#2 — Crazy American soldiers
The Greatest Generation gave us a lot of things — including, believe it or not, the motorcycle gang.
The first outlaw “one-percenters” were returning vets reluctant or unable to return to “boring” civilian life (and who were no doubt self-medicating their cases of what we now call PTSD.)
(I’ll leave it to shrinks to theorize why is was that when the Greatest Generation’s children took over Hollywood in the “easy riders, raging bulls” 1970s, those Boomers churned out “outlaw biker” flicks ad nauseum…)
Veterans who didn’t take their disaffection that far were sympathetically portrayed in the candid moving classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), about men struggling to re-acclimate to home and family.
Occasionally, this post-war disillusionment was only hinted at, providing the subtext of the vast majority of films noir – and even lighter fair on occasion. We forget that the original Ocean’s 11 (1960) crew served together in the 82nd Airborne; their battle-hardened skills and cynicism are integral to their caper.
The same cynicism informs Frank Sinatra’s vet-turned-presidential assassin in Suddenly, and needless to say, he and his crewmen in The Manchurian Candidate aren’t mental health poster children, either (thanks to Communist Korean brainwashing, of course.)
But — and this is a weird “but” — the crazy vet characters in those two films “only” want to kill the President. Things get scarier when American soldiers stateside start aiming at total strangers.
Hollywood started mashing up reality in its usual selective fashion. Soldiers, especially Marines, were perceived as villains, thanks to the shocking crimes of a few real life killers.
Undeniable, inconvenient little “details” like Lee Harvey Oswald’s traitorous communism, or Eagle Scout turned Texas tower sniper Charles Whitman’s brain tumor, would have muddled the sick narrative taking shape:
Foreign wars lead to domestic blowback, and clean cut American boys with guns are poised to snap and mow us all down.
(Never mind that neither Oswald or Whitman — two more different men of the same generation can hardly be imagined — ever experienced combat.)
After piling up movie-making experience with the low budget 1960s and 70s grindhouse biker flick mentioned above, those same directors each felt obligated to put out at least one “crazed Vietnam vet” movie. Again, the fact that Vietnam vets were no “crazier” than any other mattered little.
Hence the avalance of Oscar-winning hits we’re all familiar with: The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Jacob’s Ladder, Coming Home, Taxi Driver, Quentin Tarantino’s beloved Rolling Thunder — and don’t forget the less acclaimed but surprisingly enduring Rambo character, introduced in First Blood.
However, from what I can gather, the very first “crazy Vietnam vet” appeared on film back in 1965, in a movie directed by a fellow who’d seen (and photographed) action in World War II.
I have a lot of time for Russ Meyer, so I’m not thrilled about handing him this dubious distinction, for his low budget roughie, Motorpsycho.
Incredibly, the movie combines our two themes here: “Crazy Vietnam vets” AND outlaw biker culture.
Clips of Motorpsycho are hard to come by and frankly less than impressive. This trailer from the milestone film Targets (1968) better captures Hollywood’s attitude towards returning servicemen: