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Rolling Thunder and the Poverty of the Vietnam Cinema




By Christopher Sharrett.

I recently happened upon a very good Studio Canal DVD of the John Flynn/Paul Schrader film Rolling Thunder (1977). The film, of some distinction at least as a symptom of profound problems within US ideology in the 70s, has always been to me, in Norman Mailer’s words, a “dark fascination,” and one of the more interesting films that attempt to “deal with” (that is, help the American psyche overcome) the US invasion of Southeast Asia. The film manages to condense a number of tendencies and genres of the post-Vietnam cinema. The essence of the disaster film is figured in the idea of the disintegration of the American family/community in the Vietnam/Watergate years. The vigilante film, so prominent in the 70s (Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Walking Tall), is also embodied in essence through the hero’s never-verbalized rage, and the sense that his ultimate violence is somewhat free-floating in character, with the targeted bad guys perhaps merely hypostatizing his own turmoil.

I should say at the outset that I view none of the Hollywood films about the Vietnam incursion to be in any way honest in dealing forthrightly with policy toward Southeast Asia (we must note that “Vietnam” really means that nation plus Cambodia and Laos), and certainly not the enormous suffering of the Vietnamese people and their neighbors. The body count of US troops and the number of POWs/MIAs are always subjects of discussion (Noam Chomsky has remarked that the total number of MIAs in the two world wars and Korea far surpassed those in Vietnam – the issue here is the U.S. agony over losing the war, and being forced to confront, with great resistance, the consequences of the US barbarism). The US has been successful in resisting confrontation with its amorality, always speaking of the attack as a noble mistake, or some such, but the number of dead in Vietnam – something like three million – is of no concern.

The Real Vietnam Cinema

There are only two films about Vietnam of any substantial value. The most crucial work is Loin du Vietnam/Far from Vietnam (1967), by Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, William Klein and Joris Ivens, a compendium film that is the greatest legacy of the French New Wave (and not surprisingly is available only in bootlegged versions). We see the Vietnamese patiently dismantling bombs and heading for bomb shelters (often holes in the street), juxtaposed with images of a parade in New York celebrating the war. Mayor John Lindsay says from the sidelines that “a parade is a parade,” a testament to bourgeois cynicism, and indifference toward his own degraded class in the face of an awful reality. A group of young executives chants “Bomb Hanoi!” with big grins on their faces. One official says the Lord’s Prayer in celebration of the police and military.

The other noteworthy film is Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1967), an agit-prop documentary done in de Antonio’s inimitable caustic style. De Antonio was criticized for the film’s collage method (he had great admiration for the abstract expressionists). He argued that the film’s refusal of linear narrative in no way detracted from its display of the truth – one could arrange scenes of burned children, grinning generals, and repugnant politicians in any order and still confront the key issue (the sequence wherein Col. George S. Patton III says, fangs bared, that he has a “bloody good buncha killers” could be shown with or without any context whatsoever – it contains the whole of US sentiment superbly). The image culture produced by the Vietnam incursion is one of horror, a gallery portraying the world center of capitalism, its richest empire, gloating over the deaths of peasants because of their apparent embrace of an economic system, and their insistence on stopping invaders.

To this short list I would add Chris Marker’s melancholy meditation on the collapse of the international left, Le Fond de l’air est rouge/The Base of the Air is Red/A Grin without a Cat (1977/1992), for its extraordinary first sequence on Vietnam, with its ghoulish bomber pilot telling us how much he likes to “hose down Charlie” with napalm. One would call this man psychotic, until we stop and realize that state power always redefines notions of psychosis. One is allowed to turn the id loose, to be as crazy as hell (indeed, boot camp encourages it, as Kubrick points out in one of the very few Vietnam films from the Hollywood industry worth screening [even given Kubrick’s nihilism] Full Metal Jacket), if one is serving dominant ideological interests.

Hollywood in Vietnam

I tend to feel that the Hollywood fiction films about Vietnam can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history with no great loss, but of course this is unreasonable. These films need to be studied, less for their contribution to film art (especially authentic political art), than for their disingenuousness, their consistently bad judgment, their fundamental amorality. Some of them try to assume a laughable costume of sophisticated erudition by citing the Great Works of the past, as if understanding art (within a willfully ignorant and cruel society) will help us greet the “better angels of our nature” (Lincoln’s phrase used in Apocalypse Now). Fenimore Cooper is the obvious allusion in The Deer Hunter, Melville in Platoon, Conrad, T.S. Eliot, J.G. Frazer, and not a few others in Apocalypse Now, along with the continued bowdlerization of Wagner, and plenty of rock music to provide the proper momentum to the film’s display of its spectacle. The point is embarrassingly obvious in each case: the deerstalker is no longer able to teach civilization a lesson; Ahab can be overcome, tentatively; we may be able to face our “heart of darkness” once the Primal Father has been dethroned – but what does all this have to do with a crime against humanity? Apocalypse Now struck me as possibly useful in its display of the breakdown of language, and the accidental use of same as a form of terrorism as it backfires on the American self-concept. But the film’s presentation of the Vietnam invasion as a bizarre circus is mostly risible; it is not incidental that it prompted the reprehensible Baudrillard, the most flagrant example of the bankrupt postmodern reaction, to say things like “The real war is waged by Coppola as it is by Westmoreland” (Baudrillard 1994: 59).

I don’t want to paint with too much of a broad brush. There is the occasional masterpiece, such as Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1979), one of Robert Aldrich’s last films, one that fully displays his left sensibility (the film was so neglected that it has only now appeared on DVD – its marginalization makes ideological sense of course). The insane General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) takes command of a missile base, threatening to start World War III unless the power structure comes clean about the “true reason” for the Vietnam War. There is no one to root for in this film (one has reservations about the hapless president played by Charles Durning), something it shares with Larry Cohen’s masterpiece The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). Aldrich’s film condenses much: the Pentagon Papers, the assassinations of the 60s, and things Aldrich might have dreamed of, like Nixon’s remark, disgorged in 2004 to little notice, that he wanted “everything that flies on everything that moves,” during the Cambodia onslaught, as Chomsky remarks, one of the clearest calls for genocide in modern history, matching or exceeding those of the Nazis (Chomsky 2004).

Rolling Thunder and the Veteran

Rolling Thunder comes under a specific heading of Vietnam films: the issue of the veteran and, more broadly, the Returning Warrior and his ability to restore wholeness to the community, an archetypal topic in literature that has been long entrenched in the action cinema (The Searchers). Rolling Thunder is, at least marginally, involved in the discourse informing us that the veteran was mistreated or dismissed outright by the US population, with the anti-war movement and the youth movement being the chief culprits in the veteran’s humiliation. The notion that veterans were actually spat upon by hippies has been revealed to be largely a myth that deflects attention from the fact that US society as a whole stigmatized and systematically disenfranchised the Vietnam veteran (Reagan’s Morning in America, which included a bizarre attempt to re-fight Vietnam in the mass imagination, had little to do with veteran’s benefits, substituting instead parades, which are still a fixation of those parts of the bourgeoisie promoting state doctrine, including liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow of the MSNBC channel).

Rolling Thunder and the not-dismissible original Rambo film, First Blood (1982), partake of the image of the veteran as well-oiled killing machine striking out at the society that rejects him. In First Blood, veteran John Rambo is driven out of town by the local sheriff, for no other reason than he is a stranger with long hair – the sheriff’s animosity intensifies with knowledge that Rambo is a veteran, an odd notion since the sheriff is a true-blue Middle American. Rambo seems to be conflated with the youth culture, which he rejects (when he surrenders, he complains to his commanding officer about “those maggots at the airport”). The film’s inability to sort out hippies and veterans speaks to its ideological confusion. The highpoint of this rather apocalyptic film is Rambo’s destruction of the small town from which he has been excluded, one of the more extraordinary moments in the post-Vietnam cinema – the hero abolishes that which he (historically and concretely in regard to the military’s role, so we are told) protects, the very image of American goodness and tranquility.

The anger of Rolling Thunder is even more diffused and confused. The title suggests the roiling rage concealed just behind the hero’s public face (the title in fact refers to something never represented – the long-term US bombing campaign in Vietnam, obviously now long forgotten. It is tragic that the term’s references now are Quentin Tarantino’s video company and a long-ago Bob Dylan revue).

The Returning Warriors

Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and his young friend, Sergeant John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), are veterans returning from years in a North Vietnam prison. The film’s key issue is established in the first sequence, as their airplane approaches San Antonio, Texas. Vohden says to Rane, “Major, I sure do hate to face all them people,” to which Rane responds “Then put your glasses on, John.” Sunglasses become the archetypal barrier that they have always been in mass culture (when not suggesting “cool”), a way of preventing people from seeing one’s eyes and hence gauging thoughts, while the wearer can observe without others knowing. Rane and Vohden go through the motions: Rane, the senior-most officer and celebrated local son, says a few words to the crowd. He says that the experience (of imprisonment and torture) “made a better man [of him].” The question arises as to Rane’s sanity. Is he simply telling the crowd what he thinks it wants to hear? We might imagine Rane as the pilot in A Grin without a Cat, as we observe the crowd’s essential vulgarity, amplified by Vohden’s loud, coarse family, which comes to embody the America community as a whole – the crowd is complemented by the local bar, and the suburban wasteland that is Rane’s home.

At the airport ceremony, Vohden is clearly uneasy when Rane walks away from him. He is stiff and unresponsive when his obnoxious wife kisses him. Rane’s farewell is clearly a low point for Vohden; when Rane assures him that things will be all right, Vohden responds with an energetic but obviously forced “Oh yeah.” The Rane/Vohden relationship, to which I will return, repeats the American action cinema’s frequent insistence on the male relationship and its dismissal of home and heterosexual couple (Hawks is most instructive).

Rane’s home is shot by Jordan Cronenweth with deep shadow, so much so figures are somewhat obscured. This film noir effect heightens the sense of the bourgeois family immersed in lies and fakery – its unfortunate consequence is to aid the mise-en-scène in demonizing the wife (Lisa Richards) by suggesting that the domicile, the domain of the female, has become steeped in wrongdoing. The point is crucial as she reveals to Rane that she is having an affair with Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) and plans to marry him. The film’s point of view, here and in so many scenes, becomes problematical. One can loathe the wife for bringing up the matter so soon, until the countershot reveals a man both already full of resentment yet emotionally dead.

Rolling Thunder’s restraint (until the final massacre) is notable. Although this film is seen as a Paul Schrader project, his original screenplay resembles Heywood Gould’s rewrite only in broad contours. In Schrader’s ham-fisted, grossly overwritten draft, with his typical rightist Puritanism that is just short of John Milius, Rane is always saying too much, eventually revealing himself as a racist. Schrader’s screenplay also makes Mexicans dominant among the home invaders/killers. By contrast, Gould’s rewrite makes the film taut, with the mostly silent Rane making us wonder if he is the “strong silent type,” as said by his self-described “groupie” Linda (Linda Haynes), or a psychotic. He answers in a polite monotone that people accept, even as it speaks to a loss of affect – Rane confirms this when he talks about the time when he was “alive.” William Devane’s performance gives the sense of a man living behind grit teeth. He still recalls the social niceties that help him get by (as he constantly flashes back to memories of torture in Vietnam), but is barely able to suppress the contempt he feels for the world around him, with its gift of a new red Cadillac and a box of silver dollars (which precipitates his final crisis). Rane’s face is again hidden by sunglasses when he cuts down with a chainsaw a sign commemorating his days in captivity. His tense hands and body convey much: he may be striking out at the vulgar town as much as participating in the celebration of his own freedom (certainly celebration means nothing to him, since what he really wants is solitude so he can relive his torture). There is never a moment when Rane talks about America or the armed services, nor Vietnam, nor American policies. Nor do we learn why and how Rane joined the Air Force. Since he is a major, we might assume that he is a career soldier, but this is never discussed. There is a moment of interchange with a therapist (Dabney Coleman), but this focuses solely on his lack of sleep and the impending divorce, with the possible separation from his son, the very thought of which raises his anger, the only subject that does. Rane seems a cipher or slate, portrayed as such in order to contain the contradictions of the narrative: Rane may be an avenging lunatic precisely because he is a creation of the American community.

Rane and Vohden

John Vohden might be regarded as Rane’s double, the figure in whom negative qualities are most clearly embodied. Vohden seems to hate reentry into “the world.” His family is portrayed as simply unbearable, particularly notable when Rane goes to Vohden’s home to recruit him for the massacre. The young Tommy Lee Jones is typically superb in expressing Vohden’s depression and deep embarrassment – he is so humiliated by his family’s brainless hillbilly chatter (about football and television – the conversation is exemplary of the decline in confidence and class awareness in 70s Middle America, as the dullard family derides the “Japs,” but also complains about the shoddy workmanship in modern American appliances) that he feels he must apologize to Rane. One also recognizes Vohden as an obvious psychotic, since his public performance is less refined than Rane’s, yet his problem is totally unrecognized by his family (they are surprised to see Vohden suddenly in uniform, but only because he refused to wear it for them). One troublesome issue here is the portrayal of Vohden’s family as stupid because they are low on the class ladder. There is a suggestion that Vohden’s own pathology may stem from his unacknowledged intelligence, his recognition of his family’s backwardness. But little guesswork is needed about his psychology when he goes into action – he smiles before and during the massacre. Rane has just told Vohden about his locating the killers when Vohden quickly replies “I’ll just get my gear.” As Rane throws in another scrap of information, Vohden replies “Let’s go clean ‘em up.” During the massacre itself, Vohden is lithe, gleeful, and lethal – in one quick image, as he cuts the throat of one of the bandits, his body coils and strikes with savage energy, his hair flying about. Vohden represents the coming-apart of civilized man, begging the question of whether this disintegration was caused by Vietnam or preceded the war.

The Domestic Scene, the Couple, the Homoerotic

Patriarchy asserts itself as a central issue of Rolling Thunder when Rane learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness and her plans for divorce. She informs him of this the very night of his return, when he is clearly exhausted. Here is the film’s central ideological problem. Women are never regarded sympathetically; Rane’s vengeance is centered solely on the murder of his son, the wife a nonentity. Linda is simply abandoned by Rane when she has served her purpose, Rane leaving her money as she sleeps. Rane tries to assert his primacy in the domestic household, especially when Cliff attempts some camaraderie by offering him a drink (which he never actually drinks). Rane shows his typical smoldering outrage toward Cliff, who calls his son “runt” (it makes sense, according to the film’s logic, that Cliff is finally portrayed as inept, and dispatched by Automatic Slim [Luke Askew]). The scene in the shed is important on two levels: Rane is able to put Cliff on the defensive actually by making the clearly nervous man the torturer (when Rane forces him to reenact the Vietnam scene), revealing also Rane’s masochism and a looked-for homoerotic bond that is found in the film’s denouement, when the wounded Rane picks up the wounded Vohden, and says “let’s go home, John,” the line always delivered by the man to the woman in American cinema. The mock-torture scene is extraordinary in Rane’s expression of anger and hatred, all, once again, rendered so that we see far more than the characters who continue to valorize him as the returning hero. The home invasion is a moment when the hero’s primacy is brought low. Automatic Slim is unimpressed by Rane, saying “Now don’t give me that hard officer shit!” (class issues again appear). When the wife asks a badly injured Rane why he didn’t give them the cash box, The Texan (James Best) answers for him: “I’ll tell you why, lady – because he’s one macho motherfucker.” James Best’s delivery of the line is crucial, as he stares at Rane with a look both of admiration and contempt – and mockery? It is unimportant if the Texan means to praise rather than mock him; the appraisal is coming from an outright psychopath. Whether praise, contempt, or mockery, we are offered the film’s crucial reappraisal of machismo. It is extraordinary that machismo is linked to Rane’s deadened affect, and its association with the violation of domestic life (we are constantly reminded of how much modernization Rane has missed – no more bras, the arrival of miniskirts, counterculture jargon – during his years as POW).

Torture and Homoeroticism

The home invasion is important on two levels. First, it is the moment when the home-grown killers are directly conflated with the North Vietnam torturers, as the film cuts back and forth as Rane endures the beating. The film economically tells us that Rane is marshalling the survival skills he learned in jail, which have an erotic complexion (“you learn to love the rope”), while also making most apparent both the torturers and the killers as at least partial manifestations of Rane’s “macho motherfucker” persona. Second, Rane’s fear of castration is central to the home invasion. Castration is the dominant topic in the earlier “rope trick” scene. Cliff says “you’re lucky they didn’t ruin you for life” (genital torture the obvious reference). Is Rane in fact impotent? There is no evidence that he has intercourse either with his wife or Linda, although castration-in-the-heterosexual-domicile may be the necessary avenue for Rane’s coupling with Vohden and reentering the male group. Castration is amplified, symbolically, when the killers amputate Rane’s hand in the garbage disposal. The incomplete symbolic castration allows Rane’s rage to explode. The dramatic conceit of removing the castration and the murder of Rane’s family from dramatic realism (one would expect an all-out manhunt, with every service in the nation involved) is the film’s transition to psychological/mythic territory. The problem here is that Rane’s vengeance needs the typically stigmatized Other, as he crosses the border into Nuevo Laredo, to brutalize scheming Mexicans (another version of the Alamo). Male rage must be displaced, even if its origins are at least partially within the self and the culture that has constructed it.

The Massacre

The final shootout in the brothel owes much, of course to Peckinpah (especially The Getaway); by the late 70s, Peckinpah was the single most dominant influence in the American cinema. The sequence attempts Peckinpah’s sophistication in showing the close linkage of eros with death. Again the racial dynamic comes into play, when Vohden rejects the advances of a Mexican prostitute (“not with you, muchacho”) in favor of an Anglo (Cassie Yates). The reasoning here is odd (since he has no interest in sex, even when the attractive young hooker stands naked), and can be ascribed only to Vohden’s basic rage, racism, and total alienation – another moment when he is the uninflected double of Rane. Vohden is totally unresponsive in female company. We saw this at the airport family reunion. But the eros-death conjunction is most clear when the hooker masturbates an impassive Vohden. The camera shows his hand pulling a shotgun barrel out of his satchel. He jumps up to assemble the weapon when he hears Rane’s signal. He responds to the hooker’s frightened question with the emotionless “We’re gonna kill a buncha people.” His reunion with Rane for the death orgy is the film’s most energetic moment: Vohden grins in several shots as Rane seems unusually animated (the only comparable moment is earlier in the film when he pins a Mexican to a table with the sharpened point of his metal hand). The two men “have each other’s backs” as they descend the brothel staircase, firing at the outlaws, who at the final stage seem mostly Anglo, lead by Automatic Slim. Slim was the outlaw most defiant of Rane, his principle castrator at the home invasion who scoffed at the romanticizing of veterans (he is one). Rane shoots him several times, then throws his pistol on the bar. He conveys more the sense of a job finished than exhaustion and self-loathing.

The film’s point of view at this stage is wholly with Rane and Vohden, encouraging full audience identification with their attack and final victory, the most offensive aspect of this deeply troubled film. A touch of its deep contradictions return with the final Rane-Vohden embrace and “Let’s go home, John.” But the finale is ultimately deeply unsatisfactory. While there is a small sense that nothing has been accomplished, the film doesn’t repudiate what has happened. The Oedipal construct is vindicated, yet the son is still dead and Rane has no place to go. The film simply ends, which makes me look to its creators’ slovenliness, and the moral bankruptcy that encompasses most of the project.

Afterthought

One of the very few virtues of the original Paul Schrader screenplay is its inclusion of two epigraphs, the first from a 1954 report by a committee on veterans medical problems, stating that 53.4 percent of the deaths of WWII POWs held in “the Orient” were “attributed to violent causes: murder, suicide, in the act of crime or on the highway […] this was a violent death rate four times the normal expectancy.” The second epigraph is taken from Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 “Report on Crime in America.” It states: “Our returning prisoners of war are examples of the high moral fiber […] which will help make this a nation […] free from crime.” Nixon’s remark simply speaks to the denial and moral emptiness of state power. When considered in the context of the film’s narrative, it tends to enforce, with a very stupid sense of irony, the notion of the veteran as killer. The veterans medical quote debunks the notion of WWII veterans as the vanguard of the “greatest generation,” the popular, and patently absurd, valorization of the 1950s as a sunny time of renewal. Together, the quotes might remind us that the soldier is never more than cannon fodder for dominant interests; his/her image can be manipulated – even if the soldier dies – in order to advance further those interests. But as tragic as the veteran’s situation was and is, we must give deeper thought to the awful plight of the victims of US imperialism. Considering the current complexion of US ideology, this consideration can only be wished for sometime in the distant future.

My gratitude to Tony Williams for sharing with me Paul Schrader’s early draft of Rolling Thunder. My thanks also for his formidable work on the Vietnam cinema.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently revisiting the paintings and sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, especially the work situated in Florence. Have we seen in recent times such a gift to human culture?

References

Baudrillard, Jean (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Chomsky, Noam (2004), “War Crimes and Imperial Fantasies”, International Socialist Review, 37, September-October.

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