During the 1960s, Hollywood mostly ignored the Vietnam War; John Wayne’s gung-ho romp “The Green Berets” was the rare production that acknowledged a military conflict was taking place in Indochina. Over in France, however, a group of prominent directors gathered together to create a film essay declaring their opposition to American military presence in Vietnam.
The 1967 omnibus “Far From Vietnam” was initiated by Chris Marker and included the input of Jean-Luc Godard, Jors Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. (Strangely, Varda’s participation is omitted in the press notes for this new DVD release.) The resulting work, however, seemed to affirm the old maxim about a broth being spoiled by too many cooks.
The basic problem with “Far From Vietnam” is presenting the Vietnam War as a bland case of good-versus-evil. The Americans are seen as the arrogant, reckless imperialists that are using Vietnam as evidence of their ability to squelch Communist uprisings; the film suggests the American failure to overthrow Castro’s government in Cuba fueled the American mania to destroy the North Vietnamese. American values are portrayed as tacky and brutish: a pro-military parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue and a pro-war crowd chanting “Bomb Hanoi” are meant to symbolize the entire nation’s attitude. In comparison, the film marvels at the “calm” nature of the Hanoi citizenry as they go about building concrete bomb shelters for protection against American bombing missions. The fact that the people in South Vietnam weren’t eager to live under Ho Chi Minh and his Communist goon squads somehow never gets mentioned.
One can tolerate left-wing propaganda if it is presented with intelligence and good taste. But when the film presents actor Bernard Frisson pretending to be writer Claude Ridder delivering a rambling monologue on war (with a pouting, silent yet sexy babe as his audience) and folk singer Tom Paxton doing an anti-war song, “Far From Vietnam” becomes shrill and juvenile. Even worse, none of the French talent involved seemed to recall that the Vietnam conflict had its roots in the French military occupation of Indochina. Obviously, there was more than a little amnesia on the road from Dien Bien Phu to the Cannes screening rooms.