If you’re a college student in 2013, your most harrowing exposure to the turbulence of the 1960s might be footage from “Forrest Gump.”
The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, the Sexual Revolution and Cold War tensions all ratcheted public tension up to a high point, but Hollywood’s interest – across films like “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home” and “Platoon” – zones in on the Vietnam War as an access point for the decade. These critically-lauded pieces examine the tensions of war both in the field of combat and the trauma of reassimilation for soldiers.
By contrast, movies which center around Americans in combat in the 21st century have been met with tepid audience receptions and tend to focus on espionage or politics, as opposed to the experience of the solider in the field.
It’s an idea some critics are ascribing to the fundamental difference in the impact of the wars on the average American citizen in the audience.
“(The Global War on Terror) is a subculture war – the fighting is being done by Americans from small rural communities who are largely invisible, unlike the middle-class college students who were vulnerable to the draft during Vietnam,” wrote Indy Week’s David Fellerath in an article titled “Why are Iraq War movies tanking?”
Hollywood and the military industrial complex have a long, conflicted history together. There are a few widely-accepted World War I films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” but the war ended well before Hollywood’s prime.
World War II is considered by some critics as the “golden age” of war films in Hollywood, both because of the sheer quantity of films and their reflection of American heroism and patriotism. Michael Ventre of MSNBC called the second World War “arguably … the richest source of cinematic material in history.”
Aside from standouts, like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Three Kings,” The Korean War and the first conflict in the Gulf both have negligible Hollywood histories.
By far, the most complex and nuanced conflict in the eyes of Hollywood is the United States’ tumultuous 20-year stay in Southeast Asia, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor Alexander Vazansky.
“Vietnam movies display a much greater ambivalence toward the war and the conflict,” he said. “They reflect the fact that Vietnam was a painful experience.”
In Vazansky’s thinking, Hollywood was, perhaps, so entranced with that conflict because the American public was and still is in such a debate over it.
“It’s still somewhat of a controversial issue,” he said. “The outcome is still debated. Was it a lost war? A stalemate? If you believe it didn’t go well, was it media coverage, was it lost at home? Was the wrong kind of strategy used? There are still many questions surrounding this (war).”
The uncertainty surrounding Vietnam is shown in some of the most essential films of the era, according to Vazansky.
Oscar-winner, “The Deer Hunter,” is a more than three-hour investigation into the psychological toll the war had on American soldiers. It was released in 1978, and was the first high-profile film to delve into the war since 1968’s “The Green Berets.”
That was a rare pro-war effort film, largely thanks to the presence of conservative icon John Wayne, who Roger Ebert noted boiled in the conflict down to a game of “cowboys and Indians.” “Born on the Fourth of July,” Oliver Stone’s second of three Vietnam-focused films, deals with a veteran (Tom Cruise) who is forced to readjust to life back at home in a wheelchair.
Conversely, few of Hollywood’s ventures into exploring the War on Terror have dealt with these themes of isolation and loneliness with which Vietnam films are often preoccupied.
“Stop-Loss” and 2009 Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” are exceptions. The latter was cited by sophomore film studies major Jack Forey as one of the most popular to deal with Iraq War. With its focus on intense set pieces and gripping action, Forey noted that “The Hurt Locker” is aggressively individualistic by comparison to its Vietnam-era forbearers.
“(It) focused on one man’s drive to fight an enemy, but on the other hand this drive was motivated by selfish thrill-seeking and not solidarity toward his country and his comrades resent him for it,” he said.
Critically-speaking, the most successful films in dealing with The War on Terror have been documentaries, according to a Metacritic piece which compiled reviews of recent movies, and found four of the six highest-reviewed were non-fiction.
“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Restrepo,” “No End In Sight” and “The War Tapes” have all garnered more praise than any recent film not named “The Hurt Locker.”
And in terms of box office, it’s been no easy battle for 21st century war films either. According to a 2011 report from Academia.edu, the only war film to top $50 million at the box office between 2006 and 2009 was “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which starred Tom Hanks and focused on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “The Hurt Locker” pulled in only $12 million, despite receiving nearly unanimous praise from critics.
Most of the films that performed poorly in the United States have done much better overseas, which suggests to Forey that Americans simply don’t want to be reminded of the war when they go to the movies; they just want to be entertained.
“With the nature of media we have these days, people are so saturated with images of the war that they don’t want to go and pay to see more of it,” he said.
By comparison to the pallid box office numbers for cinema on Middle Eastern conflict, popular Vietnam-focused films raked it in. “First Blood,” delivered more than $47 million while its inanely titled sequel “Rambo: First Blood Part II” cashed in for more than $150 million, inflation notwithstanding. “The Deer Hunter” won Best Picture in 1978, but unlike “The Hurt Locker,” audiences still flocked to it, as it made nearly $50 mllion. 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” garnered more than $80 mllion in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
To the extent that American wallets speak louder than American mouths, the U.S. moviegoer would prefer to remain off the frontlines of the Middle Eastern battlefields and out of the helmet of the contemporary American soldier.
on twitter @dnartsdesk