Left Behind: Cinematic Revisions of the Vietnam P.O.W.

Daniel, Cathleen Lundy , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Innes, Stephen, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

The Vietnam War was the longest war in United States history and the most divisive since the Civil War. This crisis event in twentieth-century American life affected how we viewed our country and ourselves. Over time the idea that American POWs (prisoners of war) were left behind in the Vietnam War has grown to mythic proportions based on declassification of government documents and investigative reporting. The thought that the United States government left prisoners behind was so psychologically damaging to American confidence that incorporating and solving the POW myth in film provided a way to symbolically reverse this tragedy and the tragedy of the Vietnam War in general. In this website, I am seeking to examine the relationship of evolving film depictions of POWs to the political history of the POW myth. I want to examine the political and cultural meaning of films that for a large portion of American society comprise their only knowledge about POWs from the Vietnam War. The website is divided into three distinct time periods that correspond to three political and cinematic shifts. Amidst the anti-Vietnam veteran atmosphere of the 1970s, filmmakers portrayed semi-lunatic POWs made pathological by their war time imprisonment. The early 1980s with President Reagan s "bringing America back" brought the second type of film - American POWs rescued on the big screen. With Rambo (and numerous other copycat cardboard heroes), we could retrieve the hero's honor by allowing him to find POWs and defeat the bureaucratic villain. The late 80s gave way to the third form with its quest for authenticity. As the government formally confronted the issue with a Senate Select Committee, Hollywood created POW documentaries and based-on-true-story films.The public demanded more informative material without the fantastic elements. The American culture's dedication to the POW myth is a political and cultural symbol of our commitment to a restorative process, which included an attempt to solve this complex problem through fictional means.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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