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A Deepening Disbelief: The American Movie Hero in Vietnam, 1958-1968

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image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

Three important films reveal changing American attitudes toward the Cold War in Southeast Asia in the years of growing U.S. involvement there: Joseph Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958), George Englund's The Ugly American (1963), and John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968). All three feature idealistic American heroes fighting communism in Vietnam – and, in the later two films, fighting American ignorance and apathy as well. Using some two dozen reviews in a wide range of periodicals, including daily newspapers outside of New York and Los Angeles, this article finds a growing skepticism about the mythology of the Cold War in Vietnam. Critics in 1958 supported the mission of fighting communism and the methods outlined in the film, but knew little about Vietnam. In 1963, critics were more pessimistic about America's methods and prospects in Vietnam but still overwhelmingly supported the mission. By 1968, a collapse of America's Cold War consensus became obvious as critics panned The Green Berets, a remarkable box-office success, deriding the filmmaking but also rejecting the film's ideology and even questioning the struggle against communism. We thus see a fundamental erosion of American belief in its own Cold War mythology just as the country was venturing deeper into war in Southeast Asia.


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