One of the most important contributions Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds makes to our national dialogue on the Vietnam War is its portrayal of ordinary Vietnamese. For years, the Vietnamese had been conspicuous by their absence in American film and texts. When they did appear, it was usually as one-dimensional characters in a predetermined history. Strident military leaders from Hanoi spoke of the correctness of their path to revolution, while Saigon’s anti-Communists were always portrayed as corrupt and cowardly. Hearts and Minds changed all of that. When the film first appeared here in 1974, its sympathetic and complicated treatment of average Vietnamese created a sensation. For years, the news media and policymakers had given Americans their only view into the lives of Vietnamese peasants, and that presentation was crude. Rarely did the media allow ordinary Vietnamese people camera time to explain the war and its impact in their own terms. Because of the nature of the conflict, policymakers usually reduced the Vietnamese to targets in the war of attrition or unworthy allies, not human beings. During the early 1970s, scholarship on Vietnam tended to serve as an extension of the ideological debates surrounding the war itself, so it was also difficult for Americans to read the Vietnamese from these sources. No longer satisfied with existing stereotypes, therefore, Davis offered a new look at America’s enemies and allies in Vietnam. That new look was sophisticated in its treatment of the human dimensions of war and the high cost in blood and treasure that all sides paid in Vietnam.
Hearts and Minds was much more than an anti-American film, as some critics asserted, mostly because it took the pain and suffering of all Vietnamese seriously. In a highly charged political atmosphere, Davis purposefully chose to examine the impact of the war on Northerners and Southerners. This extraordinary decision removed Cold War politics from the center of the war’s narrative and replaced it with human suffering on all sides of the conflict. Hearts and Minds did what no other film or text had—showed the Vietnamese as victims and treated them as human beings. In doing this, the film created enormous empathy for people who had previously been written out of their own history. For example, we feel the pain of a father from North Vietnam after his daughter’s death in a bombing raid. We also understand the blank stare of a coffin maker from South Vietnam who wonders aloud when the killing will end. Their commonplace grief speaks volumes about the efficacy and ethics of this particular war. These two men are not representatives of the political systems they live under but innocent victims of policies beyond their control. Few stories of the war had included such moral statements about the impact of high-altitude bombing on civilians. Fewer still had shown that U.S. aerial assaults targeted both North and South Vietnam, that all Vietnamese citizens lived in fear of attack.
Negative racial stereotyping had been at the center of U.S. policy in Asia for decades, but General William Westmoreland’s declaration in Hearts and Minds that “Orientals” do not value life is still shocking in its wrongheaded bluntness—especially when followed by scenes of Vietnamese crying for lost loved ones. Davis allows Westmoreland’s own words to effectively destroy whatever credibility he might have had. In the process, viewers are compelled to question Washington’s official explanation and justification for the war. Why did the U.S. intervene in Vietnam? What was at stake in Southeast Asia? Were Communists really on the march? Was Hanoi out to take control of the entire region? Was the high price of the war at home and abroad worth it? In trying to answer these questions, viewers are forced to challenge all that they thought about Vietnam. The human connection to the suffering of Vietnamese civilians overrides all Cold War rhetoric, replacing it with something more tangible and heartfelt.
Just as significantly, Hearts and Minds also questions Hanoi’s justification for the conflict. In some of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see families grieving over the loss of their loved ones in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), also known as the South Vietnamese Army. What parent could not identify with the mother of a young ARVN soldier who tries to climb into her son’s grave? (Some have tried to frame Hearts and Minds as an anti-U.S. screed, but this soldier was certainly killed by Communist forces; once again, the film’s primary concern is the torment of war, not the taking of political sides.) Another funeral scene shows us a young boy carrying the picture of his father, also recently killed in action. There are no parades or victory speeches, simply the tangible pain of a son who will never hear his father’s voice again, never feel his father’s reassuring hand on his shoulder, never be able to share his own accomplishments with his aging father. These scenes carry the emotional weight of the film, but they also deliver a powerful message to an American audience: this war was fought at tremendous cost for dubious reasons.
This focus on the family and the universal nature of suffering resonated loudly with Americans in 1975, who were looking inward in an effort to forget about Vietnam and deal with problems a little closer to home. The energy crisis, inflation, rising unemployment, and Watergate led to an almost narcissistic obsession with what the war had done to us. Hearts and Minds challenged that predilection by forcing viewers to consider what the war had done to the Vietnamese. As uncomfortable as it may have been for many Americans, it now seems clear that Hearts and Minds was the first step in coming to terms with a conflict that threatened to destroy the social fabric of the country. By treating the Vietnamese as human, the film allowed Americans to explore their own humanity and forced a reexamination of the war itself.
This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Hearts and Minds.