In ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ Vietnam Is Just Another Backdrop for American Pain

Even U.S. anti-war movies end up reenacting the same imperialist fantasies.

A still from Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.”
A still from Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” David Lee/Netflix via Getty Images

Spike Lee’s recent Netflix Vietnam War film Da 5 Bloods is deliberately and forthrightly anti-war. It includes footage of Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X trenchantly connecting the United States’ racism at home to imperialism abroad. Its soundtrack is centered on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anti-war album What’s Going On. With deliberate didacticism, it points out that Black soldiers were drafted to fight in Vietnam at brutally disproportionate rates, and implicitly rebukes past films on the subject, from John Wayne and Ray Kellogg’s 1968 film The Green Berets to classics such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, which center the experience of white soldiers.

Yet the movie’s heist plot is at variance with its anti-war themes. Four Black U.S. soldiers return to Vietnam decades after their service, and you are encouraged to cheer as they shoot anonymous Vietnamese gangsters while stealing Vietnamese gold. Even as it condemns U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the movie reflexively restages that conflict for the usual violent thrills. Lee’s anti-war and anti-racist commitments crumble before the firepower of the genre he’s working in.

The rules of that genre say that U.S. Vietnam films must be about the United States. They must show Vietnamese secondary characters getting shot down as part of the spiritual or material journey of the U.S. soldiers you are supposed to identify with. As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in an article about Da 5 Bloods for the New York Times, “For Vietnamese people, as well as Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong, their role [in Hollywood films] is almost always that of the extra, their function: to be helpful, rescued, blamed, analyzed, mocked, abused, raped, killed, spoken for, spoken over, misunderstood or all of the above.” It is difficult to create a U.S. anti-war film when the United States is unwilling to fully acknowledge the humanity, and the stories, of the roughly 1 million Vietnamese people it helped to kill.

That’s been the pattern throughout the United States’ attempts to engage with Vietnam at the movies. Instead of trying to see the war through Vietnamese eyes, U.S. filmmakers have tried to convey anti-war messages through two related methods: showing that war is hell and trying to bring the war home. The ultimate horror is for the United States to become what Vietnam is already assumed to be.

Movies such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket use Hollywood’s full barrage of special effects to create panoramas of explosions, blood, and terror. They emphasize the carnage and chaos of war to scare the U.S. public straight into pacifism.

Other films move away from this hyperbolic realism to create fanciful scenarios in which the war is transplanted to the United States. In First Blood, the distinctly unheroic 1982 launch of the Rambo franchise, U.S. veteran John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) terrorizes a small town in Washington state, using Viet Cong tactics to make them experience a war they thought they had safely left overseas and in the past. Jacob’s Ladder, released in 1990, is a hallucinatory paranoid fever dream, in which the military stalks a veteran through his civilian life, extending a war he can never escape.

The problem with these movies is that intense identification with veterans does not necessarily lead to a repudiation of war. On the contrary, the slogan “support the troops” is typically used in contemporary U.S. discourse by militarists who want to silence antiwar critiques. First Blood, which was meant at least in part to show civilians the horror of war, gave way in its 1985 sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, to an orgy of violent validation as Rambo returned to Vietnam to kill lots of people and blow up stuff.

To take the side of veterans can mean ending war, but much more often it means committing more viscerally to victory and killing the enemy. That’s the case in Da 5 Bloods, which, like Rambo, has its veterans return to Vietnam to symbolically complete the mission they left unfinished the first time out. Instead of suggesting that we owe veterans less war, these films suggest we owe veterans victory, in the form of cathartic victories over old enemies and cash payments. In this vein, Da 5 Bloods ends up effectively conflating reparations owed to Black soldiers as Black people in the United States, which is a moral necessity, and reparations owed to Black soldiers as soldiers in a war of imperial conquest, which is much less righteous, especially when those funds are stolen from the people who were invaded.

The same dynamic is in effect with the “war is hell” films. Violence may be meant to dissuade, but it’s also a cool and exciting part of narratives about boys becoming men and taking revenge. Full Metal Jacket, in particular, shows Vietnam as a grubby fantasy of cheap sex workers and male bonding, concluding with the hero shooting a dying woman enemy while a companion breathes in awe, “Hardcore.” This is not a recipe for dissuading young men from enlisting. Indeed, at least one former soldier has written about how the movie helped convince him to sign up. As long as U.S. soldiers are the protagonists of Vietnam War films, viewers are going to want to be those protagonists—even if the protagonists are morally compromised, even if they die. U.S. war films that center U.S. soldiers will always end up justifying U.S. wars.

It’s illuminating in this respect to look at Vietnamese films about what is known in Vietnam as the American War. Vietnam’s film industry is not large, and movies available in English translation are few and far between. There are some examples, though. For instance, the 1975 film The Girl From Hanoi provides a starkly different view of the conflict than any U.S. film.

The Girl From Hanoi is a frankly propagandistic North Vietnamese production. It is about a young girl, Ha Ngoc (played by Lan Huong Nguyen) whose father goes off to fight the invading U.S. troops. Her mother dies in a U.S. bombing while trying to save other children. Ha Ngoc heads toward the front to find her father. She is helped along the way by other soldiers and civilians, and is finally adopted by an artilleryman. The movie ends with scenes of the Vietnamese shooting down U.S. planes and an anti-imperialist speech by North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.

The Girl From Hanoi is not anti-war. It is anti-imperialist, though, and it does considerably more to question the logic of U.S. intervention than Platoon or even Da 5 Bloods. After watching U.S. Vietnam films all one’s life, it’s a shock to see the Vietnamese as the heroes, caring for each other as they are bombed and shot by the distant, implacable antagonist which is the U.S. military.

There are more subtle tweaks to Hollywood narratives too. Linh Dinh at the Guardian has noted that most U.S. Vietnam war movies portray Vietnam as an atavistic nightmare. “In Apocalypse Now,” he writes, “Vietnam is more or less one continuous jungle, with corpses casually dangling from trees, and arrows and spears flying out of the foliage.” In fact, Vietnam was heavily urbanized even in the 1970s, and The Girl From Hanoi shows a densely populated country, with military tech advanced enough to challenge the United States with anti-aircraft guns, not arrows. It was heavy artillery dragged for hundreds of miles that defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, not jungle skills. The Girl From Hanoi portrays Vietnamese people as contemporary peers, rather than as a backward culture to be swept away for its own good.

The 1984 film When the Tenth Month Comes is even more bracing for Western viewers. Written and directed by Dang Nhat Minh in black and white, it may be the only Vietnamese film of the era that avoids being propaganda. It tells the story of Duyen (played by Van Le), a woman whose husband has died fighting in the South. She finds out about his death only a year afterward, and continues to keep the news from his father, her young son, and the village, to spare them and herself.

The only gunfire in the movie is the “bang! bang!” noise that Duyen’s son makes when he fires the toy gun she buys him, pretending it’s a gift from his dad. The story is not about revenge or fighting, but about grief and the relationship between memory, fantasy, and violence. Duyen is an actress who takes part in a traditional Vietnamese drama about a soldier who fails to return; she breaks down and flees the stage after singing the lines, “The seasons will pass, dead flowers and leaves will return to the land.” At a shrine she meets ghosts of past battles in Vietnam, including her husband, reflecting a real and common belief in the literal hauntings of the land that persists in Vietnam today. “I want those still living to have happiness,” the ghost says quietly.

U.S. Vietnam War films, including Da 5 Bloods, restage combat over and over, trying to cauterize the wound with more blood. When the Tenth Month Comes, in contrast, suggests that we honor the dead best by loving each other. Dayun tries to imagine her way into a world where war didn’t take her husband from her. Doing so doesn’t erase the past, but may point a way to a better future.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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