Tuesday, June 10, 2008


"The second wave of American films about the war came in the early 1980s. Most notably First Blood (1982) Uncommon Valor (1983) and Missing in Action (1984) looked and sounded completely different from the films of the first wave. In terms of content, these new treatments, focusing entirely upon the plight of American veterans in the United States and those supposedly still being held by Hanoi, were unapologetic in their revisionism. For one thing, they took the POW/MIA myth as fact, with American viewers even returning to Southeast Aasia to rescue POWs in the case of Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action (each spawning sequels). By such means, America learned that its Vietnam veterans not only hated the evil Asians who were still holding their buddies hostage, but abhorred their own government, which continued to deny - and even cover up - the very fact that those buddies were prisoner.

"One irony of the principle POW films is that they made a part of the argument that I am making: specifically, that the war with Vietnam was still going on ... after 1975, through the 1980s, and well into the 1990s at least. Unfortunately they, along with the entire POW/MIA industry, inverted the roles of victim and aggressor, choosing to represent Americans as being held hostage by the Vietnamese, never mind acknowledging the ongoing war against Vietnam. Meanwhile, release of the films coincided with several paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia undertaken by the Reagan administration. Segments of Hollywood joined the cause. As Bruce Franklin revealed in Mythmaking in America, in a strange alliance Colonel James 'Bo' Gritz (an Army Special Forces veteran and a firm believer in the POW cause), William Shatner, and Clint Eastwood put together a 1982 cover rescue mission into Laos - with the full knowledge of the president, who reportedly told Eastwood that, if the team found on POW, he would "start World War Three" to get the rest out.

"The mission, as well as other efforts supposedly directed by Gritz, turned up no evidence of surviving American POWs. The task of suggesting that there was such evidence was left to, and picked up by, Hollywood. In Uncommon Valor (1983) and Missing in Action (1984), teams led by Gene Hackman and Chuck Norris, respectively, turn up dozens of POWs still being held in Southeast Asia. Although Uncommon Valor was more commercially successful, Missing in Action was more influential in the genre, helping to pave the way for its own sequels and other related films. Central to the plot of Missing in Action and the films that would follow it was the complete inversion of victimization. American war crimes are unmentioned or exonerated while the Vietnamese are depicted as barbarous criminals. Franklin sums up the strategy of historical inversion in M.I.A: 'Just as the POW issue was consciously created in 1969 amid shocking revelations about US conduct ... Missing in Action uses the POW issue to indoctrinate the audiences of the 1980s with the notion that Americans were not the victimisers but the victims. Those who have forgotten, or are too young to remember, learn that all accusations of US war crimes are merely insidious Asian Communist propaganda designed to hide the crimes the Vietnamese are still perpetrating against innocent Americans.' ...

"None of these earlier films, though, had anything like the impact of 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II.

"Timed to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the end of the war, the pre-release press kit for the film contained a video treating the POW/MIA issue and hyping Rambo's connection to the myth of surviving prisoners being held by Hanoi. A sequel to 1982's First Blood, a surprising box office success, Rambo revolves around the character of John Rambo, a misunderstood and tortured American veteran of the war in Vietnam. The script for First Blood had circulated for years in Hollywood, undergoing numerous plot changes and tentative casting. In the body of rising superstar Sylvester Stallone, however, the character became a veritable superhero in the 1980s, a cultural phenomenon that would reshape the ways in which Americans ld and discussed stories about the war in Vietnam.

"The opening shot of Rambo reveals the prison labour camp in which Rambo (Stallone) has spent the last several years since single-handedl destroying the town of Hope, Oregon, in First Blood. Rambo's former commander, Colonel Trautman, arrives at the prison, requesting that Rambo accompany him on a new mission: 'Recon for POWs in 'Nam.' After hearing the details of the mission and agreeing to join Trautman, Rambo asks the question for which the film became infamous. 'Sir, do we get to win this time?' 'This time it's up to you', Trautman replies. Unfortunately for Rambo, Trautman is not in charge of this mission. Marshall Murdoch, a Washington bureaucrat working for a congressional committee, is leading the team, along with a group of mercenaries. The committee, Murdoch explains to Rambo, is simply attempting to find evidence that will disprove any beliefs that POWs are still being held by the Vietnamese. Rambo is only supposed to take photographs of the empty camp, the very one in which he was held during the war. 'Under no circumstances,' he is informed by Murdoch, 'are you to engage the enemy.'

"After being dropped in Vietnam from the base in Thailand, Rambo meets up with Co Bao (played by the Hawaiian actress Julia Nickson), his Vietnamese guide, who speaks in short, choppy English. As they move down the river toward the camp, escorted by pirates, Rambo tells Bao his story - how, when he returned from Vietnam, he found another war going in the United States, a 'quiet war' against the veterans. Bao relates that she is working against her own government because her father, an 'intelligence officer', had been killed. When the mission is over, she tells Rambo, she would very much like to go to America. When they arrive at the camp, Rambo defies his orders and, with Bao's help, infiltrates the camp, which is of course populated with a dozen American POWs. He easily kills and outmaneuvers several Vietnamese guards, all of whom appear even less Vietnamese than Bao. Rambo rescues one POW and brings him along to the extraction point where he is to be picked up by Murdoch's men. Along the way, as they elude the inept Vietnamese soldiers, the POW tells Rambo how timely his rescue was: 'They move us around a lot - to harvest crops'. Thus the film's first explanation for why the Vietnamese would still be holding American soldiers: during a devastating famine and with an ongoing war with Cambodia, the Vietnamese need some help with their agricultural production ...

"Rambo, however, is much less concerned with the Vietnamese, or even the Soviets, as an enemy than it is with the United States government. Rambo's mission was never intended to prove the existence of POWs. The government, which the film ultimately shows to be more evil and corrupt than either the Russians or the Vietnamese, had no intention of rescuing any POWs found by Rambo. This is consistent with both the tone and content of the POW/MIA myth, whose adherents strongly believed in a government-led cover-up of evidence confirming the existence of remaining POWs. It is also consistent with domestic Reaganism in general, which blamed government for the troubles of the country. Trautman, angry at Murdoch for abandoning his man, tells him that he knows what the cover-up is reall about: 'Money. In '72, we were supposed to pay the Cong four and a half billion dollars in war reparations. We reneged. They kept the POWs.' Murdoch doesn't dispute this story; he in fact admits that the POWs are being held as ransom. But the alternatives to a cover-up are either 'paying blackmail money' that would end up 'financing the war against our [Cambodian] allies,' or, worse, 'starting the war up all over again' to save 'a few forgotten ghosts'.

"Back at the POW camp, Rambo escapes with the help of Co Bao, who returns disguised as a prositute servicing the Vietnamese guards. After their escape, Bao and Rambo share a romantic encounter, during which he agress to take her with him back to the United States. After the kiss, however, Bao is gunned down by a Vietnamese soldier, which sets off Rambo on a killing rampage, leading him back to the camp to rescue the remaining POWs rather than escape alone. During this sequence, Rambo becomes a one-man death squad, destroying helicopters and entire villages, and sending all the Vietnamese into a frenzied panic and, eventually, to their deaths. After a final face-off with the Russians, Rambo takes a helicopter and returns to the base in Thailand, ready to confront his betrayers. Removing the large mounted gun from the helicopter, Rambo completely destroys the huge supercomputers lauded by Murdoch at the beginning of the film. He then goes after Murdoch, stabbing his knife into a desk right next to Murdoch's head, but allowing him to live. 'You know there's more men out there,' he tells Murdoch. 'Find them. Or I'll find you.' As Rambo is one his way out of the camp, Trautman implores him to stay rather than wandering off. 'The war, everything that happened here, may be wrong. But, dammit, don't hate your country for it,' he tells him. 'Hate?' Rambo responds. 'I'd die for it.' Rambo also goes on to offer a final statement on behalf of his men. 'I want what they want, what every guy who came over here and spilled his guyts and gave everything they had wants: for our country to love us as much as we love it.'"

Edwin A Martini, Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam 1975-2000, University of Massacheusetts Press, 2007