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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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

Remembering The Deer Hunter (1978)

Isn´t it weird sometimes what we remember about certain movies? I don´t know when it was, but I think it must have been a very long time ago, that I watched The Deer Hunter for the first time. Looking back the only thing I did remember was the Russian roulette scene and the cage that was submersed in water. I didn’t remember any combat scenes and nothing that went on before they volunteered or after they returned from the  war. What actually happened is that  my memory turned The Deer Hunter into a pure POW movie.

I finally watched it again and was surprised. I saw a totally new movie. Powerful is the best word to describe it, even though this does it little justice. Sure, what I remembered was still there but it shrank considerably and took up less than a tenth of the whole movie. Strange I think,  because since I have seen it again I must say, yes, the roulette scene, the whole POW part is maybe the most impressive but it is not the most important. And it is totally fictious. It is as if Michael Cimino had chosen to show the war in this way because he thought facts would not be drastic enough. Looking at all the other Vietnam war movies that have been done since I must say that especially because of these scenes The Deer Hunter is not the best Vietnam war movie there is but it is one of the more original ones. And it is an extraordinarily good movie about a certain type of people and how they were affected by the war.

What I will remember from now on is young men who live in a grim industrial town. They are second generation  Russian immigrants who are enthusiastic and idealistic and want to fight for their country not knowing what they get themselves into. A bunch of friends for whom life only just begun and whose dreams will be shattered for ever. Who return having left the easy-going, careless “Deer Hunter”-personality behind. They are completely changed and broken and we ask ourselves at the end : is there still enough left of them to begin a new life?

It is not my favourite Vietnam movie but it  ranks high up among the 10 best as I stated before (see my list 10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See Before You Die ).

What about you? Which is the part you like best about The Deer Hunter. Would it have been possible to leave the roulette part out altogether? How high would you rank it within the 10 best Vietnam war movies and how high within the best including every war/subgenre?

How to Kill the Reputation of a Genre or Rambo: First Blood Part II

I have gotten many negative reactions when I have told people that I am interested in war movies. There are many people who think a war movie will always glorify violence and favour supermacho heroes that are close to brainless machines using guns for fun and sport.

I was always reluctant to watch Rambo until I finally gave in. I don´t think that First Blood Part I is that bad. The depiction of a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome is quite OK. However, I don´t like Stallone. His facial expressions are far too limited.

But when it comes to First Blood Part II… That is another story. I truly believe that this movie damaged the reputation of the whole genre.

“Do we get to win this time…?” Now seriously… Do you not consider this to be totally tasteless?

Here is what the journalist James Mottram has to add:

If the original film suggests men like Rambo are still fighting the war back home, be it on the inside or in a mountain-town, its sequel took far greater liberties. By the early 1980s, after the dust had settled on grandiose epics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Hollywood saw the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War. A film so guilty of this it should be court-martialled, Rambo: First Blood Part II recast its embittered lead –  jailed in a civilian maximum-security prison between the first two films – as a one-man wager of war. A pure “fighting machine”, as his mentor and father-figure Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) dubs him, he is a nostalgic reflection of what Philip Caputo, in his 1977 book A Rumor of War , called “that savage, heroic time… before America became a land of salesmen and shopping-centres. (James Mottram in Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, p. 155)

What do you think? Did Rambo: First Blood Part II not have its part in killing the reputation of war movies?

True Blood and The Vietnam Vet

I read a lot. All sorts of things. Classics, literature, prize winners, pure entertainment, crime and thriller, some Fantasy… I am curious when I hear people enthuse about a book. That´s how I got lured into reading the first two in the Southern Vampire Series, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris. I do not really want to go into this reading experience here (I do understand why the series is succesful), nor is this the place to analyse women´s obsession with vampires (…. maybe…or,…..no, I don´t even go there…), what caught my attention early on was the character Terry Bellefleur. I felt he was very intense and with very few words Charlaine Harris captured the personality of a truly traumatized person. Without elaborating this character much she added another dimension to the already multi-faceted people swarming these books. Like in many Vampire novels before the Sookie Stackhouse series, one of the major themes is the outsider, someone who has lost contact with the society or was never part of it. And since the Southern Vampire books are populated with so many different types of fictitious and real outsiders like vampires, shape-shifters, homosexuals, Afro-Americans, addicts, the addition of a Vietnam vet seems of almost stringent logic.

I had read the books before even hearing of the series but was very curious to watch it. Six Feet Under will always be my favourite series so it was only logical I would at least have a look at what magic Alan Ball would be weaving  in True Blood. I was not disappointed. This series is just great fun. Very sexy and daring. Great cast, great stories, greatest intro song to any series ever (sure, it is only my humble opinion).

Writers and director took quite a few liberties especially with the cast. Many characters are much more developed than those in the book. Some are totally different, like Tara. Other types of outsiders are added, like alcoholics.

And what about our Vietnam vet? Miraculously transformed into an Iraq veteran to offer identification to the younger audience and to raise the awareness and understanding of and for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more or less the explanation given by the producers. Quite nice, only it does not work for me. It does not feel right. I cannot explain it, but to me he is and will always be a Vietnam vet. No matter how much rationalization they put into his “transformation”.

When the actor Todd Lowe, whom many know from Gilmore Girls, was asked how he did prepare for the role, he explained he pictured a Vietnam vet that he had known as a young man. A homeless guy that talked him into giving him his cigarettes.

I wonder if there is not another reason to switch from Vietnam to Iraq. Maybe the age? Would a Vietnam vet not be much older than a guy returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course this is a rhetorical question. Maybe the producers, even though they are extremely inclusive of marginal groups did not want to embrace the elderly? Now, don´t tell me this is not food for thought. Aren´t we living in a society that is ever so obsessed with age? Aren´t the vampires  ageless…always young, always beautiful? There is a certain logic in ostracizing the elderly from a vampire movie, right?

Or – which is not much better – did they think it was too hard to believe that someone could still suffer from PTSD after having come back such a long time ago? If so, what do they know?

I think they should have let this be. And I don´t buy the explanations. I would have preferred Terry Bellefleur to be an elderly Vietnam vet.

What about you?

I have to post the opening credits here for you, they are just too good to be missed and, let´s be honest, when will I ever get another chance to do this in a blog on war movies? Although…Come to think of it… what about a post dedicated to Generation Kill and  Alexander Skarsgard….

De Niro in Jacknife (1989)Part II

Often when you ask someone  who is their favourite actor especially men tend to name Robert de Niro. Surely his merits are undisputable still he did get on my nerves in several of his films since he´s got the habit of overacting and that way tends to turn into a parody of himself. I thought I´d seen many of his movies and knew that he was at least in two Vietnam related ones, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. Somehow Jacknife sneakily escaped my attention.

I saw it recently and must say, it would have been a pity not to see  it and this for several reasons. (Check out the trailer in an older post).

First, I think, it is one of de Niros´ best performances, second I think it is a very good attempt at showing the theme of the Vietnam vet. Post traumatic stress and so forth.

Megs (de Niro) and Dave (Ed Harris) served in Vietnam together. They hadn´t seen each other for a while when suddenly, out of the blue, Megs invades Dave´s home to take him on a fishing trip. Unfortunately he realises he´s less than welcome. Dave showing every sign of full-blown alcoholism still blames Megs for the death of Bobby, the third guy they went to Vietnam with.

Megs tries everything to cheer up Dave but fails completely. The fact that Megs begins a relationship with  Martha (Kathy Baker), Dave´s sister doesn´t exactly improve anything.

Even though at first it looks as things were not going well at all, Megs´ likeable character, his outgoing, eccentric ways liven up the brother and sister and ultimately transform them profoundly. The story is interwoven with flashbacks that show what went wrong in Vietnam where Megs was by far too gung-ho and shooting way too fast at everything.

Sure, these are personal stories, character studies, no analyzing of the war as such or its political and social impact.

I just adored de Niro in this and understood again why so many think he´s one of the best actors alive.