American soldiers meet the East
Western films taking place in Southeast Asia provide an amazing source of gendered stereotypes. Although westerners have lived and worked in Southeast Asia for centuries the Orient still symbolises a mystic, spiritual, but also dangerous part of the world. American Vietnam related films reflect the controversy spurred by the war and a number of films contrast masculine individualism and the American faith in technology and rationality with the other values of simplicity, mystery and femininity. A considerable amount of war films deal with coming to terms with the fact that a small Asian nation could defeat militarily a superpower. The difficult and hopeless situations of the young American soldiers are at times contrasted to the evil sadistic, ambivalent, and irresponsible behaviour of the Vietcong. Most productions are not apologetic, or attempt to reveal the full scale horror the Americans were responsible for. They are rather tales of friendship and loyalty, where violence plays an important part of what it means to be a man. Great emphasis is given to masculine bonding, which represents a basis for the regeneration of the society as a whole. Within the ranks of the American soldiers there is enormous pressure to step up to the challenge of Vietnam and demonstrate one’s masculinity, even though most of the soldiers have barely entered legal adulthood, creating a confusing rite of passage.
Becoming a man in the battlefield; Platoon by Oliver Stone
At the same time as portraying war heroes, masculinity is called into question. In Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), this duality of masculinity is put into play. Platoon is often described as ‘the unkindest movie yet made about the Vietnam War’. The film focused on a small unit of Army soldiers, but integrated many shameful realities of the cultural changes affecting them during the late sixties and early seventies. Platoon is a tale of boys becoming men in a violent war taking place in an alien environment. The extreme experience on the battlefield offers the soldiers two different models of being a man, represented by Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). Both are good soldiers and do not hesitate to kill the enemy in order to protect their own men. On the one hand, Sergeant Barnes represents war with all its cruelties, which is somewhat symbolised by his scarred face. Sergeant Elias on the other hand is able to retain his humanity, sympathy for his soldiers and his capacity for feelings and tenderness. Chris (Charlie Sheen), an educated young soldier who volunteered to join the forces, faces a moral crisis when confronted with the horrors of war and the duality of man. He finds himself faced with a choice between the ‘red necks’, who are eaten up by hatred, violence and machismo and ‘the underworld’ represented by the dope smoking, laid back guys who refuse to let their lives being taken over by the violence surrounding them. The path of the soldiers into ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is influenced by the model of masculinity they adopt.
Apocalypse now: the madness of masculine violence
Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece of presenting the absurd, game-like nature of war. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, ‘The Heart of Darkness’, Apocalypse Now (1979) is the story of Captain Willard’s mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade Green Beret who has set himself up as a ‘God’ among a local tribe. As the Captain descends into the jungle, mesmerising powers and insanity surround him. Apocalypse now portrays all the symbolic attributes of American masculinity: the madness of US soldiers surfing under fire off a blazing village, the ‘playgirl of the month’ coming to an army base deep in the jungle to entertain the boys, and the western style heroics of the Air cavalry. All of these represent the symptoms of a masculine culture that cannot cope with this war deep in the jungle of Southeast Asia. The American soldiers overwhelmed by the violence that they commit and they are subjected to, and the only way to stay more or less sane is to project the stereotypical American life into the alien jungle in Vietnam.
A “real” man; Rambo II
As an answer to many Vietnam War films that somehow question masculinity, Rambo II (1985) restores the masculine pride. Instead of portraying wounded war veterans suffering of the consequences of a lost an unnecessary war, (as in Born on the 4th of July) Rambo portrayed in Rambo II is THE soldier, who never lacks courage, endurance, masculinity and strength. In his mission to free prisoners of war, Sylvester Stallone gets captured and tortured, but never breaks down. Big muscles, testosterone and overly courageous acts restore the male dominance and pride. Interestingly, in contrast to Rambo II, the Rambo I portrays a man who is damaged, scarred and confused from the effects of war. In the final scene Rambo breaks down, in a very ‘unmasculine’ way, recollecting the horrors of war and broken by the memories of it.
The beautiful and quiet Oriental woman
The difficulty of coming to terms with what had happened in Vietnam is depicted through these different masculinities. Femininity is largely portrayed through the masculine as for example ‘the underworld’ in Platoon and women only rarely appear. The depiction of Asian women and the values they are supposed to represent however is very interesting. Both productions of The quiet American (Phillip Noyce 2002; Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1958) are based on the novel by Graham Greene: a British journalist, Fowler, and a young American, Pyle, vying for the love of a beautiful Vietnamese girl, Phuong. In both films Phuong is a stunningly beautiful, very quiet young girl, who has been in a relationship with Fowler, who is at least in his 50′s for some time. In the opening scene of the Philip Noyce version Phuong’s face is shown amidst fire and opium and in the course of the film she drugs both men with her beauty.. For Pyle saving a woman becomes identical to saving a country. Through his work as a secret agent he set up a third force in Vietnam, and hopes this will save the country. When he finds out that Phuong used to work as a taxi dancer, his mission becomes to save her as he believes that Fowler will not be able to protect her since he cannot marry her. This clearly portrays Phuong as fragile and in need of protection. Not much is revealed about her and throughout the film she stays a mysterious figure. She is portrayed a bit like an object that does not have much to say over her life and if it is not one of the men telling her what to do it is her sister.
In the first production Phuong only very rarely appears on screen, and when she does, she is extremely quiet. She does restore her pride in the end when she does not go back to Fowler but one wonders throughout the film if she knows who she is in love with. Although Fowler becomes a kind of father figure to her, her sexuality is not as child like as the rest of her character. Phuong never shows any kind of emotion to what happens to her and in the little that she speaks, little emotion is felt. All that one can see is this beautiful young Vietnamese woman wearing beautiful dresses looking very fragile and not displaying much of a personality. However, under the surface, Phuong probably does know what she wants, and she seems to have a strong desire to leave Vietnam for the West. In a way, her changing partners can be seen as an opportunistic step, something the men do not seem to realise. Both book and scripts were written by men and the question arises if the portrayal of Phuong is actually how Western men perceive Southeast Asian women. Woman that are extraordinarily beautiful with not much psychological depth, her best assets being her beauty and her devotion to whoever can take care of her, and everything she needs is protection form a western man, who seems fulfilled by her unconditional love.
Keeping the East as the other
In all these war films, no real interrogation of traditional gender roles is offered. These films seem to be part of a ‘cultural memorial’ to remember the war in contradictory terms. The films are not about the Vietnamese and their war, but about the Americans and the other remains an unknown Oriental.
by Carole Reckinger
About the author: I am doing postgraduate studies in International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Univeristy of London.