Apocalypse Now: Final Cut?

Why the Real War in Vietnam Will Never Get Into the Movies

For the past few years, I have been working on a book about the American and French wars in Indochina. In particular, I wanted to visit and write about the battlefields of those wars, to see what remains of the imperial adventures. I began my travels in Laos’s Plain of Jars and from there went north to Dien Bien Phu, perhaps the most celebrated battle site in Indochina. There, in spring 1954, North Vietnamese troops, under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded and then overran a French division made up of paratroops and foreign legionnaires. From Dien Bien Phu, I took a bus to Hanoi, and then, in a series of trips taken over the next few years, mostly by train and bicycle, I worked my way across Vietnam and Cambodia. Along the way I explored the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and the Mekong Delta; and during lulls in my travels, I read memoirs, histories, and novels, in the hope that at least some of the real war had gotten into the books.

The one thing I didn’t do during my travels was to watch Vietnam War movies. During my time on the road, Ken Burns released his ten-part serial about the American intervention, and other films from that era were showing up on sites such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. It would have been easy, when spending the night in some Vietnamese roadside hotel, to have watched Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, but I resisted the temptation to mix my impressions of Vietnam with those of Hollywood directors. I stuck to my own memories, which were formed, for example, on long bike rides along Highway 19 in the Central Highlands, or along Highway 13 (Thunder Road to the GIs) north of Saigon. And I came to my own conclusions about the war’s legacy, at least in the United States, which I expressed when I gave the book its title, Upcountry: The Finishing Schools of American Exceptionalism in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In it I describe the many wars fought around Indochina as variations on colonial folly and what Rudyard Kipling called “the White Man’s Burden.” In that poem, he writes:

Take up the White Man’s burden - The savage wars of peace - Fill full the mouth of famine And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch Sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.

* * *

Only on my last visit to Vietnam did I decide that I should watch at least some of the films that came out of those wars. For many, the movies are their only frame of reference that they have for Vietnam. On my return, I spent an uninspiring three weeks in front of my computer watching much of the canon, including all of Ken Burns and a number of Hollywood blockbusters.
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Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.

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