BOOTLEG FILES 486: “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” (a 1968 underground cartoon).
LAST SEEN: It can be found on YouTube and other video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Intellectual property problems.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
On April 22, animation fans were happily surprised to discover that one of their Holy Grails had reappeared: “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam,” an underground short that put Disney’s beloved rodent in the middle of war-ravaged Indochina, emerged for the first time on YouTube. Almost immediately, copies of this one-minute film were posted on multiple online video sites.
“Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” was, of course, not created by Disney. Instead, it was the work of Lee Savage and Milton Glaser, who co-produced the film for exhibition in the Angry Arts Festival, an event that was designed to give creative artists a forum for protesting the Vietnam War.
The silent, black-and-white cartoon finds the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse happily walking along. He passes a billboard that reads, “Join the Army and See the World.” Mickey studies the billboard, walks off-screen, and then returns wearing a helmet and carrying a military rifle.
Mickey is then sailing off on a tugboat with the words “To Vietnam” printed along its side. The voyage is unusually quick, with Mickey sailing across a calm Pacific from the USA (which is helpfully identified by a large sign posted on its shoreline) to Vietnam (which has its own large sign on its shore, along with large explosions popping over its land mass). Mickey arrives and marches into Vietnam, following an arrow-shaped sign that reads, “Warzone.”
Mickey is barely a few seconds into an overgrown jungle when he suddenly drops his rifle, goes stiff and falls over backwards. The camera finds him flat on the ground, with a bullet hole in his skull. Mickey’s smiling face turns glum as blood trickles out of the bullet hole.
Due to obvious trampling of intellectual property, “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” was never theatrically released. Savage (who is credited as director of the short) and Glaser offered private screenings during the early 1970s. Contrary to popular insistence, it was never a lost film – Film-maker’s Cooperative included the film in its anthology “For Life, Against the War (Selections), and the film occasionally popped up in festivals (most recently at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival). Most animation fans only knew of the film from screenshots that were printed in the 1998 French book “Bon Anniversaire, Mickey!”, but until the April posting on YouTube it was never widely shown.
In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Milton Glaser noted that having the beloved cartoon character slaughtered in Vietnam served as a perfect symbol for the venality and cruelty of that particular conflict. “Mickey Mouse is a symbol of innocence, and of America, and of success, and of idealism,” he said. “And to have him killed, as a solider is such a contradiction of your expectations. And when you’re dealing with communication, when you contradict expectations, you get a result.”
But that opinion is not shared by Disney historian Wade Sampson, who wrote about “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” for the online site MousePlanet.com.
“If this was supposed to be a political protest film against the war, it certainly isn’t very clear,” Sampson wrote. “Is Mickey supposed to represent America or perhaps with his constant smiling, the loss of American innocence? After all, the sign said ‘Join the Army and See the World’ and not ‘Join the Army and Kill the Enemy.’ Was Mickey duped into joining the army for free travel opportunities because there is no indication he is doing it out of patriotism? He certainly didn’t do anything when he landed in Vietnam to cause anyone to shoot him.”
Actually, Sampson misses the point. The presence of American soldiers in Vietnam (either human or animated rodent) was reason enough for the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to open fire. As for being duped into joining the Army, this seems likely – many young men joined the Army with the belief that they were fighting for their country. The fact they were fighting for a puppet government in Saigon was the ultimate bait-and-switch act.
Sadly, “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam” is somewhat underwhelming. It lacks the visceral nastiness of a more celebrated Disney parody, “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” and it is far less inventive than the ultimate Disney-Vietnam mash-up, “Apocalypse Pooh.” But as a quickie piece of late 1960s underground art, it serves its purpose – and Glaser believes that it has contemporary appeal.
“Well, it’s interesting that it suddenly reappeared, but I suspect there is some resonance about our involvement in the Vietnam War and our current involvement in the Middle East,” Glaser told BuzzFeed. “It seems that there is a sort of meeting point between those two moments in history.”
Contrary to popular imagination, Disney made no attempt to destroy copies of this film. But, at the same time, Disney is certainly not going to encourage a home entertainment release. If you want to see “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam,” you can easily locate on YouTube or several other video sites – a development that Glaser is happy about.
“You hope in doing these things that they become visible and public, and up until now there was not a very effective mechanism for that type of occurrence,” he told BuzzFeed. “Now, of course, something hits at an unusual combination of circumstances – something is all of sudden seen around the world in days – and it’s always surprising.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!