Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kent State, and How Popular Culture Covered Vietnam--A Wednesday Journal

"Four dead in O-hi-o..."

To Americans of a certain age, Vietnam is a war, not just a country; "Hair" is a tribal-love-rock musical (and that which young men of attitude wore long); and Kent State is a place where protest led to violent death.

In the two years leading up to May 4, 1970, Americans had already witnessed the 1968 Chicago Convention; the Chicago Seven trial; the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the Tet offensive; the televised images of battle in Vietnam, fueled by the Draft; student protest and unrest; sit-ins and riots from Berkely to Columbia; Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon; "Easy Rider"; Earth Day; "One small step for man...";  Woodstock; Stonewall, and then, the expansion of the war to neighboring Cambodia, which caused a groundswell of reaction, much of it outraged and violent.

On the campus of Kent State University in Ohio that day, an organized protest against the Cambodian escalation grew ugly, The National Guard was called in, students became unruly, and armed soldiers fired, killing four young people (two were innocent bystanders on their way to class.)

The country was, on the whole, naive and divided, horrified and impotent against a wave of change it could not understand and a growing violence it could not do anything about.

Popular culture exploded with change at that time.  Movies especially broke taboos, growing more permissive in depictions of sexuality and violence.  Music was becoming increasingly influenced by a drug culture that was both a product of and a protest against our involvement in Southeast Asia.  Strangely, though, very little of popular culture, especially theatrical movies, depicted the war in Vietnam directly. Audiences were primed for some depiction to help them to understand and react emotionally to a troubling collective anxiety.

One embarrassing exception was John Wayne's hymn to the war, "The Green Berets", which also gave us the most popular song of 1968.  Wayne's film played to a "silent majority" of older and more conservative Americans who supported the war without taking to the streets in organized demonstrations.

It is ironic that 10 years later, Wayne would present the Best Picture Oscar to one of Hollywood's first and still most powerful and iconic films about Vietnam, one that upended the hawkish jingoism of "The Gren Berets":  that film was "The Deer Hunter".

During 1970, the closest Hollywood could come to dealing with the subject of the war was indirectly through movies about student protest.   "The Strawberry Statement", starring "True Grit"s Kim Darby and Bruce Davison, was a glamorized version of a diary written by a self-proclaimed revolutionary.  In it, college students are brutalized by police during a protest rally scored to Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance". It sounds like more fun than it is; in fact it sabotages its message by straining credibility.

"R.P.M", (Revolutions per Minute) is a cute-clever play on the rotations on a turntable of the vinyl albums played by radio DJ's.  Message-monger Stanley Kramer (whose films I generally enjoy) directs Anthony Quinn as a liberal, well-liked college professor-turned college president who must weigh his ideals against protecting his school from anarchy.

"Getting Straight" is a comic drama starring then-hip Elliot Gould is a Vietnam vet who returns to college for a Masters Degree in English.  He, too, must reconcile the dangerous inflexibility of the status quo with an equally dangerous youth protest, whose motivation seems to be as much about finding sex as it is about making a political statement.  And Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point", reviled at the time but gaining new respect today, used a campus riot as a springboard for a surreal, psychedelic tableaux in Death Valley.

Gould starred in what can perhaps be considered the ultimate Vietnam film of 1970, "M*A*S*H". While ostensibly about the insanity of the Korean War, and the antics of a group of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital surgeons and nurses, the attitudes, language, humor, and lampooning of everything from sex to religion places it firmly in the Vietnam mindset of the day.  Audiences in the know accepted this, and had a raucous good time while enduring unprecedented scenes of surgical bloodshed.

Not until eight years later would Hollywood deal head-on with Vietnam in "Coming Home", "Apocalypse Now", and the already-mentioned "Deer Hunter", culminating in the 1986 Oliver Stone battle polemic, "Platoon" (a film which has not aged well.) 

One song at that time decried the Kent State massacre.  Neil Young distilled and concentrated the rage and questioning of the entire era in his lyrics about the Kent State killings.  "Ohio" was released by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young soon after the massacre (with "Find the Cost of Freedom on the flipside).  Eloquent and angry, Young's lyrics are supported by such forceful guitar work as to sound almost distorted, and passionate, even tearful vocalizations, in a piece that hits so hard you are dumbstruck for minutes after the brief recording has ended.  The song brings it all back.....Listen here.

Will we find our voices again?  Can we speak out with the same fervor, or sing with as much passion, to sound off against today's quagmires, outrages? 


  1. Wonderful post. I thought I was the only person who still remembered 'The Stawberry Statement'.

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  3. Very interesting post, Tom! Though I was only a young child at the time, I have always been fascinated with this time period. In many ways it seems like we have entered into a very similar period of unrest with Tea Partiers protesting our country's policies and threatening revolt. I only hope that, unlike the events at Kent State, we can avoid any unnecessary bloodshed this time around.

  4. Steve, I'm glad you rmember it too. It has been a while since I watched it.

    Tom, it is feeling like a return to a similar time, although the Tea Partiers seem, incredibly, to be protesting in support of a status quo that is not in their best interests. Odd, isn't it?