Tue. December 11
Rambo: First Blood and the Stigma of Veterans’ Invisible Injuries
Think about all the Hollywood movies you’ve seen about disturbed veterans going ballistic. Your recent crop of films include Brothers, in which Tobey Maguire’s character is thought to have been lost in battle, only to return home mentally scarred and vengeful for his wife’s decision to move on. Or the more revenge-oriented Bourne series, in which a special agent seeks redemption through revenge by taking down the government program that trained him to be a cold-blooded assassin (“I don’t want to kill anymore,” the protagonist protests, before gunning down his enemies.) Both films continue a long-standing Hollywood tradition that portrays some veterans as ticking time bombs, estranged citizens who, having faced war, are no longer capable of living in peace.
The trouble of these films is how unseriously they address serious problems. Lazy writers take a shortcut to writing out a character’s motivations by casually dropping the “crazed vet” storyline, and the justification is usually something like “wanting to explore the way war changes us.” This was novel when, say, Wilfred Owen was writing poetry about the horrors of war and of his experience of posttraumatic stress disorder in World War I. But now, all we can really learn from pop culture is that war changes us into crazed killers, which might be surprising to all those who’ve served. Nothing to see here.
In 1946, William Wyler directed a different kind of film about veterans called The Best Years of Our Lives. It was different because rather than paint the expected heroic portrait of Cincinnatus-like soldiers who easily return to the fields once their war is won, the film portrayed the challenges soldiers face when they come home. Three men, each representing a different social class, are disturbed to find that life had continued at home while they themselves had greatly changed. One of them, Homer, has had his hands replaced with hooks. (The actor portraying him was himself a veteran who lost his hands while making a training video about explosives.)
Each character struggles to fit back in where they should be most comfortable. Homer doesn’t want his disability to be a burden for his girlfriend, so he pushes her away even as she remains steadfast in her desire to marry him. A young working-class bomber pilot realizes his hasty marriage to an unfaithful woman, while finding steady employment difficult. A more senior officer finds that the bank where he returns to work is giving short shrift to the veterans he fought alongside, while he copes with how his children have grown up in his absence.
Wyler was concerned with dealing with the real issues, and his filmmaking reflected it. Already an established filmmaker in Los Angeles, he served as a major in the Army Air Force between 1942 and 1945, where he made two documentaries including one about the Memphis Belle during which he flew on actual bombing missions over enemy territory. The Best Years of Our Lives won eight Academy Awards and two Golden Globes. Reviewers called it a sensitive, accurate movie that could not have been pulled off by any other director. “It would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved America past Goldwyn or the public,” wrote one.
But where Hollywood was once reluctant to depict such an “untidy or unresolved America,” it’s all too happy now to turn the untidiness into a caricature. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver weaved the tragic mental dissolution of a veteran into the larger landscape of urban moral decay. Robert DeNiro’s protagonist ultimately becomes a hero, but only after experiencing extreme isolation and physical pain.
Even the blockbuster Rambo series started off with First Blood, a further exploration of the isolation (and mistreatment) of veterans. John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, comes to visit a friend in the mountainous small town of Hope, Washington, only to be abused by the local police chief and his deputies, who take him to be a drifter looking to disrupt the town’s quiet life. Rambo escapes to the woods where he wages a war against the chief and the National Guard. It isn’t until later in the film we learn that Rambo, upon learning that his friend died from complications from Agent Orange, is the last surviving member of his special forces unit and that he suffered greatly while serving Vietnam.
The real-world effects of Hollywood’s popular portrayal of veterans with invisible injuries has consequences. For one thing, it amplifies the stigma of mental illness, leading people to think that those who need help are just truly crazy. Veterans, who might be having trouble sleeping or reintegrating into a nonmilitary routine, are deterred from seeking out professional help because they either don’t believe their problems rise to that level of need, or because they don’t want someone to think they’re incapable of dealing with problems on their own.
This stigma means the big, crippling issues can go ignored. The Army’s suicide statistics are sobering, but they’re also a call to action.
If Hollywood wants to be helpful, it should feel free to depict the drama of “coming home,” but perhaps include positive relationships with the mental health professionals they encounter. These are partnerships that save lives, why not portray them that way? The least the film industry could do for vets is to stop making them into cartoon characters: Life’s hard enough–isn’t that why the best stories are the real ones?
J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington, D.C. He is formerly the managing editor of the American Spectator and associate editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner. Follow him at twitter.com/jpfreire.