Beginning in 1965 and stretching on until the late 1970s, America entered a period of great upheaval. Political, economic, and social change swept across the nation in the wake of the Vietnam War. The stress of that conflict bled into every facet of American culture. Cinema proved one of the most visible signs of the change wrought by the conflagration in Vietnam, commenting on a loss of faith in government, consumerism, and the nobility of man. Spawning a new cinematic movement that challenged authority, explored human flaws, and redefined morality, the Vietnam War was responsible for establishing a New Hollywood based not on business models (mass produced entertainment) but the supremacy of the director and investigating the human condition in order to explain the post-Vietnam world. With the old regime (Hollywood moguls) unable to cope with this changing mindset, a new generation of filmmakers was brought in. These new filmmakers, influenced by the Vietnam War, altered the content of cinema towards grittier fare rich in verisimilitude as films shrunk from gigantic epics to smaller, more personal experiences and art, more than entertainment, became the aim of Hollywood. Film became a means for the emerging generation, the baby boomers, to speak out. It is the intention of this paper to point out how the Vietnam War altered cinematic content in the years between 1965 and 1979.
Before I go further, I must point out that though Vietnam was important in the shaping of movies throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, other factors would set the stage for cinema’s transformation in this tumultuous period. Studios were losing fortunes at the box office as audiences declined steadily throughout the 1950s to record lows in the 1960s. Even worse was the growing popularity of foreign films and television which were cutting deeply into Hollywood’s business. With ticket sales dropping and revenue shrinking, many predicted an end to the American film industry. Coupled with this was a liberalizing of censorship which led to the establishment of the ratings system in 1968 allowing for unprecedented material, sexual and violent, to appear on screen. With a desperate Hollywood willing to do anything to avoid bankruptcy and a rating system no longer limiting what filmmakers could produce, the scene was set for some catalyst to take cinema into territory it had never been to before. That catalyst would be Vietnam.
The idealism the baby boomer generation had been born into following World War II, promising a future of peace and possibility, was proven a fraud in the 1960s. Following the dread of nuclear war in the 1950s, America stumbled into a Kafkaesque war in Vietnam. It was an all consuming conflict that economically and morally drained the nation. What started as a crusade to preserve democracy and halt the march of Communism across the globe slowly twisted into a war of attrition which ground the nation down.
The economy fell apart as the life blood of America was pumped into the grisly war in Vietnam. The Great Society programs, the last vestige of an attempt at a utopian society and a symbol of America’s noble intentions, lost funding to the all consuming war in Southeast Asia and faded out revealing a rusting and decaying landscape. Jobs vanished, racial tensions rose, crime increased, and doubts began to coalesce. Consumerism, the central tenet of American culture, proved hollow when the money to finance such a lifestyle dried up in a faltering economy. Capitalism, that great philosophy America was defending in South Vietnam, was failing in the United States with inflation lifting products out of financial reach and poverty claiming millions. Yet government’s priority remained continuing the war in Vietnam despite the suffering of its citizens, raising taxes and drafting thousands to sacrifice overseas in the steaming jungles.
A loss of faith in government arose via questions over the legality of the war (Gulf of Tonkin incident), President Johnson’s administration issuing false information (casualty statistics) regarding the conflict, and the censoring of reports on atrocities committed by American forces in Southeast Asia which would later come to light. This distrust of authority would filter down and create a generation gap between conservative parents and their liberal children who disagreed over the war and what they were fighting for eventually leading to a rejection of children for everything their parents believed in.
Worst of all were the images of the war in Southeast Asia being broadcast into every living room. War did not possess heroes like John Wayne or Audie Murphy. It was a bloody affair where men cried like babies and youth was cut down too soon. It perverted humanity and brought out the worst in everyone. Morality became ambiguous.
The young, those born in the late 1940s and 1950s, became more and more militant as time progressed. Protests against the war turned to riots which drew brutal police suppression. These protests were the flailings of youth. This emerging generation, the baby boomers, couldn’t understand the rapidly shifting world they found themselves in. Vietnam had left the nation morally bankrupt, economically insolvent, and bordering on domestic collapse. The baby boomers struggled to make sense of a senseless reality, demanding answers and a role in tomorrow. Those in authority rejected their demands, informing baby boomers it wasn’t their place to ask why but to simply submit to the order of things. This was not enough for the young who continued to call for an answer to their questions only to become disillusioned with a culture unable to answer their queries. Their parents wouldn’t listen. Government wouldn’t listen. Society was deaf to their pleas. Frustration and a sense of powerlessness only served to reinforce the divide between the past and approaching generations.
The Vietnam War became a seeming obsession of the American government as it sacrificed a generation of youth, undermining their social foundations in the process. The old were killing the young. The Vietnam War was a sign of the corruption wrought by a faulty American culture focused on materialism, power, and pride by the young, fast becoming a majority of the nation’s population, who could not speak, doubt, or act beneath an oppressive, overarching authority. Fear, rather than hope, overwhelmed the nation as the simmering baby boomer generation threatened to explode. Youth needed a way to unleash this pressure.
As the demographics of the movie going public skewed younger and younger, Old Hollywood found it harder to understand their new audience. By the late 1960s, cinematic audiences were shrinking and the studios were losing money at an alarming rate. Epics like Cleopatra failed to draw in the masses and left Hollywood frustrated. Spectacle, remakes, and other classic Hollywood fare, once a sure economic thing, now resulted in decreasing ticket sales. Even more confusing was what was connecting with American audiences, such as French New Wave and Japanese cinema. When Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, with its oblique narrative structure and full-frontal female nudity, proved a success in 1966, baffled Hollywood producers had had enough. Unable to give audiences what they wanted, and with few options left, a desperate Hollywood hired a host of young filmmakers and allowed them to make films with little studio supervision.
What emerged in this environment was dubbed the New Hollywood. Largely director-driven, it brought a jolt of freshness, energy, sexuality, and realism to film. These new directors were fresh from film school, most in their early twenties, with their pulse on the revolutionary spirit of the baby boomer generation. Because of breakthroughs in film technology, specifically smaller microphones that could be hidden in clothing, lighter cameras that did not require heavy support gear, and simpler post-production systems, the New Hollywood filmmakers could shoot 35mm in exteriors with relative ease. Since location shooting was, by definition, cheaper (no sets need be built to shoot an existing exterior), New Hollywood filmmakers rapidly developed the taste for location shooting, which had the effect of heightening the realism of their films, especially when compared to the artificiality of previous musicals and spectacles. This want to film in the field was originally cultivated by Vietnam War correspondents who traveled with American soldiers, filming their exploits. Being on location gave a greater level of realism devoid in the artificiality of sets and lots, charging scenes with a natural, frantic energy. The rough environments contrasted with the clean, sterile images Old Hollywood was known for and lent greater truth to cinematic narratives. Aside from realism, often New Hollywood films featured anti-establishment political themes, use of rock music, and sexual freedom deemed “counter-cultural” by the studios.
The gritty, violent Bonnie and Clyde, the taboo busting Graduate, and self-discovery pieces Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider all emerged at the dawn of New Hollywood. Their successes would convince Hollywood to stand aside and give complete control to young filmmakers.
Readily apparent during this era of filmmaking was an increase in blood, the rise of the anti-hero, and the decline of the war movie. It can be argued that blood and gore, once a no-no due to the Hays Code, became more acceptable to audiences following the events of the Vietnam War. With daily imagery from the brutal conflict coming into homes regularly, a certain desensitization of America to violence in media took hold making it more palatable to the masses. Movies such as The Exorcist, Last House on the Left, and others would have never been feasible a decade earlier. The anti-hero, likewise, arose from the ashes of Vietnam. The war convinced a generation that the archetype of a noble, heroic figure was nothing more than fiction. Man was a brutal, hungry, sadistic monster who acted in ways that best suited him. From that came Michael Corleone (The Godfather), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), and Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon). These were men pushed too far by society, lashing out at a corrupt system that had failed to help them and doing merely what they thought was best. The movie did not judge them but let their stories play out, even at times sympathizing with these figures as they sought some sort of solution to their problems. The decline of the war movie was inevitable. After the continuous feed of Vietnam horrors recounted by newsmen and veterans, no one wanted to see the overly patriotic, good versus evil of battle onscreen. The days of John Wayne storming the beaches and mowing down hundreds of enemy without a scratch for a just cause had long ended. War was perceived as mindless, costly, and not necessarily pure of cause. Vietnam had shown that war could be brutal, mindless, and manipulated to serve selfish ends rather than the righteous claims of elected officials.
A certain streak runs through films of this period: a loss of innocence. There is The Exorcist which portrays a priest having lost his faith in a missing God, an innocent girl corrupted by a dark influence, and Father Merrin, that lone figure blindly following a dated view of good and evil who serves as the pure archetype of older films, who dies trying to do the right thing; good falling to evil. It is also interesting to note The Exorcist’s subtle, anti-religious tone as it is a man, rather than God, who saves Reagan, the innocent girl, from evil through the sacrifice of his own life. In The Deer Hunter, one of the first of a resurgent and heavily altered genre of war films that humanized soldiers, the narrative followed a group of friends and shows how the Vietnam War changed them. None made it out entirely intact, the movie dealing in their struggles with drug abuse, insanity, suicide, and infidelity. Taxi Driver followed Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle’s descent into madness culminating in his drive to assassinate a politician and then murder a pimp to save the symbol of purity in his mind, a child prostitute. The Godfather revealed the slow corruption of Michael Corleone as he was drawn into the mafia against the will of both himself and his father. Coming Home dealt with returning Vietnam veterans. Wounded both physically and psychologically, the film depicted the psychological and ideological transformation that people underwent in the war, as depicted by the suicidal despair of the eager, ambitious Marine Captain Bob Hyde who’d had few reservations about going off to war, but later came to embody the alienation and moral disintegration that often accompanied front-line service in Vietnam.
Perhaps the greatest comment on the Vietnam War came from Apocalypse Now, a film by Francis Ford Coppola which depicted war in such a violent and dehumanizing way, comparing it to man stripping away all civility and embracing his savage urges in an environment best described as unstable and primordial. There were no heroes, no villains, and little sanity. Men fought one another simply because they wanted to. The world was senseless, brutal, and unkind. That was reality, and audiences absolutely loved it.
America had not only lost faith in the nobility of humanity but had also lost trust in government. Anti-government/anti-establishment films such as All the President’s Men, Alien, and Jaws spoke out against what was perceived as institutions set against rule by the citizenry and instead bent on its own gain. All the President’s Men focused on the uncovering of Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Alien dealt with a faceless corporation sending a group of space freighter pilots out to investigate a planet knowing full well of the dangerous organism waiting for them there and willing to sacrifice the entire crew in order to attain this creature. Jaws told the story of a great white shark terrorizing a New England community and how the town’s mayor, not willing to sacrifice money brought in by tourists, refused to warn citizens of the threat waiting for them on the beach resulting in mass casualties.
This distrust for government would also spill over into the genre known as the “disaster” film. Beginning in 1970 with Airport, and followed by The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, the uncertainties of the late Sixties and Seventies played out symbolically. Stable environments became deadly, threatening all involved; it was a symbolic representation of how the United States had declined due to the moral and economic sapping of the Vietnam War. The world went from the ideal to the malevolent with threats waiting everywhere, even in the safest places.
The horror genre would likewise see a remarkable change veering away from traditional lore such as vampires, werewolves, and mummies and instead veering into violent and gory tales in movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Last House on the Left. The true monsters were twisted human beings. Even in Dawn of the Dead, where zombies threatened several survivors hiding out in a shopping mall, the true threat comes from a group of bikers who upset the balance set by the survivors with their environment.
The Vietnam War served to guide American cinema down a grittier path which included flawed characters, increased violence, sexual situations, and distrust for authority and the system. The personal became more important than the epic leading to the rise of the “Me Decade” where self-discovery was the point to life. Morality became outdated opening the door to vast new experiences. This new movement brought the real to an idealized dimension and forever shattered the norms of filmmaking. It allowed for directors to experiment leading to a revolution in how movies were made, the stories they told, and proving that cinema was more than a form of mass entertainment; it was an art form that could comment on society and illuminate humanity on both a deeper and darker level. Cinema became the voice of a generation.