Meeting the Vietnamese

New perspectives on the war in Good Morning Vietnam and Heaven and Earth

Essay, 2008

11 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Meeting the Vietnamese? New perspectives on the war in “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Heaven and Earth”


The traumatic experiences of their own troops and the fact that they were fighting against a largely invisible enemy may provide a hint at why U.S. film-makers hardly yielded any space to the depiction of the Vietnamese in the first major portrayals of the Vietnam War. The expectation of a failure at the box office was probably even more decisive. The Vietnamese point of view was at first almost completely ignored. The representation of the Vietnamese was mostly reduced to the fulfilment of merely functional purposes. In films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter they are either victimized or demonized, while in Hamburger Hill they may be promoted to the role of “formidable enemies” but are otherwise left in the dark. There is no discernible effort made in these films to take a closer look at either the Vietnamese or at their country.

This changes with Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam and Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. While the former is based on the experiences of an American in Vietnam, the latter builds upon two autobiographical books by a Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip. Thus, whereas in Levinson’s film Vietnamese people form an integral part for the experiences of the American protagonist, Oliver Stone constructs his entire narrative around the life and character of his Vietnamese protagonist Le Ly Hayslip.

Eventually therefore, both films convey representations of a culture that the American target audience is not familiar with. This paper strives to explore the strategies and techniques that both films employ to this end. What are their respective approaches? What assumptions do they seem to hold about Vietnam and its people? Which aspects do the films share and where do they differ? Apart from the central aspects of the country and the people inhabiting it, the topics of tradition, dignity, subversion as well as the role of atrocities will be discussed.


In Good Morning Vietnam, Adrian Cronauer is an unconventional radio disc jockey who arrives in Vietnam in 1965 in order to host the morning show of the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). He soon gets in trouble with his superiors who dislike both his disrespecting humour and his choice of Rock ‘n’ Roll music. The soldiers listening to his broadcasts soon grow to love him though, as his mixture of hilarious comedy and news updates stands in stark contrast to the discrete but tedious broadcasts they are used to. After a short time, Cronauer becomes more and more acquainted with the precarious situation of the war in Vietnam as he is frustrated by the censorship of bad news that he feels obliged to report. Moreover, he escapes a bomb explosion only by hairsbreadth.

At first mostly motivated by his quest for romance, Cronauer soon mingles with the Vietnamese people in Saigon. In order to get to know a Vietnamese girl named Trinh, he bribes a teacher and takes over the English class from him. Whereas he realizes and accepts the impossibility of a relationship with Trinh, he develops a genuine interest in the local people. In the end however, his friendship with Trinh’s brother Tuan turns out to be a fallacy, since he is a member of the NLF and is responsible for the deadly bomb attack earlier in the story. As Cronauer’s superiors become aware of the connection between the two, they make use of it in order to get him replaced, something they had already tried earlier without lasting success.

In Heaven and Earth, Le Ly grows up as the daughter of rice farmers in the little village of Ky La in the centre of Vietnam. From early on, she works on the rice fields together with her mother and her siblings. While her mother teaches her about worldly matters, her father instructs her in the veneration of their ancestors. One night, North Vietnamese soldiers enter the village and effect its alignment with their cause of liberation. Some time later, also American troops and South Vietnamese soldiers arrive in the village. They arrest, interrogate and torture Le Ly. Suspicious of her release from the arrest, some other boys from the village charge her with treason and rape her.

She has to flee from her home to the house of an aristocrat in Saigon, where she and her mother find employment as housekeepers. Being seduced by her master, she becomes pregnant and attracts the anger of her master’s wife. After they have been expelled from the house, Le Ly gives birth to her son in Da Nang. There she eventually meets the American soldier Steve Butler, who marries her and takes her with him to his home in San Diego.

After a seemingly harmonious start of her life in peaceful and rich America, she soon experiences the everyday prejudices of her new family and the racism of other people. Steve does not manage to cope with his traumatic experiences and turns violent. During the process of their divorce, he first kidnaps their children and then commits suicide. Le Ly endures these hardships with the help of Buddhism, becomes wealthy on her own and returns to her former home in Vietnam with her sons. There she discovers the wounds that the war has inflicted on her family and her country.

The respective approaches of the two films

Every film has got its distinct look and feeling. Obviously, the most striking difference between the two films in question here is their genre. The basic fact that Good Morning Vietnam is a comedy, albeit a tragic comedy, sets it apart from all other films that have dealt with the Vietnam War until then. In fact, it has been criticized for dealing with its topic in terms of a comedy. This leads to the question which consequences might follow from this choice of genre. A possible answer is provided by William Guynn, who has applied Hayden White’s theory of historical rhetoric to the narrative of films about history.1

According to White and Guynn, the course of any historical narrative is automatically prefigured by the historian’s, conscious or unconscious, choice of rhetoric. This choice draws upon rhetorical tropes that relate to narrative genres and will consequently determine the boundaries of the narrative outcome. This prefigures not only the way in which things are being conveyed, but also the themes that are likely to be addressed. Thus, while in Heaven and Earth the themes of tradition and dignity are more prevalent, the choice of the comedic genre opens up the possibilities of dealing with subversion that can be found in Good Morning Vietnam.

Good Morning Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam builds upon the experiences of Adrian Cronauer, who first tried himself to do a TV series about his work as a radio DJ for the AFVN. Although he did not find any production company that would have agreed to make a comedy in the setting of the Vietnam War, Robin Williams later became interested in his draft. Cronauer still figures as a co-author of the script, but he himself said that less than half of the film matched the real events. While Good Morning Vietnam has Cronauer as his protagonist, we do not learn very much about him either. He is definitely a round character, but he also fulfils the function of taking us on a journey. In this sense the film’s focus is not so much on its protagonist, as it would be in a “biopic”. Rather, the film builds upon his experiences in order to relate something else.

Good Morning Vietnam shows the incongruence of official proceedings with ordinary people and their everyday lives. Censorship of unpleasant news, a severely restrained choice of music and the overall strife to keep everything in control are revealed as contrary to common sense. The daily work of the larger war effort, carried out by the military, is exposed to be out of touch with the basic needs of human persons. This becomes plain in a number of ways.

The film relies on its audience having at least a vague notion of the war’s grim realities as they are presented in earlier films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, etc. With the exception of the bomb assault on Jimmy Wah’s restaurant, we are not confronted with death directly in Good Morning Vietnam. Nevertheless, the audience’s knowledge of the war’s atrocities renders official discourse as grotesque right at the beginning.

The Film starts with the tedious voice of a radio moderator, presenting banalities to his listeners. The tone of his voice seems to communicate that the situation is normal, everything in control and that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. In order to ensure that everything stays in control, Christmas cards should be sent home no later than August 13th to avoid mail rush and soldiers are asked to dry wet equipment in the sun instead of requesting new material. The lack of relation with anything that might actually matter is further encouraged by the gentle movement of the equalizer’s index, never bearing the slightest risk to enter the red area on the scale of the voice level. This is ended abruptly by the noise of the aeroplane in which Cronauer is landing. While he is being chauffeured to the AFVN station, Elvis Presley seems to put the radio’s purpose in a nutshell: “ Dream on, little dreamer, dream on. ” Cronauer sees through this right away when he concludes: “ This is as boring as whale shit. You could play it to insomniacs who don ’ t respond to strong drugs. ”


1 Guynn, William, Writing History in Film (2006, Taylor and Francis), pp. 138 - 145.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Meeting the Vietnamese
New perspectives on the war in Good Morning Vietnam and Heaven and Earth
University of Cape Town  (Department of Historical Studies)
Hollywood & Vietnam
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
474 KB
meeting, vietnamese, good, morning, vietnam, heaven, earth
Quote paper
Arndt Schmidt (Author), 2008, Meeting the Vietnamese, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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