“Viet Nam, the way it really was”; The Depiction of the US Soldier through Film

Since its inception in 1895, the medium of film has always been a powerful tool to entertain. It allows an audience to immerse itself in a story; often generating feelings of joy, sadness or satisfaction. However, a less appreciated capability of film is its ability to inform. A closer analysis of films such as The Green Beret or Rambo: First Blood, are an unambiguous example of how movies can be a reflection of, or result from, contemporary attitudes to the US soldier when they were released. They indicate a trend of rejection of the war and its participants to, ultimately, an appreciation of the soldier as a figure to learn from.      

Patriotic America?

On June 19, 1968, John Wayne released The Green Beret to an American audience reeling from events such as the Tet offensive and Khe Sanh siege. Further compounded by images of the My Lai massacre, illustrating the massacre of innocent Vietnamese families at the hands of US soldiers, an emerging sense of disillusionment to the Vietnam war and those that fought in it was forming in a nation that once prided itself on its war triumphs.

anti-war protest

Anti-War Protests, New York City, April 27, 1968.

It was in this context that Wayne’s pro-war propaganda piece was released. While the soldier was perceived as an essential, selfless figure essential to eradicating the communist threat, this perception was inconsistent with this anti-war trend. Consequently, The Green Beret was not a means to reflect contemporary attitudes to the US troops, but rather, a result of  them. In fact, Wayne, writing to President Lyndon B. Johnson, expressed the movies motivation was to reaffirm to the American public a perception that the US soldiers should be valourised and to “inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of fellow Americans.”

green beret

The Green Beret (1968)

Time for the Apocalypse:

Though, after the withdrawal of the final US troops from Vietnam on March 29, 1973, the Hollywood war machine became idle. With the scars of the war fresh in public consciousness and the pride of the nation compromised, America strove to forget Vietnam. This cultural attitude was, perhaps, best summed up by the Vietnam soldiers lament: “Don’t mean nothing.”

Hollywood evaded any rendition of the Vietnam war until Francis Ford Coppola released his gory masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, on August 15, 1979. Coppola embraced the terrorising experiences soldiers were faced with, perhaps best evidenced by the sadistic Colonel Kurtz moaning “The horror, the horror” while laying in a pool of his own blood at the films conclusion.

apocalypse now

Apocalypse Now (1979).

Though, while recognising the atrocities, with some scenes reminiscent of the My Lai massacre, the film further reinforced the nations desire to forget the war and its participants. The integral storyline of the film is Sergeant Willard’s mission to kill the rouge Colonel Kurtz. Once Willard completes this objective, the audience can insinuate that the ‘real’ mission was accomplished, the crazy and sadistic soldiers have been accounted for, and America can remove this war from its memory; something they were desperately trying to do.

A Heroic Sacrifice?

Upon the release of Rambo: First Blood, perceptions of the US soldier in film had changed once again. Unlike the crazed and unhinged figure of times past, the soldier was a misunderstood, American hero. John Rambo became a figure to be remembered and embraced.

action figure

An action figure of John Rambo

Rambo’s portrayal coincided with a monumental shift in remembrance. President Reagan, during his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars parade in Chicago in 1980 held that the American public have “dishonoured the memory of fifty thousand young Americans who died in that cause”. As such, with his ongoing support for Vietnam veterans, a shift to memorialisation and valourisation ensued. Figures such as Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez were commemorated  through medals, soldiers were remembered through newly built memorials, and veterans were understood with vet centres opening all across the country.

As such, John Rambo was the quintessential Vietnam soldier of the time.

The Soldier with a Voice:

It was not until the release of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, that the soldier was reassessed and ‘Rambomania’ subsided. Stone reinforced the atrocities of war through intense battle scenes and portrayed the soldiers with a right to be heard. This is evidenced as the film’s narrator, Private Chris Taylor, says that the soldier has an obligation to “teach others what we know”.

Much like this representation, Vietnam Veterans were gaining a voice on the American home front. Stone himself was a Vietnam vet. Furthermore, this conception gained traction through political means. President Reagan said on Veterans Day in 1988, the soldier can offer a “lesson in living love.” This notion was further compounded by the fact William Westmoreland, former US Army Chief of Staff, addressed over 150,000 people at the National Salute to Vietnam Veterans in 1986.


welcome home parade

Veterans Welcome Home Parade – June 13, 1986

Given this, the soldier, as Oliver Stone hoped and the contemporary attitudes allowed, was finally given a chance to tell the story of “Viet Nam, the way it really was.”

Further Reading:

[1]     Anderegg, Michael, Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991)

[2]     Bates, Toby, The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011)

[3]     Beattie, Keith, The Scars that Bind (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998)

[4]     Devine, Jeremy M, Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999)


2 comments on ““Viet Nam, the way it really was”; The Depiction of the US Soldier through Film

  1. Hi Sean, thanks for your blog. It’s interesting how film is used to inform, reflect and change public opinion. It can also be used to re-write history, which I think is sometimes the case with war movies. I also wonder how the Vietnamese films of the war compare to Australian and American films. Different perspectives would be interesting.

  2. ryanbodycote2 says:

    Having also looked at the Vietnam War, but through an Australian mini-series, i found it very interesting to read about American films and their depiction of the U.S soldier, especially because i briefly looked at Rambo in my essay. The way you segmented your post into each film and its importance made it easy to gain an understanding of the way U.S soldiers have been memorialized in film. How much historical accuracy do you think these films have? Do you think that these films have to detract from historical accuracy enough to be able to develop an interesting storyline that people will be interested in, and do you think there are issues with these films becoming the historical truth to audiences who do not study the war further?

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