"Vietnam War Movie", Adrian Cronauer, Apocalypse Now, Barry Levinson, censorship, dehumanization, Film, film review, Francis Ford Coppola, free speech, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Literature, My Lai, R. Lee Ermy, racism, Robert Downey Jr, Robin Williams, Stanley Kubrick, Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, The Seventies, The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien, Tropic Thunder
For the record I know several lesbians who don’t own or wear comfortable shoes. Despite this I’m still able to laugh at Adrian Cronauer‘s comments about “the protective dyke” because Robin Williams.
Adrian Cronauer: The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today. What is a protective dike? Is it a large woman that says “Don’t go near there! But Betty- Don’t go near there! Don’t go down by the river!”… No, we can’t say “dyke” on the air, we can’t even say “lesbian” anymore, it’s “women in comfortable shoes. Thank You.”
The “Vietnam War Movie” has become a trope in American society just like the “World War II movie” has similarly become one. The defining difference between these two films is ultimately the tone, and that doesn’t include “Holocaust” films because they possess their own genre to themselves. The “Vietnam War Movie” has become such a trope it garnered its own satire in the film Tropic Thunder, a movie that I’m still determining whether is racist or not. Robert Downey Jr. is white, but he’s playing his part in black-face, but it’s self-parodying black-face so that makes it okay, kind of, but even the characters in the film think it’s racist, and I’m getting off point again.
This semester my little sister is taking an entire class dedicated to the war in Vietnam and one of her assignments was to watch films about or set during the time period. She took a similar course last semester over Cold War Cinema, and it was during that class that I was able to re-watch a film I had only seen once when we had an HBO preview for a weekend and there weren’t any Skinemax movies on. Good Morning Vietnam was one of the options again this semester, alongside Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, but neither of those have Robin Williams, they only have soul crushing sadness and long bouts of paranoia interrupted by esoteric cinematic techniques and references to poetry. In fact these two films seem to have defined the “Vietnam War Movie” in their own right for if you follow their narrative arcs you begin to recognize a similar rhetoric model.
The Vietnam war in film is often a bloody chaotic mess that comes to become a symbolic statement about mankind’s internal corruption. Apocalypse Now is probably the most obvious example because the film has become the standard, albeit most surreal, example of what happened to Americans during the war, not to mention capturing perfectly the madness that was the war near the end. The film is a reimagined version of Joseph Conrad’s novel (I don’t believe in novellas) Heart of Darkness, and in its way it established most of the tropes and clichés of the genre. Look at the first line of the protagonist Willard played by then a young Martin Sheen:
Willard: [voiceover] Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon… Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.
Willard: When I was home after my first tour, it was worse.
[grabs at flying insect]
Willard: I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.
Later when he actually goes on his mission and meets Kurtz he has another soul searching soldier moment:
Willard: [voice-over] On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard; I was free, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in Nha Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he’d really gone? He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.
The protagonist narration model, or having the protagonist describe his life to the viewer while events are unfolding, is a typical war narrative strategy because it delivers the inner thoughts of the soldier thus giving the film a sense of drama. Before the reader thinks I’m hating I’m not. Haters gonna hate but I ain’t…did I really just type that? Full Metal Jacket, also considered one of the standard Vietnam War Films, followed this pattern principally through the character of Private Joker who offers the viewer moments like this:
Private Joker: [narrating] Graduation is only a few days away, and the recruits of Platoon 3092 are salty. They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear.
Private Joker witnesses numerous atrocities, often deflecting them with humor until he’s forced to take the life of a young woman who killed two of friends and begs him to kill her. Much like Francis Ford Coppola did in Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick tries to create a dark comedy out of the Vietnam War, showing how it either destroyed the weak and corrupted the strong, and all the while the Vietcong, the Communist army America was fighting at that time, becomes an “other” that American soldiers project their fears onto or else exploit.
Even prose isn’t completely spared from this trope because even novels about the Vietnam War eventually submits to this soul crushing darkness. Tim O’Brien, a great author who’s made a living off writing about the Vietnam War, sealed that impression on me forever when I read his “novel” The Things They Carried (It’s really just a collection of Short Stories, but the novel as an institution is like Gozer from Ghostbusters, it can be whatever it wants). In the chapter “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” a soldier named Mark Fossie manages to get his girl Mary Anne to come to Vietnam to live with him. She arrives a sweet child of the Military Industrial Complex, however over time the war begins to get to her and after takking up with a group of Green Berets the reader is lead into a tent, and virtually entered into hell:
The Place seemed to echo with a weird deep-wilderness sound—tribal music—bamboo flutes and drums and chimes. But what hit you first, Rat said, was the smell. Two kinds of smells. There was the topmost scent of joss sticks and incense, like the fumes of some exotic smokehouse, but beneath the smoke lay a deeper and much more powerful stench. Impossible to describe, Rat said. It paralyzed your lungs. Thick and numbing, like an animal’s den, a mix of blood and scorched hair and excrement and the sweet-sour odor of moldering flesh—the stink of the kill. But that wasn’t all. On a post at the rear of the hootch was a decayed head of a large black leopard; strips of yellow-brown skin dangled from the overhead rafters. And bones. Stacks of bones—all kinds. To one side, propped up against a wall, stood a poster in the neat black lettering: ASSEMBLE YOUR OWN GOOK! FREE SAMPLE KIT!! (109-10).
Mary Anne eventually emerges like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now with a monologue about the darkness in the land of Vietnam, and ingesting it, and how Mark doesn’t get it because he’s still part of that other world and it’s about here that horror eventually merges back into a kind of racism…oh my god I just got Robert Downey Jr’s character.
The problem with many of these “Vietnam War Movies” is that they perpetuate this idea of Orientalism, that Vietnam like much of Asia is a land of mystery and magic that white people can project their fears and fantasies onto and in the case of Vietnam, much like Europeans did to Africa, Americans projected their fears and got nice wet bite in the ass for it.
The movie Good Morning Vietnam seems to answer this, check it, and in fact give something back to the land that was missing, namely humanity. In the face of the abyss human beings tend to fall back either on insanity or humor, and absurdity tends to have far better results.
In walks Adrian Cronauer, an air-man flown in from Greece to do a morning radio program for the military. From the first lines
Adrian Cronauer: Goooooooooooooood morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test. This is rock and roll. Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ! Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. Oh, viva, Da Nang. Da Nang me, Da Nang me. Why don’t they get a rope and hang me? Hey, is it a little too early for being that loud? Hey, too late. It’s 0600 What’s the “0” stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early. Speaking of early, how about that Cro-Magnon, Marty Dreiwitz? Thank you, Marty, for “silky-smooth sound.” Make me sound like Peggy Lee. Freddy and the Dreamers! [Puts on a record slow] Wrong speed. We’ve got it on the wrong speed. For those of you recovering from a hangover, that’s gonna sound just right. Let’s put her right back down. Let’s try it a little faster, see if that picks it up a little bit. Those pilots are going, “I really like the music. I really like the music. I really like the music.” Oh, it’s still a bad song. Hey, wait a minute. Let’s try something. Let’s play this backwards and see if it gets any better. Freddy is a devil. Freddy is a devil. Picture a man going on a journey beyond sight and sound. He’s left Crete. He’s entered the demilitarized zone. All right. Hey, what is this “demilitarized zone”? What do they mean, “police action”? Sounds like a couple of cops in Brooklyn going, “You know, she looks pretty to me.” Hey, whatever it is, I like it because it gets you on your toes better than a strong cup of cappuccino. What is a demilitarized zone? Sounds like something out of The Wizard of Oz, Oh, no, don’t go in there. Oh-we-oh Ho Chi’Minh Oh, look, you’ve landed in Saigon. You’re among the little people now. We represent the ARVN Army The ARVN Army Oh, no! Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “Oh, I’ll get you, my pretty!” Oh, my God. It’s the wicked witch of the north. It’s Hanoi Hanna! “Now, little GI, you and your little ‘tune-ooh’ too!” “Oh, Adrian. Adrian. What are you doing, Adrian?” Oh, Hanna, you slut. You’ve been down on everything but the Titanic. Stop it right now. Hey, uh, hi. Can you help me? What’s your name? “My name’s Roosevelt E. Roosevelt.” Roosevelt, what town are you stationed in?. “I’m stationed in Poontang.” Well, thank you, Roosevelt. What’s the weather like out there? “It’s hot. Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest things is my shorts. I could cook things in it. A little crotch pot cooking.” Well, can you tell me what it feels like. “Fool, it’s hot! I told you again! Were you born on the sun? It’s damn hot! I saw – It’s so damn hot, I saw little guys, their orange robes burst into flames. It’s that hot! Do you know what I’m talking about.” What do you think it’s going to be like tonight? “It’s gonna be hot and wet! That’s nice if you’re with a lady, but it ain’t no good if you’re in the jungle.” Thank you, Roosevelt. Here’s a song coming your way right now. “Nowhere To Run To” by Martha and the Vandellas. Yes! Hey, you know what I mean! [Starts the music and removes his headphones looking at Ed] Too much?
Reading it isn’t the same as watching however and so there’s a link at the bottom if you’d like to see most of that lengthy passage. Robin Williams in his life was a force of nature in terms of his performance and most of the passage above, much like R. Lee Ermey’s lengthy opening monologue in Full Metal Jacket, was improvised on the spot. Barry Levinson, the director of the film, aware of William’s particular style, supposedly told Williams to just riff and wound up shooting somewhere in the vein of five hours of footage eventually going back later and selecting the “best parts.”
The film Good Morning Vietnam isn’t just a long Robin Williams monologue however for it follows the struggle of Adrian Cronauer to perform on the radio during the Vietnam war. While that may not at first sound complicated remember that he’s working for the military and so obviously there are jokes that can potentially lead you to disaster. In one scene in particular Cronauer is informed he must play tapes of then Vice President Nixon’s visit to the country. He does just that, however altered:
Richard Nixon: [Adrian has inserted his voice onto the press conference with Nixon] As I leave Vietnam today there will be no doubt in my mind that the Viet cong will be defeated. And this war will be won. It does involve as you have suggested give and take.
Adrian Cronauer: Well I really didn’t make that suggestion, sir, I’m sorry.
Lt. Steven Hauk: Why would Cronauer’s voice be on this tape?
Private Abersold: I don’t know, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: Mr Nixon, thank you for that concise political commentary, but I think I’d rather delve into a more personal for the men in the field. How would you describe your testicles?
Richard Nixon: [Hauk turns to the radio in horror] That they’re soft and they’re very shallow and they serve no purpose.
Adrian Cronauer: So what are you saying, sir?
Richard Nixon: They lack the physical strength.
Lt. Steven Hauk: Oh, my God. Please don’t do this to me.
Adrian Cronauer: How would you describe your sex life with your wife Pat?
Richard Nixon: It is unexciting sometimes.
Adrian Cronauer: Well, you can consider a sex change. There is an operation that can transform you into a female white dane or a very hell wung chihuaua. Mr. Nixon it is rumored that you have smoked marijuana. Are you planning to take some of the marijuana home back to the United States? How would you do that?
Richard Nixon: By plane. By helicopter and also by automobile.
This stunt doesn’t in fact lead to his termination but it does come close. The larger concern in the film is that as a radio host he is required to occasionally read off pieces of news. At the time the United States military carefully guarded what information was transported over the air waves. The practical reason was to make sure the Vietcong who could also hear the radio, didn’t learn of troop movements or successful terrorist actions thus giving further cause to their movement. The more complicated problem is that in this way the military is performing an active form of censorship, which Americans tend to look down upon. Cronauer’s struggle becomes an issue of free speech as news items are heavily censored and he’s left reporting on new bulletins like economic developments in Italy and LBJ’s highway beautification. When a bar he’s drinking at blows up he attempts to report it and is effectively stripped of his job leaving him almost broken:
Adrian Cronauer: I’m sayin’ I’m through, Ed. I’m tired of people tellin’ me what I can’t say. “This news isn’t official.” “That comment is too sarcastic.” I can’t even make fun of Richard Nixon and there’s a man who’s screaming out to be made fun of!
The film doesn’t just center on the idea of freedom of the press though because ultimately this is a “Vietnam War Movie” but unlike the previous examples the film attempts something that few others try to: make the Vietnamese characters human.
The reader might object, arguing that surely the other films give some kind of humanity to the Vietcong or at least the Vietnamese people, but the conflict is that really isn’t the case. In Apocalypse Now there are no interactions between Willard and average citizens, and many of the Vietcong are usually shadowed creatures shooting at Americans or dying. The film is surreal and leaves little room to understand their conflict, they’re simply there to be creatures of the dark forces Americans are fighting. In Full Metal Jacket this situation is improved by the prostitute and the sniper at the end of the film, but these characters serve only to reflect the experience of Americans rather than exist as fully fleshed out human beings. The “Vietnam War Movie” actively dehumanizes the Vietcong and the implication of this is that while American film makers are trying to show how corrupt the war was for us, they repeat the same incident of the Vietnam war.
Barry Levinson pursues a different approach in this film showing Cronauer’s interactions with characters like Jimmy Wah, a homosexual man who owns a bar that mainly serves American soldiers, Trinh, a young woman he falls for and tries to court, and her brother Tuan a young man who he comes to see as a good friend as he coaches a group of Vietnamese citizens in the English language. Levinson shows Vietnam as a country as well as a culture showing both the urban landscapes of Saigon as well as local villages, and this approach is liberating from the typical clichés that dominate the genre. Rather than turning the Vietnamese into stereotypes or pathos ridden cartoon characters, he turns them into real human beings existing in a country and a culture that is radically splintering both to internal corruptions as well as the influence of the United States. The war is not just an excuse to show forests burning and shit blowing up, rather it becomes an opportunity to see how people are being hurt.
At the end of the film Cronauer is informed that Tuan is a Vietcong terrorist and he confronts him:
Adrian Cronauer: [to Tuan hiding from him] I know about the bombing, Sparky. No wonder you hauled ass. You were my friend. I trusted you.
Adrian Cronauer: YOU HEAR ME?
Tuan: [hidden] You’re just a stupid guy. Now you have to go. You’re better off.
Adrian Cronauer: That’s not the fucking point! You understand me? I fought to get you into that bar! And then you blow the fucking place up! Listen… I gave you my
friendship… and my trust! And now they tell me that my best friend is the goddamn enemy!
Tuan: [in tears, showing himself] ENEMY? What is enemy? You claim our people miles from your home. We not the enemy! You the enemy!
Adrian Cronauer: [tersely] You used me to kill two people! Two people DIED in that fucking bar!
Tuan: Big fucking deal! My brother is dead. And my other brother, who be 29 years old, he dead! Shot by Americans! My neighbor, dead! His wife, dead. WHY? Because we’re not human to them!
Recently Netflix added The Seventies, a documentary series produced by CNN and Tom Hanks, which covers the cultural, political, and domestic history of the world, focusing primarily on the United States, during the 1970s. The most recent episodes I watched involve the prolific numbers of serial killers that appeared during that decade, but another tracked the Vietnam war. Near the end of the hour-long episode they covered the My Lai massacre, an event in which around 500 Vietnamese civilians were tortured, raped, and eventually killed by U.S. Soldiers who believed the villagers to be members of the Vietcong. The incident was a National scandal, fucking obviously, and is considered one of the most damning actions undertaken during the war, but as the historians, reporters, and newscasters narrated there was one comment that struck my ear: “Many of the soldiers didn’t see these people as people,they honestly looked on them as vermin.”
Dehumanization is the stuff of the “Vietnam War Movie” and that’s why Good Morning Vietnam is one of the few films in this genre I can continually return to and not just because of Robin Williams. The film tracks the war, and what a shit-for-shit show it was, but more importantly it tells the story of a man who recognizes Vietnam and its people, and rather than try and hide that, or censor it, he tried a better approach: make people laugh at it.
Adrian Cronauer: [impersonating an Intelligence Officer] We’ve realized that we’re having a very difficult time finding the enemy. It isn’t easy to find a Vietnamese man named “Charlie.” They’re all named Nguyen, or Tran, or…
Adrian Cronauer: [as himself] Well, how are you going about it?
Adrian Cronauer: [as Intel Officer] Well, we walk up to someone and say, ‘Are you the enemy? And, if they say yes, then we shoot them.”
Humor will always be a means of relieving the tension that arises from morbid absurdity, which there was certainly an abundance of in Vietnam, because recognizing how absurd something is makes it more difficult to take it too terribly seriously. It can also, when done right, get people to start talking.
I didn’t get the chance to include it in the bulk of the essay, but I’d be remiss (fancy-pants word for careless) if I didn’t quote one of my favorite lines from the movie
Lt. Steven Hauk: Sir, the man has got an irreverent tendency. He did a very off-color parody of former VP Nixon.
General Taylor: I thought it was hilarious.
Lt. Steven Hauk: Respectfully, sir, the former VP is a good man and a decent man.
General Taylor: Bullshit! I know Nixon personally. He lugs a trainload of shit behind him that could fertilize the Sinai. Why, I wouldn’t buy an apple from the son of a bitch and I consider him a good, close, personal friend.
Here’s the link, hope you enjoy, then again it’s Robin Williams how can you not?