*Note: This clip contains violence and rough language
I have edited a compilation clip of excerpts and outtakes from a variety of popular culture Vietnam War films. I chose to explore these with a focus on the construction of the “Vietnamese enemy” by means of establishing a dichotomy between the Americans, “us”, and the Vietnamese, “them”. My aim is to reveal some of the mechanisms that build a discourse of power between the West over the East in these films, through repeating the language and images that establish a colonized “Vietnamese identity”. What is interesting to note about the war in Vietnam is the confusion that spun off from the United States troops having to distinguish between Vietnamese enemies, Vietnamese allies and plain civilians. In terms of Hollywood, this also poses an interesting challenge in the representation of “the bad guy”, because it is not simply down to race. So, who is “the enemy” in these films, and how is he depicted?
Frantz Fanon argues, “Every Colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” (Fanon, 19)
The war in Vietnam was an attempt by the United States to halt the spread of communism in South East Asia. In light of Fanon’s argument, the war also forced Western ideals upon the people of Vietnam, and those who resisted were seen as the enemy, or the threat to Western ideals. My compositional piece explores how language and image generate a racial “other” in the Vietnamese people, where their apparent “distance” from Western ideals can determine their status as enemy and their overall “threat level”. It is interesting to note, that in most cases all Vietnamese are by default represented as the “savage” that must be rescued from his own ways by means of Westernization. Those, who continue to resist, are “the bad guys”.
One of the methods of representing the Vietnamese people in these films is often through the constant use of belittling or derogatory Terms such as “Charlie” “gook”, “dink”, “little bastard” “zipperhead” etc. by the Americans. Already, the audience is preconditioned to view the Vietnamese through the dominating Western gaze as insignificant, worthless and disposable. We begin to feel hatred towards the enemy, without even getting to understand a human side. The “other” becomes a dehumanized and alienated entity.
As the Americans are the central characters with which we associate, despite the fact that they too often commit heinous acts of atrocity, most Vietnamese characters are denied any form of established character, which furthers their alienation from the United States forces. Instead, we come to understand their characters solely through the acts of atrocity they commit against Americans and harmless civilians, or their ability to remain unseen, sneak, set nasty traps and attack from behind.
A further reoccurring representation of the Vietnamese people is by means of their “Orientalized” exoticism. By this I am referring to the constantly occurring images of ritual, mystery, sexualization, and even implied insanity. This form of representation builds on the dichotomy between West and East, civilized and savage, free and communist, good and evil.
Sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Despite the fact that these war films are all fictional, they have a tendency to convince us that they represent true events as the story is situated in a historical occurrence. Without having been there, one is able to piece together a “reality” of what it was like in Vietnam during the war, and it is important to comprehend the impact that these media images have on our concept of history. While many of these films are indeed a critique of the Vietnam war, the question remains: are they furthering our comprehension of the Vietnamese as “other” or simply commenting on what affects the invention of “the enemy” had on Western troops during the war?
Fanon, Franz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Said, Edward William. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.
Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. Paramount Pictures, 1979. DVD.
Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. By Eric Roth. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, and Mykelti Williamson. Paramount Pictures, 1994. DVD.
Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick. By Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford. Perf. Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Lee Ermey. Warner Bros., 1987. DVD.
Hamburger Hill. Dir. John Irvin. By James Carabatsos. Paramount, 1987.
Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. An Orion Pictures Release, 1986. DVD.
Rambo, First Blood, Part II. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Perf. Silvester Stalone. TriStar Pictures, 1985. DVD.
Rescue Dawn. Dir. Werner Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Prod. Elton Brand, Steve Marlton, and Harry Knapp. Perf. Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2007.
The Deer Hunter. Dir. Michael Cimino. Perf. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale. Universal, 1978. DVD.
We Were Soldiers. Dir. Randall Wallace. Perf. Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe and Greg Kinnear. Paramount Pictures, 2002. DVD.