Return to Vietnam

Columbus Alive | June 9, 2005
Everything old is new again in this re-release of Peter Davis’ landmark, Oscar-winning 1974 documentary about the Vietnam War. Through interviews and footage at war and at home, the filmmaker presents virtually all relevant perspectives on a conflict that began with a lie, continued under the guise of spreading “freedom” and ultimately became a bloody, powerfully polarizing morass.

The red herring Gulf of Tonkin incident is brought up by Lyndon Johnson, one of the four presidents seen trying to explain America’s actions in Vietnam. Davis uses a variety of sources—parades, a high school football game, chats with willfully ignorant civilians and a former POW propagandizing on the lecture circuit—to point to the whole incident as a flaw in this country’s competitive, alpha-male character.

He also provides the responses of veterans marked by battle wounds or the body counts of their service, and the farmers at ground level when the bombs hit. One cries, “What did I do to Nixon to make him come here and bomb my country?”

The work’s most distinctive trait, but also its most noticeable weakness, is Davis’ juxtaposition of different situations for maximum emotional effect. The comment above by a bereaved father is paired with a supremely ignorant remark that “life is cheap in the Orient” from General William Westmoreland. A scene of soldiers engaging a few of the local prostitutes is followed by soldiers torching someone’s home. Shots of a village being razed and Vietnamese prisoners being interrogated are set to an old recording of “Over There.”

Given how many destroyed homes and lifeless bodies are seen in Vietnam, the number of soldiers shown arriving back in the U.S. as amputees, and the inclusion of the now-iconic image of a naked young girl whose clothes and skin have been burned off by napalm, Davis could have evoked the immoral horror of it all without the extra effort. Still, this is essential viewing for placing the current U.S. climate in a somewhat comforting historical context.

Columbus Alive

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