Ever think you would get a history lesson from Rambo? Clues to our nation’s history emerge from the unlikeliest of places, and in recent decades, historians have come to look to films for insight into the social, cultural, and political realities of the past.

Cinema is among the most powerful vehicles for expressing ideological or sociopolitical commentary, and a well-made film can have a visceral and long-lasting resonance on its viewers, shaping opinions in a forceful way. D.W. Griffith, the director of one of Hollywood’s first epic historical films—Birth of a Nation (1915)—once predicted that movies, as “the newest and most powerful form of dramatic expression” would eventually be the source of most people’s historical knowledge. After viewing Griffith’s epic, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked that the film was like “writing history with lightning.” For better or worse, many people’s perceptions of historical events and periods are shaped by the movies they watch, and society’s view of the past and present can be powerfully affected by film.

Historical films—whether their subject matter is ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, or World War II—can be an especially fruitful area of study for historians, not only for information on the eras depicted but for clues into the era in which they were produced. This historical interpretation of films pays particular attention to “presentism,” defined as using a depiction of the past to comment on the present. One of the most oft-cited examples of cinematic presentism is Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. When Hollywood was suspected of straying from the official line during the Cold War, actors, directors, and screenwriters were among the primary targets of the communist witch hunt led by the House of Un-American Activities Committees and, separately, by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted from working in Hollywood because of suspected communist affiliations, wrote Spartacus, the story of a slave uprising in ancient Rome. If the employment of Trumbo wasn’t enough to protest the communist witch hunt of the day, the climactic scene of the movie presents dozens of slaves claiming to be Spartacus (the famous “I am Spartacus” line) was an expression of solidarity with their rebellious leader. Viewers at the time and historians since have interpreted the scene as a criticism of McCarthyism and a plea for solidarity against persecution.

Such presentism is also apparent in the dozens of films made about the Vietnam War (1959-1975). Though few filmmakers touched on the conflict during the war itself, a slew of films commenting on Vietnam appeared in the late 1970s and 1980s, all arguably advancing political and ideological agendas relevant to their present. As film studies scholar and former American studies professor at the University of Ulster Michael Klein has written, Hollywood adopted Vietnam as “a setting within which ideological constructs are explored and contested.”  Unlike the Hollywood Western or World War II film, which often followed set tropes of heroes, sunsets, celebrations of brotherhood and uncomplicated plots of good versus evil, the cinematic treatment of Vietnam—perhaps the most traumatic and contested historical memory in the recent American story—has been a much more complex, diverse and anxiety-ridden endeavor. A look at the history of the production of and reception to Vietnam films reveals how the nation processed a military trauma.

Napalm Abroad, Tear Gas at Home: The History Behind the Movies

The roots of the Vietnam War lie in World War II, when Japan occupied the small southeastern country as part of an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion, displacing the colonial French authority that had ruled the region since the late nineteenth century. A communist national independence movement called the Viet Minh, led by Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, challenged Japanese occupation. After Japan admitted defeat at the end of World War II in 1945 and France reoccupied the region, the Viet Minh continued its campaign against French colonialists, capturing the city of Hanoi and declaring Vietnam an independent country. The French, refusing to recognize independence, fought against Ho Chi Minh’s forces until 1954, when the warring parties agreed to a peace settlement dividing the country into two: a communist North Vietnam under the rule of Ho Chi Minh, and a South Vietnam led by a French-backed emperor.

The U.S., which had supported French forces financially and through very limited covert military assistance, worried that all of Vietnam would fall under communist rule, a turn of events which under the “domino theory”—a concept first advanced by President Dwight Eisenhower—which posited that surrounding countries would follow Vietnam’s lead by falling to communism and Soviet influence. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy sent military “advisors” to South Vietnam; the conflict continued to escalate over the next few years as subsequent presidents sent more and more forces into the country. Unused to guerilla tactics, American troops struggled to gain leverage over communist forces who were not easily identifiable, and at times hid among the very villagers the U.S. was supposedly liberating. The result was a confused, chaotic war marked by transient victories and ever-rising body counts. Throughout the war, 2.6 million American forces served in Vietnam, of which 58,000 were killed and more than 300,000 were wounded. As the war escalated, a large and visible antiwar movement developed in the U.S. as public opinion divided bitterly over the conflict.

The Vietnam War was at that time the longest military conflict in U.S. history and America’s defeat came as a shock to national pride. The most powerful military in the world had lost to an agrarian population with less advanced technology and fewer numbers. Incidents such as the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre shattered the myth that American troops were capable of upholding superior standards of dignity and humanitarianism during wartime. Many antiwar Americans lost faith in their political leaders, while those who had supported the war accused peace protestors of undermining the war effort. More than anything, the idea that the United States was the strongest superpower was now in doubt. As Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger said years after the war, “The United States has lost its preeminence…. Its power which earlier was indisputable, is now very much disputable.”

Too Hot to Touch: Vietnam Films (Or Lack of) During Wartime

During the war itself, Hollywood largely shied away from producing films that directly addressed Vietnam. Films preceding and during the first years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (like China Gate in 1957), framed the conflict as an opportunity for American underdogs to defeat evil communists. In 1965, the Pentagon produced Why Vietnam?, which, in the tradition of similar film series produced during World War II, explained the conflict to the public through fairly simplistic pro-military propaganda. Why Vietnam? framed the war as a defensive one, protecting U.S. interests and liberating oppressed Vietnamese from aggressive communists.

While Why Vietnam? attempted to package the war in patriotism, more critical documentary makers released films like Inside North Vietnam (1968) and Hearts and Minds (1974), which portrayed the human cost of the war.

Furthermore, for the first time in history, television viewers could see snippets of the war on the evening news, alongside images of massive peace protests which grew to include hundreds of thousands of protestors as the war escalated throughout the 1960s.

The only fictional film released during the war was John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), a film loosely based on a bestselling novel of the same title. Produced with financial assistance from the Pentagon, the film achieved commercial success but was recognized by more skeptical viewers as blatant pro-war propaganda which celebrated U.S. soldiers as uncomplicated heroes making sacrifices for an unquestionably noble cause.

The Green Berets liberally borrowed from Hollywood Westerns (complete with Indian-like war whoops from the Vietnamese). As American film scholars Albert Auster and Leonard Quart have written, the film “essentially had John Wayne transform Vietnam into a pop-patriotic, right-wing version of cowboys and Indians.”  Green Berets also borrowed heavily from the cinematographic tropes of World War II films, applying them to a conflict that was arguably far more morally ambiguous and complex. During World War II, the U.S. government had enlisted Hollywood in the war effort, and movie studios cranked out films portraying American soldiers as brave and willing footmen in a relatively uncomplicated battle against good and evil and freedom and fascism. But the well-recognized and comfortable plots and characters of the World War II film seemed no longer to apply.

The divisiveness and occasional absurdity of Vietnam called for a more complex cinematic treatment. It was fitting that two World War II films released during the Vietnam War—Catch 22 (based on Joseph Heller’s darkly satirical novel of the same name) and Slaughterhouse 5 (based on Kurt Vonnegut’s similarly dark science fiction work)—viewed the conflict through a far more cynical and absurdist lens than had previous cinematic treatments of World War II.

Long-Awaited: Vietnam Films After the War

The public would have to wait several years after the end of the war before Hollywood attempted more nuanced cinematic appraisals of Vietnam. In the interim, movies often touched on the conflict tangentially through the often-portrayed character of the “Vietnam veteran.” As University of Massachusetts Boston film studies Professor Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, a former media coordinator at the William Joiner Center, have written, “[W]hen the commercial film industry largely avoided direct representations of the Vietnam War, the image of the veteran became the site where America’s ambivalent feelings toward the conflict were made manifest.”

Vietnam veterans failed to receive the celebration, parades, and respect veterans of previous conflicts returned home to, and at times even faced contempt and violence from factions of society that viewed the war as nothing less than a bloody exercise in imperialism. On top of a lukewarm homecoming, the depiction of Vietnam veterans in films like The Taxi Driver (1976) or Rolling Thunder (1977) often portrayed them as disillusioned, socially marginalized, sometimes insane and criminal, hardened men.

Writer Michael Lee Lanning, himself a Vietnam veteran, has written that in many films, “[T]he black hat of the movie bad man has been replaced by the field jacket of the Vietnam vet. ‘Villain,’ ‘loser,’ and ‘Vietnam veteran’ are synonymous to the Hollywood film industry.”

By the end of the 1970s, with the protective buffer of a few years passed since the war, Hollywood and the American public were ready to tackle Vietnam through film armed with, in the words of University of North Dakota English Professor Michael Anderegg, “the authority of hindsight.” The public, according to Anderegg, now expected filmmakers to comment seriously on the war. Vietnam films in this era “were received not simply as movies but as important cultural events, as intellectually respectable statements.”

Even more than well-thought reflections on the war, the public wanted a cinematic catharsis, a visual mythology of Vietnam that could make the war understandable and personally accessible. Even Francis Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, searching for financial aid from the Defense Department to make his epic film, said the cinematic treatment could assist Americans in putting “Vietnam behind us, which we must do so we can go to a positive future.”

The films of this era drew on stock images of the war—pictures of Huey helicopters and jungles that would be immediately recognized by viewers who had followed the conflict on the evening news—and strove toward realism. Yet film, though among the potentially most viscerally powerful conveyors of the history, often fails to explain the larger, impersonal contexts of an event, in this case, the economic, political, and ideological changes which shaped U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Instead, highly-anticipated Vietnam films like Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) personalized Vietnam, following one or a few’ characters personal journeys in and after Vietnam.

According to film critic and historian Frank Tomasulo, Vietnam films after the War “tended to depoliticize the struggle, turning it into a test of manhood, a rite of passage, or a personal trial,” avoiding “overt commentary on the moral and political questions of the war itself.”  Apocalypse Now depicted the absurdity of war through characters like Officer Kilgore, who bombs a hamlet so that his soldiers can surf. By flooding Apocaplyse Now with ample literary allusions (most notably to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), director Francis Ford Coppola shaped the film more around the philosophical battle between good and evil within every man than the war itself, universalizing Vietnam into an existential statement.

In perhaps another consequence of “personalizing” Vietnam, films like Apocalypse Now or Deerhunter have also been accused of ethnocentrism, failing to depict the experience, point of view or ideology of the Vietnamese except in vague orientalist stereotypes or as foils for the Western values of the cinematic American heroes. More than one critic has noted the similarity between Vietnam films’ portrayal of the Vietnamese and Westerns’ depiction of Indians or World War II film portrayal of the Japanese enemy. The viewer learns little of Vietnam’s history or society, a cultural myopia that some have argued mirrors the narrow-mindedness that drove the U.S. into the war. The depiction of the Vietnamese would gain little depth in the Vietnam films of the 1980s.

“Do We Get to Win This Time?”: Rambo, Reagan and an Evolving Legacy of Vietnam 

In the 1980s, a new breed of Vietnam film emerged, one which historians and film scholars have intimately associated with the conservatism, militarism and military interventionist rhetoric of the Ronald Reagan presidency (1981-1989). Under Reagan, who once referred to Vietnam as a “noble crusade,” the Cold War escalated as the U.S. pursued an aggressive military buildup and more defiantly denounced the Soviet Union. The U.S. military again intervened in developing countries in the regions of Central America and the Middle East under the guise of liberating territories from communism.

Many historians and film critics have interpreted films of this era—including Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action—as reinterpreting Vietnam conservatively, idealizing militarism and promoting an interventionist policy in a way that would reshape public opinion. Michael Klein has described these films as “permeated with macho-warrior and racist ideology, reaffirming a neo-Cold War perspective of the world and depicting radical and liberal-minded people as weak or deviant.” Even Reagan himself, after viewing Rambo, commented, “Now I know what to do the next time this happens.”

Films like Rambo and Missing in Action are, unlike the sober meditations on war of predecessors Deer Hunter or Coming Home, escapist, fast-moving, and dependent on action. Both Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action center on the idea that American POW’s were still left behind in Vietnam and could only be rescued by renegade super warriors. As many scholars have since pointed out, not only does such a conceit create a plot where an American has a second chance to “win” the war, but it reverses the actual circumstances of the war by portraying the American soldier as the underdog, as the guerrilla warrior against a larger, better-equipped Vietnamese army.

Note the presentism in film series like Rambo. Fitting with the conservative, patriotic (and some would say jingoistic) rhetoric of the Reaganite resurgence of conservatism, such films suggest that America had the will and might to win the war, if not held back by government bureaucrats or weak-willed liberals. Or, as film scholar and former marine Rick Berg has written, “The war’s remains have been resurrected and, like Frankenstein’s monster, given new life.”  In these films, the Vietnam veteran has been reshaped as a pro-war conservative killing machine hero, a presentation some veterans resented and protested by demonstrating outside theaters showing Rambo and selling miniature body bags outside stores hawking Rambo dolls.

The one major caveat to this was Robin William’s 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam which integrated comedy into the portrayal of Vietnam.

How to Read a Movie as a Historical Text

But do Rambo and other films sell an ideology, or are they just a couple of hours of entertainment put together by a movie studio trying to turn a profit? How can film critics, historians, or the average viewer tell what a film is trying to say? Being able to recognize the tools filmmakers use to depict a point of view in a film is a valuable skill for any historian. There are several methods of cinematic analysis, including authorial intent, reception analysis, and content analysis.

The phrase “authorial intent,” borrowed from literary theory, refers to what the creator of a work of art meant to convey with his or her creation. In the case of films, discerning authorial intent can be very complex given the number of people involved in the production process. At any given point, the end product can be shaped by the screenwriter, producer, director, cinematographer, sound engineer, actor, or even the prop and costume designers. Even documentaries, which at first glance may seem to be the most truthful depictions of what happened, are highly manipulated products. Through editing and selective silencing, documentary makers can construe and manipulate their text as much as makers of fiction films. The historian’s job is to research the production process and the point of view of those involved in the making of the film to discern clues to authorial intent.

And even all those creators do not have the last say in what audience members take away from a film—the audience does. As English professor Owen Gilman has explained, “each and every member of a receiving audience effectively ‘produces’ his or her own text” through the viewing process, “with the whole process being subject to an almost infinite array of possible nuances and shifts in signification.”  The reception to films touching on Vietnam, a particularly divisive moment in American history, can be particularly telling. Movies like The Deer Hunter inspired fervent fans and derisive critics, with some lauding the film as a majestic tribute to the American spirit, while others condemned it as racist, jingoistic, and even fascist. In part inspiring the passionate, heated, and diverse reactions to various Vietnam films was the fear that they would help shape the historical memory of the war for subsequent generations. When Rambo hit theaters, the Los Angeles Times worried that the film would “double as a history text” for viewers too young to have lived through the actual war.  By wading through film reviews, newspaper articles, and box office numbers, historians can gauge the public’s response to various films and through that response perhaps gain insight to the social and political leanings of the time.

The third, and perhaps most rich, method of analyzing historical films is content analysis or deconstructing the visual text of the film. Filmmakers have a variety of tools they can use to construct a film and affect audience reactions to what’s on screen, including but not limited to music, visual settings, character transformation, the use of props and symbols, selective casting and editing techniques (how the movie jumps from shot to shot). Learning to recognize how and why those tools are employed can give you a more informed interpretation of the movie’s “text.”

The Continuing Cinematic Legacy of Vietnam

Film has become uniquely important to the legacy of Vietnam in America’s historical memory. Many critics and viewers tried to pinpoint the ideology of each film, identifying it as liberal or conservative at the time of its release. But films from Stanley Kubrick’s antimilitarist Full Metal Jacket to the allegedly pro-war imagery of Rambo also have much in common in that they personalize Vietnam into the story of a few soldiers and fail to truly examine the ideological and historical contexts of the war. As a result, such films often convey ambiguous statements on war and man in general rather than providing any real answers on Vietnam. As Dittmar and Michaud have written, “In film after film, the means to recovery is withheld…. They strive to find something redeeming to say bout this war even as they echo the public’s myriad and often contradictory misgivings about it.”  Despite this, the release of cinematic treatments of Vietnam in the years after the war ended were highly anticipated and sensitively received cultural events, resurrecting the clash of ideologies that had shaped the war and antiwar movement.

The varying reception to those films has been a testament to the continuing divisiveness of Vietnam’s legacies and the variety of viewpoints and ideologies that have shaped contrasting memorials of the war. Today, historians and students can see in the cinematic text of the films themselves and the public’s varying reaction to those films a nation still shouldering some contrition, some regret and more than anything, still looking for catharsis.

  1. Michael Klein, “Historical Memory, Film, and the Vietnam Era,” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 22
  2. Michael Klein, “Historical Memory, Film, and the Vietnam Era,” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 22 
  3. Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, How the War Was Remembered. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1988, 76
  4. Auster, 76 
  5. David James, “Documenting the Vietnam War,” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 244-245
  6. (Auster, xiv))
  7. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, “America’s Vietnam War Films: Marching Toward Denial.” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 4
  8. Michael Lee Lanning, Vietnam at the Movies. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994, 83
  9. Michael Anderegg, “Hollywood and Vietnam: John Wayne and Jane Fonda as Discourse,” Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, 3.
  10. Judy Lee Kinney, “Gardens of Stone, Platoon and Hamburger Hill: Ritual and Remembrance,” Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, 157
  11. Frank Tomasulo, “The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as Prowar and Antiwar Film” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 147 
  12. Klein, 20
  13. Klein, 23
  14. Rick Berg, “Losing Vietnam: Covering the War in an Age of Technology.” From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 41 
  15. Jon Cowans, Lecture in Film and History, Rutgers University, Conklin Hall, Summer 2010
  16. Owen Gilman, “Vietnam, Chaos and the Dark Art of Improvisation.” Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, 242 
  17. Charles Champlin, “Rambo’s Right-Wing Revisions,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1985 
  18. Dittmar and Michaud, 6-7 
Crystal N. Galyean is a writer, editor, and historian who lives in New Jersey, where she makes sweet sweet bluegrass music with her band the Great Grassby. Her writing has appeared in various educational publications as well as the Village Voice, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and literary journals.