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November 10, 2005

Politics and the Post-Vietnam War Film

In the Times, A.O. Scott reflects on two recent Gulf War dramas, the Sam Mendes film, Jarhead, and the recently-cancelled Steven Bochco TV series, Over There. In both cases, Scott faults the filmmakers for assuming a position of political neutrality, arguing that the films would be stronger if the filmmakers were more willing to take a position on our involvement in the war. While I'd certainly welcome war films that were more explicitly opposed to the war in Iraq, I'm also interested in the degree to which these films are ambivalent not only about this particular war but also about the spectacle of war in general.

Scott asserts that Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford's powerful memoir of his service in the 1991 Gulf War, leans slightly towards the anti-war camp (I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't make that call) while Bochco's series seems more supportive of the war, which is probably a fair interpretation, but I'm particularly interested in Scott's description of the scene of the Marines watching war films, including, of course, Apocalypse Now, while waiting for the war to start (this scene also occurs in the book). Scott writes:

We see them watching "Apocalypse Now," singing along with the "Ride of the Valkyries" and whooping it up as helicopters race into battle over Vietnam. "There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar," Mr. Swofford writes, adding that for members of the military there is no such thing as an antiwar movie. "Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man," who sees only his own courage and power in the violent action, he says.

The war-movies-as-pornography concept proves that viewers can impose any attitude they like; it would be easy to impose political views, too. But that doesn't erase what the filmmakers built in; those Vietnam movies are antiwar just as "Jarhead" really is political.

Scott's insistence that these scenes in Apocalypse must be anti-war seems wrong to me and not merely from the point-of-view of interpretive pluralism where "viewers can impose any attitude they like." Whatever Coppola's intentions, the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene revels in the violence, with the high-angle shots from the helicopters transforming the Vietnamese people into mere objects, no matter how much we resist identifying with the camerawork. While the film might be seen as criticizing our complicity with these images of war, it does allow for that identification. This is not political neutrality but something closer to political ambivalence (a concept I'm borrowing from Frank Tomasulo).

More crucially, this ambivalence doesn't reside in the individual filmmakers but in the films themselves regardless of the filmmakers intentions. Coppola may well have intended the "Valkyries" scene to criticize our compliicty with images of war violence, but as the scene in Jarhead indicates, the scene can also work as "pornography for the military man."

I didn't intend to write such an extended response to Scott's article. I think he's right to challenge these claims of "political neutrality" and to note the degree to which Jarhead is a commentary on the current Gulf War. But to read Apocalypse Now (and many other Vietnam movies) as anti-war simplifies them considerably, especially given the current struggle to articulate a "pro-soldier, anti-war" position in many of these films.

Posted by chuck at November 10, 2005 10:49 AM

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I don't have much of an arugment, here, but this post makes me think about Three Kings, which I know you've written about before. I wonder if Russell's cynicism affords him some war movie (political) neutrality embedded in what seems to me a decidedly antiwar film.

The object lesson of the bullet montage comes to mind, as does the way the torture scene is framed. Both make their case against violence and resist application as either soldier's p*rnahgruphy (blacklist blocks that word...) or expressly political statmenent. At least I think...

Posted by: dave at November 10, 2005 1:50 PM

I was trying to think about how Three Kings would fit into this schema and I didn't have a clear answer, so I chose to ignore it....

But I'd argue that his cynicism might produce one of the most explicitly anti-war films of the post-Vietnam era. I'm tempted to read the bullet montage and the torture scene as political (anti-Iraq war) simply because they can't be used as soldier p*rnahgruphy. I haven't seen the film in a while, though, so my reading of the torture scene may be somewhat skewed.

Posted by: Chuck at November 10, 2005 8:38 PM

I watched Three Kings over the summer while I was working on an informal popular memory and Vietnam project. (I was looking at Gulf War I movies as well.) The movie is critical of the Bush administration's handling of Iraqi dissidents. Bush encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, and this drives much of the plot in the last 2/3s of the film. The film doesn't seem to question Western intervention in Kuwait. The film does show the human cost of war, but whether or not war solves problems doesn't seem to be at stake. Of course, the film is critical - or at least skeptical - of the mythologies surrounding members of the military and military procedures, so, in that sense, it could be read as anti-military.

Posted by: McChris at November 11, 2005 3:12 PM

That's a useful distinction to make. The film doesn't really address the war itself as much as it does Bush's call for Iraqis to rise up against Hussein.

I probably need to see the film again, though, before I make any more claims about it....

Posted by: Chuck at November 11, 2005 3:31 PM

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