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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor.  [August 12, 2008]




[]  If World War Two is romanticized as the Good War, for many Americans, Vietnam is its opposite. The romanticized Bad War.

Why would anyone romanticize a Bad War? It may be more accurate to say that it is the period's antiwar movement that is romanticized. And why is that?

It's hard to say. Not because there weren't reasons to oppose the war, but because the reasons were many and varied; intellectual and emotional, personal and cultural. The antiwar movement overlapped with politics, youthful rebellion, free love, psychedelic art, drugs, and great music. How many protesters were motivated by American self-interest, by Marxist sympathies, by fear of getting drafted, or by a desire to impress chicks and get laid?

Whatever the movement's motivations or darker side, it's understandable that today's antiwar activists look back with nostalgia at a moment in history when it seemed the common people had resisted the state's war machine -- and the state blinked and backed down.

Two thought-provoking and entertaining films about Vietnam era antiwar protests are The Strawberry Statement (1970) and 1969.(1988), the former from that era, the latter a look back.

The Strawberry Statement is based on James Kunen's book of the same title, which relates his experiences at Columbia University (and elsewhere) during a student campus takeover. Unable to secure permission to shoot at Columbia, the filmmakers "fictionalized" the book and relocated its events to politically friendlier San Francisco.

Bruce Davison plays a student on the college rowing team who, almost inadvertently, joins a student takeover of his college campus, motivated by the excitement and the women. Kim Darby is the idealistic protester who eventually wins his heart.


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1969.also appears to be (very loosely) inspired by true events. Robert Downey Jr. and Kiefer Sutherland portray two college kids who try to avoid the draft by attending school. Their misadventures hit all the 1960s clichés: hitchhiking, pot smoking, OD'ing on LSD, breaking bread with naked hippies, and joining an antiwar college riot.

Events darken when Sutherland's brother dies fighting in Vietnam. Sutherland and Downey break into the Selective Service office to destroy their draft records, but are caught. Sutherland's father (Bruce Dern) disowns him. Downey is jailed. Sutherland heads for Canada with Downey's sister (Winona Ryder), with his mom's (Mariette Hartley) blessing.




1969 is a shamelessly sentimental film about middle-class American families who grow to oppose the war in a quietly patriotic and Christian way. They are not radicals. They attend Easter service, and join their minister at film's end in peaceful protest, with the police chief's sympathetic support.

Some of 1969.feels artificial, as if the film is forcing characters to behave according to cliché. The sudden fights on campus and in the Selective Service office feel faked. Other emotions feel authentic. Hartley excels at portraying a mother's frustrated grief and unfocused rage at losing her son to war. Dern skillfully portrays a father's quieter, suppressed grief. Sutherland and Ryder's growing romance is well-paced and poignant.

The Strawberry Statement is more cerebral and radical, unsentimental, noteworthy for its innovative camerawork and editing. It won the Jury Prize at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It ends not in peaceful protest, but in bloody violence.

Both films honestly acknowledge the darker side of the antiwar movement, which attracted people for the wrong reasons. Protest junkies and violence freaks. After the campus riot in 1969, in which Ryder is bloodied by a cop, Downey says, "That was fun!" And in The Strawberry Statement, a preppie, who'd beaten up Davison for being "a commie," later switches sides and joins the protest because "It was wild!" Davison also grows bitter and disillusioned when blacks mug him; "The people we're trying to help!" In white liberal fashion, he expects "the oppressed" to shower him with flowers.




Neither Left nor Right has ever been consistently pro- or antiwar. It depends on who the U.S. is fighting, who it's defending. This point is acknowledged in 1969 when Sutherland says at his brother's funeral, "My father has medals in his desk to prove that he fought in a good war. And I'm proud of my father. I do not believe that this is a good war." Thus does Sutherland distinguish Vietnam from World War Two.

Whatever one thinks of past wars, those opposed to the Iraq War can view these films both for nostalgia and lessons to be learned: what past protesters got right, what they did wrong.

Copyright 2008 by


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