Vietnam War Film Ideology (Masculine Identity)IntroductionSince their respective releases, Michael Cimino Deer Hunter and Rambo, First Blood (1982) have enjoyed remarkable popular and critical success. But their wide recognition as contemporary cinematic masterpieces has been accompanied by a corresponding controversy regarding their thematic significance and coherence. In addition, none of the commentaries on either of these two epic-scale films about the Vietnam War has searched for possible connections between them. HypothesisMy first purpose in this thesis is to show that each film draws its design from a popular American narrative formula, with the separate formulas providing the basis for the differences between The Deer Hunter and Rambo, First Blood (1982)as interpretations of the Vietnam War.
I further wish to demonstrate that a link between those formulas establishes an underlying relation between the two films, embodying their essential aesthetic strategy. The much publicised release of Rambo: First Blood signalled a new visibility for the muscular hero of the action cinema. RamboThe image of Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam veteran John Rambo, brandishing a rocket-launcher whilst parading his musculature, became an icon of American masculinity in the mid-1980s.
As the decade went on, though, Stallone was displaced in popularity by the even larger figure of ex-Mr Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two stars provided the most publicised, most visible image of the figure of the muscular male hero who had come to dominate the American action cinema of the 1980s. Many critics saw the success of Stallone and Schwarzenegger as a disturbing sign, signalling the evolution of a previously unseen cinematic articulation of masculinity. At the same time these figures echoed unsettling images from the past, through their implicit invocation of a fascist idealisation of the white male body.
Combining an ability to signify both concerns about the future and the horrors of the past, the box-office appeal of the male bodybuilder provided a resonant image for the mid-1980s. Coming at the particular point that it did, the success of these films and stars could be read in terms of a backlash against the feminism of the 1970s, as indicative of a new conservatism in both national and sexual politics. As we’ll see, the muscular action hero was, for some, a figure who represented the antithesis of the ‘new man’, himself a creation of advertising images in the early 1980s, and the feminist gains he supposedly represented.
These competing images perhaps indicate the extent to which masculinity itself has been called into question through the 1980s and since. It seems as if, at the same time as the male body on the screen was becoming more and more visible, an excessive parody of an ideal, masculinity was emerging as a visible category within the criticism of the day.
Both the films themselves and my analysis of them emerge then from a critical and cultural context in which the multiple meanings of masculine identity, the existence of masculinities, has been made increasingly apparent. Narrative TheoryYet, as much as these films may represent something new, the appearance of what I will call a ‘muscular cinema’ during the 1980s calls on a much longer tradition of representation. I refer here not only to the evident appeal which the figure of the male bodybuilder makes to notions of classical culture, but to the existence of cinematic traditions which prefigure the popular action movies of the 1980s.
The series of successful films centred on the figure of Indiana Jones, for example, explicitly refer back to the adventure serials of an earlier cinematic moment. What does distinguish the action cinema of the recent past is its transition into big-budget operations. Indeed this is conveyed quite precisely by the difference between the high production values of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the low-budget adventure serials it takes as a reference point.
The low-budget tradition of Italian mythological films, the numerous Tarzan films produced in Hollywood and other action-based pictures had, for many years, provided film roles for star bodybuilders and athletes such as Steve Reeves and Johnny Weissmuller. Though the popularity, in terms of the sheer number of films generated, of a fictional figure such as Tarzan, indicates the centrality of the white male body in these cinematic traditions, black American sports stars such as O. J. Simpson and Fred Williamson have also found film roles within the action-movie tradition.
These cinematic traditions produced films that were characteristically low-budget affairs, receiving marginal critical attention and with no advertising budget to speak of. It is by way of contrast to these earlier historical moments that, today, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been vaunted as the highest paid movie star of his day.