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Hearts and Minds

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Peter Davis's documentary on the American involvement in the war in Vietnam debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974, just a year after the American withdrawal and months before the resignation of President Richard Nixon. With the debate over the war still raging, Hearts and Minds became almost as controversial itself. Critics called it one-sided and anti-American, and indeed the film does not address the atrocities inflicted upon American soldiers by the Viet Cong. But then it was never Davis's intention to present an objective history of the war. The title was taken from a phrase used by President Lyndon Johnson to justify the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam: "the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there." That phrase frames the film. Looking back on the film in 2001, Davis explained that he went into the film with three questions on his mind: "Why did we go to Vietnam, what did we do there and what did the doing in turn do to us? I didn't expect the film to answer those questions, I expected it to address those questions."

Peter Davis was a respected documentary director and producer at CBS News -- his 1971 The Selling of the Pentagon was one of the most acclaimed investigative TV documentaries of his day. At the time, he was feeling the constraints of network policy when director/producer Bob Rafelson first invited him to meet with his producing partner, Bert Schneider. Their independent production company, BBS, had produced (among other films) Easy Rider (1969), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Schneider was interested in a film about Daniel Ellsberg, who was about to go on trial for leaking the classified Pentagon Papers. While that proved impossible (the trial was underway and none of the participants would speak with Davis), Davis turned his focus and his budget of $1 million to the bigger picture of the American involvement in the Vietnam war, with the full support of Schneider.

Inspired by the cinema verité movement, Davis structured Hearts and Minds without a narrator, letting the images and interview subjects speak for themselves. Newsreel footage and film clips illustrate the atmosphere of cold war fear and patriotic proclamations that justified the American involvement in Vietnam after France pulled out. He secured interviews with members of the administration during the war, Pentagon officials and American soldiers (in Vietnam and back at home), some who still supported the war, some who returned disillusioned and critical of the mission. But Davis also took his camera to Vietnam to let the civilians tell the story of their ordeal and took pains to show the damage that the war inflicted on the country and the people. Davis' cameraman Richard Pearce (who later became the acclaimed director of such films as Heartland (1979) and Country, 1984) brings an intimacy to the discussions with the American and Vietnamese who experienced the conflict first hand, contrasting the human experience with officials talking policy and politics.

The film was both hailed as a masterpiece and criticized as one-sided and unpatriotic, but it certainly provoked reactions, and much of that is by design. In the film's most controversial scene, Davis cuts from the funeral of a North Vietnamese soldier with a grieving family and a mother hysterical with grief directly to an interview with General William Westmoreland, United States Army Chief of Staff from 1968 to 1972, where he bluntly claims that "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." (According to Davis, they filmed that scene three times because of camera issues and Westmoreland made that statement each time). There is footage of the American soldiers burning down straw huts in a peasant village, a scene that Oliver Stone recreated a decade later in Platoon (1986).

Walt Rostow, an aide to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and one of the most pro-war voices in the administration and in the film, secured a temporary restraining order against the film, claiming that his interview was used in a deceptive manner (it was quickly vacated by a judge). The controversial nature of Hearts and Minds intimidated Columbia Pictures, which held up releasing the film. Producer Bert Schneider finally raised the money to buy the film back and release it through Warner Bros. in 1975.

Hearts and Minds is unequivocally an anti-war document to be sure. Along with addressing the lies that the American government told its citizens in the name of war as well as the ideology that sent us to war in the first place, it was the first film to confront exactly what the United States did in Vietnam in the name of fighting communism and winning the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. It also shows how those actions came back home in the form of disillusionment and distrust of the government. Revisiting the film in 2001, Peter Davis stated: "If Hearts and Minds has any application after the fact, it is to other conflicts that America might get into where we may see a national interest suddenly, without having done a sufficient amount of simple history homework. What are we getting into? I just would always like to see people ask that question when we're going to war."

Producers: Henry Lange, Bert Schneider
Director: Peter Davis
Cinematography: Richard Pearce
Film Editing: Lynzee Klingman, Susan Martin
Cast: Georges Bidault, Clark Clifford, George Coker, Kay Dvorshock, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Daniel Ellsberg, Randy Floyd, J. William Fulbright, Brian Holden, Robert Muller.
C-112m.

by Sean Axmaker

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