In March, I returned to Ho Chi Minh City—and once again, I was reminded of the constant cacophony and buzz in the streets, the flow and movement of the bikes and motorcycles, the variety of fresh herbs and leaves in street pho and banh mi.
I had a renewed appreciation for how the Vietnamese all focused on one face: Ho Chi Minh, leader and everyone’s “Uncle Ho,” and then the flag with that one iconic yellow star on a red background. Uncle Ho and the yellow star find their ways on hats, magnets and t-shirts all over the city.
While the Vietnamese can be so gentle, there’s also a fierce side to them, and there’s still much pride in their having sent the Americans home. A visit to the War Remnants Museum offers a grim reminder of just what went on—the torture and slaughter of civilians, the use of chemical weapons and the destruction of the Vietnamese countryside.
Several Hollywood films have tried to tell stories about the war—here’s my pick of four (two of which were shot in the Philippines)
1. Apocalypse Now (1979). Francis Ford Coppola came to the Philippines in 1976 to shoot this surreal, haunting film that went way over time and over budget. Who can forget the sight of the water buffalo being slaughtered or Marlon Brando’s lines: “Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared?” Apocalypse Now is dark, brilliant and compelling.
Also see Hearts of Darkness to find out what madness befell the cast, crew and production while in the Philippines.
2. Platoon (1986). Oliver Stone had so much to say about the Vietnam War that he made three movies on the subject. This one is generally seen as the best of the bunch (Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director). These lines from the Sting song “Children’s Crusade” popped up in my head while watching it: “Virgins with rifles.” Because that’s what these soldiers were. Look for a very young Johnny Depp here (though Charlie Sheen was the lead actor).
3. Deer Hunter (1978). Michael Cimino shot this film about two friends, Mike and Nick and their lives in the US before and after the war. Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken are outstanding here. Deer Hunter is serious and disturbing and marks a pinnacle in Cimino’s career. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture, Walken won for Best Supporting Actor.
4. Full Metal Jacket (1987). There are recurring themes in many Stanley Kubrick films. Paths of Glory, Spartacus, A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Full Metal Jacket all touch dehumanization.
“What is your malfunction?” Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (a memorable) R. Lee Ermey) shouts at Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio)—that pretty much sums it up. Soldiers are being sent to a crazy war, with no idea of the strangeness or brutality that comes with it and they’re expected by governments to act like machines.