Recreating American Mythology. Vietnam Veterans in Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Heaven & Earth"

Seminar Paper, 2001

26 Pages, Grade: 5,5 (Schweiz)


1. Introduction

2. The Vietnam War

3. Hollywood Goes to War

4. Veterans as Stock Characters

5. Oliver Stone, Veteran Filmmaker

6. «Born on the Fourth of July»
a. Childhood in Massapequa/Injury in Vietnam
b. Welcome Home/Exile in Mexico
c. From Victim to Activist

7. «Heaven & Earth»
a. Childhood in Ky La/Saigon
b. Da Nang/Meeting Steve
c. Welcome Home/Culture Shock

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

«Peace is not the end of war.»

Trailer for «Heaven & Earth»

1. Introduction

The Vietnam War marked a crucial point in the military and social history of the United States of America, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. After the glorious victory in World War II, the US established itself as the only dominant power in the world that had a democratic form of government. In a struggle against the communist forces in the Soviet Union and China, the US executed many covert operations and even open wars to ensure the liberty of the free world. This struggle was also fought inside the US, as a committee under Senator McCarthy conducted investigations and trials against citizens suspected of belonging to or in any way helping the Communist Party.

The struggle reached its climax during the Vietnam War, in which the US engaged to prevent further countries to fall under the influence of Moscow or Peking. Unaware of the determination of the North Vietnamese Army and facing violent opposition to the war within the US, the government was forced to withdraw their forces from Vietnam, resulting in the victory of the North Vietnamese Army. The defeat in Vietnam was a wound in the American consciousness that would take several decades to heal. Campbell and Kean (257) quote Crockatt who explains that «when Americans uttered the word ‘Vietnam’ … they generally meant not a country several thousand miles from their shores, but a whole complex of social conflicts associated with a great divide in the American experience.» The Vietnam War was not only conducted in Asia but also in the United States, where social issues such as the suppression of women and minorities were more important than a war 13,000 miles from the US borders. Pillars of the foundation of the American society were attacked which led to a disorientation of the American myth. Jung (110) explains that, «[d]ie Mythologie eines Stammes [...] seine lebendige Religion [ist], deren Verlust immer und überall, auch beim zivilisierten Menschen eine moralische Katastrophe ist.»

The myth of the United States was that they are invincible, and this was also reflected in the war movies and westerns during and after World War II. When the US entered the Vietnam War the experience of the soldiers proved to be different from the representations of war they had witnessed in movies. Due to the long distance from home, the soldiers were stationed in Vietnam for one-year tours of duty. The result was that the soldiers felt no camaraderie in their platoons whose members were exchanged frequently. The fighting itself turned out to be even more disorienting as even the landscape was hostile and no one knew who and where the enemy exactly was. The traditional combat films were unable to adapt the new signifiers of the Vietnam war and the genre was abandoned for a while. One of the main problems of the combat film was that the US troops would win, often sacrificing some soldiers who would become heroes. In Vietnam, this heroic myth could no longer be sustained. However, Barthes (135) pointed out that, «the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology. Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?» Rejecting the notion of invincibility, directors after the Vietnam War depicted the horror and madness of the conflict and, indeed, rebuilt a new myth.

One of the directors who decided to craft a new combat film was Oliver Stone. While he received critical praise for «Platoon» (1986) and his depiction of the Vietnam War was confirmed by many veterans, he was publicly denounced as a traitor and attacked for the representation of the war in «Born on the Fourth of July» (1989). Although his most hostile critics chose to attack the alternation of facts, Stone was – and still is – criticized or applauded for debunking old myths and creating new ones. For an investigation of Oliver Stone’s technique of creating new myths, I will analyze his films «Born on the Fourth of July» and «Heaven & Earth» (1993). Since most of Stone’s film are multi-layered and contain an abundance of signs that can be explained I will describe most of the story rather straightforward, without making too many comments, to advance to on one crucial scene in each film on which I will be concentrating, and in the conclusion compare the mythologies of the two films. Chapters 2 to 5 should offer an overview of the Vietnam War, its depiction in Hollywood films, as well as an introduction to the image of the Vietnam veteran in films and the person of Oliver Stone. There is, unfortunately, no room to include factors like the influence the casting played for the reception of the film, how the production history was perceived by the audience or of the discussions that surrounded, and especially followed, the theatrical release of the films.

2. The Vietnam War

The conflict in Vietnam can be divided into three phases. In the first phase (1946-54) the Vietnamese Army of the Vietminh was fighting against French troops, who were trying to rebuild the colonial empire after the Japanese retreat and Ho Chi Minh’s proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. After the victory of the communists in China, Vietnam received military supplies and political support from the Chinese government. Since the end of World War II, the US government feared that a communist triumph in Vietnam would lead to communist revolutions in neighboring countries, the so-called domino effect. Therefore, they started to support the French troops by sending military advisors and financial support after 1950. Nonetheless the French suffered their final defeat in the battle of Diên Biên Phu in 1954, leading to the Geneva accord calling for a military cease-fire and the partition of Vietnam along the 17th latitude.

Elections for the reunification of Vietnam were planned for 1956 but failed because of the resistance of the US-backed South Vietnamese government, headed by the Roman Catholic Ngô Dinh Diêm who was never accepted by the Buddhist segment of the population. He tried to establish the South as a stronghold against the communist forces, especially the Vietcong’s (VC)1 growing control over many parts of the country. The military presence of the USA already increased during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. In 1963 163,000 military advisors were stationed in Vietnam. After an attack on a US destroyer in 1964 president Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliatory action and soon afterwards signed a resolution calling for «all necessary measures to repel any attack against the United States and to prevent further aggression.» (Capps, 49) The increased involvement of US troops started the second phase of the Vietnam conflict.

The US desired a restricted war. Massive air bombardments were supposed to force Northern Vietnam to surrender. The US believed that their technological superiority would enable them to win the war in short time. As it turned out, the Vietnam War would be the longest war in US history. After 1965 the air attacks were supported by ground personnel. However, the troops were not adequately prepared for the guerilla warfare in the unfamiliar and unyielding terrain of the Vietnamese jungle. The war escalated. The US explored new strategies like deployment of napalm and chemical deforestation to drain the Vietcong of their life support. Northern Vietnam was dependent on Soviet and Chinese armament and economic aid.

On January 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive signified a turn in US politics. Several attacks by the Vietcong proved that the US had met its match. Johnson declared later that he would not run for re-election. Meanwhile, the population in the US was divided into war opponents and war supporters. The growing mistrust in the government was also fueled by social and racial injustices, as well as the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The battle between the government and the peace movement reached its climax with the shooting of four students at a peace rally at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Previous to that escalation, president Richard Nixon had already announced a gradual decrease in the number of American troops when he expanded the war to Cambodia in early 1970. The US troops were engaged in further heavy fighting, until the peace treaty of 1973 called for an immediate withdrawal of all American personnel. Two years later the North Vietnamese Army marched into Saigon, forcing the Republic of South Vietnam to capitulate.

In the end, Nixon’s attempt to bring the war to an ‘honorable’ end failed. The peace treaty marked the first war that was lost by the US. In the third phase of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese government had to defend its independence against the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

3. Hollywood Goes to War

Hollywood was, as the US themselves, always fascinated by war. The events offered stunning visuals and human tragedy, usually ending in the defeat of the enemy. During World War II Hollywood produced many propaganda films reminding the audience of the importance of the cause and the involvement in defeating fascism, at the same time «encouraging enlistment and uniting the country against the common foe» (Muse, 15).2

When the US got involved in the Vietnam conflict, the first and only Hollywood production dealing with the combat, was «The Green Berets» (1968) starring John Wayne, who was convinced that this necessary war against communism was equivalent to World War II. Although his portrayal of the US involvement in South Vietnam received full support of the Department of Defense and a warm response from the audience, it was torn apart by the critics. For the first time in US history there was a large anti-war movement and public opinion was splitting the nation. After «The Green Berets» only few films dealing directly with the conflict were produced. Some films, however, had it as a subtext, like «M*A*S*H», «Catch-22» (both 1970), and many allegorical westerns.

During the war itself no more combat films were produced. The «myth of the invincibility of the US Army» (Weigel-Klinck, 14) was shattered, and Hollywood knew that the language of the traditional combat film was no longer appropriate. It would take five years after the withdrawal of the last US troops for critical films of the involvement in the war and the reception of the war veterans to find their way to the screens. In 1978 two films dealing with the problems the veterans faced became critical successes, both winning Academy Awards. «Coming Home» was awarded Best Actor trophies for Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, «The Deer Hunter» received the statue for Best Film and for four more categories. In 1979 Francis Ford Coppola finished his monumental version of the Vietnam War. «Apocalypse Now» was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and followed a small group of soldiers into the middle of the Cambodian jungle, where one of them is supposed to kill an officer who assembled his own army. After witnessing various facets of the madness of war, they reach the destination of their journey to face the ultimate horror.

In 1982 former actor Ronald Reagan, a devoted Republican, was elected president, resulting in a more conservative approach to the representation of the Vietnam War and power in general. In this period, reactionary films dealing directly with the consequences of the war to the American psyche, like «First Blood» (1982) and «Missing in Action» (1984), were produced, some of them sending missions back to Vietnam to rescue prisoners of war. Chomsky (34) quotes two commentators who explain that «decent, patriotic Americans demanded – and in the person of Ronald Reagan have apparently achieved – a return to pride and patriotism, a reaffirmation of the values and virtues that had been trampled upon by the Vietnam-spawned counterculture.» Films like «First Blood» served two functions. On one hand they were action-filled thrillers that satisfied the voyeuristic needs of the audience, and on the other hand they were recreating an American feeling of pride and honor.

Starting in the 80s, Hollywood started to exploit the image of Vietnam in all possible ways. Differentiated approaches like Stanley Kubrick’s «Full Metal Jacket» (1987) and Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy «Platoon», «Born on the Fourth of July» and Heaven & Earth» were always an exception. Next to the serious discussion of the Vietnam experience, there was for example also room for comedy, as in Barry Levinson’s «Good Morning, Vietnam» (1987), serving as another vehicle for the talents of Robin Williams and creating the impression that not all occupants were enemies of the Vietnamese people, or «Air America» (Roger Spottiswoode, 1990) starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. as two pilots who transport drugs to support the war in Southeast Asia. Other films dealt with the conflict allegorically, including horror films or the action films «Aliens» (1986, John Cameron), «Predator» (John McTiernan, 1987) and «Universal Soldier» (Roland Emmerich, 1992), which depicted soldiers fighting a mysterious enemy or suffering from the consequences of injuries sustained in the war.

At the end of the 90s, filmmakers turned their attention back to World War II, the «glorious war», in which the US was fighting a clearly recognizable enemy and winning the conflict. Whereas Terrence Malick showed the horror of the battle at Guadalcanal in «The Thin Red Line» (1998) and Steven Spielberg used the rescue mission of a single soldier to symbolize the madness of war in «Saving Private Ryan» (1998), Michael Bay resorted to an outdated cinematic representation of war for his action-packed war glorification «Pearl Harbor» (2001), ending the film with an attack on Tokyo that boosts American morale.

The Vietnam War was again marginalized. Only Joel Schumacher’s low-budget production «Tigerland» (2000) dared to show a more critical approach to war. His film is set in a training camp, focusing on a recruit who is opposed to war and helps other trainees to be discharged.

4. Veterans as Stock Characters

Over 3,4 million servicemen were stationed in Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1973. Whereas 1,5 million Vietnamese died during the conflict, the US troops suffered «only» 58,000 casualties. 300,000 soldiers, however, returned home with lasting physical damage and about half a million were classified as mentally disabled. Compared to other wars, an unusually high proportion of veterans committed suicide, according to official numbers more than died in Vietnam.

No homecoming parade was organized for the veterans, which caused a feeling that they were not respected and not treated fairly. The representation of Vietnam veterans was reduced to a few main characteristics: Vietnam veterans in films are, among other things, dangerous, psychotic, uncontrollable and angry. They are certainly never well-adjusted citizens. Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s «Taxi Driver» (1976) still is one of the most representative characterization of the Vietnam veteran. The next influential representation of the veteran was in «First Blood» (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) featuring Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, the prototypical angry white vet, who is bullied by the authorities and imprisoned, resulting in violent opposition against the forces that are trying to hide the veteran away from society. Rambo was initially supposed to die at the end of the film, but instead survived and starred in two more cinematic adventures, this timing being allowed to win his wars. The success of John Rambo signified «the physical rebuilding of the passive veteran. This would be possible only after the Reagan revolution overcame the Vietnam syndrome» (Muse, 100).

Later the Vietnam veteran would become a commodity for action films, as well as a pre-modified character for dramas. Mel Gibson starred as the ‘crazy veteran’ in «Lethal Weapon» (Richard Donner, 1987), who was so popular that three financially just as successful sequels were produced. Other stereotypical representations were the ‘emotionally disabled veteran’ in «In Country» (Norman Jewison, 1989), the ‘paranoid veteran’ in «Jacob’s Ladder» (Adrian Lyne, 1990), and the ‘suicidal veteran’ in «Scent of a Woman» (Martin Brest, 1992). The Coen brothers picked up this topic of the Vietnam veteran and incorporated it in their sly satire of the 80s in «The Big Lebowski» (1998), assembling a group of three people: a pacifist, a reactionary, trigger-happy Vietnam veteran and in their middle the prototypical citizen who does not really comprehend what is going on around him.

5. Oliver Stone, Veteran Filmmaker

Oliver Stone is a director who is not only making films about but has also served in Vietnam. He was born on September 15, 1946 to a Jewish American stockbroker and a French Roman Catholic girl who met just after World War II. They belonged to the white upper-class and, therefore, it was only appropriate for Oliver Stone to study at Yale. There he started to write a novel which was rejected by the publishers. Stone was frustrated and enlisted in the US Army. On September 16, 1967, at the age of 21, he was sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 25th Infantry, stationed near the Cambodian border. He completed his tour of duty in late November 1968 and left Vietnam after fifteen months with a lot of painful experiences and a supply of marijuana. On the way back from a trip to Mexico he was arrested at the border and spent two weeks in jail. His father hired a lawyer who managed to get him out of prison. The charges were dismissed and there was no record. Afterwards he started to make home movies with a Super 8 camera and applied to New York University’s Film School, where he started writing screenplays. Stone graduated after just over two years in September 1969. After many unsuccessful years of trying to sell screenplays or direct them himself, Stone sold his first screenplay in 1975. Even though this and other screenplays that he could sell, were not turned into movies, they opened the doors to Hollywood.

During that period he also wrote the screenplay for «Platoon». One producer liked it and offered Stone the opportunity to adapt the novel Midnight Express for the screen. In 1978 he also wrote the screenplay for Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and the script around the comic-book hero Conan the Barbarian. «Midnight Express» (1978) was a sleeper hit and raised the interest in Oliver Stone. Nevertheless, «Born on the Fourth of July» did not get produced because of financial problems. After directing the horror films «Seizure» (1974) and «The Hand» (1981), he established himself as a serious and reliable director in 1985 with «Salvador», which was successful enough to secure Stone another project. He chose to film his autobiographical script «Platoon» (1986). The story was set in the Vietnam War and centered around Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and his fight between the good Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the evil Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). In a combat, Barnes shoots Elias. In a latter combat, Chris shoots Barnes and concludes, before leaving home, that, «…we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us.»

Stone would return twice to Vietnam in «Born on the Fourth of July» (1989) and «Heaven & Earth» (1993). Moreover, his other directorial efforts always include a connection to the war. In the trailer of «Wall Street» (1987) the audience is told that it is now taken from the battlefields of Vietnam to the battlefields of Wall Street. The manic talk radio host in «Talk Radio» (1988) refers several times to the conflict in Vietnam, «The Doors» (1991) portrayed one of the icons of the anti-war movement, and in «JFK» (1991) Stone’s topic is the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. One of the theories offered, is that JFK was killed because he wanted to end the war. «Natural Born Killers» (1994) is primarily a media satire but the violence of the main characters and the way they are disconnected from society can also be constructed as a commentary on post-Vietnam America. Afterwards Stone portrayed the president who ended the war in «Nixon» (1995), and in «U-Turn» (1997), a black comedy set in the Arizona desert, Jon Voight plays a blind Vietnam veteran. Finally, «Any Given Sunday» (1999) could also be interpreted as another battlefield film.

As a filmmaker who has actually served in Vietnam, Oliver Stone is giving his Vietnam trilogy an authenticity which is usually lacking from other war films. While he chose to draw from his own experiences for his first venture into his past. Stone has been often attacked for his way of portraying historical events and accused of falsifying facts. Most of the accusations directed towards the films are, however, centering around the person of Oliver Stone. As Chomsky (48) pointed out «…it is convenient to conform: that way lies privilege and power, while the rational skeptic faces obloquy and marginalization.» Stone, however, has resisted to be marginalized and managed to work within the powerful Hollywood system. He is a radical filmmaker who does not shy away from tackling controversial topics and raising questions that most people would prefer not to hear. One reason why many viewers are overwhelmed by his films, is the unrelenting technique that he uses, often multi-layering images and fast editing, making it hard to congest the pictures immediately.


1 „Vietcong“ is the term used by the Americans in Hollywood films for the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, meaning “Vietnamese Communists”. Other terms are “Charlie” for the soldiers and “gooks” for any Vietnamese. Another terminological particularity is pointed out by Muse (10f.) referring to the difference between “Viet Nam” as the nation in Indo-China and “Vietnam” as the place where Hollywood’s soldiers go to fight.

2 The overview of Vietnam War films and Vietnam veterans in Hollywood films is concentrating mostly on the films that were critical or financial successes. For a complete description of Vietnam War films, Malo and Williams should be consulted.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Recreating American Mythology. Vietnam Veterans in Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Heaven & Earth"
University of Zurich  (Englisches Seminar)
Seminar: «From Disneyland to Da Nang»
5,5 (Schweiz)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Vietnam, Oliver Stone, Heaven & Earth, Born on the Fourth of July, Hollywood, Roland Barthes, Apocalypse Now, First Blood, Platoon, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Tom Cruise, Ron Kovic, Le Ly Hayslip
Quote paper
Thomas Hunziker (Author), 2001, Recreating American Mythology. Vietnam Veterans in Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Heaven & Earth", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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