Left Behind:

Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam POW

  1971 - 1978
Deer Hunter




   Hollywood depictions of POWs seem to fit chronologically into three categories: disturbed POW coming home, superhuman heroes rescuing those forgotten, and documentary type films. Films from about 1971 to 1978 stereotyped former prisoners of war as scarred and wounded men who were a flashback away from violence. Once back on U.S. soil, these unstable men reverted back to warring ways whenever confronted with conflict. These alienated anti-heroes "represented a fictional acting out of the collective national trauma" (Kern 44). The politic malfeasance of this time did not appear in film, instead filmmakers portrayed POW/MIAs as violent men, part of the negative portrayal of Vietnam Veterans in general.


Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol - 1971

   In 1973, when the POWs were sent home, Hollywood had only briefly touched on the question of POWs and MIAs in Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol (1971), a made for television movie in which the protagonist ends up in a mental ward. In prison, the main character creates an idyllic imaginary home life as a mental escape from his current hell. The Martin Landau production starred Martin Landau as a career officer who is rescued after two years in a bamboo cage. To remain sane in prison camp, he remembers every detail about his home town, Charles, Vermont. When he is released, he discovers that no one has ever even heard of this town and that he actually lives at the corners of Charles and Vermont in a rough part of Philadelphia. The Landau character thinks the government has concocted some conspiracy against him and the American people. The filmmakers attempt to portray his instability through flashbacks, and Bristol is besieged by visions of his time as a prisoner. The film ends with the former POW in a military psycho ward. Interestingly, this character's notion of a government conspiracy is portrayed as ridiculous. But later in the 1980s, when evidence appears that Welcome Home, 1989a possible government cover up regarding POWs occurred, filmmakers begin to portray movie characters whose claims of conspiracy are credible. The film Welcome Home part of a later trend in the 1980s, tells of a man who spent four years as a POW and 13 more years as a fugitive hiding from the Khmer Rouge in the jungle. The film claims that the US Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency were aware that POWs were alive as early as 1979. The government convinces the main character, played by Chris Kristofferson, not to reveal his return and the presence of other prisoners in Southeast Asia as a matter of national security. The film makes the conspiracy theory look plausible. This is a departure from Johnny Bristol, who was seen as psychotic. Welcome Home seems to parallel, and possibly provide a cinematic explanation for, the actual appearance of Bobby Garwood, a POW released from Vietnam in 1979, who claimed that live POWs were still imprisoned.

Rolling Thunder - 1977

William Devane as a former POW about to exact revenge   William Devane plays a POW imprisoned for eight years. When Major Rane returns to the United States, his home town gives him a silver dollar for every day of captivity. Thieves (one member is a Vietnam veteran) kill Rane's wife and son and cut off his hand in the garbage disposal during a robbery of his silver dollars. The Devane character, with a former POW friend, tracks the robbers to Mexico, where he exacts his revenge. Some have labeled this film, in the tradition of blaxploitation films of the 70's, as vetsploitation film - focusing on the returning POWs as "freaked out losers" (Kern 43) who The chaotic nature of the Rolling Thunder publicity posterreenact their imprisonment and torture by committing violent acts of crime. For some reason, these POWs can't shake off their attraction to carnage. In addition to Rolling Thunder, Black Sunday (1977) and Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) both contain former POWs who threaten mass murder and destruction. These former POWs are portrayed as psychologically disturbed time-bombs waiting to go off. Filmmakers used POWs as convenient stereotypes in the 70s culture that would easily accept them as such.

The Deer Hunter - 1978

    The Deer Hunter marks a transition point by offering both the disturbed 70s POW in the character of Nick and the 80s superhero POW in the character of Michael. Robert DeNiro plays Michael, the only one with strength enough to save Michael the mythic hunterhimself and his friends. Christopher Walken plays Nick, the psychologically inept POW who must continually act out his Russian roulette POW experience in the deadly Saigon circuit.

   Aspects of Michael's character place him in the tradition of "past mythic heroes who carve out their identity in confrontation with nature" (Quart 160). The Deer Hunter's title echoes James Fenimoore Cooper's The Deer Slayer as Michael possesses Natty Bumppo-like qualities of honor, being at home in a world without women and a commitment to one-shot killing. Some critics argue that The Deer Hunter is yet another frontier myth with the Vietcong supplanting the heathen Indians. Michael embodies part of the "new frontierspeople - a group who can spawn pure, self-reliant, physically courageous heroes" (Quart 163). During a deer hunt with his best friends,Michael the warrior Michael announces like some Native American soothsayer that, "blessings on the hunters [have been] sent by the Great Wolf to his children." This scene confirms Michael's mythic hunter past and his role of interpreter of the past.

   Michaelís penchant for hunting is more conducive to surviving the war than a more sentimental Nick. Nick, the disturbed POW type, reveals his sensitivity and fears while deer hunting with the other guys before taken off for Vietnam, "I don't know....I guess I'm thinking about going to 'Nam. I like the way the trees are in the mountains. All the different ways the trees are." Later he asks from Michael to make a promise. "If something happens, Mike, don't leave me. You gotta promise, Mike." When in Vietnam, Michael and Nick are captured by the Vietcong and placed in bamboo cages.

Michael and Steven, POWs in a bamboo cage

These North Vietnamese dispose of their prisoners by making them play the fatal game of Russian roulette. Michael proposes a plan of escape and with Nick's help they succeed in killing their captors and
click for movie clip
     The Deer Hunter
Michael, Nick and Steven float downriver after escaping. releasing another buddy Steven. After the three friends are picked up by a search and rescue helicopter, Steven falls back into the water. Michael, the consummate hero, jumps in after Steven and saves his life again.

    The Russian roulette scene, though not historically accurate, symbolizes the randomness of death and "becomes a metaphor for a war that blurred the lines between bravery and cruelty, friends and enemies, sanity and madness" (Bourdette 178). According to Robert De Niro, "the Russian-roulette thing was a metaphor....It shocked people in a way they wouldn't have felt if they just saw another battle.... [he] had been reading a book during this period about POWs over there, and [the POWs] were always told to recant -- to say they were wrong for invading Vietnam" (qtd in Muse 108). De Niro's comments disclose a turning point in POW film. The lead actor is not only stating his public sympathy for the POW but is also trying to evoke that emotion from the audience. Fear of the violent POW has evolved into sympathy for him.

   Nick, the more psychologically fragile, is overcome with guilt that his friends might have died dropping from the helicopter and cannot face going home without them. Hospitalized in Saigon, Nick fixates on body bags, his eyes betraying the immense pain his experience in captivity is causing him and the immense sense of loss. He goes AWOL losing his faith in the old time national ideals and in himself. The disturbed POW ends up remaining in Saigon making thousands of dollars participating in and winning Russian-roulette contests. When Michael learns of Nick's AWOL, he tries to "go solo" and save his buddy like the consummate superhero. Michael attempts to restore Nick but he is so completely lost and drugged out that he has no memory of Michael at first.

Michael risks his life playing Russian roulette against Nick

Michael pays to oppose Nick during a roulette game. When Michael says, "I love you, Nick," Nick awakens for an instant but then shoots himself. Nick remains forever a prisoner of the war that destroyed him. Because their ideals are shattered by the insanity of the POW experience, these men can't ever be whole again. Nick annihilates himself and Michael loses his best friend.

    The Deer Hunter ends with Nick's best friends toasting him Post-funeral singing and singing "God Bless America." Michael and the others reach for something that may give comfort, a sense of the past-loved America, a "land that I love." The betrayal of America leads to a rebuilding of community, and a social and country bond that can survive great loss. The film opens with the communal moment of wedding and closes in communal moment of eating and singing and drinking. Michael remains in the tradition of men who go to war for a high cause, who work to build a civilization out of chaos and wilderness but return home empty handed. Nick follows in the tradition of a wounded POW who can not ever return to civilization. The price paid is enormous but filmmakers seem to be saying that the community and the country cannot exist without this sacrifice and loss.