Heroes (1977) Another Vietnam Vet Tale

Last year I posted on the topic of Most Memorable Vietnam Vets and collected quite a list of movies in which a Vietnam vet is the main character. With the exception of four movies I had seen all of them. Heroes wasn’t on the list because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I’ve watched it meanwhile and included it in the list. I still think that Jacknife and Taxi Driver, both starring Robert de Niro, are the most memorable ones, still, I would say Heroes is worth watching for many reasons, if only to see the young Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

Jack Dunne has escaped from a mental hospital. Not for the first time, he has escaped before but this time he is determined to not get caught again. His friends at the hospital have given him money for an unusual business involving earthworms. His plan it to travel to Kansas to meet a former comrade Ken (Harrison Ford) who was in the same unit and then travel on to see other buddies, who all served with him as well. On his journey he meets Carol who is just about to get married but for reasons even unknown to herself she wants to get away for a few days before the wedding and stay on her own for a while.

While she is at first somewhat alienated by Jack’s strange behaviour and the fact that he is chased by the police, she is also intrigued and fascinated by this odd fellow who carries around a box of worms and doesn’t seem to be able to take anything seriously. When they accidentally get into a bar fight and Carol has to pay for the mess Jack has made, she decides to follow him. Jack has promised that Ken will pay her back.

Ken, Jack’s friend, isn’t much better off than Jack. He lives outside of a town in a trailer hoping to make money with car racing. He is part of Jack’s fantastic business plan to make money with earthworms but not only does he not take the idea seriously, he is in no condition to think about business at all.

After having stayed with Ken, Jack and Carol take Ken’s car and go on a trip to visit Jack’s other buddies but nothing turns out as expected. One of them died, a fact Jack new but repressed, another one is hiding somewhere. On top of that the horrible war memories which Jack had tried to repress start to resurface violently.

Heroes is part road movie, part Vietnam vet tale and part love story. Both Carol and Jack have issues, both drift through life, do not belong anywhere and in meeting each other they find for the first time someone with whom a real relationship is possible.

As a road movie and a story about an intense relationship, the movie worked well. I also liked the character of Ken quite a lot. I was not too sure about the veteran part though. Jack suffers from PTSD and there are a few subtle moments (nightmares, flashbacks…) which show this very well, on the other hand, he seems to be a very naive, childlike person and one gets the impression that he must have had problems before he even went to Vietnam. That creates a bit of a mix. He is an interesting character but as a portrait of a vet it didn’t work all that well for me.

Still, Heroes is watchable and entertaining and it was nice to see the very young and pretty Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

I couldn’t find  a trailer, just this very short scene.

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On Guest Posts and A Question to My Readers

I think this was the longest I haven’t posted on this blog but life – virtual and real – was beyond hectic. I also received numerous mails from people asking for the opportunity to write a guest post. I I’m a bit peculiar when it comes to guest posts. I thought I should be the one asking, not the other way around. So far I have only asked two people, nem baj, who wrote the last post on this blog, and Kevin aka The War Movie Buff whose post is pending.

Now you wonder, does this mean you are not allowed to ask whether you can do a guest post. No, it doesn’t mean that but your chances of being accepted are minimal. Especially when it is not about war movies. People have the weirdest ideas. Why the heck would I want you to write a guest post about “home schooling” on a blog dedicated to war movies? Duh.

This week I also received a request by a man who writes for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. It seems that this type of cancer is very frequent in veterans. It’s a type of cancer you can develop due to exposure to asbestos and often it is only detected 20 years later. As we all know early detection is key when it comes to cancer. I can see why he asked to have a guest post on this blog. The intention is to inform veterans of the condition and I am aware that I have a lot of veterans among my readers. To be honest, my first impulse was saying “no”. Or ask him to write it in a way that relates it to war movies. That would be tricky though. When I thought about it again, I realized that I might actually want to include this type of post. But since I’m not a 100% sure, I decided to ask you.

What do you think, should this blog include information for veterans related to health issues (physical and psychological)?

And if so, in a blog post or maybe on a separate page called “Veteran’s Health”?

Grey’s Anatomy and The Iraq Vet with PTSD

While there is a Vietnam Vet in the True Blood books who has been changed into an Iraq Vet for the TV series to make him more age appropriate, there is also the story of an Iraq vet in the US TV series  Grey’s Anatomy. I was a bit surprised when series 5 introduced Dr. Owen Hunt, trauma surgeon at the Seattle Grace hospital, and to discover the back story. It’s an interesting depiction of an Iraq vet with severe PTSD, at times a bit over the top, but still believable.

Owen is a type “Ice man”, reminiscent of Sgt Brad Colbert in Generation Kill. He can handle pain and when it comes to help others he can put himself aside completely, he even functions extremely well in the Emergency Room under stressful circumstances.

His illness becomes obvious when he falls asleep. Whenever he gets woken abruptly he goes berserk as it reminds him of things he survived “over there”. When he is at relative peace he also suffers from flash backs which trouble him a lot. Whenever he is under pressure he functions remarkably well.

There is a relationship dynamic to the whole thing (obviously, as we are talking Grey’s Anatomy here) that intensifies his symptoms.

I have the odd comment of vets on this blog, some of them have done a few tours in Iraq and I would love to hear what they have to say, should they have watched Grey’s Anatomy.  One question I have, is whether it would be even possible for someone to be a trauma surgeon while suffering from severe PTSD?

True Blood and the Vietnam Vet

Harry Brown (2009) Michael Caine Starring as WWII Vet

If Gran Torino had been good it would have been Harry Brown. This is one hell of a gritty movie. A pretty unvarnished look at today’s Britain. If you are in a somewhat no-future, modern-life-is-pointless-and-ugly mood, better stay away from Harry Brown as it will certainly not cheer you up. If you like movies like Let the Right One In (The Swedish film!!!), then you might like it although there are no vampires in this movie, only very ugly and depraved humans.

Harry Brown (Michael Cane) is a lonely man. He spends his time visiting his wife at the hospital or playing chess with his only friend Leonard. When his wife dies there is only Leonard left. The two men live in the same depressing housing estate, somewhere on the outskirts of a big British city. Local gangs are roaming the neighbourhood day and night and some of the places and pedestrian walkways are far from safe. Violence and drug trafficking go on, people who pass are molested and harmed. The kids from the gangs are a bunch of real scum, the lowest of the low. No education, no future, only using and abusing.

Harry and Leonard regularly meet in a bar nearby where they play chess. Leonard has been the gangs’ target for a while. They hustle him, threaten him, shove dog shit into his letter box. The old man is terrified and cannot take it any longer. One afternoon he tells his friend that he is now armed. He is carrying an old bayonet and, if necessary, will defend himself.

Not long after this conversation two detectives (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) come to see Harry Brown to tell him, that his friend has been killed. Beaten up and stabbed to death. Four young blokes are arrested, one more horrible than the other, some in and out of prison and coming from families in which the father, uncle or some other male relative is constantly in prison. The police questioning shows them from their ugliest side. They verbally abuse the female detective, swear and cheer because they know there is no evidence.  Despite their obvious violent tendencies, the police have to let them go.

And that’s when Harry Brown takes a decision. He will avenge his friend. After the first gang members and drug dealers are found dead, the police now shifts from looking for the murderers to trying to catch a vigilante.

Up to now it may seem as if it wasn’t justified to include Harry Brown in this blog but the fact that Harry Brown is an ex-Marine and has served in WWII is important and gets even more important from the moment he decides to take justice into his own hands.

This isn’t a glossed over movie with a tacky ending, this is a tale that might happen, that shows an ugly reality that is far from overdrawn. It also takes a close look at the frailty and loneliness old age can bring.

Harry Brown is one of those old-school soldiers who never spoke about what happened in the war, who possibly tried to avoid thinking of it. The loss of his wife and friend and the brutality of the murder triggers something and liberates him.

Funny enough, this is as well a movie of vengeance as a movie of closure. It’s not pretty, it’s not nice but it’s highly watchable and it shows an absolutely excellent Michael Caine.

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) Another Grim Korean Vet or Why I Think Gran Torino is Dishonest

To a certain extent my title does already give away what I thought of Gran Torino, only it is toned down. I was actually thinking more than once while watching “What a load of crap!”. Sorry, people, if there is anyone reading this who liked it, no offence.

Gran Torino tells the story of an old grumpy Korean vet (no, this isn’t a cliché, of course not), Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood)  who has recently become a widower. He lives in a neighbourhood that has been invaded (his point of view) by…? – Ha! I’m aiming at 100% percent politically correct wording here and will therefore translate what Swiss official papers would use as a wording which is “People with a migratory background”. OK, once more with feeling. His neighbourhood is invaded by people with a migratory background or – less politically correct –  “spooks” and “gooks”, as our vet calls them. Especially unsavoury to him is the fact that the house next to him is occupied (his point of view) by gooks.

At the funeral and the reception that follows, it becomes clear that Walt Kowalski doesn’t get along with his family or children. The relationships are extremely tense and full of mutual animosity and mistrust. Walt is one of those tight-lipped men who answers with a grunt rather than a full sentence. He is suspicious and full of hatred for almost every one around him. And he loves his beer.

The family who moved in next door consists of the grandmother, the mother, a daughter and a teenage boy. The boy loves to do gardening and hangs out with his family or can be seen reading a book. This greatly displeases his cousin who belongs to a local street gang.

This gang tries to clutch the boy and wants him to join the gang. They are sexist and macho. Without really wanting to Kowalski helps the boy. The cousin however will not let go easily and the boy and his sister are in real danger. The boy’s behaviour seriously tarnishes his cousin’s street cred. This must be punished.

The neighbourhood they are living in is dangerous, especially for a girl who might get raped any minute. Some time later Kowalski helps the girl against a bunch of “spooks”. The girl and our vet get to know each other and when he calls her “gook”, she corrects him and tells him that she isn’t Vietnamese but of Hmong origin. The Hmong are mountain people, located between China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. During the war in Vietnam they were on the side of the US and were later abused, mistreated and executed by the Vietnamese. That’s why so many fled to the US, as the girl tells Kowalski.

And this is where the movie lost me for good. It drifts into some tacky redemption parable that I found all the more dishonest because of this Hmong detail. Not that I don’t think they deserve a movie, they certainly are a tragic people but to choose to focus on Hmong rather than on other immigrants – sorry, I meant people with a migratory background – is such a dishonest thing to do. It is as if Eastwood could only choose and have Kowalski accept them because they were on the side of the US. Kowalski is and stays a racist all through the movie.

The message is dubious, the movie is tacky and clichéd , the ending is corny…

Skip it!

Here is the link to the Hmong Net for those interested.

Most Memorable Vietnam Vet in War Movies

I actually had a discussion yesterday about this topic. Which is the most memorable Vietnam vet in any movie? De Niro in Taxi Driver? Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July? Or even Rambo? The one I prefer is Jacknife. He is the most touching and likable. But I think not necessarily the most memorable. The most memorable for me is de Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, I want to hear what you think, which is the most memorable and which one did you like the most?

Here are a few to refresh your memory (and yes, indeed, Robert de Niro is certainly THE Vietnam vet actor)

Robert de Niro in Jacknife

Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo: First Blood

Tom Cruise (in one of his best roles) in Born on the 4th of July

Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage in Birdy

James Cann in Gardens of Stone

Jack Dunne in Heroes

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

James Woods in The Visitors

Bruce Willis in In Country

John Lithgow in Distant Thunder

One little confession, I haven’t seen the last four… Did I miss something?

Alan Parker’s Birdy (1984) A Tale of Friendship, War and Being Different

What took me so long to watch this astonishing movie? For odd reasons it is hardly on any war movie list, not even in Russell’s book on Vietnam movies although he included Forrest Gump. Maybe because Birdy is so much more than just a Vietnam vet movie?  I don’t know. I urge anyone who likes movies that are not ordinary to watch Birdy. Birdy has a lot to offer. A beautiful story, a powerful anti-war statement, a tale on friendship, an exploration of madness, a character sturdy of a non-conformist and two famous actors, Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine at their very best. I truly liked every minute of it.

Birdy is based on the novel by William Wharton. It tells the story of two friends Al and Birdy who meet each other when they are still children. In flashbacks we see their teenage years in Philly and how, despite being total opposites, they become best friends. Birdy is an outsider. He hardly talks to anyone but he opens up to Al. Birdy is more interested in birds and flying than in other things, unlike Al who wants to meet girls and have fun.

They have all sorts of adventures together, from raising carrier pigeons to rescuing stray dogs and some aborted attempts at flying.

But this is the past. The present is quite a different one. Both young men did enlist when the war started. While Al comes back injured and scarred for life, Birdy is said to have gone missing for a month. When they find him he is catatonic. He is brought to a mental asylum where he mostly sits on the floor in bird-like positions. He has to be fed and hardly moves.

The psychiatrist sends for Al hoping he will get through to his friend and they will be able to heal together. Even though his scars seems to be more on the outside, it is obvious, Al is not less psychologically wounded.

The story is told in flashbacks. Step by step Al struggles to reach Birdy. He fights for his friend, their friendship and his own survival.

Of course we wonder during the movie if Birdy became that way because he was already a bit crazy to start with but Al, a seemingly healthy young man, does also come back “crazy” and we soon realize this label is by far too narrow.

Birdy reminded me a bit of Big Fish. This gentle tale of two wounded soldiers would appeal to many people who never watch war movies as well as to those who do. The score has been written by Peter Gabriel which was one of the reasons the movie was quite successful when it came out. 5/5