Vietnam War Movies Are More Depressing Than World War II Movies
I had always heard that R. Lee Ermey was discovered by Stanley Kubrick. (The [i]Full Metal Jacket[/i] comparisons are inevitable, and we'll go more in depth in a bit, but we'll start here.) He was a technical adviser for the first half, and Kubrick realized--as half the film industry seems to have agreed--that no one can play a drill instructor quite so well as he. That much is true, at least, and it's true that he is mostly remembered for it. However, before that, he had already made four movies--one a terrible-looking horror movie and three where he played a Vietnam-era Marine sergeant. This was the first. He was also in [i]Apocalypse Now[/i]. What's more, in this movie, he's actually an intelligent, thoughtful, well-developed character instead of just a total sadist. However, I've never thought Kubrick was very good at characterization anyway.
It is 1967. A group of young men are enlisting in the Marines, voluntarily or not. As we expect of this kind of movie, they first go through boot camp, getting their heads shaved and acquiring insulting nicknames and so forth. One of them, Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw), has enlisted as part of a lengthy plan that will eventually involved drug smuggling. Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) is leaving a pregnant girlfriend. There's a drafted hippie. And so forth. Your standard collection of late '60s young men. R. Lee Ermey is Sergeant Loyce, who is determined to combine the young men into a proper team. He believes that it is Washington who can save their lives. When they are sent to Vietnam, as of course they are, they are sent to an officer (I'm pretty sure Captain Collins, played by Scott Hylands) who believes that the real secret to defeating the Viet Cong is to learn soccer. He also cites statistics which claims prove that only two of their number will die during their tour. He proves sickeningly wrong on both counts.
The movie, one of the first Vietnam War movies made other than [i]The Green berets[/i]-style propaganda, posits that a major reason the US wasn't able to successfully defeat the North Vietnamese was that the South Vietnamese were too corrupt and uninterested in doing the necessary work. Washington is able to figure out the down side to heroin smuggling, but the South Vietnamese officials he and the others encounter never do. However, the Americans aren't necessarily better. We never know anything much about the North Vietnamese, either, because the characters we are watching never see them, not really. They are fighting against an invisible enemy, unreliable allies, and incompetent leadership all at once. One small group of Marines can't hope to overcome all that. No matter how well they fight, this is a war that cannot be won, and I think they all know that by the end. Certainly Washington knows, but he knew before they ever got there.
The movies about Vietnam which were made by people of an age to have actually fought there--though the director of today's film was in fact Canadian and therefore did not have to go--are almost never about positive experiences. The movies World War II veterans made were still under the illusion that there was such thing as glory, still convinced that they fought for a just cause. There have never been many movies about the Korean War; even [i]MASH[/i] was only set then and was really about Vietnam. And movies about Vietnam are frequently dark, grim affairs. Even if you believed in the cause, Vietnam was not exactly loaded with "this is what we're fighting for" moments. There were no concentration camps to liberate. Soldiers weren't wined and dined by grateful villagers after the invaders had been driven back. And of course, the Enemy looked just like the villagers and Not Like Us--not that there were no Asian-Americans fighting, but there weren't a heck of a lot.
The one film class I took was the History of the Twentieth Century Through Film. We watched [i]Rambo II[/i], of all things, to show the American reaction to the war long after it was over. However, for every orgy of patriotism--and explosions--there are at least two movies like this. [i]The Boys in Company C[/i], like the more famous [i]Apocalypse Now[/i] and [i]Full Metal Jacket[/i]--and [i]Platoon[/i], which we also saw in that class--is a movie ambivalent about itself. In some ways, the war made men out of Tyrone Washington and the others. On the other hand, it also destroyed them. We can't even be sure that it would have been good for the Vietnamese if we'd won. After all, it would have left men like Colonel Trang (Vic Diaz) in charge. Untold numbers of young men went into the jungle and fought and died, and all we really have to show for it is untold numbers of young men going into other jungles to film pretending to fight and die. Not even the best of the films were worth the price, and this one certainly isn't one of the best of the films.