Hunting a buck in Vietnam
Lots of my friends have a soft spot for John Wayne's The Green Beret, and so have I. Wayne was a man of uncritical patriotism and not, to put it mildly, much of a student of south-east Asian affairs. His years in the Hollywood saddle seem, understandably, to have shaped his view that Vietnam was a simple moral issue needlessly muddled by unmanly liberals — a rice-paddy Western, in fact, with real monsoons and mosquitos. The result was a true, sustained classic of kitsch, surely the silliest war film ever made.
Wayne's hero, a Special Forces colonel played by himself, feels that the war is not getting the support it should back home. The trouble is personified by a visiting journalist who arrives racked by liberal doubt, a victim of the propaganda of George McGovern and 'Jane Fonda. After appropriate adventures the newsman sees the truth, namely that the enemy are bad guys who fight dirty by attacking at night, wearing black pyjamas'. He goes back, a believer, to spread the word, while Wayne fights on.
Of war and the pity of war Wayne seems to have known nothing, nor even suspected there was anything to know (he once bad lunch in the Marines' chow hall in Honolulu). The real subject of his film is the lost world of American innocence, where right prevails in the last reel, bullets don't hurt, and Vietcong officers arrive at the front in chauffeur-driven Citroens. Wayne was doing his best to make a political point, but one already overtaken by events — if The Green Beret has any contact with reality at all, it relates in a tenuous way to the early Sixties, long before the years of the body count and search-and-destroy, the shadowy time of unpublicised (and dismally unsuccessful) 'special war' about which the folks back home knew next to nothing, and cared less.
My next tour of the movies' Vietnam was The Deer Hunter. Like everyone else. I was lured into laying down my 2,800 yen (or 0.60 — it is playing to packed houses in Tokyo as everywhere) to see the Vietcong Play Russian roulette with their American captives, which demonstrates that a world-wide publicity barrage can open the stubbornest wallet. Already. I thought, we've come a long, perplexing way from John Wayne, but at least some of the steps can be reconstructed.
The Deer Hunter has been running nearly a year in London already. but, for the benefit of some hypothetical hermit who hasn't seen it, the film traces the fortunes of a friendly group of Russian-descended Americans who work in a cheerfully grotty steel town in Pennsylvania, drink beer and chase tail in the evenings, and over the weekends drink beer and blaze away at wild animals in the mountains. These are all recognisable American pastimes — they say that the only way to survive a walk in the woods of Maine in the autumn is to wear a pair of horns on your head — and the director, Michael Cimino, convincingly claims that he lived near such a community in his youth and based this part of his film on personal experience.
However, like Wayne's, the basic idea of The Deer Hunter seems to have come from a book. James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer (1841) is one of the American classics which no high school student of Am. Lit. can avoid. The hero, Natty Burrippo, brought up in the woods of Upper New York, hunts strictly for the pot, but so successfully that his friends award him the nickname Dein-slayer. (They mean it as a compliment, for Natty's world is as innocent of wildlife lobbyists as it is of Marxist revolutionaries.) But life, with its relentless paradoxes is beckoning. liarkee, Master Deerslayer' says his candid friend Hurry Harry, 'you have had so much luck among the game as to have gotten a title, it would seem, but did you ever hit anything human or intelligible? Did you ever pull trigger on an inimy that was capable of pulling one upon you?'
`To own the truth, I never did,' answered Deerslayer, 'seeing that a fitting occasion never offered. The Delawares have been peaceable since my sojourn with 'em, and I hold it to be unlawful to take the life of man except in open and generous warfare.'
If Natty had replied that, on the whole, it was easier to stick to deer, American life and literature might have taken a different course. But he cannot refuse the challenge to his manhood, goes off to fight the Iroquois, suffers and survives devilish tortures at their hands, and emerges a wiser and manlier American. He is careful, throughout, to distinguish good and had Indians: 'Mingo (Iroquois) is cruel and loves scalp for blood— Delaware loves him for honour.'
The same test — and, considering the title, it can hardly be a coincidence —comes to the group of friends of The Deer Hunter. One of them is playing Chopin in a bar, indicating that he is more than a beer-sodden follower of blood sports, when the thwack of helicopters breaks into the soundtrack and we are in Vietnam. No good Indians here, no open and generous warfare. Napalm incinerates villages, Vietcong writhe in winding sheets of flame, pigs squabble over human flesh. A Vietcong drops a grenade into a bunker crammed with his compatriots, and we scarcely have time to register that three of the boozy steelworkers, Mike. Nick and Steve have enlisted in the Green Berets (here we go again) before they are being held prisoners of the Vietcong in a ratinfested, partly submerged bamboo cage, and are being forced, one by one, to play Russian roulette while their captors gamble for high table stakes on the captives' slender chances of survival.
For the record I might as well add my testimony that this incident, taken literally, is absurd, ridiculous, impossible. Anyone needing further convincing is recommended to read the account of a real Green Beret, Major Raymond Schrump (Sunday Times 1 April, 1973) who survived five years of Vietcong captivity to report harsh treatment, incessant American bombing, poor food and medicine (but not much worse than theirs), lectures on Marxism and Vietnamese history and relentless psychological pressure to make pro-Vietcong statements (to which he eventually succumbed) but no roulette, or anything remotely resumbling it. It's the sort of thing one wouldn't forget, either.
Interviewed on the pint, Cimino has said that he intended the roulette game 'as a kind of symbol, but plenty of things like that happened. We taped 300 interviews.' In other words, a piece of dramatic machinery, like the skull in Hamlet, which no one would take for a reliable guide to eleventh-century Danish politics. This is a strained explanation, and a far more convincing one leaps out from the screen. The antecedents of the whole Vietnam section of the film are not literary, or intellectual, but visual. The first roulette player, a captive South Vietnamese colonel, has a pistol held to his head in a replica of the famous photograph of Gen eral Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner during the Tet offensive against Saigon, the 'best-known image of the war. All the others are there, too: helicopters evacuate the American embassy, TV reporters pontificate to camera, refugees plead frantically to escape. We are seeing, not Vietnam, but a night of television, any time in the late Sixties. Even the most absurd sequence of The Deer Hunter, the scene in which the surviving Green Beret Nick plays Russian roulette professionally to support his heroin habit, while fiendish Chinese gamble on the outcome in a haze of opium, falls neatly into this scheme: it's a clip from a late-night old movie, The Return of Fu Manchu, perhaps, or The Revenge of Charlie Chan. Only the dog-food commercials are needed to round out TV's version of reality.
Yet the film has some strengths. `Nikanor Chobotorevich?' asks a bumbling army doctor, when Nick is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. 'Isn't that a Russian name?' No' snaps Nick, 'it's an Am urrican name.' The passionate attachment of • American immigrants and their children to American institutions, the idea that if someone has crossed Uncle Sam, the other guy must be wrong, are all too real.
These feelings may even be distantly related to Vietnam. in the sense that they kept Americans jumping out of helicopters longer than the soldiers of many countries would have, in such a pointless war. Certainly the long opening sequence, a Russian Orthodox wedding in the Pennsylvania mining village, is the best part of the film, the only one with the ring of truth. But would a film about a steel town fill cinemas around the world? The savage redskin is out of fashion and the mindless, inexplicable violence of TV's Vietnam has arrived, it seems, as a profitable substitute.
Last week, in Paris. I brought my Vietnam education up to date with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Like the wai itself, the cost of these films is escalating wildly: The Green Beret was made for $4 million, The Deer Hunter cost its British back ers, EMI, $14 million, which they must havL recouped many times over by now. anc Apocalypse Now needs to take $28 millior to break even. The chances, I should judge are excellent, which is more than I can sa) about the film. Apocalypse Now, beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro of Last Tango in Paris, presents a Vietnam of nightmare, a bad dream which will go away when the alarm goes in the morning. Marlowe, the narrator of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, describes the plotline well: 'No relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams .
Apocalypse Now is, of course, Conrad's moral fable relocated in Vietnam. Why not shoot it in Africa? one might ask innocently, to which the money men would no doubt reply 'Africa's poison at the box office.' Reading Conrad, however, one can see how the transplant to Vietnam suggested itself, and a smashing good idea it must have seemed at the time.
Kurz, Conrad's ambiguous hero, goes to Leopold of the Belgians' squalid colony in the Congo as a liberal-minded journalist bent on exposing the brutal conditions there, and uplifting the natives. Gradually he sinks into megalomania, and becomes such a sadistic extorter of ivory himself that the mysterious 'home company' begin to worry about his methods, and Marlowe is engaged to steam up-river to Kurz's jungle outpost and bring him down out of harm's way. Conrad, of course, inclined to the Victorian belief that Europeans were civilised, while everyone else was a howling savage, but he still left it unclear whether Africa had corrupted Kurz, or whether the rot actually stemmed from Kurz's own shallow and woolly-minded optimism. The parallel with Vietnam must have been all too tempting: the Americans went to Vietnam with the best of intentions, and then were corrupted either by the natives, or by their own high-minded refusal to come to terms with the evil of the country.
From this point, the game is sly substitution. Kurz becomes Colonel Kurz, yet another Green Beret, whose jungle camp no longer responds to orders from the brass in Saigon, and whose 'methods' have strayed far from the US Army's manual of Field Regulations. The business of this Kurz, however, is not shipping ivory, but killing Cong, and the narrator, Captain Willard, is sent upriver by the 'home company' (the CIA, get it?) to 'terminate' Kurz 'with extreme prejudice.' Like Marlowe, Willard has an all-black crew, another nifty (and meaningless) parallel made possible by the equal opportunity policies of the US Navy, which many blacks might, in the circumstances, prefer to forgo.
Willard and his crew do a kind of psychedelic Pilgrim's Progress, charged every minute with portent and symbol. He attacks a Vietcong village in the company of a Colonel Kilgore who broadcasts the Ride of the Valkyries from his squadron of helicopters ('scares hell out of the Cong') before drenching them with napalm, after which the survivors of the assault company go surfing. Willard's crew go water-skiing through a Vietcong ambush, a bizarre exhibition of either sangfroid or dementia praecox. Just when the French audience were settling down to enjoy le slapstick Arnericain Willard suddenly stages an alltoo-realistic miniature My Lai, in which an innocent woman is gunned down because she reaches for, not a grenade, but a puppY, which is in turn quietly ditched as soon as his symbolic significance has faded. A show by Playboy bunnies, designed to cheer the troops, turns into a gang rape, while an illuminated bridge, supposedly under Viet cong attack, dissolves into a blur of coloured lights as Willard's crew (or perhaps the photographer, or even the man who processed the film) drops a tablet of acid. Man, it's a wild, wild war. Willard finally catches up with Kurz, who turns out to be Marlon Brando in black pyjamas with an immense poodle's ruff of fat around his neck. This Kurz presides over a jungle fortress surrounded by the heads of Vietcong mouldering on bamboo spikes. He croaks lines from T.S. Eliot and Conrad. but the cause of his mental derangeme.nt turns out to be another dubious atrocity story: after he inoculated some village children against polio, Kurz complains, the Vietcong came by and chopped off their arms. Unless we have yet another dramatic device here, this too strains credulity; what commander engaged in fighting guerrillas would not see this sadism as a sign that his opponents were losing their grip? These three films may reveal a lot about the people who made them, but they say nothing at all about what happened in Vietnam, let alone why. Better ones may well be made, for less money. I am not arguing that only people who have been there are qualified to understand war; from Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage to John Keegan's Face of Battle, some remarkable work has been produced by writers wh never heard a shot fired, and there s no apparent reason why film directors should not do the same. But then, books don't cost $28 million each to produce.