Making Warrnby Clyde WibonrnWake Island (1942)rnDirected by ]ohn FarrowrnB&W, 88 MinutesrnGo Tell the Spartans (1978)rnDirected by Ted PostrnColor, IH MinutesrnSaigon: Year of the Cat (1983)rnDirected by Stephen FrearsrnColor, 106 MinutesrnAmericans learn their wars primarilyrnthrough the movies. Who, exceptrnfor the few who were actually there, canrnimagine World War II without thinkingrnof John Wayne? The popular medium,rngives us a way to digest what would otherwisernbe too terrible to contemplate, to absorbrnit into the national psyche.rnGenerally speaking, British WorldrnWar II movies are much better thanrnAmerican. The Brihsh leave out the sillyrncommon-man comic relief touches andrnexcessive firefights that Americans wantrnand concentrate on the experience andrncharacter of men at war. An exception,rnand possibly the best American film torncome out of the war, is Wake Island.rnWake Island tells the story of a few hundredrnAmerican Marines and constructionrnworkers who were caught on the barrenrnPacific atoll of Wake after PearlrnHarbor. Without any hope of relief, theyrnfight skillfully and to the last against overwhelmingrnJapanese sea, land, and airrnforces.rnThe combat is well rendered, but thernemphasis is on the characters—the Marinerncommander (Brian Dunleavy) whornhas left a motherless yoimg daughter inrnHawaii; common Marines like the inevitablernWilliam Bendix and a veryrnyoung Robert Preston; the engineers andrnconstruction men who decline a chancernto escape; a handful of pilots (includingrnMacdonald Carey) who sacrifice themselvesrnagainst impossible odds.rnIt is a propaganda film, and a very goodrnone. It shows Americans coming togetherrnto sacrifice their lives for their country.rnFor their country: because it is, under therncircumstances, the right thing to do.rnThere is not a word about saving thernworld for democracy, nor a single glowingrntribute to Eleanor Roosevelt’s wonderfulrnplans for postwar reconstruction;rnnot even much about Mother, Apple Pie,rnand The Girl I Left Behind. Insteadrnthere is something approaching the highrnmode of Western epic —courageouslyrnfacing unavoidable fate.rnThe Marine leader mentions (attention,rnRuth Bader Ginsburg!) that he is arngraduate of the Virginia Military Institutern—to which the leader of the constructionrncrew (Walter Abel) replies thatrnhe is a Notre Dame man himself Imaginernthat Racist, sexist VMI! ReactionaryrnNotre Dame! Both in a film designed tornarouse American patriotism. Someonernmust have known how to appeal to Americansrnat a deeper level than the averagernstudio executive in Hollywood could aimrnat, even then —much less today. Thernmost memorable scene in the film is thernnighttime burial of casualties, with crossesrnprominently displayed and the readingrnof prayers. There are no atheists in thernfoxholes, one Marine comments. Really.rnWake Island will remind you of what ourrncountry once was and probably will neverrnbe again.rnI doubt if we will ever see a good filmrnabout the Gulf War, because the wholernthing was too silly to make good drama.rnThere have been several unsuccessful attemptsrnat the Grenada invasion, includingrnClint Eastwood’s worst film, HeartbreakrnRidge, which was almost as embarrassingrnas John Wayne’s The Green Berets.rnAnd we certainly have not come to gripsrnwith that strange episode in Americanrnhistory known as the Vietnam War.rnThe Hollywood treatment so far certainlyrnwon’t do. The accepted wisdom isrnthat the Oliver Stone and Francis FordrnCoppola productions, Platoon and ApocalypsernNow!, told the story for us. But inrnretrospect, these films appear hystericalrncreations of the alienated. They tell usrnlittle about war and nothing about thernAmerican experience. The makers ofrnthese films hate quotidian America, andrntheir hatred both predates and postdatesrnthe war. Michael Cimino’s The DeerrnHunter is a partial exception, since therncharacters bear some resemblance to actualrnAmericans.rnTwo films, largely overlooked, dorncome to grips with the Vietnam War in arnway that can reconcile us to the past andrnteach us a few lessons for the future. GornTell the Spartans and Saigon: Year of thernCat frame the war perfectly. The firstrntells of the beginning of the American involvement;rnthe second, of the end. Bothrnportray the tragedy of the time with insightrnand without hysteria.rnGo Tell the Spartans casts Burt Lancasterrnas a tough regular army officer inrnthe early days of American “advisors.”rnThe title of the film is found carved overrnthe gate of a French cemetery near anrnoutpost that Lancaster and his motleyrncrew are left to defend. The Americansrnshould learn something from this, butrnthey don’t. Moral ambigiuties abound.rnWhat if the nice young girl is really, asrnthe South Vietnamese liaison says, a Vietcongrnwho will slit your throat at the firstrnopportunity? The arrogance and ignorancernof the brass come through —thernGreat Society bureaucracy abroad. Werncan hardly have a better picture of the idiocyrnof the McNamara war machine: Anrnelectronic map supposedly shows, by coloredrnlights, where the enemy activity isrnmost intense. We come away knowingrnthat, at the beginning, the end was alreadyrnordained.rnSaigon: Year of the Cat was panned byrnreviewers. I think I know why: Its portrayalrnof the American establishment, especiallyrnthe Saigon ambassador (wellrnplayed by E.G. Marshall), is too close tornthe truth of intellectual and moral failure.rnFrederick Forrest is a CIA operativernwho is unable to convince his superiorsrnthat “Vietnamization” has failed and thatrnNorth Vietnam is on the verge of a finalrnpush. Judi Dench is an English bankrnmanager who provides a point of view ofrnsane detachment from which to witiiessrnthe unfolding collapse. The last Americanrndeparture is portrayed vividly, as isrnsomething almost never mentioned inrnAmerica: the shameful abandonment ofrnallies to their enemies.rnThese two works of cinematic art, ifrnpondered, might provide us a way ofrnthinking about that strange interlude thatrnmay help us restrain our messianic leadersrnon some other bloody occasion.rnClyde Wilson is a professor of Americanrnhistory at the University of South Carolina.rn48/CHRONlCLESrnrnrn