Left Behind:

Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam POW

   1971-1978   1979-1986    1987-1994
POW movies  1971-1978 POW movies  1979-1986 POW movies 1987-1994


    The Vietnam War was the longest war in United States history and the most divisive since the Civil War. This crisis event in twentieth-century American life affected how we viewed our country and ourselves. Over time the idea that American POWs (prisoners of war) were left behind in the Vietnam War has grown to mythic proportions based on declassification of government documents and investigative reporting. Myths matter deeply in American culture; they offer possible answers, provide hope, and identify the bad guys (often "the enemy is us"). Modern academics use the term myth to mean a lie or fictional story. My definition of myth corresponds to its traditional meaning as any real or fictional story or recurring theme that appeals to our culture's subconscious emotions by providing simple answers to perplexing questions. Just because we apply the term mythic to a continuing cultural phenomenon does not mean that facts are not contributing to its perpetuation. The thought that the United States government left prisoners behind was so psychologically damaging to American confidence that incorporating and solving the POW myth in film provided a way to symbolically reverse this tragedy and the tragedy of the Vietnam War in general.

   Film manifests the aspirations and ideals of communities and nations. Film not only reflects these ideals but can, at times, "actually define reality in a society...and present what is acceptable and unacceptable" (Hunter 174). In this website, I am seeking to examine the relationship of evolving film depictions of POWs to the political history of the POW myth. I want to examine the political and cultural meaning of films that for a large portion of American society comprise their only knowledge about POWs from the Vietnam War.

   The website is divided into three distinct time periods that correspond to three political and cinematic shifts. Amidst the anti-Vietnam veteran atmosphere of the 1970s, filmmakers portrayed semi-lunatic POWs made pathological by their war time imprisonment. With President Jimmy Carter unable to get our hostage in Iran back, the United States again grieved our inability to retrieve our prisoners. In response, we voted Ronald Reagan into office with his mantra of "bringing America back" in the early 1980s. Reagan allowed the public to question the unreasonably low numbers of POWs released in 1973. The public paid again and again to watch the second type of film - American POWs rescued on the big screen. With Rambo (and numerous other copycat cardboard heroes), we could retrieve the hero's honor by allowing him to find POWs and defeat the bureaucratic villain. We could cheer in films and symbolically achieve vengeance against government forces who had abandoned the imprisoned. The 80s Rambo film eventually gave way to the third form with its quest for authenticity. As the government formally confronted the issue with a Senate Select Committee, Hollywood created POW documentaries and based-on-true-story films. The public demanded more informative material without the fantastic elements.

   The American culture's dedication to the POW myth is a political and cultural symbol of our commitment to a restorative process, which included an attempt to solve this complex problem through fictional means. The POW and MIA (missing in action) issue acted as a bringing together of both sides, left and right, hawks and doves, flower children and army brats who all wanted to get the POWs home and who could achieve in film what they couldn't do in fact.