Hollywood has made a lot of films about the Vietnam War. There’s the stuff set directly in the war, like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Good Morning, Vietnam, and there’s stuff in which the Vietnam War is a persistent background detail that somehow defines life back in America, whether that be in Travis Buckles’ fucked-up psyche in Taxi Driver, the gut-punch epilogue to American Graffiti, or the senseless slaughter of youths in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Films that aren’t about the Vietnam War at all still seem to be, because it is always there. Vanity Fair says that in Midnight Cowboy, “the Vietnam War lurks at the edges of the frame, all the more insistent for being virtually absent.” You can even read the Vietnam War into Grease, if you wanted to: maybe the reason it lapses into complete fantasy at the very end, as Danny and Sandy fly off in a flying car, is because an ending grounded in the real world would be the one where Danny goes halfway around the world to die. Basically every movie from the 1970s is about the Vietnam War to some degree, and plenty more since.
They are, in aggregate, terrible. I don’t mean that they are bad films – all the ones I’ve mentioned would comfortably make it onto my list of my favourite films ever, except for Good Morning, Vietnam, which sucks – but, taken as a whole, the Hollywood-Vietnam-War-movie genre distorts our understanding of the war itself. “The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in the war, while multiple millions of Vietnamese lives were lost, possibly nearly 4 million. This is 20 to 60 times as many deaths, almost half of whom may have been civilians,” Nathan Robinson writes for Current Affairs, “Yet… the story of the Vietnam War is almost always told from the perspective of American soldiers. The Vietnamese are nameless fungible extras.”
Films aren’t history lessons, nor do I think they should be, but when we’re shown something the same way and from the same perspective over and over, it helps to mould how we understand that thing in real life. The Vietnam War has been depicted so often on screen that it’s easy to feel like we know all about it, when in reality, there has still been very little reckoning all these decades later with the sheer devastation the war caused. More than three times as many tons of bombs were dropped in south-east Asia during the Vietnam War as in all of World War II, and yet almost all films about the conflict – including strident anti-war polemics – place American experiences, and particularly American suffering, front and centre.
The Deer Hunter is the patron saint of this critique.