Wake Island (1942)
Directed by John Farrow
B&W, 88 Minutes

Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
Directed by Ted Post
Color, IH Minutes

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Color, 106 Minutes

Americans learn their wars primarily through the movies. Who, except for the few who were actually there, can imagine World War II without thinking of John Wayne? The popular medium, gives us a way to digest what would otherwise be too terrible to contemplate, to absorb it into the national psyche.

Generally speaking, British World War II movies are much better than American. The British leave out the silly common-man comic relief touches and excessive firefights that Americans want and concentrate on the experience and character of men at war. An exception, and possibly the best American film to come out of the war, is Wake Island. Wake Island tells the story of a few hundred American Marines and construction workers who were caught on the barren Pacific atoll of Wake after Pearl Harbor. Without any hope of relief, they fight skillfully and to the last against overwhelming Japanese sea, land, and air forces.

The combat is well rendered, but the emphasis is on the characters—the Marine commander (Brian Dunleavy) who has left a motherless young daughter in Hawaii; common Marines like the inevitable William Bendix and a very young Robert Preston; the engineers and construction men who decline a chance to escape; a handful of pilots (including Macdonald Carey) who sacrifice themselves against impossible odds.

It is a propaganda film, and a very good one. It shows Americans coming together to sacrifice their lives for their country. For their country: because it is, under the circumstances, the right thing to do. There is not a word about saving the world for democracy, nor a single glowing tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt’s wonderful plans for postwar reconstruction; not even much about Mother, Apple Pie, and The Girl I Left Behind. Instead there is something approaching the high mode of Western epic—courageously facing unavoidable fate.

The Marine leader mentions (attention, Ruth Bader Ginsburg!) that he is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute—to which the leader of the construction crew (Walter Abel) replies that he is a Notre Dame man himself Imagine that Racist, sexist VMI! Reactionary Notre Dame! Both in a film designed to arouse American patriotism. Someone must have known how to appeal to Americans at a deeper level than the average studio executive in Hollywood could aim at, even then—much less today. The most memorable scene in the film is the nighttime burial of casualties, with crosses prominently displayed and the reading of prayers. There are no atheists in the foxholes, one Marine comments. Really. Wake Island will remind you of what our country once was and probably will never be again.

I doubt if we will ever see a good film about the Gulf War, because the whole thing was too silly to make good drama. There have been several unsuccessful attempts at the Grenada invasion, including Clint Eastwood’s worst film, Heartbreak Ridge, which was almost as embarrassing as John Wayne’s The Green Berets. And we certainly have not come to grips with that strange episode in American history known as the Vietnam War.

The Hollywood treatment so far certainly won’t do. The accepted wisdom is that the Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola productions, Platoon and Apocalypse Now!, told the story for us. But in retrospect, these films appear hysterical creations of the alienated. They tell us little about war and nothing about the American experience. The makers of these films hate quotidian America, and their hatred both predates and postdates the war. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is a partial exception, since the characters bear some resemblance to actual Americans.

Two films, largely overlooked, do come to grips with the Vietnam War in a way that can reconcile us to the past and teach us a few lessons for the future. Go Tell the Spartans and Saigon: Year of the Cat frame the war perfectly. The first tells of the beginning of the American involvement; the second, of the end. Both portray the tragedy of the time with insight and without hysteria.

Go Tell the Spartans casts Burt Lancaster as a tough regular army officer in the early days of American “advisors.” The title of the film is found carved over the gate of a French cemetery near an outpost that Lancaster and his motley crew are left to defend. The Americans should learn something from this, but they don’t. Moral ambiguities abound. What if the nice young girl is really, as the South Vietnamese liaison says, a Vietcong who will slit your throat at the first opportunity? The arrogance and ignorance of the brass come through —the Great Society bureaucracy abroad. We can hardly have a better picture of the idiocy of the McNamara war machine: An electronic map supposedly shows, by colored lights, where the enemy activity is most intense. We come away knowing that, at the beginning, the end was already ordained.

Saigon: Year of the Cat was panned by reviewers. I think I know why: Its portrayal of the American establishment, especially the Saigon ambassador (well played by E.G. Marshall), is too close to the truth of intellectual and moral failure. Frederick Forrest is a CIA operative who is unable to convince his superiors that “Vietnamization” has failed and that North Vietnam is on the verge of a final push. Judi Dench is an English bank manager who provides a point of view of sane detachment from which to witness the unfolding collapse. The last American departure is portrayed vividly, as is something almost never mentioned in America: the shameful abandonment of allies to their enemies.

These two works of cinematic art, if pondered, might provide us a way of thinking about that strange interlude that may help us restrain our messianic leaders on some other bloody occasion.