On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

‘Is that you John Wayne?  Is this me?’

Myth and meaning in American representations of the Vietnam War


John Wayne’s portrayal of Sergeant John Stryker in the Sands of Iwo Jima becam the defining image of the American hero in films of the Second World War. However, attempts by Hollywood to create a similar myth at the time of the Vietnam war foundered because the war experienced by young Americans in Vietnam differed so starkly from the ‘Good War’ of their fathers.  Simon Newman explores the way in which the war was portrayed in films from the Green berets to the Rambo series reflected changing public perception of the war and American foreign policy.

Posted 20-Feb-2014

by Simon Newman (University of Glasgow)

How Sands of Iwo Jima defined the American hero
The Green Berets attempts to revive the heroic icon
How the reality of Vietnam shattered the illusions of the "good war": M*A*S*H to Apocalypse Now
Re-evaluating the war under Reagan - the Rambo series

How Sands of Iwo Jima defined the American hero

One of the fiercest battles between American and Japanese forces in the Pacific took place on the small island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands.  Lying only 750 miles south of Tokyo, Iwo Jima could provide a base for U.S. fighter planes escorting bombers over Japan, and serve as a staging point for the projected invasion of the Japanese home islands.  Three divisions of Marines began the assault on 19 February, 1945, and were met with stiff resistance by Japanese defenders who had created a warren of underground tunnels and bunkers: although Iwo Jima was no larger than eight square miles, it took American forces almost four weeks to secure the island.  By the end of the battle on 16 March, almost 6,000 Americans had died and a further 19,000 had been wounded: only a thousand or so Japanese were captured, while as many as 20,000 had died.[1]

A pivotal moment in the battle occurred on the fourth day, when a small group of marines fought their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, the volcanic mountain that dominated the whole island.  They unfurled and raised a small American flag, an act seen by Americans and Japanese all over the island, providing the attackers with what one embattled marine recalled as ‘a moment of ecstasy.’  Shortly afterwards the flag-raising was re-enacted with a larger flag, and photographed by Joe Rosenthal of Associated Press.  Rosenthal’s photograph appeared on the front pages of many American newspapers, and won him the Pulitzer Prize for 1945.  It became one of the most famous photographic images of the entire war, appearing on everything from war-bond posters to stamps.  Given that one-third of all Marines who died in battle during the Second World War died on Iwo Jima, it is perhaps not surprising that a decade later the image inspired the statue for the Marine Corps memorial in Washington D.C.[2]

The attack on the island, the taking of Mount Suribachi, and the heroic raising of the flag were just as inspirational in Hollywood, and Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) earned John Wayne his first Oscar nomination.  As the new international role of the United States took effect in the early years of the Cold War, the film celebrated and mythologised American military prowess and commitment to democratic ideals.  With the Marine Corps hymn playing, the opening credits rolled against the background of the ‘Semper Fidelis’ insignia, and the film was dedicated:

To the United States Marine Corps, whose exploits and valor have left a lasting impression on the world and in the hearts of their countrymen.[3]

The movie was typical of Hollywood’s Second World War films of the late 1940s and 1950s.  Under the guidance of John Wayne’s battle-hardened Sergeant John Stryker, a group of young white American men from different ethnic and class backgrounds were slowly moulded into a resilient and inter-dependent fighting force, whose dislike of Stryker gradually gave way to respect and gratitude.  Stryker played the archetypal sergeant, telling his men ‘I’m going to ride you ‘till you can’t stand up, and when you stand up, you’ll be marines.’  Over the course of the film it became clear to the soldiers and audience alike that Stryker cared for and protected his men, teaching one clumsy soldier bayonet skills by dancing with him, and saving another from an errant grenade.  All of the men remained connected to families and community at home through letters, photographs and stories, and their patriotism was regularly reaffirmed, most notably by their careful and respectful preparation and folding of an American flag.  The film concluded with Stryker’s death near the top of the blasted volcanic Mount Suribachi: with smoke wafting past them, and lyrical music playing, Stryker’s men knelt around his body and one promised to complete the letter the sergeant had been writing to his young son, in which Stryker had admitted his own faults and urged his son to ‘Always do what your heart tells you is right.’  The camera then moves away from the kneeling men and a drum roll announces the raising of the stars and strips atop the mountain: with music rising to a crescendo, the camera focuses on the face of each kneeling soldier in turn, their grimy faces bathed in light.  The faces are hard and battle worn, yet they express emotion, commitment and patriotic pride as they stand to respectfully watch the flag while – quietly at first – the Marine Corp Hymn draws the film to a conclusion.

The powerful patriotic memory of the flag-raising on Suribachi had been fashioned by Rosenthal’s photograph and then enshrined in Dwan’s movie.  Both photograph and movie were cultural constructions of an historical event that swiftly entered popular consciousness and memory.  They quickly became national myths informing the ways in which Americans remembered their history.[4]  Such constructions of the experience and significance of American participation in war were tremendously powerful.  Not only in Sands of Iwo Jima but in a wealth of movies such as Back to Bataan (1945), They Were Expendable (1945), and Flying Leathernecks (1951), John Wayne and other actors presented the post-war baby boom generation with powerfully patriotic images of their fathers’ ‘Good War’ against the evils of Japan and Germany.[5]

These Hollywood creations not only informed how a generation recalled their fathers’ war, but allowed young Americans to imagine themselves similarly engaged in such noble warfare.  One recalled that he had been ‘seduced by World War II and John Wayne movies,’ while another had ‘flash images of John Wayne films with me as the hero.’[6]  As young boys Ron Kovic and his friend Richie Castiglia saw The Sands of Iwo Jima at their local cinema:

The Marine Corps hymn was playing in the background as we sat glued to our seats, humming the hymn together and watching Sergeant Stryker, played by John Wayne, charge up the hill and get killed just before he reached the top.  And then they showed the men raising the flag on Iwo Jima with the marines’ hymn still playing, and Castiglia and I cried in our seats. I loved the song so much, and every time I heard it I would think of John Wayne and the brave men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima that day. Like Mickey Mantle and the fabulous New York Yankees, John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima became one of my heroes.[7]

General Douglas McArthur recognised the power and significance of Wayne’s representation of Americans at war in Sands of Iwo Jima, commending Wayne before the American Legion Convention by affirming ‘You represent the American serviceman better than the American serviceman himself.’[8]  These representations informed how an entire generation of young Americans conceived of war: Philip Caputo, for example, recalled growing up during the Cold War of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the knowledge that if conflict occurred young American men like himself would be

there.  Not watching it on a movie or TV screen, not reading about it in a book, but there, living out a fantasy.  Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest.[9]

Hollywood’s stirring constructions of a patriotic military heritage became an imagined reality for these young men, so that even when they envisioned themselves leaving books, movies and television behind and taking part in a real war, they imagined that this would involve being ‘like John Wayne.’

The Green Berets attempts to revive the heroic icon

Vietnam provided these baby boomers with their war, and millions of young American men travelled to South East Asia with an image of war fashioned by Hollywood’s Second World War movies of the 1940s and 1950s.  In 1968 Wayne sought to revive and reaffirm America’s patriotic sense of purpose with a Vietnam War movie that reprised his Second World War movies.  Robin Moore’s The Green Berets had been one of the best-selling books of 1965, and its portrayal of patriotic, resourceful and highly skilled members of the Special Forces had garnered Moore a Book-of-the-Month Club recommendation.  Wayne secured the rights to Moore’s book, and in 1968 he released The Green Berets, which he co-directed and in which he starred.[10]

From the movie’s opening credits, The Green Berets harked back to Sands of Iwo Jima.  Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s song ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ had been the best-selling single of 1966, and it functioned like the Marine Corps Hymn in providing a patriotic and militaristic theme song.  As the credits rolled and Sadler’s song reached the climax of a Green Beret’s dying wish that his infant son follow him into the service, the film opened by focusing upon a sign for the army’s John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, evoking the president’s call to patriotic service, and the military and technological prowess he had fostered.  It had been unnecessary in America’s Second World War movies to explain why Americans had fought and died: the larger cause came to life through the individual characters who coalesced into a proudly patriotic fighting force.  In stark contrast, The Green Berets began and was defined throughout by its justifications for American involvement in Vietnam.

However, while the myths enshrined in Wayne’s Second World War movies had been powerful and effective, his employment of these myths in a Vietnam War movie failed.  The Green Berets was both an updated Second World War movie and a contemporary Western, with noble Americans fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese against a North Vietnamese horde who looked far more Japanese, Chinese, Hispanic and even European than Vietnamese, and whose full-frontal assaults were accompanied by the blood-curdling war whoops that Hollywood usually reserved for savage Indians in westerns.  The movie attempted to recapture the moral certainties of the ‘Good War’ movies, giving audiences a firm affirmation of the justice of their anti-communist crusade, and one reviewer noted that The Green Berets’ ‘reference point is not life but movie tradition,’ an observation embodied in the naming of the embattled Green Beret compound as ‘Dodge City’.[11]

Wayne promised President Johnson that The Green Berets would ‘tell the story of our fighting men in Vietnam with reason, emotion, characterization and action.  We want to do it in a manner that will inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of our fellow Americans.’[12]  In short, Wayne sought to do for the Vietnam War what he and other actors and directors had done for the Second World War.  However, for most Americans who served in Vietnam, such reconstructions of their experiences failed.  Veteran Tim O’Brien rejected all such war stories, writing that

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.[13]

Released in the wake of the Tet Offensive, with opposition to the war mounting and the Johnson administration in deep trouble, The Green Berets was more propaganda than patriotism: Wayne’s enduring popularity and the movie’s glowing tribute to American special forces meant that it did well at the box office, but reviewers were almost uniformly hostile.  It was not the inaccuracies of the propaganda that were troubling: after all, America’s Second World War movies had been propagandistic exercises in myth-making, but Hollywood’s myths of the ‘Good War’ had been shared and cherished by American soldiers and civilians alike.  When Wayne had sought U.S. governmental support in the making of the film, he had assured President Johnson that it would demonstrate ‘why it is necessary for us to be [in Vietnam].’[14]  But as patriotic pro-war propaganda The Green Berets failed so badly to foster a shared sense of national purpose and commitment that a New York Times reviewer attacked the movie not just for its inaccuracies but for its failure in myth-making, concluding her review with the lament that audiences should ‘grieve… for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus of this country.’[15]

One of the main reasons for the failure of Hollywood’s myth-making machine was the fact that the war experienced by young Americans in Vietnam differed so starkly from the ‘Good War’ of their fathers.  For millions of American soldiers and civilians, the evils of Japanese and German fascism had been all too apparent, and had contrasted powerfully with an American self-image of integrity and nobility in working with innocent German and Japanese civilians to rebuild the conquered Axis powers after 1945.  Second World War American soldiers had felt proud of their nation and its role in securing victory and peace, and these sentiments had been immortalized on screen.  But American soldiers in Vietnam, who at an average of nineteen were a half-decade younger than Americans who fought in the Second World War, experienced a profoundly confusing war in which the moral certainties of the past became ambiguous and patriotism seemed out of place.  American infantry ventured deep into the Vietnamese interior in search of an enemy who, although ever present and always dangerous, was notoriously difficult to locate and confront, and it became harder and harder for American soldiers to differentiate between the enemy Viet Cong and the innocent South Vietnamese civilians whom Americans were bound to protect.  And as bombing campaigns against North Vietnam intensified, so too did domestic opposition to a confused war with ill-defined objectives, and no clear sense of purpose.  The Second World War had clearly defined enemies and objectives that Hollywood had easily and powerfully translated into mythic form.  Baby boomers had grown up with these myths, but in the jungles of Vietnam and on campuses across the United States the myths began to fail.

How the reality of Vietnam shattered the illusions of the "good war": M*A*S*H to Apocalypse Now

The consequent loss of meaning and purpose was reflected in the films and fiction inspired by the Vietnam War.  In Hollywood this process began during the war with movies about other wars, and 1970 saw the release of both Catch 22 and M*A*S*H.[16]  While the former dealt with the Second World War and the latter with Korea, both represented a major departure from the familiar genre of Second World War movies.  Neither movie celebrated American prowess in war and nobility of purpose, and both featured a deep resentment of an all-powerful and deeply corrupt military bureaucracy: both were informed throughout by negative attitudes towards the American government, military command and the war in Vietnam.

The reality of the war in Vietnam shattered the illusions of America’s ‘Good War’ movies.  Michael Herr kept ‘thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good… We’d all seen too many movies… The first few times that I got fired at or saw combat deaths, nothing really happened, all the responses got locked in my head.  It was the same familiar violence, only moved over to another medium.’[17]  The dissonance between Hollywood’s ‘Good War’ movies and the chaotic and meaningless conflict in Vietnam found expression in the autobiographies, fiction and films inspired by American participation in the war.  Employing many of the tropes of the Second World War films of the 1940s and 1950s, few of America’s Vietnam War films were blatantly anti-war or anti-military, and most shared a belief in the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary soldiers.  Second World War movies had celebrated America in portrayals of ordinary soldiers: Vietnam war movies shared the focus on individuals, and invariably emphasized the absence of meaning and significance, and the void in the hearts of the nation’s soldiers and its war.  The myth that failed for young Americans in Vietnam was the myth of noble purpose and significance bestowed on previous American wars, and many of the films and autobiographies and much of the fiction about Vietnam explore that failure.[18]

Recalling his first days on the ground in Vietnam, Philip Caputo spoke for his generation:

War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had also been seduced into uniform by Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us…  So, when we marched into the rice paddies on that damp March afternoon, we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good.  We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions, we lost.[19]

It is this loss of ‘convictions’ that binds together so many of the films and so much of the fiction of the Vietnam War.  Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1979) was one of the first Hollywood efforts, released four years after the fall of Saigon.[20]  The movie shows little combat footage, but as prisoners of the Viet Cong lead characters Michael, Nick and Steven were forced to play Russian roulette: such scenes were hardly realistic, but as a metaphor for the ways in which the war had brutalized American soldiers they were tremendously effective.  The three comrades hailed from an immigrant steelworking community, and at no point during an almost three-hour movie did they question the war or their own involvement in it.  The film ends with Nick’s funeral after his death in a final game of Russian roulette, closing with the survivors and their friends gathered in a bar, singling ‘God Bless America.’  But there is no sense of celebration, no sense of a worthy or meaningful death and cause: the film contrasts vividly with the conclusion of Sands of Iwo Jima, and the audience is left horrified by the war’s effects on American soldiers.

The first wave of Vietnam War films also included Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now, also released in 1979.[21]  Michael Herr had translated the chaos and the loss of moral and social grounding into the very structure and language of his autobiographical ‘fiction’ Dispatches, and he did the same in the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, a movie defined by madness.  The movie opens with scenes of helicopters flying between the viewer and a swath of beautiful open jungle, stirring up clouds of dust that obscure the view: then, as Jim Morrison begins singing ‘The End,’ the jungle is consumed by napalm flames.  The movie’s opening images are of destruction devoid of meaning, and as the helicopter blades became the fan rotating above Willard’s hotel room bed, Morison ends his song with the incantation ‘all the children are insane,’ and we are introduced to a character who has been transformed by this war.  In his narration Willard reveals that service in Vietnam had rendered him incapable of functioning in American society, and his actions in the hotel room confirm his mental condition, as he cuts himself, smears blood over his almost naked body, and falls silently weeping to the floor, a picture of torment.  As an introduction to a leading man, this is a long way from the war movies with which Americans were familiar.

Youth destroyed by a senseless war is a common theme of Vietnam literature and film.  Michael Herr described one young American soldier as having

one of those faces, I saw that face at least a thousand times at a hundred bases and camps, all the youth sucked out of the eyes, the color drawn from the skin, cold white lips, you knew he wouldn’t wait for any of it to come back.  Life had made him old, he’d live it out old.[22]

Apocalypse Now is defined by the disfunctionality of Americans in Vietnam, both as individuals and as members of a national war machine.  Willard’s mission is to find and assassinate the renegade Green Beret Colonel Kurtz, a figure as far removed from John Wayne’s Green Berets of a decade earlier as could be imagined.  As Willard ventures deeper and deeper into Vietnam, reason and order evaporate.  There is no apparent order to the war, no clear chain of command, no meaning or significance, and national purpose and patriotic pride are conspicuous by their absence.  Even before he finds Kurtz, Willard comes to doubt the logic or sanity of his mission in an insane war, and he even questions Kurtz’s apparent madness.  When Willard enters Kurtz’s compound, he sees the words ‘Apocalypse Now’ scrawled on a rock, with bodies and decapitated heads strewn around, and a group of Green Berets daubed with war paint and unable or unwilling to communicate in English.

Kurtz reads to Willard from an issue of Time magazine, quoting the U.S. military and White House on how American military superiority would prevail in Vietnam.  The propaganda appears as ridiculous to Kurtz and to Willard as it does to the movie’s viewers.  Kurtz has left all standards of civilisation behind, yet in the context of the entire movie’s presentation of a savage war devoid of morality and meaning, Kurtz’s statement to Willard – ‘You have no right to judge me’ has enough resonance that Willard hesitates for days before completing his mission and murdering Kurtz.  It is scarcely a victory, however, and there is no sense of good triumphing over evil, or a war having been fought by good citizens for noble aims: Willard no longer identified himself with his nation and its armed forces, noting ‘They were going to make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their f***ing army any more.’

The first wave of Vietnam movies were made and released in the later 1970s against the backdrop of Watergate, economic recession, and a remarkably muted and unmilitaristic American foreign policy: these movies  showed the madness of the war, and the consequent trauma and psychological scarring of American soldiers.  However, Ronald Reagan's presidency and the accompanying rejuvenation of American military might and a renewed sense of purpose in the struggle against Soviet communism provided the context for the second wave of Vietnam War films, made and released during the 1980s.  These movies probed more deeply into the causes and nature of the war, yet most were equally void of justifications for it, and several of these films appear critical of a revived American foreign policy that appeared likely to bring new wars against communist expansion.  Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) was based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, and Hasford helped write Kubrick’s screenplay.[23]  On the surface the film appeared somewhat formulaic, with the first half showing the training of a motley crew of marine recruits, and the second showing their experiences in Vietnam.  But far from affirming the genre, Full Metal Jacket constituted a direct assault on the assumptions underlying traditional Second World War movies.  Rather than being moulded into an efficient and noble group of all-American boys by a harsh but decent sergeant, the recruits have their humanity stripped away in horrifying fashion.  Private Joker, the most humane and decent member of the group, is dehumanised by his training and by the war, while Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim’s unrelenting torture of Private Pyle drives the young man insane, and at the conclusion of their training Pyle murders Gerheim before taking his own life.[24]

All of this occurs while the recruits are still in the United States, so that even before their arrival in Vietnam the war had severed their connections with a sane and moral world.  Both Hasford’s book and the film included repeated sardonic references to John Wayne and the mythical war he represented.  As Gerheim begins his torture of the new recruits, Private Cowboy responds ‘Is that you, John Wayne?  Is this me?’  The narrator, Private Joker, is able ‘to sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie”.’  Later, Joker describes the maniacal drill sergeant who had fought with the Marines on Iwo Jima, as focusing ‘all of his considerable powers of intimidation into his best John-Wayne-on-Suribachi voice.’[25]

In Vietnam Joker is sent forward to report on a combat unit, and in Kubrick’s film Joker is confronted by a heavily armed Marine who taunts Joker about his lack of combat expertise.  Again, Joker responds by imitating John Wayne, and the Marine responds ‘You talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?’  To survive in this war, American soldiers had to do more than imitate Wayne, and invoke the myth.  The point was confirmed later in he film when the Marines are taking shelter behind tanks attacking Hue City, and are surprised to find themselves being filmed by an American correspondent.  ‘Is that you John Wayne?  Is this me?’ drawls Private Joker, while other Marines joke ‘Start the cameras, hey this is Vietnam, the movie!’ and ‘Yeah, Joker can be John Wayne and I’ll be a horse!’ and so on, until they agree to ‘let the Gooks be the Indians.’  Although John Wayne’s movies continued to function as a reference point, they were no longer imbued with heroism and patriotism and instead appeared ridiculous both to the marines on screen and to the audience watching.  Hasford describes marines at an American base near Da Nang watching The Green Berets roaring ‘with laughter.  This is the funniest film we have seen in a long time.’[26]

Vietnam veterans Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic collaborated in writing the screenplay for Born on the Fourth of July (1989).  Kovic’s autobiography had included allusions to John Wayne, and the movie added several new and evocative references.  Tom Cruise, playing the former marine, recalled that after he was shot in the foot he was running and shooting ‘like I was John f***ing Wayne,’ before receiving the wound that would cripple him for life.  Stone's Academy Award-winning movie undermined the earlier World War Two movies by showing that acting like John Wayne did not work, even though it remained the mythical standard by which Americans in service continued to be measured.  The movie made this point in a scene where the drunken Kovic is confronted in a bar by an older marine who castigated him with the words:

I was on Iwo Jima.  We lost five thousand men the first day.  Don’t go crying in your f***ing beer to me.  You served and you lost now you gotta live with it.[27]

It was a searing indictment of Kovic’s failure to live up either to the reality of one soldier’s war, or to an entire nation’s mythical memories of that reality.  For Kovic, for readers of his autobiography and for those watching Stone’s movie, the ageing marine’s comments recall not the bloody reality of the battle for Iwo Jima but rather Rosenthal’s photograph and Dwan’s movie, reconstructions of the actual events that had acquired mythic status.  Kovic was haunted by the historical and mythical pasts that had informed his childhood play and dreams of adulthood, but the myths had failed him and his generation in Vietnam.  Appropriately enough, veterans and their doctors often referred to the psychological problems associated with the failure to live up to American mythic ideals while serving in Vietnam as ‘John Wayne Syndrome.’[28]

Few Vietnam movies provide meaningful explanations or justifications for the war, and Full Metal Jacket is no exception.  Standing outside the ruins of Hue City over the bodies of two comrades, Rafter Man’s observation that they died for ‘freedom’ prompts Animal Mother to respond ‘Do you think we waste Gooks for freedom?  This is a slaughter.’  Shortly afterwards members of the squad are interviewed by a reporter, and none is capable of providing any kind of realistic explanation or justification for American involvement in Vietnam.  The denouement comes amid the ruins of Hue City, with a small group of the Marines pinned down by a Viet Cong sniper, who kills three before the surviving Marines realize that their assailant is a young woman.

The death of the sniper brings no resolution and no victory, and the Marines march through and away from the burning ruins of Hue City toward the Perfume River.  Tired and emotionally drained, the ragged formation begin singing.  But it is not the Marine Corps Hymn or a marching song from their training, but rather the ‘Mickey Mouse March,’ the theme to a television series of their youth.  ‘I am in a world of shit’ Joker narrates over the singing, ‘but I am alive and I am not afraid.’  Slowly the screen fades into darkness, and the credits roll to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black.’  This is a long way from the marines on Iwo Jima and the Marine Corps Hymn, and Vietnam appears as a war void of meaning, in which young American men had their humanity ripped from them, and for whom the only victory was survival.

John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987) chronicled an actual event, the ten-day campaign by the 101st Airborne Division to capture Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley in May 1969.[29]  The opening credits are interspersed with images of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., a clear indication that this is a film about the men who fought and died, and the wall fades into the sights and sounds of conflict and horrific injury.  Throughout the movie soldiers repeat the phrase ‘It don’t mean a thing’ as their mantra in a war that defined explanation, and it was only by repeating the phrase that members of the platoon were able to deal with the first death of a comrade upon their return to the Ashau Valley.  ‘Don’t tell me he died for God, country and the 101st Airborne’ complained Sergeant Frantz, to which Worcester responded “I never say that shit to anybody.  McDaniel didn’t die for anything.’  As the survivors rest before their final assault, Frantz explains why he is still in Vietnam, recalling how he had been pelted with excrement by young women when he had returned to San Francisco to recover from an injury.  But he had been so happy to be back that ‘It don’t mean nothing,’ until he returned home to find his girlfriend with an anti-war activist, and once again he recites the mantra, ‘That don’t mean nothing either,’ concluding ‘That’s why I’m here.’

This mantra of meaninglessness was common amongst servicemen in Vietnam, and appears regularly in their accounts of the war.  Kevin Bowen’s poem ‘First Casualty,’ for example, described the members of his squad returning to action after taking the body of a comrade to their Landing Zone:

One by one the squad
walked back uphill.
‘Don’t mean nothing,’
someone said.[30]

Army nurse Susan O’Neil made a similar point, entitling one of the first works of fiction about Vietnam to be written by a female veteran Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam.  In her Introduction O’Neil described the phrase as ‘a sarcastic admixture of “cool,” comedy, irony, agony, bitterness, frustration, resignation, and despair,’ concluding that ‘don’t mean nothing’ was ‘the humor of the impotent, a small bunker in the real war – the war against insanity.’[31]

Hamburger Hill ends ten days after the assault began, with only three survivors of the unit making it to the top of the hill, a scene desolated by napalm and artillery.  But the stirring soundtrack accompanying the final courageous assault fades, and atop the blasted mountain the three soldiers gather: the sound of conflict fades, and the wind whistles and smoke drifts across screen.  For almost three minutes – close to three percent of the entire movie – there is no dialogue or music, and in the men’s faces there is no victory, no sense that the sacrifice had been warranted.  Eventually a disembodied voice crackles from a radio, seeking a response, but with tears streaming down his face the surviving commanding officer fails to respond.  The conclusion to the movie harkens back to and contrasts vividly with the ending of Sands of Iwo Jima, in which dialogue and music had confirmed the visual imagery of a cause and a sacrifice that had meaning and worth.

For the generation who fought in or against the Vietnam War, America’s Second World War movies in general and John Wayne in particular had served as a model of how war would be experienced, of what it would require of American men, and of the communal feeling and self-respect that their participation in war would warrant.  But the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam seemed completely removed and separate from ‘The World’, a place and a war where normal rules and behaviour – and the cultural myths and beliefs that informed them – could not function.  John Wayne continued to serve a symbolic purpose in the films and fiction produced by the Vietnam War, but his ‘presence becomes ironic, a flag that should have served as an early warning that the foundations of his world were not sound.’[32]

The failure of one of twentieth-century America’s most iconic figures, and of American war myths in general, informed the ways in which young Americans dealt with and communicated the nature of their experiences in Vietnam.  According to Tim O’Brien

They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice.  They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and calling it a victory.  No sense of order or momentum.  No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels.  No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration.  They did not have targets.  They did not have a cause…  They did not know the terms of war, its architecture, the rules of fair play…  They did not know how to feel… They did not know good from evil.’[33]

The failure of myths that gave meaning to service and death in war caused disillusion and bitterness.  The John Wayne myth had illuminated Ron Kovic’s childhood, yet he exploded that myth with the poem that opened his autobiography:

I am the living death
the memorial on wheels
I am your yankee doodle dandy
your John Wayne come home
your fourth of july firecracker
exploding in the grave.[34]

Traditionally war movies and veterans’ fiction and autobiographies have presented conflict from the point of view of the soldiers themselves, allowing individuals to embody the larger issues of patriotism, courage and commitment.  In trying to explain America’s Vietnam, the common soldier’s perspective has been privileged, giving some sense of honour and sacrifice to at least one aspect of America’s Vietnam War.  Readers and viewers are encouraged to feel that they understand something of what American soldiers felt and experienced in and after their service in Vietnam, thereby ensuring that the soldiers are seen as the war’s greatest victims, and that audiences recognise the unjust treatment of veterans, and acknowledge their sacrifice and pain.  Vietnam films and fiction attack military and political authority: there is no legitimate higher authority, and nobody can determine absolute right and wrong, make moral judgments, or find meaning in the war.  The result is a genre in which only the ordinary soldier can understand what this war was about and what it was like, and only he truly understands and can communicate the war’s meaninglessness, rejecting the myths of his youth in the process.

By parodying, debunking and rejecting the myths of World War II, the films and fiction of Vietnam created a crisis in popular culture of enormous political and military significance.  The weakening of traditional ideals of heroism, patriotism and service appeared to some Americans as a threat to Americans’ self-belief and even to their national security.  ‘To John Wayne’ in Vietnam was to act on the battlefield as if one was appearing in a Second World War movie, to fight and die in glorious fashion, but this was not how Vietnam was experienced and then portrayed by those who served there, or by Americans coming to terms with the war.  John Wayne as the emblem of patriotic pride, power and commitment became a joke, and his place in language and popular culture was transformed.  In referring to the military as a ‘John Waynesque profession’, for example, one commentator derided both the symbol and the reality of American military power.[35]

Re-evaluating the war under Reagan - the Rambo series

There were, however, some Vietnam War movies made during the 1980s that appeared far more positive about Reagan's reaffirmation of America's stand against the spread of communism.  Such movies sought to re-imagine the history of the Vietnam War, and revitalise a positive and patriotic set of myths.  They were not – indeed could no longer be – simple re-workings of the Second World War genre, for in the ‘Good War’ American might and right had triumphed over the evil of fascist, racist and imperialist foes.  But in the trilogy of Rambo movies (1982-88) the American soldiers’ war was first explained and justified, and then refought and won as a heroic victory for noble and patriotic Americans that had initially been denied them by incompetent political and military leaders.[36]  In rewriting the history of the Vietnam War, and then moving the Vietnam veteran up into the 1980s struggle against the Soviet Union, the Rambo movies explicitly linked the American effort in Vietnam to Reagan's final and ultimately victorious struggle against Soviet communism.

First Blood (1982) is set entirely in the United States, less than a decade after the fall of Saigon.  John Rambo, a veteran of the Special Forces celebrated in The Green Berets, is a drifter who arrives in the northwestern town of Hope.  ‘We don’t want guys like you in this town’ the sheriff tells Rambo, who like many returning veterans cannot fit easily back into American society.  Arrested for refusing to leave Hope, Rambo’s abuse by the police evoke memories of his imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese, and he breaks free.  The audience has little or no sympathy for the police and the civilian community, and the remarkable military training and martial abilities make Rambo a superheroic figure, who for much of the movie holds off the police and military authorities who are trying to capture him. 

Rambo is very different from the heroes of Second World War movies.  For much of First Blood he is silent, and he is clearly traumatized and scarred both physically and psychologically by his service in Vietnam.  But his muscle-bound physical prowess and military ability – and implicitly that of all Americans who served Vietnam – is never in doubt, and it is usually through his actions that Rambo speaks.  Only at the conclusion of the movie, when Rambo surrenders to his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, does he finally speaks more than a short sentence.  The torment and anguish pour out through the tears, as he laments the deaths of his comrades in Vietnam and explains that the nightmares of what he and they experienced come back to haunt him every day.

While many Vietnam movies explored the effects of the war on Americans who served, First Blood broke new ground in its forceful presentation of the military prowess and skill of the American soldiers so traumatised by war.  First Blood Part II (1985) broke the genre entirely, by allowing Rambo to employ those abilities to rewrite the history of the war.  Released from a federal prison in order to take part in a reconnaissance mission to locate Americans prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam, Rambo asks Trautman ‘Do we get to win this time?’, to which Trautman responds ‘This time its up to you.’  According to Trautman, Rambo has ‘only a desire to win a war that somebody else lost.’  If the first movie explained the mental condition of Vietnam veterans upon their return to the United States, the second explained that American soldiers did not lose but were betrayed: thus the way is opened for both the actual history and the Hollywood reconstructions of the Vietnam War to be rewritten.

However, in First Blood Part II the politicians and government bureaucrats did not expect and indeed did not want Rambo to find American prisoners of war.  When Rambo proceeds to locate and rescue American prisoners, Murdoch orders the mission and Rambo and the prisoners to be abandoned.  The belief of many veterans that they had been betrayed by their leaders in the past is thus made real and is directly connected to the present.  Fighting both the Vietnamese and Soviet troops, Rambo wins a Cold War battle and rescues the prisoners.  Rambo ends the movie with a remarkable patriotic paean, inconceivable in other Vietnam movies, linking himself with the prisoners of war and affirming that

I want what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants, for our country to love us as much as we love it.

The third and final Rambo movie showed the full implications of the trilogy for the Vietnam War genre and American culture.  When Colonel Trautman is captured and tortured by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, Rambo enters the country alone and unsupported to rescue his former commanding offer and fellow Vietnam veteran.  If one movie could encapsulate the American desire embodied by Reagan to move beyond an emasculating Vietnam syndrome in order to fight and win the Cold War it was the third and final Rambo film.  While the second movie had allowed Americans to rewrite the history of their involvement in Vietnam in patriotic and even victorious terms, Rambo III (1988) allowed Vietnam veterans and their successors to move beyond that war in order to confront and defeat the familiar Cold War enemy, and the film closed with a dedication ‘To the gallant people of Afghanistan.’

Vietnam had killed the mythical John Wayne, and during the 1980s Ramboism replaced John Wayneism, defining a new sense of patriotism by rewriting rules and rewriting history, showing how America could have won in Vietnam and then allowing the United States to win.[37]  The change was reflected not just in the films and fiction of war but in popular culture and language more generally, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes and defines ‘Rambo’ as:

a Vietnam war veteran represented as macho, self-sufficient, and bent on violent retribution: used allusively. Hence Ramboesque a., resembling Rambo, his attitude, or behaviour; Ramboism, conduct or attitudes resembling those of Rambo; Rambo-like a.[38]

The word entered political discourse, and throughout the 1980s terms such as ‘Rambo-like diplomacy,’ ‘Ramboesque’ attitudes and ‘Ramboism’ filled political speeches and newspaper editorials.[39]

The ironies are all too apparent.  The Vietnam War communicated to Americans through film and fiction has generally been a war void of meaning and significance, a war that destroyed the illusions of a generation raised on the patriotic myths of the ‘Good War’ fought and won by their fathers.  But in order to gather strength and purpose for the final stages of the Cold War that had created Vietnam, Americans needed to reconceptualise their role in the war, investing it with nobility and purpose, and making victory possible.  The Rambo movies were not about the historical reality of the Vietnam War, but as mythic constructions they were enormously powerful in allowing Americans to identify and then to begin to move beyond a war that been worse than a defeat, for it had shattered the myths that had made defeat seem impossible


[1] Background information has been drawn from Richard F. Newcomb Iwo Jima (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965).

[2] Quoted by Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 101.  See also Edward T. Linenthal, ‘Shaping A Heroic Presence: Iwo Jima in American Memory,’ Reviews in American History 21 (1993), 8-12.

[3] Sands of Iwo Jima, directed by Allan Dwan (Universal, 1949).  For discussion of the movie, see Lawrence Suid, ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima, the United States Marines, and the Screen Image of John Wayne,’ Film and History 8 (1978), 25-32.  For an excellent study of the entire genre of World War II movies, see Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

[4] This definition of myth is drawn from Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 655.

[5] Joan Didion recalled that ‘when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.’  Joan Didion, ‘John Wayne: A Love Song,’ in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), (Harmondsworth: Penguin,  1979),  38-39.  For more on John Wayne and his place in American culture and consciousness, see Gary Wills, John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).

[6] Oral histories of anonymous Vietnam War veterans, in Nam, ed. Mark Baker (1981), as quoted in Stewart O’Nan, The Vietnam War Reader (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 311, 318.

[7] Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July (1976), (London: Transworld, 1990), 42-43.

[8] Douglas MacArthur, quoted in Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 514.

[9] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (1977), (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996), 6.

[10] The Green Berets (1965), (New York: Avon, 1966); The Green Berets, directed by John Wayne and Ray Kellogg (Warner Brothers, 1968).

[11] Richard Schickel, ‘Duke Talks Through His Green Beret,’ Life, 19 July 1968, 8.  For more on the employment of Western motifs in The Green Berets, see John Hellmann, American Myth and the legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), especially 90-93; Katherine Kinney, Friendly Fire: American Images of the Vietnam War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 11-42, and Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 520-532.

[12] John Wayne to Lyndon B. Johnson, quoted in Lawrence Suid, Guts and Glory: Great American War Movies (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1978), 222.

[13] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990), (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), 68-69.

[14] Wayne to Johnson in Suid, Guts and Glory, 222.

[15] ‘Screen: ‘Green Berets’ as Viewed by John Wayne,’ Renata Adler, New York Times, 20 June 1968, 49.

[16] Catch 22, directed by Mike Nichols (Paramount, 1970); M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman (Twentieth Century Fox, 1970).

[17] Michael Herr, Dispatches (1977), (New York: Vintage, 1991), 209.

[18] Leo Cawley, ‘The War about the War: Vietnam Films and American Myth,’ in From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 69-80.

[19] Caputo, A Rumor of War, xiv.

[20] The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino (Warner Brothers, 1979)

[21] Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Paramount, 1979).

[22] Herr, Dispatches, 16.

[23] Gustav Hasford, The Short-Timers (1979), (New York: Harper and Row, 1983); Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick (Warner Brothers, 1987).

[24] The Gunnery Sergeant is renamed Hartman in Kubrick’s film.

[25] Hasford, The Short-Timers, 4, 29.

[26] Hasford, The Short-Timers, 38.

[27] Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone (Universal, 1989).

[28] Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 519-520.

[29] Hamburger Hill, directed by John Irvin (Paramount, 1987).

[30] Kevin Bowen, ‘First Casualty,’ in From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath (New York: Scribner, 1998), 48.

[31] Susan O’Neil, Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), xi-xii.

[32] Kinney, Friendly Fire, 12.

[33] Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato (1978), (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 270-271.

[34] Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July.

[35] Wayne Biddle, ‘Washington Talk,’ New York Times 6 March 1985, B6.

[36] First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff (Fox, 1982); First Blood Part II, directed by George P. Cosmatos (Fox, 1985); Rambo III, directed by Peter Macdonald (Fox, 1988).

[37] This point is made by Jeremy M. Devine in Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 231.

[38] Oxford English Dictionary on-line.

[39] Peter Maass, ‘Trade Dispute tests Diplomat,’ New York Times 21 April 1986, D12; Mary McGrory, ‘Terrorism Also Maims Our Minds,’ Washington Post 12 January 1986, D1; Kevin Phillips, ‘Let’s have some “Easterns”,’ Christian Science Monitor 6 January 1986, 18.

  How has the experience of the Iraq War altered the way in which America's involvement in war is reflected in film? Read this thought-provoking article by Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian. (External link opens in new window)
American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
Tel 0151-231 3241
International(+44)151-231 3241
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2006
Articles and reviews in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.

Arnet Home Page > American Studies Today Front Page > This article