The March Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair had a fun article The Vietnam Oscars by Peter Biskind (now available to read on line), headlined: Three years after the fall of Saigon, Hollywood finally dealt with Vietnam. And how. Produced by maverick talents amid creative chaos, Coming Home and The Deer Hunter split the industry, the critics, and the 1979 Academy Awards.
In the piece he nicely contrasts the treatment of Vietnam Vets in those two flicks.
It’s ironic, in the seventies, movies managed to reflect many of the anxious fears that had Americans locking their doors for the first time (Nixon’s ‘moral majority’). Nuclear waist fueled monsters and communist agents were replaced by a new generation of hot-button boogymen, from Black Revolutionaries to Manson family like doped-up hippies to ethno-street gangs to the Devil himself. But the ‘Nam Vets, returning to America, unable to adjust, angry, agitated and down right creepy, were played on film completely the opposite of the, say glorified WWII vets (until, Noir shined it’s shadow on the dark side).
Recently, I just barely managed to sludge through the remarkably boring Skyjacked (Guillemin 1972).
Real life gun nut, the otherwise great Charlton Heston pilots a commercial jet that is eventually and hilariously hijacked by pissy confused vet, James Brolin, who aims to defect as a hero to Russia. Luckily the Soviet police don’t want the headache and just shoot him when he unboards.
Of the many goofy contradictions in this yawner a personal favorite was when Brolin easily beats up real-life football player Rosey Grier (better remembered as Ray Milland’s soul-brother in The Thing With Two Heads), but when it comes to fighting the 50 year-old Heston, he gets his ass whopped. The Chuck don't care if you served in The Shit, Bro.
Two years later The Chuck would end up piloting again in Airport 1975, saving a plane full of overacting all-stars including Karen Black, Erik Estrada, Linda Blair and the great Larry Storch.
Skyjacked represents the “Lone-Nut Vietnam Vet” flick. A sub genre that peaked with De Niro’s creepy would-be assassin Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and late with Sylvester Stallone’s retarded muscle imbecile in the great action flick First Blood (Kotcheff 1982).
George P Cosmato’s awful Rambo: Fist Blood Part 2 (1985) represents another Crazy Vet sub-genre, see the future blog entry “P.O.W. Powwow”.
A year before Bruce Dern got his Oscar nomination for his crazy ‘Nam vet in Coming Home (losing to Christopher Walken’s crazier ‘Nam vet in The Deer Hunter) he did the manipulated lone-nut vet thing in John Frankenheimer exciting blimp-attacks-the Super Bowl thriller Black Sunday (1977). Nothing spells ‘second date’ less then a horny Psycho Vet. As demonstrated by the creep stalking Studio 54-wigged Victoria Principle around a crumbling Los Angeles in Earthquake (Mark Robson 1974) played by Marjoe Gortner, in real life the one time one-time kiddie-evangelist and subject of the twisted 1972 documentary Marjoe.
In Forced Vengeance (Fargo 1982) wolfman-looking vet Chuck Norris has to get phooey against the Hong Kong mob that wants to take over the casino he's devoted to.
Tim Robbins wobbly vet sees dead people in Jacob's Ladder (Lyne 1990). However, even though the guy is a total mess, a shell of a man, at least he does get to bang the sexy Elizabeth Pena (or does he...?)
After making The Deer Hunter (1978) the United Artist bankrupting director Michael Cimino continued his Asian-hate streak with The Year Of The Dragon (1985), this time the crazy vet is played by Mumble Fish, Mickey Rourke, his dickhead cop conducts a one man war against the Chinese mob, while keeping his hair perfectly cool looking.
Opposite of the Lone-Nut Vet genre is the spaghetti-zombie flick Cannibal Apocalypse (Antonio Margheriti 1980), John Saxon and members of his unit so enjoyed eating Charlie back in ‘Nam, making life in suburban Atlanta just not appetizing. Eventually Saxon almost gives in to a few urges all at once, with the wife away, he tries to bang and bite into his teenage neighbor!
Then after some ‘Nam flashbacks that could of been shot behind Six Flags Georgia, he and his men finally start to get their nibble on, unleashing a cannibal virus turning the town into a zombified hunger-pang smorgasbord, mayhem ensues. As I noted in a earlier blog entry:
...the flick seems to be pro-cannibalism! The heroes are the cannibals! it's just some fall ou from fighting in that bullshit war, man. Wow!).
In the Crazy Vietnam Vet film genre Cannibal Apocalypse represents the more upbeat “(Two Or More) Vets Reunion Equals Trouble” sub-genre.
Other examples would include...
Real-life wacky Vietnam vet Oliver Stones unleashes two Natural Born Hams, Tom Cruise & Willem Dafoe as two wheelchair bound vets who get together in Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) to drink tequila and try to knock each other’s fake mustaches off.
Egged on by another vet buddy, ahole blow-dried, kung fu teacher Martin Kove re-wages the war, but luckily Mr. Miyagi and his eternal teenage grasshopper Daniel aint as easy to push around as the Vietcong were in The Karate Kid III (Avildsen 1989).
Often the crazy vets regroup to fight trouble, for instance in The Annihilators (Sellier 1985) it's to fight a hairy street gang.
In the mean lean Rolling Thunder (Flynn 1977), not yet on DVD in the US, nutso vet Willia Devane is joined by his war bud, Tommy Lee Jones to go all GI Joe on the Tex-mex goons who killed his family and stole his arm!
Veteran good ol’ boy bros Kris Kristofferson & Jan-Michael Vincent reunite to clean up their town from the criminal element in Vigilante Force (Armitage 1976), but they get a little carried away with kicking-ass.
After making an impossible slow-mo escape from a Vietcong prison, one vet becomes The Exterminator
(Glickenhaus 1980) to exert revenge against the criminals that took out his fellow escapee. Oh and to impress the druggy hooker he's been digging on.
Better yet In in the ultra low-budget Michigan made Shall Not Kill Except (1985, with a story by Bruce Campbell) where hilariously in the flashbacks, the woodsy jungle of suburban Detroit stands-in for ‘Nam, the Vets take on a machine gun toting Manson Family type cult.
Before John Heard started playing the same yuppie characters over and over, he gave the performance of his career in underated-director Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981).
Heard’s performance as vet, Alex Cutter, a drunken, one-eyed, one-legged loudmouth of a train wreck is funny, moving and heartbreaking (equally brilliant is Lisa Eichhorn as his suffering wife). Cutter may be one of the most complicated vietnam vet character of his era. Even as he reeks havoc on his best friends life (Jeff Bridges, another terrific performance), he guilts people into loyalty, he’s self aware of the characature he has become, but he can’t stop himself being a Vet myself I can relate. The war on drugs, man).
Cutter’s Way Lite is how one may describe the sweet 1989 flick Jacknife with De Niro and Ed Harris as wacky vet pals, it may be a little too stagey and cleaver to have any real impact. Which in turn was like a grown-up version of the dopey 1977 misfire Heroes, which was suppossed to be a showcase for hot TV star Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler, as a sensitive vet, instead the crazy one played by ‘Star Wars opens in a month’ Harrison Ford stole the movie, but no one cared. Winkler did 20 more seasons of Happy Days.
Ironically Bridges again fell victim to the looney vet buddy in The Big Lebowski (Coen 1998), John Goodman’s vet, almost spoof’s Heard’s Cutter and completes the full evolution from exploited violent monster to cheap comic device.