Editors: Jean-Jacques Malo and Tony Williams
At first glance with these books it would seem that any film in which the Vietnam War is even vaguely hinted at or mentioned is included here which includes old films that deal with South Eastern colonialism, the Indochine war or any other climate in South-East Asian history. However, on reading the books in closer detail including the opening Introduction and chapters it is apparent that there is method in the madness. These books don’t just focus on the classic films that span between 1978 and 1989 beginning with The Deer Hunter and Coming Home and end really with the Oscar success of Born on the Fourth July. It also includes many straight to video titles, unheard of Vietnamese films, French films and not forgetting those many B movie action films that came out in the 1980s such as the Missing in Action films.
The opening introduction sets out the stall of the book. Written by the editors in 1994 it is, alas too short and would have benefitted from an essay that gives a social historical background to the development of this sub-genre, the effect on the psyche of the affected countries and a historical background to the events. All the introduction really does is give a mention to those aforementioned well known Vietnam War films that we are all familiar with and then goes into the layout of the book. I guess that due to the lexicon nature of the book it goes into these details for each individual film. The following chapter by Malo is a little more in depth and does go someways into the psyche of French cinema. Titled ‘Southeast Asia in the French Cinema’, Malo’s chapter goes into more depth about the initial French involvement in the war and this part of Asia being a part of the French sphere of colonial interest and this country’s fractious relationship with Vietnam (which it is at pains to say is better now that it has ever been unlike with the USA). Malo discusses how relatively few films in France have dealt with this subject and how few are known internationally with the exception of Indochine (1992). The author also discusses the French films that mean something to French patriots and perhaps are less known abroad; the infamous battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 is mentioned a couple of times, but this is a conflict little known to non-experts of South-East Asian politics. And here in lies part of the problem with the book. What this book could really have benefitted from is a brief history of the conflict from French colonial rule to American involvement, communism, the end of the Vietnam War and how Vietnam has recovered since. This would be informing for the reader and would allow the reader to contextualize the films better. Even the following chapter about Vietnamese cinema is only a page and a half long and hardly provides the reader with an introduction to that country’s cinema and the way it has dealt with coming to terms with the conflict.
The next 500 pages are literally an A-Z by film title and is most definitely comprehensive covering some 683 films. The way each film is studied is laid out as follows: film title, year and studio etc; then either by an asterix or some other symbol or acronym it covers which film is available on which format of video and in which country. However, given that this book was written in 1994 this is of course way outdated. Following the credits there is a preface of each films themes and key words. Some of these prove interesting reading in giving the justification or the context in which these films are included. For example for such classic Vietnam War films as Platoon (1985) the ‘theme and key words’ are as follows: “American fighting men in Vietnam; the absurdity and confusion of the war; drugs; ineffectual officers; war crimes and atrocities; militarism vs humanism; the will to survive.” This is of course an archetypal Vietnam War film and there is nothing surprising about the themes and key words or concepts. Where it is interesting are where such films as Aliens (1986) is studied in greater depth than such other classics as Apocalypse Now (1979) or how much focus is given to Predator (1987) with the ‘themes and key words’ reading thus: “Science-fiction/horror; Latin American involvement; covert operation; memory of Vietnam failure; Vietnam veterans/CIA deception”; it becomes apparent how this book tries to unearth not only the war but the effects on the psyche of America, Vietnam and France; the amount of films covered is evidence of how deep this is. Following the ‘themes and key words’ each film is followed by a synopsis and comments. What is revealing is the amount of attention given to certain films and how little is given to the aforementioned Apocalypse Now and the attention given to other films (like Aliens) where it is not immediately obvious there is anything to do with the war. What is unfortunate, despite being written by Vietnamese contributors are that many of the Vietnamese films are not given the same attention and are often “not available for viewing.”
After analyzing the 683 films covered there are several appendices covering subjects such as a list of films in chronological order, countries of origin for the films, a thorough bibliography and other appendices on actors, writers and directors which do seem rather unnecessary and superfluous. The books are revealing to the extent on how deep rooted in just say American society and popular culture the war in Vietnam is to Americans. Maybe now this book has been superseded by the war in Iraq and post 9/11 America. Maybe in a few years there will be a similar book about the new wars that have affected Hollywood to the same degree.