Viet Cong, submerged in cages, and are forced to play Russian Roulette. They manage to escape, but their lives are forever changed by the horrors of the war. The Russian Roulette scenes symbolize the random, senseless brutality of the war, as friends must turn against friends (Walken’s character unexpectedly spits on DeNiro’s character). The film is different than most Vietnam War movies in that it is a character study, rather than a macho blow-em up flick with graphic deaths. Yet the Vietnamese characters in this movie are depicted as sadistic savages who force the three friends to play Russian Roulette so that they can bet on the outcome. The film portrayed the Viet Cong as heartless demons with no regard for human life as they happily load revolvers with ammo for the game of Russian Roulette. Russian Roulette isn’t just used as torture, it’s also depicted as a gaming spectacle on the backstreets of Saigon. The film’s director Michael Cimino had never served in the Vietnam War and thus the movie was not accurate. No games of Russian Roulette were ever documented in Vietnam.2 Subtitles aren’t provided as to what the captors are saying in the entire scene, thus taking advantage of the language barrier to make the Viet Cong seem even more like heartless, inhuman foreigners. And the South Vietnamese aren’t painted much better either. They are depicted as whores and black marketeers who aren’t worthy of being helped, and some critics claim it seemingly blames Vietnam for what it’s done to America. These critics said Cimino painted his three heroes as innocents who couldn’t bear the evil of Vietnam. And yet, in his portrayal of Tu Do Street and the Wall Street like pit of the Russian Roulette arena (the men in western suits, boxes of Kimbies piled in the background), Cimino appears to accuse America of contaminating Vietnamese culture.
That said, many people criticized the film for being racist towards the Vietnamese. There were even protestors outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the night the film won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Walken) at the Oscars. The film also made a controversial splash overseas. To the Eastern communist world, “The existence of a growing backlash was confirmed (in some quarters) at the same year’s Berlin Festival, where The Deer Hunter was the official American entry: judging the movie an affront to the struggles of the Vietnamese people, the Soviet delegation withdrew in protest, followed by the Hungarians, Bulgarians, East Germans, Czechs and Cubans.” 3 As for the general public, they considered the film to be a serious (maybe too much so) and thoughtful examination of how the war affected America. Strangely, all the negative publicity from critics and overseas didn’t hinder the film at the box office, where it took in $49 million, when it only cost $15 million to make. Most veterans found the Vietnam sequences unconvincing and even ridiculous. But one veteran, Jan Scruggs, found the movie so compelling that after seeing it he decided to build a monument to the men and women who served the Vietnam War; only four years later, he presided over the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC--what we now call The Wall. It is ranked #111 on IMDB’s Top Movies of All Time list.
The next year saw the release of Apocalypse Now (1979) starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Arguably the most surreal of all Vietnam War films, the film follows Sheen’s Captain Willard on a journey into the jungles of Cambodia during the Vietnam War to assassinate a crazed Green Beret (Brando) who has set up his own army in the jungle. Although the film focuses more on the evil in men’s hearts, the perils of imperialist aggression, and the madness of war, it still manages to negatively portray Southeast Asians. The savages that follow Brando’s Colonel Kurtz rule are immoral subhumans who stick the heads of enemies and traitors onto pikes, and hang their mutilated bodies from trees. They are all covered in mud and paint and barely resemble human beings – they are depicted as amoral animals. The Southeast Asians are reduced to nothing but the “Other,” lacking any sort of character or personality, making them even more distant and foreign from Americans (and even humans). What’s strange about this blatantly one-dimensional caricature is that Francis Ford Coppola is infamous for being a stickler for detail. In Hearts of Darkness, which documents the filming of Apocalypse Now, Coppola obsesses over the most trivial of details, like how the wine has to be the correct temperature in a scene of a French colonial dinner in Vietnam (funny enough, the scene was cut from the final versions). Yet, when it comes to the portrayal of the primitives, it seems like Coppola only requires the extras to cover themselves in mud, shake their spears wildly, and sacrifice live animals --just like the old “savage” cliche. To make matters worse, Colonel Kurtz recounts an episode (which never happened) where Vietnamese soldiers chopped off the arms of children who had been given polio vaccinations by Americans. Kurtz expresses his awe of them by saying: "I thought: ‘My God, the genius of that,’" Kurtz says. "The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we." This scene has two messages. First, it falsely substantiates that the Vietcong are heartless psychopaths who don’t even hesitate to maim innocent children in order to further their political goals. Second, it conveys the old right-wing argument for why we lost in Vietnam--Americans didn’t have the stomach for a real war. In the rush to criticize the war, the film exhibits a racist attitude that deprives another culture of their history, their cause, and their humanity in order to exploit their racial and cultural difference as a threat to our morals.
That being said, there are some important strides that Apocalypse Now makes in it’s depiction of the Vietnamese that makes it stand out against prior films. Early on, in the film’s mission briefing scene, the U.S. general is more concerned about his lunch than the mission to stop Kurtz, and his aide (played by Harrison Ford) can’t decide whether to look sinister or sympathetic, and ends up just clearing his throat a lot. The Vietnamese technician is the only one who seems like an ordinary person, and thus ends up being the most likably human character in the scene. Coppola also makes the viewer sympathetic towards the Vietnamese by having a scene where Sheen’s Willard and his crew slaughter an entire Vietnamese family--a reference to the war crimes carried out by U.S. troops.
The public response to the film was generally positive. It was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes based on the working print (in fact it was the first unfinished work to win the award), and it did quite well at the box office. Although it did not win any of the principal awards at the Oscars, it did pick up Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Critics and veterans weren’t so kind to the film, calling it an “empty fantasy” and at best a “beautiful cartoon.” Twenty two years later, a longer cut titled Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) was released, and by then, the original film had generally been considered an excellent and important film. To date, it has made about $150 million at the box office, and its production cost was $31.5 million. It is ranked #32 on IMDB’s Top Movies of All Time list.
In these three films (The Green Berets, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now), there tends to be more emphasis on the spectacle of war rather than its political intricacies and the emotional truths of those involved, that is, simple judgments are made about the war. But this trend resulted in an interesting response. The failure of these three films (especially the latter two, which are widely accepted and highly decorated) to navigate such seemingly impossible demands would inspire a large number of vets themselves to speak out and try to set the record straight.
But first, there would be First Blood (1982) aka Rambo starring Sylvester Stallone, and it’s ilk (Rambo: First Blood II, the Missing in Action series). These films were a response to the artistic heaviness of Apocalypse Now and seriousness of The Deer Hunter. With First Blood and it’s brethren, Hollywood was portraying a simplified view of the war, one with a more familiar, less complex vet. It seems like America was ready to accept the warrior, but couldn’t look hard at the war. The spotlight in this time frame was on the psycho vet: the mentally disturbed grunt with a vendetta against the unjust American government, causing him to go on killing sprees, either with a just cause or not. This focus lead to two types of Vietnamese portrayals: one, the cold, heartless, and undignified guerilla who fights dirty and traumatizes the vet by torturing him and killing his friends, causing him to go crazy when he returns home; and two, the bystander Vietnamese civilian, who isn’t developed at all and is relegated “backdrop” status. First Blood had Stallone’s John Rambo as a confused, unappreciated and forgotten Vietnam vet (coincidentally, an ex-Green Beret) who is unjustly bullied and arrested in a small town, and tortured. Rambo is pushed over the edge by the torture (which reminds him of Vietnam) and so he escapes and declares war on the authorities using his specialized training and tricks he learned from Vietnam. The authorities of the town are corrupt, so the audience is persuaded to cheer for Rambo as he punishes the corrupt cops for ostracizing him and at the same time the audience appreciates the average vet’s humanity and courage. The audience only gets glimpses of his Vietnamese torturers through flashback sequences: when Rambo is arrested and taken to prison, he sees a window criss-crossed with bars, and flashes back to Vietnam where he is in a bamboo cage, and Viet Cong captors are abusing him by pouring some nasty substance on him. When a cop asks Rambo to strip, we see the grotesque whip scars all over the vet’s torso, supposedly inflicted by cruel, nameless Vietnamese demons. Then the police blast Rambo with a fire hose, weakening his frail psyche even more, so that when one of the cops chokes him with a baton, he flashes back again to Vietnam where we see Rambo strapped to a wooden cross-like torture device and being choked by fastened ropes. The audience only catches a quick glimpse of two Vietnamese torturers in the background (almost like props) pulling on the ropes. When one of the cops is about to shave Rambo with a bare razor, we are treated to the final flashback where we see an expressionless VC officer hold up a knife to the camera and then a quick cut to Rambo’s chest being slashed by that knife. A final insult to the Vietnamese is near the end, when Rambo recounts the story of how his friend was killed: a Vietnamese kid offered the soldier a shoe shine, but when the soldier opened the shoe shine box, it blew up, splattering his body parts all over the place, even on Rambo. This suggests that even seemingly innocent Vietnamese children are evil monsters, and that they can’t be trusted.
Whereas First Blood was more of a thriller with psychological undertones, First Blood II was more of exercise in excess action- more deaths, and bigger explosions. The plot involved Rambo (now almost superhero-like, instead of mentally unstable) going back to Vietnam to rescue American POWs; basically, this was an excuse to show Rambo in a recreated Vietnam War, so he could single-handedly blow away thousands of incompetent VC soldiers. With the even more insane and over-the-top action sequences this promises, the portrayals of Vietnamese are once again simplistically evil and stereotypical to make way for dumbed-down, mind-numbing action. The VC are vicious foreign devils (again, no subtitles are provided when they speak Vietnamese, distancing them even farther from the audience). At the same time, they are portrayed as laughably incompetent; when they have their enemy surrounded, they prefer to launch mortars at them instead of walking right in and capturing them. There is no doubt in this film that the Viet Cong are heartless and cruel. When the VC do get ahold of Rambo, they torture him by submerging him in a pit of leeches and pig filth. Even the Russian allies of the VC comment on their cruelty: “These people are vulgar in their methods. They lack compassion.” Of course the Russians then proceed to give Rambo shock therapy. The Vietnamese civilians aren’t shown to be much better. They are either portrayed as prostitutes, or corrupt, dirty merchants who quickly betray Rambo and sell out to the Viet Cong. The other civilians in the movie are reduced to mere bystanders, almost prop-like. As the VC chase Rambo through a village, all we see of the villagers do is scramble for a few seconds. More evidence of the incompetence of the VC soldiers is when they fumble into a trap set by Rambo and are burned alive. Perhaps the most amazing display of Viet Cong stupidity is when a top VC officer fires an entire clip at Rambo but misses with every shot, then as the officer is running away Rambo fires a single explosive arrow at the cowardly officer, blowing him up into several small chunks. The only hint of a positive Vietnamese portrayal is Rambo’s female sidekick Co, a renegade Vietnamese agent. She is somewhat capable (although she dies at the midway point of the movie) and genuinely cares for Rambo, but she is still an exoticized caricature with a horribly bad Vietnamese accent.
These two films (along with Chuck Norris’ similarly themed Missing In Action series) were an enormous success with the public. Together they grossed over $200 million, but more impressively, they managed to change the entire nation’s feeling towards the Vietnam veteran. The Rambo movies made it heroic to be a Vietnam vet. Politicians started claiming Vietnam service while they were campaigning for office: Senator John Kerry, for example, who was once dramatically antiwar, now wrapped himself in his Vietnam veteran status. After First Blood Part II, counselors in Vet centers across American witnessed a huge influx of Vietnam veterans seeking help to get rid of their inner demons. Many of these people were impostors, and were just riding the wave of Vet popularity and hipness. By displaying Vietnamese mistreatment of POWs, these films give American viewers a simplified moral high ground, finally giving the vet his chance to reclaim lost honor, but at the cost of degrading and vilifying a whole people.
With the huge success of the heroic Rambo movies, many Vietnam vets thought it was time for an accurate depiction of the Vietnam experience. One vet, Oliver Stone, took this task upon himself and created Platoon (1986), a film that promised to be the most realistic portrayal of the war. The movie follows Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor first experiences as an American soldier entering the Vietnam War. The film focuses on the daily existence of the grunt, making sure to get correct details like the jungle, the heat, the bugs, the equipment, and most importantly the lingo. The platoon is divided into two major groups: the heads (who smoke marijuana and want to go home) led by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), and the juicers (who drink and thrive on violence) led by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). The platoon loses a couple members due to booby traps set by the VC, so an angry Barnes leads the platoon to a nearby village, and the troops unleash their frustration on civilians: Sheen’s Chris shoots at the ground to make a one-legged cripple dance; Bunny, a juicer, kills the cripple by smashing his head with the butt of his rifle. Elias shows up and confronts Barnes to stop the slaughtering, and the Lieutenant passes down orders to torch the entire village. A Vietnamese woman is about to be gang raped but Chris stops it from happening. These scenes are meant to make the audience feel sympathetic towards the Vietnamese civilians, who were being unjustly treated as lower life forms. Finally, America gets to see on the big screen the type of atrocities the Vietnamese civilians had to suffer to during the war. No longer are they relegated to backdrop status or mere props that were dependent on American help; the Vietnamese civilians in Platoon are actual humans who are terribly mistreated, and the audience can actually feel for them. Prior to Platoon, the only real glimpse at American war crimes against the Vietnamese was in Apocalypse Now (as discussed earlier), but the difference is that in Platoon, this sequence is a pivotal point of the movie. It’s a sequence that is supposed to get the audience to show compassion for the suffering Vietnamese, so the cruelty is made graphically explicit so that we can see who the protagonists (the heads) and antagonists (the juicers) are. Later on, when the platoon actually encounters Viet Cong troops, the American troops are actually forced to pull back because they are overwhelmed. Here, the VC are shown as shadowy figures, faceless objects of the war. Yet, they aren’t overly sadistic and immoral (like in the Rambo movies), unlike Barnes, who is portrayed as heartless as he shoots his own comrade Elias and leaves him to die as the platoon takes off on the Huey. A few scenes later, the platoon returns to the jungle, where they are overrun by the competent VC troops. Bunny is killed (poetic justice is served for his murder of the cripple), and everyone is knocked out by an airstrike. Here, the Viet Cong are portrayed as deadly and efficient, yet always invisible, like phantoms among the trees. The reason for this type of portrayal is because Stone is trying to get a message across: America isn’t fighting Vietnam, it’s fighting the enemy within.
When the film was released, it was a solid box office success. Reviews for the film were almost all positive, and everyone was either talking about it, or debating it, or praising it. TIME magazine dedicated seven pages to the film. Critics and veterans alike praised the film for its realism, and many believed it to be the first film to show what Vietnam was really like. It cleaned up at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Sound. It only cost $6 million to make but grossed over $130 million. The combination of box office success and critical and public acclaim cemented Platoon in America’s collective memory. To this day, most people consider it to be THE definitive Vietnam War movie. It is #142 on IMDB’s Top Movies of All Time list.