Mimosa seems to be often categorized as a fanzine about the history of
science fiction fandom, but that's not exactly true. Many of the articles we
publish do attempt to preserve some of our past, but we're equally interested in
articles about things fans do, or have done. David Thayer's series of remembrances
of the Vietnam War exemplifies this second type of article. As Walt Willis once
noted, this is the sort of thing which supplies missing pieces of our ever
fascinating fannish jigsaw.
Growing up in `50s America, I thrived on World War Two movies. I longed to be a hero like John Wayne or Audie Murphy. Enemy bullets failed to stop their drives to glory. The movies taught me that in war there were winners -- us. We were good, the enemy evil; we right, they wrong. With only a child's world experience, I didn't read between the lines of the films like Pride of the Marines (1945), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), To Hell And Back (1955), and Pork Chop Hill (1959). What did I know about hell? The stars acting out war looked little different than kids playing it. The last great war movie I saw before I went to war myself was Patton (1970) at the boot camp theater. It offered me no solace.
The trailer for a forgotten B-grade horror film from my childhood warned me, "Keep telling yourself, 'It's only a movie.'" In my youth I sometimes confused cinema for reality. I didn't actively seek out movies whose main purpose was to scare me. Early on I watched the first few minutes of a bad slasher movie. In it, teenagers, like those in countless other horror flicks, entered a house occupied by a killer. After they split up to look around, a knife, emerging from behind a curtain, stabbed one. At the sight of red, I covered my eyes. The stupid victims were the last ones I wanted as role models.
Low-budget movies about mad scientists were a different story. A scene from an otherwise unmemorable one stuck in my mind. The main character rigged the eyepieces of a pair of binoculars with spring-loaded nails and mailed it to his intended victim. I didn't fear the killer -- I felt I could spot his evil charm a mile off, but I became wary of the deadly potential of inanimate objects.
I did not blindly accept everything I saw in war movies. In a minor World War Two era film about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there appeared a secondary character oblivious to the main action of fighting Nazi spies. He had a seemingly innocent obsession for trees. The main spy, on the verge of escaping after committing a dastardly crime against humanity, made the mistake of trampling a newly planted seedling. The tree-lover gunned him down. The good side's need for the services of a disturbed character confused me.
The classic Godzilla (1954) made me fall in love with larger-than-life monsters. The title creature personified both the uncontrollable forces of nature and the evil of the civilized world in a convenient hard-to-miss target. The rockets and shells fired at it by the Japanese military seemed little more than a harmless sound and light show, like the firecrackers set off by hooligans on the front row of the theater. I was convinced that the might of the U.S. armed forces would stop dead any monster who dared to attack the States.
Rodan (1957) gave me my first big cinematic scare. Before its giant flying reptiles broke out of their shells, I shared the terror of the men facing the unknown in the dark mine tunnels. The sight of bug-eyed killer insect larvae added to my fear, because I had experienced the pain of insect bites and stings. For weeks afterwards I took running leaps into my bed at night to avoid any claws lurking in the darkness beneath it.
After surviving my first few monster movies, I realized I could watch others without any lasting fear. The Thing (1951) fed on my childish dislike of vegetables. Invaders from Mars (1953) convinced me that alien forces controlled the minds of all adults. Its battle scenes substituted Martians for Japanese. The mountain climber in The Crawling Eye (1958) losing his head in a high-altitude fog made me thankful I lived on the flat prairies of Texas. Them (1954) missed its chance to scare me by not overrunning its scenes with ants as numerous as those on Texas anthills. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) played on my suspension that my parents had an ulterior motive for insisting that we children take naps (I refused to close my eyes).
I saw my first Vietnam War movie, John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), before I served. Its portrayal of the war as one fought by old professionals conflicted with my feeling that the draft was breathing hot down my young neck. The glory of a mounting enemy body count paled as friendlies fell one by one. Only later did I see as pure fantasy John Wayne jumping unscathed out a burning helicopter crash, and as wishful thinking, the unerring accuracy of U.S. weapons.
After my return from Vietnam, I avoided war movies but not horror. The shark in Jaws (1975) made me afraid to go in the water. Alien (1979) put me on the edge of my seat. But in the B-grade slasher classic Halloween (1978), I found for me the most frightening single character on film. I didn't believe in the movie's serial killer or its incipient teenage victims, but I did believe in the doctor played by Donald Pleasence. He talked and acted sane, if a bit stressed, amid the peaceful carnival atmosphere awaiting the killer to strike. His powerlessness to stop the madness only added to my fear. In the end, pumping bullet after bullet into an expressionless killer, the doctor seemed the more crazed.
In 1990, sitting alone in my apartment listening to the soundtrack of Halloween, after consciously avoiding Vietnam War movies for 18 years, I suddenly asked myself, "What am I afraid of?" At the video store I found Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). After those, I went to Born on the Fourth of July (1989) playing at a local $1 theater. Back at the video store, I checked out Platoon Leader (1987) and Hamburger Hill (1987). The first three angered me with their anti-war cliches, and the fourth angered me with its adventure macho. But the fifth scared me.
Glimpses of the stately Capitol Building, trim lawns, graceful trees beyond the rows of the names of America's war dead on the Vietnam War Memorial brought back old anger. My stomach tightened with the first sounds of radio chatter and the whump of helicopter blades. I caught myself clutching for a phantom M-16 rifle in my lap at the crackle of small arms fire. I smelled the smoke, jungle, dust, felt the heat, sweat, dirt. "There it is," I said repeating the phrase from my Vietnam experience which had expressed the foot soldier's feeling toward things beyond his control and understanding. In Hamburger Hill, no larger-than-life characters or political hindsight disrupted my suspension of disbelief. It left my throat constricted and dry.
The hoopla surrounding The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had long put me off, but now compelled me to feel I had to watch them, too. Both disappointed me. The first made the civilian lives of its main characters seem as depressing as tours of duty. The second populated the war with caricatures and gave the main character the bizarre mission of killing another American. Another film, The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989), promised a realistic view of the war. Its central character, a know-it-all career sergeant, destroyed that.
I sought refuge in the escape movies of my childhood. But Hamburger Hill had opened a window in my mind. The shadowy figures of Morlocks lurking in the woods of The Time Machine became North Vietnamese regulars. The ferocity of the monster from the id in Forbidden Planet seemed more human than the spacemen calmly blasting at it. I felt sympathy for the monster of Frankenstein (1930), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), tormented by armed humanity in their struggles to survive. The burning remains of Tokyo after Godzilla's rampage looked like war damage. The Japanese soldiers advancing into the darkness of the mine tunnel in Rodan reminded me of patrols in the jungles of Vietnam.
Wanting to share my childhood experiences with my 8-year-old daughter, Matilda, I introduced her to the early science fiction movies. I kept my new insights to myself, but told her a scene in Rodan had scared me when I had been her age. "Is this what scared you?" she asked when the men first entered the mine. "That's not scary." "Is this what scared you?" she asked when they found the first victim torn to shreds. "That's not scary." Finally an unseen insect larva attacked the men. "That's what scared me," I said. "That's not scary," she scoffed. I felt like a child from a more innocent age.
Rewatching Hamburger Hill alone, I saw the line between victim and killer blur. I caught glimpses of the enemy as human. The superficial view of combat in the old war movies began to horrify me. What scared me most about Hamburger Hill was how easily I identified with the young G.I.'s trapped in the catch-22 of war. To stop the killing, they had to become more efficient killers than the enemy.
Seeing yourself for the first time as the monster sends chills through you that you cannot simply outgrow.
Title illustration by Diana Harlan Stein
Additional illustration by Teddy Harvia and Steve Stiles