Feeling Vietnamese While Watching War Propaganda

Apocalypse Now

Growing up a cinephile in the west has made me very familiar with the American point(s) of view on the war in Vietnam. In my teenage years, it was hard to avoid films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986). Not that I tried to avoid them, I actively sought them out. I fully bought into this idea of the tragedy of the war, for the United States (which it also was), as being the defining historical and cultural narrative.

Of course, I was also aware of it being even more of a tragedy for the country of Vietnam and its citizens, but even though I’m partially Vietnamese and in my final year of high school my history class had a special exam focus on the war, that side of the story remained mostly abstract, a statistic. If you want to read more about a Vietnamese perspective on films such as Apocalypse Now, I recommend these excellent articles by Phuong Le in Film Comment, Feeling Seen: Whose Apocalypse Now?, and Apocalypse Lies by Linh Dinh in The Guardian.

Vinh Linh Steel Rampart

What we Westerners are not so familiar with, however, is the Vietnamese cinematic perspective on the same war. How many Westerners and/or English speakers even know that in Vietnam the so-called Vietnam War is known as the Resistance War Against America or simply the American War? Let alone having seen Vietnamese films on the war. There is very little writing on Vietnamese war films, if any (especially outside of academic circles). And then there’s the issue of access. Of the hundreds of Vietnamese documentaries made in the wartime era, not that many are known by name or easily found. These days though, some are simply uploaded on Youtube. One of these is Ngoc Quynh’s Vinh Linh Steel Rampart (1971), which you can see below this article.

I started watching Vinh Linh Steel Rampart in order to write this article and kickstart our new series on Vietnamese cinema, but what I found was much more than simply writing material. Vinh Linh Steel Rampart is war propaganda in the form of a documentary on a specific region and its people during the war, as an example of the ‘heroic’ resistance of North Vietnam to the United States. It was made to be shown in other parts of the country to boost morale during the war. It was made in the middle of the war, and the surviving version is only 45-minutes long. It’s truncated length is a result of the film crew itself being bombed, during which most of the footage was lost and the film had to be partly re-shot. In the opening credits, the film is dedicated to “martyrs killed during this film.”

Vinh Linh Steel Rampart shows the people of Vinh Linh, a district which was at the time on the frontlines between North and South Vietnam, mostly surviving continuous air raids and getting bombed out. We don’t see the lush, dense jungles often seen in American films about the war, but a barren landscape full of craters and remnants of destroyed buildings, that mostly resembles the No Man’s Land in between the trenches of World War I. The voice-over points out that at that moment in 1971, this small area of less than a 1000 square kilometres, the home of about 70.000 people, already had more than three times the amount of bombs dropped on it than the United States dropped on Japan during the entire Second World War. I can’t quickly verify this, but it does ring true with what is generally known about the enormous amount of bombs the US dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the war. Then the film mostly shows how the locals coped with the war and resisting US forces, by digging an elaborate system of tunnels throughout the country to evade and survive all those bombardments, and how throughout people kept up their fighting spirit.

What surprised me while I watched Vinh Linh Steel Rampart, this arguably simple piece of war propaganda,  is how rousing and effective it was to me. I never lost sight of how much the film is a piece of propaganda, but still, it did awaken something in me. I wasn’t exactly rushing off to join the war after it had finished, but still even taking it with a huge grain of salt, the film had me marvelling at Vietnamese resilience, at the life in the tunnels, complete with a film viewing setup that is probably bigger than my own, the attempts at growing rice in the battlefields to remain self sufficient, and the general spirit of never ending resistance. When the film ends on a weirdly upbeat note, despite people having literally died in the making of the film and the war still raging on, I felt some of that elation over ‘humiliating the American imperialists’ and ‘showing them they failed to destroy our country’. 

This awakening of apparently patriotic feelings surprised me, because I’ve never felt them in such a direct way. Despite my partial Vietnamese heritage, I grew up fully Dutch in a cultural sense, and have always been able to pass as such. Sure, when studying history at university I wrote a paper on how Ho Chi Minh was really more of a nationalist than a communist, who only went full communist after the US rejected him and his attempt to liberate Vietnam from French colonial rule. Still, I never really identified with my Vietnamese side all that much. If that is changing because of simplistic but effectively made war propaganda, despite being completely aware of what it’s trying to do intellectually, it only goes to show how dangerous such propaganda is.

What I thought would just be an interesting watch because it would provide a different perspective on the war between Vietnam and the US, has turned into something that I’ll have to grapple with on a much deeper level for some time to come. I wonder if delving into Vietnamese cinema even further for this series each month for at least the next couple of months will help clarify these feelings, confuse them even further, do nothing at all or something else entirely.

This Small Country Big Cinema: Vietnam was published in March 2020