Classic Movie History Blogathon: Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era, An Introduction
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows -“Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Bob Dylan
Scene from “M*A*S*H”, a Vietnam movie in all but name.
Along with being a successful screenwriter and novelist (the novel and movie versions of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride), William Goldman is probably best remembered as the man who, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, coined the phrase, “Nobody knows anything.” He was, of course, talking about the fact no one knows while thinking of, making, or releasing a movie whether it’s going to be a hit or not (also, nobody knows if it’s going to be any good or not). At best, he argued, it was an educated guess. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people who work both in the movie industry and the media from deciding there are certain “rules” about what kind of movie will be a hit or flop, or whether it will be any good or not. Among those rules, there’s quite a few when it comes to so-called “political” films. The most well-known, even today, is arguably Samuel Goldwyn’s dictum, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” (never mind that one of the most famous movies he produced, The Best Years of Our Lives, is sending a message about how veterans of WWII – and of any war in particular – have difficulty adjusting to life at home). There’s also the idea that political movies don’t make money, because they automatically alienate any of the audience that disagrees with whatever statement the movie is trying to make. Along those lines, there’s also the argument in an industry where profit is the most important thing, political movies will inevitably get watered down in the attempt to please everybody (or not offend anybody), the result being they please nobody. In addition, there are people who argue that movies (and art in general) is best at either not talking about politics, or, if they have to talk about politics, by doing so in an indirect or metaphorical way, either by using genre, or by using the past to comment on the present, or even a combination of the two (along the lines of using the past to comment on the present, there’s also the view that hindsight brings wisdom and understanding to movies, and movies about recent events suffer from not having that hindsight and wisdom). Finally – and this especially comes out when movies (or, again, any work of art) try to talk about the unspeakable horrors of something like the Holocaust – there are those who argue movies (and again, any work of art in general) automatically diminishes any major event it tries to depict.
To be fair, there’s some truth lying in a few of those “rules”. For one, many of the best films of the late 60’s/early 70’s dealt with the volatile times by going through genre, whether dealing with racism (Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes), Watergate (The Conversation), the influence of corporations (The Parallax View), and so on. Not only that, but many films of the time also used the past to comment on the present, especially with Westerns (Little Big Man) and war movies set during WWII (Catch-22, The Dirty Dozen, Slaughterhouse Five) or Korea (M*A*S*H) commenting on the Vietnam War, as well as some of the other turbulent issues of the time (as The Dirty Dozen and Little Big Man both took on racism). Also, plenty of movies that have put distance between us and the events of the past have been better for it, like Steven Soderbergh’s Che (a much better, and more honest, movie than the biopic made in the 60’s) and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos). For another, many movies that have attempted to put the statement before the art have been heavy-handed and not particularly memorable as movies, or they have compromised in their efforts not to offend anyone. Still, I tend to agree with Steven Soderbergh, who, in an interview on the Criterion version of Battle of Algiers – one of the greatest political movies ever made, and one which i’ll be covering in another post – pointed out at some point, saying, “Oh, political movies don’t make money/don’t work” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and just used not to make anything like that. Not only that, but I would argue to the “don’t send a message”/”art by definition diminishes any historical event” crowd that while art shouldn’t be restricted to doing any one particular thing, if it doesn’t at least partly touch on the world we live in today, than it isn’t worth anything.
John Wayne in “The Green Berets”.
The period in American film we think of as “the 70’s”, or Hollywood’s second Golden Age – which actually probably started in 1967-68, and only lasted until 1975 or so, until, so the argument goes, Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster (another argument I find rather simplistic, but that’s a topic for another blog post) – has been pretty well discussed in terms of the movies that chose to comment on the chaos of the real world of the time indirectly, either by doing it within a genre film or by using the past to comment on the future. But in selecting this period to write about (though I chose the era of 1968-72 for the purposes of this blogathon, I’m going outside of the parameters slightly; more like 1967-75), I became interested in looking at those few films that did try, however clumsily or confidently, to confront society’s ills of the time head-on. I did bend the rules in a few instances to talk about some particular films, but that was usually to talk about a film that doesn’t get mentioned much when talking about this time, or, if it does, not in the way that I try to look at it. Obviously, what was going on in America is important, not just because Hollywood was back then the biggest movie-producing country in the world, but also because the chaos that happened here and elsewhere around the world took off largely from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as other conflicts around the globe. While it’s true there were no Vietnam combat films to come out of Hollywood during the war (with the exception of The Green Berets, John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War film; and frankly, in my opinion, the less said about that one, the better), there were a few films that took on the protest against the war. This will not be a comprehensive overview, as some of these films are still unavailable in any form that I could find (though I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M, I’m still curious to see it, and am disappointed I couldn’t find it anywhere), and I was limited by time, but it will, I hope, shed some light on the films in this milieu that do work, as well as on the ones that didn’t (for the latter, I’ve already written about Zabriskie Point, so I won’t repeat myself). Also, a few films took a direct look at what was going on with politicians at the time, and I’ll explore those as well. Finally, the Vietnam War wasn’t the only issue tearing the country apart during the time. The civil rights movement was a big part of the 60’s, and the fallout of the promises made to African-Americans that were broken was also a big part of the era. Unfortunately, as badly as Hollywood lags behind these days when it comes to race, it was even worse back then, and so there were few, if any, features taking on the civil rights, or black power, movements of the time, though a few of the Vietnam protest films do touch on it somewhat, and I mention those.*
Jean Luc Godard.
While Hollywood was slow to look at the chasms tearing the country, and the world, apart, the rest of the world wasn’t, and Part 2 will be dealing with how other countries confronted the chaos of the time. Again, I was guided mainly by availability issues here. There’s quite a number of films from those who were considered major political filmmakers of the time that simply aren’t available, from such acclaimed filmmakers as Marco Bellochio (China is Near), Alain Tanner (Middle of the World), and Bo Widerberg (Adalen 31), among others. And that’s just among European filmmakers; anyone from Africa or Asia is ignored. I do try and have somewhat of a variety within Europe when I can, but mostly, I’m going to be concentrating on two of the most well-known – certainly, two of the most notorious – political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not only because of the quality of their films, but also because they worked in French, and next to the U.S., France had the biggest occurrence of unrest in the Western world during that time (May 1968). Finally, while feature films in the U.S. may have lagged behind the times, at least in dealing with the hot-button issues of the time directly, documentaries, then as in now, were a step ahead. I’ve seen several documentaries dealing with the Vietnam War made during U.S. involvement, and those will all get a look. Also, there are a few documentaries about major African-American leaders during the racial unrest of this period.
Along with the fact this is an incomplete overview due to both availability issues and time issues, frankly, there are a couple of other missing chapters I feel I must address. Firstly, you will notice the virtual absence of anything dealing with the feminist movement. This is because, for the most part, Hollywood ignored the feminist movement, mirroring not just the power structure in the U.S. at the time, but also many of the factions of the anti-war and the civil rights/black power movements of the time. Hollywood didn’t start making movies about women’s rights, or at least about dealing with women’s issues, until later in the decade. Most of the few that do so simply aren’t available. I do try to take a look at how the films dealing with the unrest of the time shortchanged women, but that will be it. Also, you will notice a distinct bias, not on Hollywood’s part – Hollywood, after all, as I said before, is primarily a business, and therefore primarily out to make money – but on mine. Admittedly, I’m dealing only with films that took a left-wing or radical point of view (which is in line with my political thinking most of the time), but that’s also because, again, with only a few exceptions (The Green Berets, which I mentioned above, and Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, which I will deal with in part 2), most of the films that explicitly, or implicitly, expressed a right-wing point of view were genre films (Dirty Harry is a cop film, Death Wish a vigilante film), and in addition, these are all well-known and have been written about; again, I was looking for films under the radar and not genre films (The Confession qualifies on both counts). Finally, I had hoped to be able to see The Boys in the Band – despite its mixed reputation and my negative feelings for the work of William Friedkin – to at least touch on the fact that while stereotypical portrayals of gays still abounded in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s in general, there were works that, for their time, did attempt to treat gays as humans instead of as just caricatures, but I was unable to see it in time. So again, this is far from a complete overview of the films that tried to deal directly with the chaos of the time during the Vietnam War period, but I do hope it’s enough of a cross-section to show, for good and bad, how Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, other countries, tried to come to terms with it.
*-I had planned on talking about how movies dealt with, or didn’t deal with, race relations before the recent events in Charleston, but of course that helped influence my decision. Also, I don’t address the genre of “blaxploitation” films because while of course they dealt with the anger that African-Americans had with white society, and, like almost any genre, it had its good and bad films, they weren’t explicitly political, and were more genre films in that respect.