4,000 US dead in Iraq: Marking a grim milestone

by Beacon Staff • March 26, 2008

Five years after coalition forces stormed and seized Baghdad, the conflict still lacks what Vietnam got with Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter--relevant war movies popular with audiences and critics alike.,With all the articles, books, songs and television programs dedicated to lambasting, praising and otherwise deconstructing the Iraq War, there is one medium that has seen audiences "missing in action": film.

Five years after coalition forces stormed and seized Baghdad, the conflict still lacks what Vietnam got with Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter--relevant war movies popular with audiences and critics alike.

That's not to say Hollywood isn't trying. Last year saw the release of In the Valley of Elah, Redacted and Rendition, all flops that have led many to wonder why movie-goers are choosing to be "conscientious objectors," as The Washington Times put it, and why critics have similarly been left unsatisfied.

Looking back at 1978, when the first two major Vietnam films were released, we see that they bitterly divided critics, filmmakers and audiences. They sparked a mild uproar by pitting liberals against conservatives in Hollywood, with controversy boiling over into the general public and eventually overshadowing the works themselves. So the question we should ask is not why they are failing, but why on Earth do we want them to succeed?

In the March issue of Vanity Fair, film historian Peter Biskind took us back to the late 1970s in his piece, "The Vietnam Oscars." In it, he described the making of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, the first two major Hollywood creations about the war, which had ended only a few years earlier.

The movies were similar in plot but they varied in tone and theme. Coming Home starred far-left activist Jane Fonda and was critical of the conflict, portraying the harrowing lives of wounded soldiers. The Deer Hunter was also about returning troops, but it emphasized the sense of blue-collar camaraderie and small-town bonds that can persevere even in the face of violence and strife.

The competition between the two films-at the box office and later at the Academy Awards, where both received multiple nominations-was not friendly.

While neither movie could rightly be described as pro-war, The Deer Hunter was viewed as fundamentally conservative and jingoistic, with some arguing that it downplayed American atrocities in Southeast Asia.

Others jeered Cimino's work for allegedly caricaturing the Vietnamese as savages, and also for its decidedly ahistorical depiction of Russian roulette prisoner-of-war scenes.

The reaction wasn't limited to the red carpet. A 1999 article in London's The Independent quoted a 1978 article reviewing a Deer Hunter screenings "In the lobby, there were fierce arguments over whether it was great, or a manipulation or politically dishonest."

One of the film's noisiest detractors was Jane Fonda. According to Biskind's article, she refused to shake Cimino's hand after The Deer Hunter bested Coming Home for Best Picture, and in subsequent interviews called the film racist.

Fonda was herself the subject of much scrutiny. Her reputation was still suffering from a 1972 visit to Hanoi, during which she appeared to sympathize with the North Vietnamese, earning her the nickname "Hanoi Jane." Many Americans were unable to separate the film from her activism. Three years after the conflict officially ended, its fallout was poisoning cinema culture across the country.

Observing the drama surrounding The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, it's clear that Americans should be careful when wishing for challenging anti-Iraq films.

While discourse concerning our current conflict remains heated, the fiercest debate seems to have passed. Most now agree that the war was a mistake and that we should leave in a gradual, responsible fashion; few except those on the political fringes think we must withdraw tomorrow or stay and fight indefinitely.

As it appears that America is at as much of a consensus as its necessarily divided electorate allows, we should be thankful that films like Brian De Palma's Redacted-which focuses on the rape and brutal killing of an Iraqi girl at the hands of U.S. soldiers-disappeared quickly.

Imagine if it had been nominated for an Academy Award. The film community-critics, artists and viewers alike-would be brought right back to March 2003 with its with-us-or-against-us, patriot or traitor climate.

Many are justifiably hoping for a film to come along about the Iraq war that is powerful and thought-provoking. But we shouldn't be so sure that we want to revisit the mindset that produced those films, or the bitter divisions they unearthed. The film world-and the American public-have seen that movie before.