History of the World According to the Movies: Part 79 – The Vietnam War

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Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now is a Vietnam War rendition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though it may not be a film you may want to show your kids, it’s one of the more definitive films about Vietnam that has shaped the popular Hollywood perspective. Of course, it depicts the Vietnam War as kind of the hell it was with American soldiers of questionable sanity as well as the smell of napalm in the morning. Also, it has a psychedelic rock soundtrack, too.

Of course, I couldn’t begin the Post-War era and plunge into the 1960s without talking about a little thing called the Vietnam War which began as a war of colonialism between the Vietnamese and the French only to turn into a civil war with Cold War implications when Ho Chi Minh’s forces wanted to unite Vietnam under a Communist government. Whenever we think about this war, we usually picture jungle guerrilla warfare, draftees being sent against their will, American troops committing human rights violations, hippies protesting, napalm, Agent Orange, Asian hookers, and helicopters. Whenever you see a movie on Vietnam, you will tend to hear songs like “For What It’s Worth” b Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Rolling Stones, and other psychedelic rock music. Most Vietnam movies will feature US troops who may start the war either as idealistic young men or unwilling draftees then slowly become broken and disillusioned wrecks at best or crazy homicidal maniacs at worst. Either way, your American movie GIs will need serious psychological help when they come back home. And unless it’s the terrible John Wayne Green Berets or the unreliable narrative of Forrest Gump, don’t expect any movie adaptation on the Vietnam War speak favorably because it’s one of the most controversial conflicts as far as the US is concerned. And while the US may win some battles in Vietnam, let’s just say their fighting would be like trying to fix a watch with a sledgehammer. Nevertheless, there are plenty of movies about the Vietnam War that do contain their share of inaccuracies which I shall list.

Lyndon B. Johnson:

Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War was an unpopular policy decision from the beginning. (Actually it was rather popular back in the day especially after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which happened when Johnson was running for his own term as President {he was serving out Kennedy’s term at this time}. It only started becoming unpopular in 1968 at least in the media {despite not having a single major newspaper thinking the US should leave Vietnam}, though a lot of civilians supported it then even if they didn’t like it. Yet, it had definitely become unpopular by Richard Nixon’s presidency though.)

Lyndon Baines Johnson got America into the Vietnam War. (He only brought that war closer to home. Actually, it was years in the making and had been supported by previous administrations of both parties. Other presidents would’ve done the same thing as Johnson at the time for escalation was bound to happen.)

Ron Kovic:
Ron Kovic apologized for his role in the accidental death of a Marine Corporal to his family, yet the man’s wife couldn’t forgive him. (Although this is depicted in Born on the Fourth of July, it never happened.)

Ron Kovic was inspired into becoming an anti-war activist when he saw his high school sweetheart in a protest after the Kent State shootings. (Contrary to Born on the Fourth of July, Donna never existed and Kovic didn’t see the protests in person, yet he was inspired into becoming an anti-war activist after seeing that protest on TV and was certainly outraged of how the protesters were treated.)

Major Fred Peck threatened to take Ron Kovic’s head if anything was said about the Marine Corporal’s day. (Peck wasn’t interviewed for Born on the Fourth of July, but Kovic did voice such concerns to him. However, the major just investigated and concluded that Kovic probably didn’t kill the Marine. He even promoted Kovic as a leader of a new scout group.)

Ron Kovic was a recipient of the Army Commendation Medal. (Kovic was a Marine, Oliver Stone.)

During Ron Kovic’s protest with his fellow Vietnam vets at the Republican National Convention of 1972, they made a scene that attracted a few cameras, blocked an aisle, and riled the delegates. When one Republican delegate spat at Kovic, security guards moved in, roughly pushing and pulling veterans from the hall and physically prevented reporters from following. Outside, Kovic was beaten and thrown out of his wheelchair by an undercover cop. (The scene with the Republican National Convention of 1972 actually happened but it was less dramatic than how Oliver Stone put it. Robert Dornan is said to have persuaded the guards into the convention but told Kovic and his pals not to make a scene. Unsurprisingly, Kovic and his friends ignore him. Yet, Dornan said, “It was not as big a disturbance as the movie showed, but it was a disturbance. They were screaming. The guards came down and politely pulled their chairs backward. [They] put them out peaceably.” According to UPI, the scene went like this: “After about five minutes, security agents wheeled them in protesting out a side door. I went out and watched him and the other two congratulating one another, bragging about what they’d accomplished.”)

Le Ly:

Le Ly was married to a US soldier named Steve Butler who later committed suicide. (Contrary to Heaven & Earth, she actually married two American men named Ed Munro and Dennis Hayslip. Her first husband was more than twice her age and died from emphysema. Her second marriage wasn’t a happy one. However, contrary to the Oliver Stone film, she hadn’t been in Vietnam since 1973 because she’s viewed as a traitor there.)

Adrian Cronauer:

Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer was staunchly liberal, anti-military, and antiwar. (Sorry, but Good Morning Vietnam gets this wrong. Cronauer described himself as “a lifelong card carrying Republican” and served as vice-chair in the 2004 Bush/Cheney re-election campaign {as far from an anti-war liberal as anyone could possibly be but much more controversial}. Not to mention, he was a Sergeant, not Airman First Class. Cronauer also states that much of what Robin Williams did in that movie would’ve gotten him court-martialed in a heartbeat. And, no, he wasn’t kicked out of Vietnam but left when his tour of duty ended.)

Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer played rock music with commentary during his tour in Vietnam. (Actually he just played rock music with no commentary.)

Adrian Cronauer lied his way to teach an English class so he could get close to a local. (Yes, he did teach English but not for that reason and he didn’t lie his way in either.)

Khmer Rouge:

Dith Pran and his family escaped Cambodia by going straight to Thailand and the Red Cross. (Actually contrary to The Killing Fields, he was found by the Vietnamese before that and made a village chief before his American ties were discovered. Also, the movie doesn’t show him being tortured and the fact that he lost over 50 family members including three brothers and a sister during Khmer Rouge. Interestingly, the man who played Pran, Dr. Haing Ngor also survived Khmer Rouge as well but lost his wife. After winning his Oscar, he was gunned down in an LA parking garage by muggers who wanted the locket he swore never to part with.)

New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg was a loyal friend to Dith Pran. (Contrary to The Killing Fields, the real Al Rockoff said that Schanberg was a lying coward and that many of the scenes in the French Embassay at Phnom Penh are inaccurate. Let’s just say that Schanberg and Rockoff probably didn’t get along.)

Laos:

The Pathet Lao POW camp had 6 prisoners. (Contrary to Rescue Dawn, it had seven besides Christian Bale’s character.)

US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler spoke English with an American accent. (While his Christian Bale portrayal does in Rescue Dawn, he actually spoke English with a heavy German accent since he was born in Germany.)

Dieter Dengler was a Flight Lieutenant in the US Navy. (There’s no such rank in the US military. It’s an RAF rank. Dengler’s real rank was Junior Grade Lieutenant.)

US Air Force pilot Eugene DeBruin was a selfish and unstable prisoner who threatened to betray his fellow captives at any time and didn’t know what to do when it came time to escape. (DeBruin’s brother Jerry and fellow captive Pisidhi Indradat were very unhappy with how Eugene DeBruin was depicted in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. Both say that DeBruin taught his fellow cellmates English, shared his food and blanket, and even returned after escaping to help an injured cellmate. When it came time to escape, DeBruin simply refused to leave while some sick prisoners remained and he is still considered missing to this day {though there were reports of him being alive as late as January 1968}. Pisidhi Indradat called him,“The finest man I have ever met.” Not only that, he also helped plan and implement the escape as well. Of course, the film was already completed by the time Werner Herzog found this out.)

During the escape from the Pathet Lao POW camp, Dieter Dengler shot the two prison guards. (Contrary to Rescue Dawn, this was DeBruin’s idea and it was Pisidhi Indradat. Also, the Thai Indradat would later be captured and put in another prison camp but he and his fellow Lao prisoners would  be rescued by Lao troops and the CIA. He’s the only survivor from Rescue Dawn who’s still alive to this day.)

Dieter Dengler formulated the idea of storing rice in bamboo tubes during the escape from the Pathet Lao camp. (This was Eugene DeBruin’s idea.)

While in the Pathet Lao POW camp, Dieter Dengler  formulated an entire escape plane that included uncuffing the hand cuffs with a nail. (Contrary to Rescue Dawn, this was the other prisoners’ idea before Dengler ever stepped foot at the camp and didn’t tell him about it until two weeks after he arrived.)

American Home Front:

The military was outraged by the idea of a US sergeant and his men kidnapping, gang raping, and killing a Vietnamese girl. (Though the men were convicted and sentenced, there’s very little evidence that anyone was. Also, though not mentioned in Casualties of War, the convicted men’s sentences were greatly reduced on appeal. Unsurprisingly, the military still has a problem with handling cases of sexual assault.)

Vietnam veterans were spit on by anti-war protestors. (Not a single incidence of this has been reported.)

Vietnam produced more American casualties than almost any other. (Of course, movies set in Vietnam do put emphasis on the US casualty rate which was 58,000 troops, which is less than what America lost in the American Civil War and both World Wars. Yet, the Vietnamese suffered much more.)

Older people supported the Vietnam War while younger people opposed it. (Actually younger people were more likely to support the war than their parents; younger people who opposed it were just more vocal. The parents were more likely to oppose the war due to WWII and Korea and especially if they had a son who was eligible for the draft.)

Married men couldn’t get drafted to Vietnam. (US legislation sewed up that loophole in 1965. Yet, if you were the son of a famous politician in Texas, on the other hand….)

Pittsburgh during the Vietnam era was filled with people of Eastern European descent and Orthodox living in trailer parks whose women wore babushkas and combat boots and men worked in the steel mills as well as hunted in forests with Ponderosa pines. (Contrary to The Deer Hunter, there are no Ponderosa Pines in Pennsylvania and though most guys did work in steel mills, most millworkers didn’t live in trailer parks, have wives that wore babushkas or combat boots. And not everyone in Pittsburgh is Eastern European descent or Orthodox in that matter. Oh, and why did they have to hunt Asian Red deer instead of white tail deer?)

Most American soldiers during the Vietnam War were draftees. (Contrary to most Vietnam War movies, 2/3 of American forces serving there were volunteers and so were three US presidential candidates like John Kerry, John McCain, and Al Gore. Of course, these are volunteers in the loosest sense such as people who voluntarily enlisted.)

Most US draftees were usually sent to Vietnam. (Actually many were sent someplace else to fill in for other soldiers but you wouldn’t want to go to Vietnam though.)

The first US draft lottery took place in 1968 before the MLK assassination. (It took place in 1969.)

Miscellaneous:

In Vietnam, the sun set over the ocean. (Vietnam has no west coast.)

The Vietnam War was just North Vietnamese vs. the US. (It was at first the French vs. the Vietnamese then it was the North Vietnamese vs. South Vietnamese with South Korea, the United States, Australians, and New Zelanders aiding the South and the North Koreans and Soviets aiding the North. Then it was the Vietnam vs. China.)

The Vietnam War was a guerilla jungle conflict. (Well, most of the time it was. Yet, about 75% US troops there lived on bases that were decked like little isles off Americana with all the amenities of American living. Those 75% had to worry more about getting injured in sports or catching STDs than getting killed.)

The North Vietnamese were a poorly armed guerilla force. (They had a badass air force as well as were supplied by the Soviets with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy artillery. Yet, the equipment was so good that the Soviets had to stop shipping it through China because the Chinese kept swiping it. Not only those, but the guerrillas in the South were well-integrated into the regular North Vietnamese forces and had some training before seeing combat. Oh, and they had AK-47s which were far superior than what the Americans had, especially M-16s which sucked. But, yeah, they did use guerilla tactics to an advantage.)

US Sergeant Tony Meserve saved Private Sven Erickson. (Contrary to Casualties of War, he didn’t but Meserve did have a heroic reputation and was nominated for a Bronze Star for coming to a GI’s aid when his ammo pouch had exploded.)

NVA/VC Sappers were used as suicide bombers. (Though it’s said so in Platoon, Sappers were actually too valuable to be seen as such for they were specially trained combat engineers/reconnaissance commandos who used stealth to infiltrate a camp’s defenses and take out strategic targets, such as barbed wire obstacles or bunkers, with explosives before the main attack. Yet, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong did use suicide bombers but they didn’t consist of their demolitions experts.)

NVA/VC troops wore steel helmets. (Contrary to Platoon, only North Vietnamese anti-aircraft troops protecting bases in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. Those in South Vietnam wore floppy “boonie hats” or the standard North Vietnamese sun helmet.)

The 3rd Training Ranger Battalion served in the Vietnam War. (There has never been such unit in the US military yet We Were Soldiers does give special thanks to them in the credits.)

Parris Island trained Texas Marines for Vietnam. (Contrary to Full Metal Jacket, Cowboy would’ve trained in San Diego since it was for Marines recruits who lived west of the Mississippi River. Parris Island was for recruits who lived east.)

Vietnam Marine era drill instructors were nasty and sadistic pieces of work. (Contrary to Full Metal Jacket, Lee Ermey {who was a sergeant in real life} said in an interview that a drill instructor would never slap, choke, or punch a recruit {at least openly}, even back when he was a young Marine. Also, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is far more verbally abusive in the movie than what would be permitted in real life. The drill sergeant in Forrest Gump is a more accurate example.)

The French Mobile Group 100 was ambushed and killed to the last man. (Contrary to We Were Soldiers, it was ambushed several times and they were able to escape in all of them, though they did suffer severe casualties. Also, they didn’t consist of members of the French Foreign Legion but rather the 1st and 2nd Korea Battalions, Battalion de Marche of the 43rd Colonial Infantry and the 2nd Group of the 10th Colonial Artillery.)

Huey helicopters could lift about 19,000 pounds. (Contrary to Apocalypse Now, they couldn’t life more than 10,500 pounds.)

M16s had 30 round magazines. (They had 20 round magazines.)

The Vietcong used red tracer ammunition. (The US did. The Vietcong used green.)

US soldiers wore camouflage uniforms during the Vietnam War. (They wore green. )

Vietnamese civilians were passive victims, prostitutes, or conniving with the enemy.

The Vietcong were ludicrously sadistic and evil. (As you see in The Deer Hunter. In real life, they were just very determined to win.)

Every American helicopter used in the Vietnam War was a Huey. (H-34 Choctaws, SH-3 Sea Kings, CH-47 Chinooks, CH-46 Sea Knights and OH-6 Cayuses were also in use but you wouldn’t see them in Vietnam Era films.)

The Communist Vietnamese won almost every major engagement in the Vietnam War. (Actually the US won every single major battle in the Tet Offensive, while the Viet Cong took so many losses they played no major role in the war at that point. Not only that, the North Vietnamese never really won a major battle. The reason why the North Vietnamese won the Vietnam War had more to do with the fact that they just kept coming no matter what the Americans threw at them. In short, they wanted to win more than Americans wanted them to lose.)

American troop levels in Vietnam were 500,000 in 1968. (Levels reached 500,000 a year later.)

American jeeps in Vietnam had ignition switches. (They didn’t.)

National Security Action Memorandum 263 was the first step in total US withdrawal in the Vietnam War. (Contrary to JFK, it only foresaw the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers, and not even those if South Vietnam failed to “take up slack.”)

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