Abstract: The 1975 Academy Award for documentary feature went to producer Bert Schneider and director Peter Davis for Hearts and Minds, a searing documentary about the American war in Vietnam. The 2002 release of the DVD brought renewed attention to this classic work. The argument of Hearts and Minds accrues through the assemblage of an intricate succession of contradictory words and images. These ironic juxtapositions combined with a latticework of interview fragments prompts the viewer's construction of an imaginary narrator who becomes the shadow storyteller. Kenneth Burke's idea of victimage resonates in the wounded warriors who recur throughout the film like musical refrains. The graphic content of Hearts and Minds marks the beginning of a decline in representational explicitness leading to the current faded state of war photography.
. . .So we must be ready to fight in
Vietnam, but ultimate victory will depend
upon the hearts and minds of the people that
actually live out there.
-- Lyndon Johnson
The 1975 Academy Award for documentary feature went to producer Bert Schneider and director Peter Davis for their account of what Americans did “out there” in Vietnam, and what the doing did back. Hearts and Minds created something of a sensation upon its release in a U.S. bitterly divided about a bloody conflict in a distant land. The release of the DVD in 2002, a year of escalating warfare and uncertainty, brought renewed attention to this classic work and made its powerful argument available to generations not yet born during the Vietnam War years.
In making Hearts and Minds, Davis wanted to know: “Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the doing do to us?” The film provides its own answers to these questions and more, but what is the relevance of Hearts and Minds today? Can the film help answer the question “What are we getting into?” when it comes to military intervention. Davis wrote in 2000 “if the first casualty of war is truth, the last is memory.” Today the first casualty of post 9/11 warfare is context. Shards of data collected from eight hundred "embeds" and no through-line; Baudrillard’s (1983) world of more information and less meaning; “parlor walls” from Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1953) spewing nonstop sound and picture from the gaping maw of 24/7 cable – logos, crawls, split screens, urgent magisterial music enveloping the viewer in a carnival of infotainment. Messages play out “within the context of no context” (Trow, 1997); attention deficit disorder is a national condition, and distraction the new focus. Can a new look at an old movie shed light upon this dark time?
“First an Undeclared War, then an Unseen Film”
It was a fluke that Hearts and Minds was made at all. Hollywood was no more eager in the 1970s than it is today to bankroll political controversy, witness Mirimax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein’s shelving in 2002 of The Quiet American as “unpatriotic” because post-9/11 “we were worried that no one had the stomach for bad Americans any more” (Fuchs, 2003). Michael Caine lobbied successfully for the film’s release in time to be eligible for the 2003 Academy Awards. Hearts and Minds took an eerily similar path in 1974. The movie was made in the first place because Bert Schneider earned so much money for Columbia with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces that the studio gave him a big budget with no strings attached. Schneider turned around and gave a million dollars, no strings, to CBS documentary producer Peter Davis, best known to that time for Hunger in America and the controversial Emmy-winning 1971 Selling of the Pentagon. Work on Hearts and Minds began in 1972, cultivating further ground broken by Emile Antonioni’s In the Year of the Pig (1970), the first full-length commercial Vietnam documentary by an American filmmaker. (Davis’ cinematographer Richard Pearce and editor Lynzee Klingman worked on the deAntonioni film.)
Pearce and Davis shot more than 200 hours of film across the U.S. and in Vietnam, acquiring an additional 20 hours of stock footage. Davis accumulated 1200 pages of notes on the dailies alone, eventually wrestling the film to just under two hours. In April of 1974 an incomplete version was screened for Columbia lawyers and other front office personnel Two hours after the screening, Columbia Executive Vice-President David Begelman called Schneider to say that Columbia was in “precarious financial condition” and was “fearful of reprisals from bankers.” Columbia general counsel Burton Marcus confirmed this account, adding that “what disturbed Columbia executives and lawyers was not the content of the film but the fact that, in their view, BBS [Schneider’s production company] had not obtained all the necessary releases from persons who had appeared in the film” (Harrington, 1975, p. 17). They took this position despite the fact that Schneider had 5 million dollars of liability insurance on Hearts and Minds alone, in addition to Columbia’s 20 million of general coverage. An additional 25 million coverage acquired by BBS did not change things, prompting Stephanie Harrington's lament “first an undeclared war, then an unseen film” (1975, p. 1).
In May 1974, Schneider screened Hearts and Minds to a wildly receptive Cannes audience over Columbia’s objections. BBS received a detailed legal opinion of its own: “it is hard to imagine a case in which First Amendment rights are more important. Based on our review of the facts and relevant law, we do not believe that the film gives rise to viable claims of substance for defamation, invasion of privacy, or related matters” (Harrington, 1975, p.1). Columbia was not impressed and continued to stall, in what Stephanie Harrington called “a Rashomon of a tale of -- depending upon one’s viewpoint – exaggerated corporate cautiousness, financial cowardice bordering on informal political censorship, or, as Columbia prefers it, simple business prudence” (Harrington, 1975, p. 1).
Hearts and Minds met with rave receptions and reviews at festivals and screenings during the Summer and Fall of 1974, but Columbia continued to balk at distributing the picture and refused to sell it to someone who would. Finally, Schneider and Davis managed to buy the film from Columbia and make a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. Hearts and Minds was thus able to have a brief commercial run in December 1974 in order to be eligible for the Academy Awards. Then the other shoe dropped. Just as the film was set to go into general distribution, Vietnam War architect Walt Rostow (“a hawk’s hawk”) rushed in with a temporary restraining order to block it as an unauthorized exploitation of his likeness. Rostow’s bid for a permanent injunction was denied, and on January 22, 1975 Hearts and Minds opened its first run in Washington D.C. at an evening sponsored by George McGovern and other anti-war celebrities.
Reviews were mixed. Hearts and Minds was “the truth of the matter” (Francis Fitzgerald, 1975, p. 35); “propaganda” (Walter Goodman, 1975, section 2, page 1); “a cinematic lie” (M.J. Sobran, 1975, p. 621). Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that it “may well be the true film for America’s bicentennial” (1975, p. 38). Andrew Kopkind called it “brave and brilliant” (1975, p. 38). John Simon declared Hearts and Minds “certainly the most significant and probably the best of all recent films” (1975, p. 64). Writing in Film Quarterly , Bernard Weiner judged it “a supremely important political film” (1975, p. 60).
Other reviewers were less enthusiastic. The film was morbid, one-sided, manipulative. There were no “bad” Vietnamese, no pro-war Americans who don’t sound like idiots or worse, and there was too much emotional pandering. Stefan Kanfer charged in Time that “beginning with the noblest of motives – examination of the roots and consequences of the Vietnam War – this vigorous, chaotic documentary manipulates time for its own ends.” Hearts and Minds “cannot leave hell enough alone” (1975 ).
Controversy notwithstanding, in March 1975 Hearts and Minds landed its Oscar. Bert Schneider’s acceptance remarks included reading a cable from the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s Ambassador to the Paris peace talks. This so upset host Bob Hope that he had Frank Sinatra read a statement disclaiming responsibility for any political references. Even in 1975, the year the Vietnam War officially ended, America was confused, angry, and divided about its meaning.
The DVD release has now officially introduced Hearts and Minds to an audience with little memory and less knowledge of the Vietnam War, and the film has garnered another round of reviews as varied as the first. David Ng (2002) in Images Journal: the film “still resonates as a cautionary tale against unquestioned military might abroad and virulent patriotism at home.” Marty Mapes (2002) in Movie Habit: Hearts and Minds makes me feel like the kid who gets to eavesdrop in on the grownups conversation.” Today, as in 1975, critics line up in opposite corners. Charles Aliaga (2002) in DV Angle called the film “the ultimate historical document,” while Colin Jacobson (2002) in DVD Movie Guide concluded “if you seek true documentation of the war start to finish, you’ll need to look elsewhere.” There is a surprising level of interest in the Vietnam War among college-age students today, who think of it as a mysterious foggy patch of American history that carries with it the fascination of a pornographic taboo.
Hearts and Minds breaks the spell of detachment with an emotional punch; almost anyone who has seen it can remember where and when. What accounts for this enduring power? As Davis hopes, can the film be reread today in new contexts? Penelope Gilliatt (1975) argued that you can throw all the pieces of the film randomly up in the air and they will come down with the same story. On the contrary, Hearts and Minds is a meticulously rendered archetype of cinematic representation built through a choreographed progression of antithetical messages.
“First they bomb. . . then they film”
The logic of Hearts and Minds accrues through the assemblage of an intricate succession of contradictory words and images. The cumulative effect of juxtaposed words vs words, words vs images, and images vs images is the construction of a rhetorical foundation of argument from antithesis. It is a disciplined montage (Eisenstein, 1949), wherein two messages juxtaposed in contradiction create a dialectical tension that the viewer is left to synthesize. But all messages are not equal. More often than not, one bit will be positioned as the metamessage that defines the synthesis. When this device is used repeatedly, as it is in Hearts and Minds, it prompts the viewer to project an imaginary narrator whose function is to make meaning through resolving the mixed messages. In Hearts and Minds, this narration is punctuated by recurring bits of interviews that build a latticework of context. If the viewer has not known what to make of the mixed messages, the unambiguity of the interviews completes the invisible narration.
Several features of Hearts and Minds contribute specially to its impact, foremost the extensive images of the Vietnamese Other going about daily life. They are human, they are real, they have feelings, they look small and vulnerable, not menacing. This other -- all but ignored by mainstream media -- is a sympathetic victim. The film reverses the figure/ground context of American popular culture by foregrounding the Other and bestowing it with value. Davis adopts the point of view of a knowing everyman, able to see the tragic story with a wide angle lens, where the “enemy” is as human as the viewer. David Halberstam is one of many who have pointed out that Vietnam War television reporting did not “calibrate the killing in human terms” (Harrington, 1975, section 2 page 1). Hearts and Minds catches the unconscious racism of war, and the naïve belief that the U.S. could wage a technological war “against people who didn’t have faces.” Peter Davis gives them faces. Despite the fact that the film was released nearly ten years into the American War in Vietnam and shortly before the war’s end, representations of civilian Vietnamese people and life were uncommon in American media, much like Iraqi or Afghani life is absent today. Davis found one place in particular “Hung Dinh Village, North of Saigon” to anchor his story and in his words “personalize” the Vietnamese.
In one sequence shot in Hung Dinh, the camera pans from airborne B-52 bombers to villager Nugyen Van Tai on the ground. “The planes again,” he says, “I don’t know whose they are. Just airplanes.” He stands in the rubble that was his home. “That is a bomb crater. The bomb struck there and destroyed everything I had.” Interviews with elderly sisters Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu follow. “I am so unhappy,” one says. “I am old and weak. I have nothing to sell, nothing to do, no home left.” The other: “Where am I to find a place to sit and work for something to eat? Even a bird needs a nest to go back to.” The camera lingers. Shots of broken china, sandals in the mud, more rubble, and then two village men overheard walking in the rain in the ruins referring to the cameraman: “Look, they’re focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film.” Davis is the first to acknowledge that the Vietnamese were doubly exploited by American technology, first by bombs and then by cameras.
The Vietnamese Other is most powerfully rendered in a sequence of mourning and keening at the National Cemetery of South Vietnam. The funeral is for a South Vietnamese soldier, and is presented in all its dignity, ritual, and grief. It includes the unbearable suffering of a young boy who throws himself on the casket, leading the viewer to share a painful and intimate experience. While some evidence of cruelty by the South Vietnamese army is seen in shots of prisoners in “tiger cages,” images of cruelty by the “enemy” – the “other-other” NLF or North Vietnamese – are notably absent. In nearly all cases Vietnamese are portrayed as sympathetic victims, even in a notorious and graphic brothel scene of prostitutes and American soldiers. The lone exception is a sequence of Saigon fat-cats, suggesting that South Vietnamese businessmen and government officials were complicit with the Americans in a war against the Vietnamese people.
The effect of humanizing the other works both ways. Vietnamese-American scholar Ngo Vinh Long (2002) reports that Vietnamese audiences he has witnessed watching Hearts and Minds are moved by the interviews of tearful American veterans, just as American audiences are moved by depictions of the Vietnamese. Vietnamese viewers are especially affected by the veteran who says “Americans don’t understand that these people are fighting for their freedom.” For both Vietnamese or American audiences, Hearts and Minds breathes life into war’s sad players. If demonizing the enemy is a first principle of propaganda, humanizing the enemy may be a first principle of peace.
Hearts and Minds maximizes the impact of iconic war photography, using stock footage of some of the war’s most gruesome images. These images are almost as recognizable today as they were then: GIs using Zippo lighters to torch huts at Cam Ne,; a naked napalmed girl running in terror; a point blank execution on a Saigon street. Each one of these images was widely distributed by mainstream media and each encapsulated the essential horror of the war. In Hearts and Minds, not only are these arresting pictures included, but the moving image unpacks the more familiar still image, playing out the action to greater effect in what seems like slow motion. The still image of the execution on the Saigon street during the Tet offensive shows the moment of the bullet’s impact, but the full shot shows the victim fall on his side, spewing a fountain of blood from his ear. It is much grislier than the still image, and much more graphic than any photograph coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan today. The last widely seen American war photograph of equivalent explicitness was of dead American soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. When Al Jazeera and other non-U.S. networks broadcast footage of captured and unharmed Americans in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (separated at birth from the Walter Rostow of Hearts and Minds) declared them to be in violation of the Geneva Convention.
As essential as stock footage was to telling the story of Hearts and Minds, nearly all of the photography was the work of Richard Pearce, whose unflinching eye framed the film. Davis (2002) comments on the quality of “intimacy without intrusion” in Pearce’s work, where subjects became “companions to the camera.” After one especially heartbreaking interview of the parents of a soldier killed in action, Pearce briefly wanted to leave documentary work because of the emotional toll it was taking. Pearce uses distance to calibrate intimacy throughout the film, and whether close on a shoe in the mud or from a master shot framing a scene, he directs the viewer’s eye with a precision that is essential to the film’s effect.
The Imaginary Narrator
Peter Davis was influenced by the verite documentary style developed in the 50s and 60s by Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, and others. Hearts and Minds is shot largely in television documentary style, but in a departure from television format Davis rejected the use of a narrator. The more eloquent the narrator, the less the viewer feels the suffering. After all, this intelligent commentator is protected from the painful reality of the images and so is the audience. Davis wanted to remove the curtain provided by the narrator, and at the same time avoid “pounding a conclusion.” While Hearts and Minds may not have the standard baritone narrator, the director’s use of interviews as well as the bone structure of the editing itself create an invisible narration that shapes the story as decisively as any disembodied voiceover.
If Hearts and Minds has a grammar, the interviews are its conjunctions, a device used to connect diverse and sometimes divergent pieces of sound and picture. The extensive use of interviews provides coherence and continuity to the Davis montage. The film includes seventeen talking heads from stock footage and thirty-five original interviews. Nine of the subjects appear three or more times. Seven are American combat veterans; six are women; fourteen are Vietnamese. In effect, these sound bites and interviews simulate a voiceover narration whereby the viewer assumes the role of an imaginary narrator. Instead of using a single voice, Davis cuts his subjects so that they collectively tell the story, “wounded voices running like insistent snatches of songs,” in the words of Andrew Kopkind (1975, p. 38). It is tempting to mix metaphors when describing the function of the interviews as they are dispersed purposefully throughout the film, but the result is to create a lens through which the viewer can bring hundreds of contradictory, complex, and often disturbing images into focus.
Hearts and Minds presents a depressing array of official sources whose positions should carry credibility, but whose words and deeds typically communicate the opposite. A notable exception is Clark Clifford, former Truman aide and LBJ Defense Secretary. Clifford was one of the highest ranking advisors who openly changed his position on the war, decades before Robert McNamara did the same in his confessional In Retrospect (1995). Clifford presents an elegant eminence grise; a picture of accomplishment, reason, and integrity against whom subsequent speakers will be measured. A parade of presidential naivete and deception follows, sequencing clips from Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and others. Richard Nixon’s statement is especially arresting: “Throughout the war in Vietnam, the United States has exercised a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war.” The sheer audacity of this claim in reference to a war where more bombs were dropped than in all previous wars combined sets the tone of U.S. government denial and duplicity that mobilizes the viewer for the story that follows. ( One can speculate that if Davis shot Hearts and Minds II he would pull George W. Bush’s famous disparaged sixteen words about African uranium for Iraq.)
If Hearts and Minds has a sacrificial lamb it is the first American veteran to appear, Lt. George Coker, a former B-52 pilot (78 missions) and a just-released seven year prisoner of war. Coker is in sparkling Navy dress blues and at his Welcome Home rally, but his eyes are haunted. Why did you go, he is asked. Because “at the time communism was once again trying to muscle its way into a free country.” Davis cuts, as if to underscore Coker’s cliched response. Coker appears seven more times, more than any other person in the film, functioning like a funhouse mirror that enlarges and distorts all of the hypocritical things about American culture. Davis has said that Coker “encapsulates the entire film in his personality.” If so, then he is the perfect scapegoat, the veteran-victim who repeats platitudes passed down from his leaders, paying for their sins with his imprisonment and pain. Unlike other veteran-victims in the film, Coker has not yet grasped the deception which imprisons him still, personifying the tangled innocence and guilt that pervades the Davis vision. Coker’s remarks are always cut against the grain: Coker finds bombing civilians “deeply satisfying,” he tells a group of school kids that “Vietnam would be a pretty country if it wasn’t for the people,” and declares to a roomful of mothers “what you don’t want is a hundred women climbing down your back, so you figure maybe the gooks aren’t so bad.”
Victimage and Redemption
Kenneth Burke’s (1936 ) idea of victimage resonates in all of the veteran portrayals in Hearts and Minds. From this view, people by nature seek perfection, and face a constant struggle to create order out of chaos. The inevitable imperfection becomes a source of guilt, mitigated through two strategies of victimage: scapegoating and mortification. Scapegoats are not necessarily “evildoers” – in fact, they are often “profoundly consubstantial” with those who create them. They can be “just like us.” Coker fulfills his ritualistic role as a scapegoat by appealing to the viewer’s identification with him, expiating our own guilt. On the other hand, mortification requires some ritual of self-abnegation. The guilt of imperfection has been internalized, to be expurgated only through suffering and self-punishment. This could not be more poignantly depicted than in Davis’ interviews with the film’s wounded warriors: Robert Muller, William Marshall, Randy Floyd, and Stan Holder, all of whom are visibly in physical and emotional pain.
Pilot Randy Floyd breaks down. Bobby Muller appears in the film several times, and it not until mid-movie that the camera pulls back from a medium shot to reveal that Muller is in a wheelchair. Marshall, a double amputee, is shot in a similar way. Kauffman calls this technique “a touch of cinematic hokum” (1975, p. 22), but there is no question that it startles. These combat veterans represent by their injuries and enact by their words the long process of redemption of all wounded warriors, who if they do not feel guilty for killing, feel guilty for not dying. Their suffering has had the unfortunate consquence of deflecting blame from the architects of war to its victims, just as today’s emphasis on “support our troops” diverts attention away from discussing policy and challenging the policymakers.
Walt Rostow was one of those policymakers who steadfastly denied culpability. He is an unrepentant and deserving scapegoat whose portrayal led him to seek unsuccessfully to block distribution of the film. Here is the exchange between Rostow and an off-camera Peter Davis:
Rostow: " I know of no communist or noncommunist analysis that would assert that the majority of the people of that country want to be communist."
Davis: "Why do they need us then?"
Rostow: "Because they were subjected to military attack from the outside. Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question? You really want me to go into this Mr. Davis? I mean we really have to go back to the origins of this thing. All right, I’ll do it. But this is pretty pedestrian stuff at this late stage of the game. Honestly it is. I’ll do it. All right."
Davis: "There is a lot of disagreement about this."
Rostow: "No there’s not. No there’s not. There’s no doubt. I’ll answer your question and you can throw away that tape but I didn’t really expect to have to be back to this sophomoric stuff, but I’ll do it. . ."
Davis interrupts Rostow mid-explanation and cuts to Lyndon Johnson announcing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, making it clear that what he intended to reveal was Rostow’s arrogance, not his rationale. Some critics cried foul. Walter Goodman faults the sequence because “we do not see Rostow’s interrogator; we can’t be certain whether some provocation, a gesture, a facial expression, a turn in phrase, may have prompted Rostow’s outburst.” Rostow’s views are never clearly explicated in the film beyond his central conviction that “I do believe that what we have done is right, though I would have preferred to see a more decisive military strategy.” Only five subjects of the thirty-five original interviews have more on-camera appearances than Rostow. As a documentary edit, it makes little sense to include Rostow’s outburst and exclude his actual answer to the question unless we attribute the cut to the film’s invisible narration. Rostow is scapegoated by inclusion of shots he thought were out of bounds for the interview: victimage by edit. It is the only place in the film where Davis takes a chance with his own credibility in order to keep the imaginary narrator on track and to some it comes off as a cheap shot that the film did not need. The Rostow sequence is an example of the sort of “pounding a conclusion” Davis intended to avoid.
The most contested scene in Hearts and Minds is pulled from Davis’ interview of General William Westmoreland, who says with a sense of comfortable entitlement: “Well, the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.” Davis had some difficulty getting Westmoreland to consent to an interview in the first place because Westmoreland’s “people” – not him – had seen the Selling of the Pentagon and reported back that it was awful, unfair, dishonest, etc. Davis successfully assured him that it was none of those things, and the interview proceeded. Davis reports that Westmoreland made the now-infamous statement not once, but three times. In response to criticism of Davis for juxtaposing that scene next to the Vietnamese funeral, he insists that no matter where the footage was placed, it “detonated” all the footage around it. Given the contribution of this moment to the film’s impact, Davis could not have constructed written narration that speaks more forcefully. The highest ranking American military man in the film saying the most ignorant thing in the most matter-of-fact way captures the soul of Hearts and Minds more any other single moment.
While the one hundred on-camera statements by interviewees come equally from pro and anti-war sources, the sum of all statements is clearly an anti-war message. How does this happen? The quantitative evenhandedness is illusory. Taking a closer look, it quickly becomes evident that the pro-war argument does not naturally speak very well for itself and, where it might, Davis does not let it. Westmoreland’s ill-advised view on the “Orientals” value of life provides a rare candid glimpse behind the curtain of imperialistic logic that has set the stage for many Western adventures. Davis does not have to connive here to make the quote more damaging than it is. On the other hand, the inclusion of Rostow’s bit of bad on-screen behavior can only be seen as an incidence of opportunistic editing. Alternative clips from the interview could have surely been selected, but Davis pulled the most damning of Rostow’s words to turn against him.
All of the film’s interview subjects are victims: victims of brutality, victims of naivete, victims of ignorance, victims of circumstance, victims of bombs, victims of filmmaking. Regardless of the role each plays in the larger story, as objects of scapegoating or subjects of mortification, they all seek redemption. The use of interviews to weave multiple strands of narration throughout Hearts and Minds binds the images and creates a rhythm that carries the viewer through a story that seems more and more inevitable an is, in fact, more and more carefully crafted. Tracing the arc of interviews, connecting the dots, the voice of the imaginary narrator begins to emerge.
Argument by Antithesis
Film editor Walter Murch told Michael Ondaatje that “when it works, film editing – which could just as easily be called film construction – identifies and exploits underlying patterns of sound and image that are not obvious on the surface. Putting a film together is, in an ideal sense, the orchestrating of all those patterns, just like different musical themes are orchestrated in a symphony. It is all pretty mysterious. It’s right at the heart of the whole exercise” (Ondaatje, 2002, p.10). Davis orchestrates his own symphony in Hearts and Minds by building a composition of argument by antithesis that involves the viewer in an active process of making meaning. Time and again, one message is placed near its opposite, with the viewer left to impose the synthesis. In the collage style pioneered by Antonioni, Davis carefully positions all the bits and pieces. Judith Crist (2002) calls this the filmmaker’s “point counter-point technique,” but there is more to it than simply displaying mixed messages. It is the multiple ways in which Davis creates a pattern of contradictions and conjunctions that gives the film its depth and dimensionality. This complex design is essential to delivering the message, and challenges Gilliatt’s notion that the pieces are interchangeable.
With 220 hours of footage to consider, Davis and editors Lynzee Klingman and Susan Martin faced an enormous task. Because of the vast quantity of material, Davis, Klingman, and Martin would each work on separate sequences, regrouping to view each other’s rough cuts. Davis comments on the DVD that the editing process was “stressful.” For Davis to make a point of it suggests that there were some very difficult days and weeks grappling with the charged and vivid material, yet they eventually managed to bring the film in at one hundred twelve minutes.
The opening sequence of Hearts and Minds is paradigmatic of the contrapuntal structures Davis builds throughout. In rich hues, a horse-drawn cart crosses the screen, bells tinkling softly. The camera pulls slowly back to a wider shot of village life. “Hung Dinh Village, North of Saigon” reads the subtitle. Children run laughing with their schoolbooks. Women gather straw, first in close up and then from afar. Against a backdrop of six women minding their work, an American soldier enters from the right of the frame and saunters slowly across without notice. He doesn’t belong there. Another shot of two G.I.s walking away from the camera, weapons at ease. Barely one minute into the film the entire has been told. We know that these incongruous images are going to collide. We know the unhappy ending, and the tension created by this initial contradiction propels the viewer ahead with a morbid fascination.
Mixed messages can keep an audience confused and off-balance, striving for a resolution of the dissonance that is created. Decades of clinical experience and experimentation with double binds, hypnotherapy, brainwashing, and even Zen practice suggest that whether mixed messages harm or heal, they actively engage the viewer/hearer/reader in the construction of meaning in a way that unambiguous messages do not. When mixed messages become a pattern in a context from which there is no escape they can have the crazy-making consequences of double binds (Bateson et al., 1956). For filmmaker Davis, in Hearts and Minds, mixed messages offer a rich array of editing strategies. As in the Hung Dinh sequence, picture can contradict picture over a time-base of several shots (just as sound can contradict sound), or picture and sound can point/counterpoint in either synchronous or asynchronous patterns. Typically one message is intended to be meta to the other and thus governs the construction of meaning. Over time and repetition of these forms, a matrix of contradictions accrues from which the viewer cannot easily escape. Some juxtapositions are straightforward, as when Rostow says “Ho Chi Minh in ’56, I don’t think could have gotten elected dog catcher in Vietnam,” followed by Daniel Ellsberg; “Ho Chi Minh dead could beat any candidate we’ve ever put up in Vietnam.” At several dramatic times Davis uses silence to punctuate a scene, accentuating the image while validating silence as a message in its own right.
One sequence that embraces all of these forms is an adrenaline pumping series of about twenty-five shots that starts with a huge roaring and rising B-52 shimmering with heat and ends in the shattered village of Hung Dinh. The sequence is an essay in itself; a microcosmic film within the film. From the B-52 more fighter planes follow. Two American fliers provide voiceover. Randy Floyd: making a bombing run “can be described as a singer doing an aria. . .it was very much a technical expertise thing. . .” Quick cutting between Floyd, war planes, and George Coker: “You’re up there doing something that mankind has only dreamed of. . .It’s definitely the ultimate in aviation.” Cut to the village. The incongruity builds. Floyd talking about “the thrill you get when you see something explode” is voiced over a group of laughing Vietnamese children. Coker: “to say it’s thrilling – yes – it’s deeply satisfying.” Cut to many bombs exploding, then pan from planes in the air to the villager on the ground who said “The planes again. . .”
This is a sequence is so abundant with ironic juxtapositions – picture next to picture, sound next to sound, sound over picture from same or previous shot, etc -- that it could be scored as surely as a musical composition. By this point, Davis is unrelenting, A “death” sequence with a dead soldier’s parents follows; next what can be called a bloodlust sequence starring George Patton III, some of the film’s several football analogies, then the brothel scene, some examples of racism, and we are at the 1968 Tet offensive. The tone shifts then, just as American public opinion shifted, and Robert Kennedy , Daniel Ellsberg and others make anti-war statements. LBJ announces he won’t run. We see for the first time that William Marshall is an amputee and Bobby Muller is in a wheelchair.
Too much is not enough. The upbeat World War II song “Over There” plays over scenes of a burning village and tortured prisoners. Bob Hope makes jokes at a White House dinner for American POWs, juxtaposed with shots of more bombs, a hospital in rubble, dead children. In the end, Davis’ most powerful and controversial juxtaposition is between the long wrenching funeral scene followed by Westmoreland’s infamous statement. Davis continues to defend the sequence, but it is overtly manipulative. It may be that Westmoreland’s quote “detonated” the scenes around it no matter where it was placed, but it is hard to imagine a moment in the film when it could have been more explosive.
Hearts and Minds Redux
In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction dystopia Fahrenheit 451, books are banned and interactive flat screen “parlor walls” anesthetize the population. A ragtag collection of hobo intellectuals take to the woods to become talking books, each preserving a treasured text. In Bradbury’s dark vision, people stopped reading because the combined forces of censorship and political correctness reduced content to “vanilla tapioca,” while at the same time a cacophony of electronic media deluged the senses. Hearts and Minds is such a text to its core of dedicated aficionados, notably Peter Davis, and whether it can cut through the din to reach a wider audience today remains to be seen.
Some things have changed little since 1975, when Harrington pointed out that the problem with getting Hearts and Minds released and distributed was that “in the communications industry and particular in the case of a film dealing with a controversial political issue, financial and political concerns impinge on each other.” The concentration of media ownership and emphasis on corporate profit has increased dramatically since the 1970s, making mainstream funding and distribution of political media ever more elusive, as the case of The Quiet American exemplifies. Yet, compared to the explicitness of Hearts and Minds, The Quiet American is a fairy tale. Apart from one very bloody scene after a bomb detonates in a busy street, The Quiet American makes its anti-colonialist point in a subdued and measured way. Post 9/11 sensitivities have created both a level of censorship and self-censorship that ensures that any film taking a critical view of U.S. policies and practices, foreign or domestic, will have more difficulty than ever seeing the mainstream light of day. Today when even combat still photography displayed by the American press is a shadow of what it was during the Vietnam War, the prospect of another Hearts and Minds is dim. It may be little comfort that the original has stood the test of time as an anti-war elegy.
Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, recipient of the 2003 Academy Award for documentary feature, inverts the anti-violence message of Hearts and Minds for today’s audience. Moore includes an ambush interview of Charlton Heston that is reminiscent in more ways than one of Westmoreland. Heston’s variation on the “Orientals don’t value life” theme is to attribute gun violence to the “problem” of America’s “mixed ethnicity.” Moore’s topic of gun violence is similar yet safer ground than the institutional violence of war and his guerrilla documentary approach is more Tom Green than Frederick Wiseman. Moore’s outspoken acceptance speech at the 2003 Academy Awards provoked applause and outrage not unlike Schneider’s 1975 speech., but as an anti-violence text Bowling for Columbine is a distant echo of Hearts and Minds, a home front allegory that mutes the message through humor and Moore’s shambling style. The fact that Bowling for Columbine was so successful in theatrical distribution suggests that today’s viewers respond to politics heavily filtered through entertainment values.
Hearts and Minds was released at the end of “America’s longest war,” not at the beginning or even midway. The U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang on March 8, 1965; Hearts and Minds got its Academy Award on April 8, 1975, almost exactly ten years later, and barely two weeks before the fall (or “liberation”) of Saigon by North Vietnamese and NLF forces on April 25. There was nothing the film could do to change the course of a war that was virtually over, but if it could not have an impact on the conduct of the Vietnam War, could it influence the course of other military interventions?
Davis (2002) maintains while acknowledging that Hearts and Minds is not “apolitical,” he hoped to allow “space for the viewer to reach their own conclusions.” Just as in the initial reviews, the film is more of a Rorschach test than an SAT. The argument is so tightly structured that there is little room for viewer indifference. Reaction is either “That was incredible.” or “Well, that was Vietnam. This is now.” or “That filmmaker ought to be arrested for treason under the Patriot Act.” Hearts and Mind is unlikely to convert those disinclined to listen, but to the curious viewer it has much to offer as a political text and as a movie. Hearts and Minds teaches that uncensored war imagery, a human look at the “enemy,” and a reminder of presidential deceit are necessary if not sufficient elements in creating a persuasive case against war.
If the “Vietnam Syndrome” is a posture of reluctance to war, Hearts and Minds is its primer. To see the face of the other as in Hung Dinh village, to be confronted with images of violence avoided by mainstream media, to hear veteran after veteran bear witness to the awful consequences of war even for the living, to follow a parade of U.S. presidents dissembling or delusional, to get up close and personal with the hubris and betrayal of war’s architects. These are the places Hearts and Minds takes the viewer, for a moment making the gauzy hypermediated view of the world transparent. Like the young reviewer who compared seeing the film to overhearing a conversation with his parents, any viewer glimpses things forbidden, exotic, mysterious, and raw. Part of the attraction of war is the adrenaline factor, the thrill of being outside of normal experience whatever the danger. Hearts and Minds mediates this exceptional experience, taking the viewer as close to being there as most ever want to go. The driving mixed messages in Hearts and Minds provoke the creation and projection of an imagined narration onto the images of the film, making the viewer a full partner in the making of meaning. Any combination of two images may bring about a third imaginary impression which can build exponentially. When that relationship is built from tension between contradictories, between thesis and antithesis, the filmmaker conjugates rhetoric and art.
This forbidden content is arranged by Peter Davis and his collaborators in such an artful, intricate, and deliberate way that sometimes the editing trumps the content. Murch again: “At the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition means. Either by emphasizing the theme or countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus” (Ondaadje, 2002, p. 268). Davis creates his Greek chorus in the form of the imaginary narrator of Hearts and Minds. The narrator’s inaudible voice arises from the geometry of multiple varied ironic juxtapositions of picture and sound framed by bits of interviews in different tones and shadings. William Blake said “Wise men draw outlines because they see them.” Peter Davis constructs outlines that cannot be seen and narrators who cannot be heard, all the better to see and hear more clearly the tale he has to tell. The anti-war message of Hearts and Minds remains intact three decades later, biding its time in the queue for distribution by way of the ever more bewitching parlor walls.
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