- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When America first met John Rambo, in 1982’s “First Blood,” he hardly seemed like the iconic, communist-killing action hero with whom he became synonymous.

In the movie’s opening scenes, Rambo, played by a gaunt, five-o’-clock-shadowed Sylvester Stallone, is a drifter hitchhiking the Pacific Northwest.

At the movie’s end, after having brought a small town and its police force, plus no small number of National Guardsmen, to their collective knees, Rambo collapses, weeping, into the arms of the man who commanded him in Vietnam.

Unable to hold a job and haunted by flashbacks of torture and death, Rambo is a tragic hero.

In this - and despite his annexation by muscular foreign-policy types - he typifies modern Hollywood’s attitude toward war veterans: equal parts pity and admiration.

This year’s “The Lucky Ones,” starring Tim Robbins, Michael Pena and Rachel McAdams as three Iraq War veterans who meet at an airport and embark on a road trip, was unusual in that it played the theme for laughs as much as for pathos.

Shortly after the conclusion of World War II came an urtext, if you will, of the genre - 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Directed by studio-era mainstay William Wyler, the movie earned seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Over three hours, it followed three servicemen trying to reintegrate into civilian life.

Old-school critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film “food for quiet and humanizing thought.”

A decidedly hipper Dave Kehr wrote more recently in the Chicago Reader that the movie “helped create Hollywood’s postwar highbrow style of pseudorealism and social concern.”

Since “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the nation has fought two more major wars (Korea, Vietnam) and continues to fight two others (Afghanistan, Iraq).

A thread that connects most Hollywood treatments of these disparate conflicts - a human-scale sympathy coupled with an institution-scale skepticism; a high opinion of bravery with a low opinion of war.

The Vietnam War, whose ultimate failure defined America’s foreign-policy consciousness for a generation, coincided with an era of boldness from increasingly idiosyncratic Hollywood filmmakers.

It wasn’t until 1978, three years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, that those filmmakers began to deeply engage the subject of the war’s returning veterans. Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” starred Jane Fonda as a naive war wife who turns pacifistic after falling in love with a paraplegic vet (played, incidentally, by the now-hawkish Jon Voight).

Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” released the same year, focused on a community of Russian-American steelworkers in industrial Pennsylvania. Three (that number, again) of its sons go off to fight in Vietnam. Robert De Niro’s Michael makes it home more or less intact. John Cazale’s Stanley returns having lost both of his legs. Christopher Walken’s Nick stays behind in Saigon, shell-shocked and drug-addicted.

In the film’s harrowing climax, he kills himself in a game of Russian roulette.

Although it did not deal with the fate of returning soldiers, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1978) was equally outraged by the psychological impact on combatants in Vietnam.

Christopher Orr, an occasional film writer at the New Republic, has noticed in Hollywood’s delayed reaction to Vietnam a pattern that has repeated itself, roughly speaking, in recent years.

In the mid-‘70s, Mr. Orr theorized in a discussion on the Web site Bloggingheads.tv, Hollywood captured the country’s Vietnam- and Watergate-stoked mood of distrust with movies such as “The Parallax View,” “The Conversation” and “Three Days of the Condor.”

Several years later came direct dramatizations of the war.

And so it was in the war-on-terror era.

The first wave, 2005, brought “Syriana,” “The Interpreter” and “The Constant Gardener” - what Mr. Orr calls “high-brow conspiracy movies,” none of which bore directly on the dominant issues of terrorism or the Iraq war but that, nevertheless, seemed to be driven by a war-weary zeitgeist.

The second wave, mirroring that of the late ‘70s, arrived two years later, with dramas such as “Rendition” and “The Kingdom.”

“In the Valley of Elah,” directed by vocal war critic Paul Haggis, dealt specifically with the theme of returning soldiers. Tommy Lee Jones, playing a retired Army Military Police sergeant, investigates the murder of his son, recently returned from Iraq. The killer, it’s eventually revealed, was a fellow soldier driven mad in part by the Army’s encouragement of torture.

Possibly the most gripping dramatization of the veteran experience, “Born on the Fourth of July,” came at a time - 1989 - when the country hadn’t been at war for years and was about to settle its differences with the Soviet Union without firing a shot.

The filmmaker, Oliver Stone, and the star, Tom Cruise, were in the prime of their careers. The source material, Ron Kovic’s autobiography of the same title, already had partially inspired another film (“Coming Home”).

However, Mr. Stone, himself a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, was especially well-suited to visualize Mr. Kovic’s arc from patriotic fervor to bitter disillusionment to, finally, indefatigable activism.

Paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Kovic has called himself “the living death, the Memorial Day on wheels.”

Whatever one’s politics or opinion of this or that war, that is the image of the veteran Hollywood has rendered most vividly - and searingly.

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