As I said in my review of Michael J. Allen’s Until the Last Man Comes Home, I wish the book had covered pop culture’s treatment of the supposed hundred of Vietnam POWs still in enemy hands. Having just watched RAMBO: First Blood Part II (1985), I figure I’ll plug that oversight, with the help of some research via Michael Lee Lanning’s Vietnam on Film and Eric Lichtenfeld’s Action Speaks Louder.
POWs had played a role in films about the Korean War and World War II (and we’ve had historical dramas dealing with Civil War POWs). Vietnam, however, was different. Where WW II films have shown escapes (The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express, The Birdmen, Escape from Sobibor), Vietnam War prisoners almost never escape (Chuck Norris pulls it off in Missing in Action). They’re stuck there in brutal conditions until the US negotiates a POW release or Rambo, Braddock and other 1980s action heroes come and rescue them.
This mini-genre began with the 1983 movie Uncommon Valor, based on a failed attempt to bring prisoners home, followed by the first of three Missing in Action films in 1984. It was Rambo, in 1985, however, that became the archetype. In other media, an issue of the 1980s Jon Sable, Freelance comic book showed our boys were still there; the 1984 TV series Airwolf has the protagonist’s obsession over his MIA brother as a major plot point.
Lichtenfeld suggests it taps into the same American themes as The Searchers, (which Susan Faludi discusses in The Terror Dream) of captives taken by savages and needing rescue. They also reflect Reagan’s embrace of dubious claims about POWs, his insistence we need to definitely account for every MIA, and his administration’s insistence it was “morning in America” (Rambo takes it as a given that MIAs are possible POWs until proven otherwise). No more feeling bad about Vietnam or wondering if it was good to wage war on Communism; we were America! We blow shit up for justice!
Sure enough, Rambo and his fellow Vietnam veterans go into ‘nam in these films, but they’re unambiguously good guys. The Vietnamese are just as ambiguously the bad guys. In Rambo his commander, Trautman (Richard Crenna), realizes Rambo’s mission was to explore a camp the government knew was empty; when he finds real live POWs, the mission is terminated, leaving him to die (Fools! As the poster says, the higher ups forgot they were dealing with Rambo). Trautman furiously snarls that “it was a lie, like the entire war!” A lie which blasted much of North Vietnam into ruins and got thousands of Vietnamese killed, but that’s not the issue; it’s the waste of American lives that pisses Trautman off.
There’s a lot more to Rambo‘s themes, even though it’s not a good movie. I’ll be getting into them in an upcoming post.
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