Judge P.S. Colbert wouldn't think of wearing a kepi to a jungle skirmish.
"On one side, the United States of America. The biggest industrial and military power of all time. Since 1965, at the start of the escalation, America has launched over a million tons of bombs over North Vietnam. More than over Germany during the whole of World War II."—Report from October, 1967.
1967 was an enigmatic year, to say the least. The early morning hours of January 26th brought the first flakes of what would become the worst blizzard in Chicago history, with a record twenty three inches of snow falling within a twenty nine hour period. Nearly one hundred thousand people passed through San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District during the "Summer of Love." Simultaneously, Israel and the United Arab Republic launched the "Six-Day War," and, as ever, the war in Vietnam (no, wait—call it a "Police Action," or a "conflict," perhaps, but never a war!) continued not only to drag on, but to dramatically escalate.
It was also during that chilling and feverish year of 1967 that an international collective of world renowned film makers (including directors Alain Resnias, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens and William Klein) got together in a spirit of bonhomie and shared purpose to make Far From Vietnam, an unremitting and unapologetic anti-war—and more pointedly—anti-American film.
Opening and closing with footage of munitions being laded onto aircraft carriers of the 7th Fleet, positioned in the Tonkin Gulf, the documentary skillfully employs what was obviously intended as propaganda film for U.S. forces, to indict the same American military industrial complex that commissioned it.
There are certainly brilliant moments that follow, but it wasn't too long in that I began to get a sinking feeling that here was another high-wattage cinematic collaboration, set to immolate from manic energy and flame out like a supernova, fueled by bias, confusion and egotism.
The latter is most clearly demonstrated in Godard's segment, titled "Camera Eye," featuring the famed director in the guise of camera operator, his face obscured by the giant machine as he delivers a monologue that quickly veers from stream of consciousness to rambling discourse. This is the sight and sound of a cinematic genius searching for something to say, and failing.
Elsewhere, streams of newsreel footage—both color and black and white, with picture and sound quality ranging from pristine to punishing to watch. Film of tiny Vietnamese citizens preparing for bombardment and crawling from the wreckage of America's attempt to "resist Communist aggression" is contrasted with footage of burly, barrel-chested U.S. GI Joes, being pulled through the streets of Saigon in Rickshaws, all the while flexing their enormous biceps as they grip their rifles and glare menacingly at the traffic of locals passing by. There's a bone-chilling interview with Ho Chi Min, calmly predicting that America's folly (attacking North Vietnam with a heretofore unseen barrage of firepower) will not prevent the natives from achieving ultimate victory: "We are determined to fight. Whether it is in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years or more, we will win."
Going into Far From Vietnam, I expected an embarrassment of riches. I'm an avowed French new wave film fanatic (with Godard's work a particular favorite), and despite whatever good intentions may have prompted America to enter Vietnam, I can't see any evidence to support the argument that the campaign was anything but a deadly disaster, one that's haunted our history for over half a century since it began, and nearly half a century since we concluded operations there. Of course, my perspective is clearly of the "armchair analysis" stripe, with the benefit of hindsight and historical record, which no film from 1967 could possibly have.
And yet, for a film about the Vietnam war made largely by Frenchmen (Documentarian and cinematic essayist Chris Marker, La Jetee, served as the film's supervising coordinator, producer and editor, in addition to contributing much of the text), the picture presented here intentionally skims over—or altogether omits—a mountain of historical fact.
Just whom did the United States take over the battle from, and how different was the objective of the U.S. campaign and the one before it? By doing no more than mentioning that the French passed on their fight to Americans, the film maliciously short-changes the audience through miseducation. Why sympathy for the poor plight of Vietnamese citizens only now? Sure, I can understand the reason for scrambling the image as General William Westmoreland blatantly lies before an audience sympathetic to his cause, but why is an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro—who expounds at length about his seemingly altruistic reasons for leading his own revolution—not accorded the same treatment? It's certainly not because he's being any more honest.
Therein lies the rub, and the film's inexcusable flaw: by insisting that the complexities in Southeast Asia can be summed up in three words (America is bad), Far From Vietnam becomes every bit as dunder-headed and dismissible in its way as The Green Berets.
Icarus Films has done a splendid job transferring this little-seen relic to home video, with a clear and vibrant full-frame print, though bear in mind that the frequent use of stock footage means some unavoidable depreciation in picture and sound. Otherwise, the Dolby 2.0 mono sound works well, and those who don't parlez vous Francais have optional English subtitles to help them.
There are two bonus features: the original theatrical trailer, and "The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon," a taut and absorbing twenty six minute documentary by Marker and Francis Reichenbach.
I've watched Far From Vietnam through twice, and then in pieces (which I think is actually a better way to absorb this colossus—the film is broken down into twelve chapters plus epilogue), and though its reckless bias is inexcusable, true cinephiles are heartily encouraged to check it out. As I said earlier, there are certainly brilliant moments (a great number of them in fact), to be mined from the bullshit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
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