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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing
editor. [August 12, 2008]
If World War Two is romanticized as the Good War, for many Americans, Vietnam
its opposite. The romanticized Bad War.
Why would anyone romanticize
a Bad War? It may be more accurate to say that it is the period's antiwar
movement that is romanticized. And why is that?
It's hard to say. Not because
there weren't reasons to oppose the war, but because the reasons were many
and varied; intellectual and emotional, personal and cultural. The antiwar
movement overlapped with politics, youthful rebellion, free love, psychedelic
art, drugs, and great music. How many protesters were motivated by American
self-interest, by Marxist sympathies, by fear of getting drafted, or by
a desire to impress chicks and get laid?
Whatever the movement's motivations
or darker side, it's understandable that today's antiwar activists look
back with nostalgia at a moment in history when it seemed the common people
had resisted the state's war machine -- and the state blinked and backed
Two thought-provoking and
entertaining films about Vietnam era antiwar protests are The
Strawberry Statement (1970) and 1969.(1988),
the former from that era, the latter a look back.
Strawberry Statement is based on James Kunen's book of the same title, which relates his experiences at Columbia University
(and elsewhere) during a student campus takeover. Unable to secure permission
to shoot at Columbia, the filmmakers "fictionalized" the book and relocated
its events to politically friendlier San Francisco.
Bruce Davison plays a student
on the college rowing team who, almost inadvertently, joins a student takeover
of his college campus, motivated by the excitement and the women. Kim Darby
is the idealistic protester who eventually wins his heart.
appears to be (very loosely) inspired by true events. Robert Downey Jr.
and Kiefer Sutherland portray two college kids who try to avoid the draft
by attending school. Their misadventures hit all the 1960s clichés:
hitchhiking, pot smoking, OD'ing on LSD, breaking bread with naked hippies,
joining an antiwar college riot.
Events darken when Sutherland's
brother dies fighting in Vietnam. Sutherland and Downey break into the
Selective Service office to destroy their draft records, but are caught.
Sutherland's father (Bruce Dern) disowns him. Downey is jailed. Sutherland
heads for Canada with Downey's sister (Winona Ryder), with his mom's (Mariette
1969 is a shamelessly sentimental film about middle-class American families
who grow to oppose the war in a quietly patriotic and Christian way. They
are not radicals. They attend Easter service, and join their minister at
film's end in peaceful protest, with the police chief's sympathetic support.
Some of 1969.feels
artificial, as if the film is forcing characters to behave according to
cliché. The sudden fights on campus and in the Selective Service
office feel faked. Other emotions feel authentic. Hartley excels at portraying
a mother's frustrated grief and unfocused rage at losing her son to war.
Dern skillfully portrays a father's quieter, suppressed grief. Sutherland
and Ryder's growing romance is well-paced and poignant.
Strawberry Statement is more cerebral and radical, unsentimental, noteworthy
for its innovative camerawork and editing. It won the Jury Prize at the
1970 Cannes Film Festival. It ends not in peaceful protest, but in bloody
Both films honestly acknowledge
the darker side of the antiwar movement, which attracted people for the
wrong reasons. Protest junkies and violence freaks. After the campus riot
in which Ryder is bloodied by a cop, Downey says, "That was fun!" And in The
Strawberry Statement, a preppie, who'd beaten up Davison for being
"a commie," later switches sides and joins the protest because "It was
wild!" Davison also grows bitter and disillusioned when blacks mug
him; "The people we're trying to help!" In white liberal fashion,
he expects "the oppressed" to shower him with flowers.
Neither Left nor Right has
ever been consistently pro- or antiwar. It depends on who the U.S. is fighting,
who it's defending. This point is acknowledged in 1969 when Sutherland says at his brother's funeral, "My father has medals
in his desk to prove that he fought in a good war. And I'm proud of my
father. I do not believe that this is a good war." Thus does Sutherland
distinguish Vietnam from World War Two.
Whatever one thinks of past
wars, those opposed to the Iraq War can view these films both for nostalgia
and lessons to be learned: what past protesters got right, what they did
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