From Villain to Hero: The Transformation of the Vietnam Veteran in American Cinema from 1976 to 1988

Introduction 

In recent years there has been growing interest amongst historians to investigate the past using film, part of the field’s increasing engagement with popular culture. Like all historical sources, film certainly has its’ limitations, and these have prevented the popular medium from gaining the recognition it deserves. However, this paper reveals the value of film in historical investigation by analyzing the cinematic depictions of Vietnam veterans from Travis Bickle to John Rambo. Narrowing the scope to three specific films, Taxi Driver (1976), Coming Home (1978), and First Blood (1982), the paper delves into the public perceptions that created the central characters of each film, thereby constructing a detailed narrative of the broader social and political attitudes towards the Vietnam War and its’ veterans.

 

Taxi Driver

Can there ever be a better starting point than Martin Scorsese’s cinematic masterpiece Taxi Driver.? Chosen for its’ iconic status and lasting legacy on the American cultural landscape, Taxi Driver provided American audiences with one of the most infamous and memorable film characters of the twentieth century; Travis Bickle. A deplorably violent, psychologically unstable, and socially withdrawn veteran, Travis Bickle has managed to achieve what only a handful of film character before or since have accomplished, the ability to both shock and captivate audiences almost forty years after the film’s original release.

It is fair to say that contemporary audiences are quick to forget the military history of Travis Bickle. Just see for yourself, ask someone who has seen the film to describe the Robert De Niro’s character and chances are they will fail to mention his status as a Vietnam veteran. Thus, you may be wondering why Taxi Driver is such a useful source for this historical investigation when the Scorsese merely implies link between Travis’ military past and his unrestrained actions. The answer lies in the release date of the critically acclaimed film. The year 1976 was immediately following America’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War, a military conflict that tore divisions within American society and remains a provocative subject even today. The public’s criticisms towards the controversial conflict spilled over to its’ veterans, as media outlets continually published content that instilled the notion of the veteran as a crazed and withdrawn individual. These overwhelming negative attitudes held by a significant portion of American society towards returning Vietnam veterans were manifested in Travis Bickle, and thus there was simply no need for Scorsese to labour over Travis’ veteran status.

 

Coming Home

It did not take long for Hollywood to abandon the tried and tested veteran model exemplified by Travis Bickle, as just two years after the release of Taxi Driver American audiences were introduced to Luke Martin in the well received motion picture Coming Home. Heralded for its attempt to provide audiences with a more realistic and accurate depiction of the numerous problems facing veterans, Coming Home was the first film to solely focus on the impact of the war on returning soldiers. This theme becomes clear as the central character, Luke Martin, is revealed as being confined to a wheelchair after becoming the victim of a spinal injury whilst serving in Vietnam. Unlike Travis Bickle, Luke Martin garners sympathy from the audience as he, with the aid of his love interest Sally Hyde, undertakes a profound emotional development, facing the demons of his experience in Vietnam. Coming Home explored new territory when contrasted to the preceding veteran films and was illustrative of the willingness of American society to confront the issue of Vietnam in a more open and rational manner.

 

The Rambo Series

In just four short years, Hollywood’s favoured Vietnam veteran evolved from Luke Martin, a disabled antiwar protester, to John Rambo, a masculine and valiant national hero. Rambo rocketed into the public’s consciousness in the 1982 smash hit First Blood, and followed on the film’s success with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). A clear shift away from the cinematic veterans of the previous eras, Rambo became the first veteran to be seen as a hero in the eyes of the American public. Using the military skills and tactics he acquired whilst serving his nation in Vietnam, Rambo mercilessly dispenses of the countless enemies he encounters whilst on a mission to save himself, his friend, or even his country. The success of Rambo with cinemagoers was virtually unprecedented and certainly unrivalled throughout the 1980’s, as the heroic veteran went on to become a cultural phenomenon. The rise of Rambo correlated with the ascendency of Ronald Reagan to the presidential office, a link that is comprehensively explored within the paper.

 

Conclusion

In the space of just over a decade the Vietnam veteran underwent a radical transformation within American cinema. This paper explores the veteran’s evolution, drawing a clear link with public attitudes of the period. In doing so, it is hoped that the reader gains a greater understanding of the relationship between film and history, an awareness that is increasingly useful as film becomes a prevalent source within the historical community.

 

Further Reading

Boggs, C. & Pollard, T. “The Imperial Warrior in Hollywood.” New Political Science 30 (2008): pp. 565-578.

 

Isaacs, Arnold. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Katzman, J. “From Outcast to Cliché: How Film Shaped, Warped, and Developed the Image of the Vietnam Veteran, 1967-1990.” Journal of American Culture 16 (1993): pp. 7-24.

 

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

 

McInerney, P. “Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam.” Film Quarterly 33 (1979): pp. 21-32.

 

Rosenstone, Robert. “History in Images/History in Words.” In The History on Film Reader, edited by Marnie Hughes-Warrington. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, pp. 30-41.

 

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2 comments on “From Villain to Hero: The Transformation of the Vietnam Veteran in American Cinema from 1976 to 1988

  1. I think this is an incredibly interesting topic and I would love to see how you further explored it in your essay. Having seen the majority of these films myself I think its quite valid to say that the average cinemagoer generally approaches films such as Taxi Driver and Rambo as a dose of violence and action rather than an insight into the psyche of the typical Vietnam War veteran. I think Rambo in particular is testament to this. I imagine the majority of people who enjoy the Rambo movies don’t pay any thought to how the message of the film is a reflection of history. I think the same certainly goes for Taxi Driver and Coming Home. A deeper knowledge of the links between film and history serve to further enrich the film itself and bring more depth to what is otherwise viewed by most as your typical action packed war movie. I never thought of this particular link myself, let alone at the time I watched these films so it certainly is a fascinating topic. Great job!

  2. soniakukreti says:

    Hi Samuel,

    You are absolutely, and definitely are right in showing the progression of attitudes towards the Vietnam veteran in America. What I found particularly interesting is the understanding of the nature of the Vietnam war and its correlating warfare tactics and strategies employed by the US military and how that has been shown in film. Like you said in Taxi driver, travis is very much shown as violent and crazed; but perhaps, would you agree, that because of the perception of Vietnam Veterans having been murderers and so far removed from the traditional idea of honourable killing, have shaped the cinematic depictions of these characters? By extension, I would say that by the time we reach 1986, there is a deeper understanding of the changed nature of warfare and what American soldiers had learnt/ respected Vietnam veterans for facing a faceless enemy.

    Either way, great work!

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