“The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” (Lyndon Johnson)
The Vietnam War was already lost by the time the 1970s began, both on the actual battlefield and on the homefront, but acceptance of the fact was slow in coming from the American administration under President Richard Nixon. Desperate to have “peace with honor,” Nixon pursued the option of Vietnamization in which American troop withdrawals were balanced with increased aid to the South Vietnamese army to replace Americans in the field. Bombing of North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos accompanied this, as did increased bombing of Hanoi itself. But it was all to no avail and Nixon was forced to accept a settlement in January 1973 that would allow all American forces to be pulled out of the country along with the return of American prisoners of war. The war itself did not effectively end until two years later when the North Vietnamese finally overran the South.
In the intervening year, the finest documentary yet to have been made about the war was released — Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis. It would win the 1974 Academy award for Best Documentary. Criterion has now released the film on DVD using a new high definition digital transfer.
Hearts and Minds documents the Vietnam War in a generally non-linear fashion using a blend of North and South Vietnamese and domestic footage from before and during the war; past and present interviews with politicians, advisors, military commanders, soldiers, and non-combatants; Hollywood film clips; and popular music. Some 200 hours of footage have been edited down to the less than two hours that make up the completed film.
It’s particularly appropriate to be revisiting Hearts and Minds at a time when the United States is engaged in a different sort of war with the shadow of a potential Iraq conflict on the horizon. The original rationales for U.S. involvement in Vietnam were to protect commercial interests and stem the spread of international communism, but as that war lingered on, it slowly became clear that the U.S. presence was more and more about trying to avoid the stigma of possibly losing to a perceived third-rate nation rather than any altruistic concern about the South Vietnamese people or any potential threat of a Communist takeover. Successive U.S presidents lied to their people about many aspects of the war and one begins to wonder if history will eventually say the same about the war on terrorism. For the moment, the American people continue to support their president, but there is a much greater inherent suspicion of political decisions these days as a result of the Vietnam fallout and the actions of subsequent administrations at home and abroad. Will a unilateral attack on Iraq be eventually viewed as the first step into a Vietnam-like quagmire that will eventually evoke the same sort of internal protests and strife that characterized America in the late ’60s and ’70s? Much will depend on how close to home any future response (à la 9/11) might hit. For now, we can only ponder the lessons of Vietnam and remember the old refrain that those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat them.
Hearts and Minds is a personal statement of its director, Peter Davis. Davis’s view of the war is very clear despite his efforts to provide a balanced view of its causes and effects, its pros and cons. For once, we get an idea of what the ordinary Vietnamese experienced and what they thought about American support, rather than just a parroted response from the propped-up South Vietnamese regime. Most telling is the feeling of betrayal expressed in their view that they are fighting a war of independence only to be prevented from doing so by the intervention of the United States, a country which had struggled for its own independence less than two centuries previously. Hearing that alone raises a distinct question about the merits of American involvement, but it’s further reinforced by the comments of many American Vietnam vets who afterwards at least questioned if not regretted much of what they did there. Of course, not all felt that way and that is graphically illustrated by returned American prisoner of war George Coker, who speaks about his continued belief in the rightness of American involvement to groups of all sorts in his hometown. Many of the military and political officials and advisors who had key roles such as General William Westmoreland, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, and Dan Ellsberg make comments, some coming across still as stonewalling members of the establishment while others forthrightly acknowledge the wrongness of their original views.
The success of Hearts and Minds is very much due to its then rather unique documentary approach, a outgrowth of the cinema verité school of a decade earlier — the lack of narration and the interesting juxtaposition of images of people, places and events that are allowed to speak for themselves. Davis draws striking comparisons between the ugly realities of war versus the romantic, Hollywood view of being in the army; winning on the battlefield and “killing” one’s opponents on the football field; and the patriotic fervour of comfortable, untouched, small-town America versus the homeless, hopeless feelings of Vietnamese villagers burnt out by the war. Perhaps the saddest issue pursued is the then prevailing American view that the Vietnamese people were somehow lesser human beings. Westmoreland’s statement that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner” is one of the most ignorant statements to have been publicly made by someone in a position of power, but the sentiment is echoed by soldiers who talk of going out and killing some gooks and the returned prisoner of war who describes Vietnam as being very pretty if it weren’t for the people.
The reminder of the war almost 30 years after its end that Hearts and Minds provides is still astonishingly vital and moving. It is so fresh that one can almost believe that the events it depicts all just ended. In a sense, they may as well have, because too many of us have allowed ourselves to ignore subsequent developments in that area of the world perhaps as a way to forget the devastation of the countryside and a way of life that America’s involvement was a party to. That’s why such films are so important. They prevent time from obliterating the worst of the past and provide signposts that can guide us away from making the same mistakes again. Hearts and Minds ought to be required viewing for President Bush and his cohorts; and in viewing, one could only hope then that they understand the relevance of what they are seeing to the current approach to terrorism.
Criterion presents Hearts and Minds on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced using a new high definition digital transfer from a restored 35mm interpositive. Director Peter Davis and cinematographer Richard Pearce supervised the transfer, and the MTI Digital Restoration System was used to remove numerous instances of dirt, debris, and scratches. The result is a very fine looking transfer throughout. Some of the archival footages used still look a little rough, reflecting their questionable origins, but for the most part, the image is crisp and clear with only occasional instances of minor grain. The colour looks very natural.
The Dolby Digital monaural sound track has also been restored to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle. The results are fine indeed. Dialogue is clear and distortion-free, no matter what the actual source of the various components of the film. English subtitles are available, but can only be activated by the DVD player remote.
The disc has two supplements. The first is an audio commentary by Peter Davis and it is extremely informative. He talks throughout, with comments directed more to discussion of various aspects of the war prompted by the particular images on the screen rather than the techniques involved in shooting them. The other supplement is a 32-page booklet containing five essays relating to the war and the film. The authors are film critic Judith Crist, historians Robert Brigham and George Herring, Asian Studies expert Ngo Vinh Long, and director Peter Davis. All their words are well worth reading.
Hearts and Minds is an essential film about the Vietnam conflict that has been given a typically fine presentation on DVD by Criterion. What else do you need to know? Highly recommended.