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British Association for American Studies


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 6


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 6

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 14, Spring 2009

‘Rambo America’ Resisted: Intertextual Politics in Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986)

Nicholas Witham
© Nicholas Witham. All Rights Reserved

During the 1980s, the films of the Rambo trilogy told the incredible story of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a heroic yet hard-done-by Vietnam veteran. In First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982), local law enforcers persecuted a disorientated and vagrant Rambo at home until he exacted revenge; in Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985) he returned to Vietnam to rescue a group of long-forgotten American Prisoners of War; finally, in Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988) the enduring hero travelled to Afghanistan to fight with mujahideen against the menace of Soviet Communism. These films formed the core constituents of a Hollywood cycle that also included Uncommon Valor (Ted Kotcheff, 1983), Missing in Action (Joseph Zito, 1984) and Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986).

All are obvious examples of 1980s ‘high concept’ filmmaking in which the heroicised display of the masculine body was a key aesthetic signature.[1] As Susan Jeffords has pointed out, the ‘hard bodies’ of the films’ stars (Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Tom Cruise) came to stand as ’emblems’ for the foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan who, throughout the 1980s, sought to diminish the effects of ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ on American foreign policy by publicly promoting a revisionist history that understood the Vietnam War in apologetically mythical terms. John Rambo’s mission to rescue American prisoners of war abandoned by their government in First Blood: Part II, for example, coincided with this effort, working to displace feelings of guilt about the war and to portray the American military as the victims of weak-willed civilian policymakers. In the worldview of these films, such an assertion of victimhood meant that America could avoid having to ‘say sorry’ for Vietnam.[2]

However, Richard Slotkin has shown that the history of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia was not necessarily the most significant ‘political referent’ in the films, which spoke primarily to the period’s immediate diplomatic concern of promoting strong and ideologically principled policies of counter-insurgency in Central America.[3] The attempt to reinterpret the war as a ‘noble cause’ aimed to rehabilitate America’s reputation in world politics, a rehabilitation necessary in order to legitimate the administration’s diplomatic filibustering in Nicaragua and El Salvador, two of the most significant fronts of inter-systemic conflict during the Late Cold War.[4] Taken collectively, this cycle of films is richly symbolic of the key foreign policy preoccupations of the Reagan-era American Right, with John Rambo appearing as the archetypal hero of Late Cold War ideology. It is therefore possible to identify a mythology of ‘Rambo America’ that was created in this conjuncture and which consisted of an inherently racist, hyper-masculine, militarist and overwhelmingly anti-communist approach to America’s role in world politics.

In 1986, a year after the release of First Blood: Part II, Oliver Stone directed Salvador and Platoon. In an interview early in 1987, Stone discussed the political point he was trying to make with the films, stating: ‘I’m sick of these revisionist filmmakers and politicians who want to re-fight the Vietnam War. Why don’t they understand that we never could have won it?’ He described the films as ‘antidotes to Top Gun and Rambo, antidotes to Reagan’s wars against Libya, Grenada, and Nicaragua’, because they intentionally sought to show that ‘we are all victims of this ridiculous Cold War ideology.’[5] For Stone, then, the films’ engagement with the politics of ‘Rambo America’ was twofold. First, they engaged with the intertextual politics of Hollywood’s representation of U.S. foreign policy. Second, and because of this intertextual engagement, that they operated in resistance to the dominant political ideology of the period by using their depiction of American intervention in El Salvador and Vietnam to resist the imperialist foreign policy of the Reagan administration. Through a combined method of close textual analysis and intellectual-historical contextualisation, this article argues against much previous Stone scholarship by demonstrating the legitimacy of these assertions, linking the presentation of U.S. foreign policy in Salvador and Platoon to the key concerns of the Reagan-era American Left. The films are therefore highlighted as key examples of a tendency in some of the period’s popular culture towards a highly politicised and fundamentally intertextual anti-imperialism.

Salvador tells the story of American photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods), who travels to El Salvador during the 1980 American presidential election. The film’s narrative forms something of a doomed imperial romance. Boyle initially arrives in El Salvador with the primary intentions of surfing, scoring pot and rekindling a love affair with an ex-girlfriend; investigative journalism is of secondary importance. However, as the narrative unfolds, he becomes more and more aware of the negative impact of U.S. involvement in the Central American state, and ends the film embracing a highly-charged form of anti-imperialism premised on hard experience and empathy.

Platoon takes as its structure the narrative of a single company of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, narrowing this focus to single out protagonist Private Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). Taylor narrates the story from his first landing in jungle near the Cambodian border in September 1967 through to his departure from the war due to injury a year later. Again, the protagonist’s developing awareness of the negative impact of U.S. intervention in the Third World is vital to the film’s story. Taylor, initially intent on ‘finding himself’ whilst fighting in the jungle, begins to realise that the conflict is a tragic consequence of Cold War ideology.

A British independent production company, Hemdale Films, provided funding for both Salvador and Platoon. The company saw itself as consistently dedicated to resisting mainstream opinions of which type of filmmaking was deemed acceptable.[6] Their philosophy was applied to the decision to fund Stone’s films, which were ‘in danger of never happening’, because the director had been refused funding by the major Hollywood studios.[7] Stone’s screenplays were reportedly rejected because their subject matter was too politically radical, and therefore not economically viable.[8] This was a view Hemdale rejected primarily because they saw potential box office success, but also because the company was ‘against big names and happy endings’, and were unafraid to make an audience feel uncomfortable by openly criticising U.S. foreign policy in the manner that Stone’s films tried to do.[9] Hemdale consequently provided a budget of $4.5 million for Salvador and $5.5 million for Platoon.[10] In this sense, then, the films were made outside of the Hollywood system: funding from a British production company that actively sought to challenge prevailing stereotypes about which movies should or should not be made allowed Stone to position himself as a maverick, challenging the political and industry status quo.

However, in another vitally important way, the production context provided by Hemdale meant that Salvador and Platoon sat very much inside the conventions of Hollywood cinema. This is clear in a 1987 comment made by John Daly, the company’s founder and head, when he described the audience the company was targeting: ‘our product is still mainstream; we just aim for an older audience than the studios.’[11] Hemdale was not in the business of funding avant-garde political films that defied mainstream convention altogether, and the company aimed to fill the gap between such filmmaking and big studio productions. There was, therefore, a close fit between the outlook of the company and Stone: whilst the director was keen to break with mainstream political convention, he did not want to completely alienate mainstream audiences. Neither avant-garde nor rigidly conventional, Salvador and Platoon therefore stood both outside and inside the Hollywood mainstream.

Hemdale’s funding of the films also shows that the films should be considered together, as connected elements in Stone’s attempt at a sweeping critique of Cold War foreign policy. The company originally only bought the option for Platoon, and the decision to fund Salvador was taken later; its production intended to fill a gap and to keep Stone on board whilst Hemdale struggled to piece together enough money for Platoon‘s production.[12] However, for everyone involved, the subject matter of the two was clearly connected. In 1987, Daly asserted that Salvador was intended as ‘a contemporary update of the situation shown in Platoon‘, and that the two were meant to be viewed as ‘bookends of the same experience’, an argument that Stone was also making at the time.[13]

These clear connections between the two films have not been acknowledged in previous Stone scholarship. This is almost certainly because, whilst Salvador only had very limited release in New York and Los Angeles and had to make most of its small profit in the video market, Platoon was an immense success, both at the box office, where it made $250 million in its first year, and at the 1986 Academy Awards ceremony, where it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Sound. This success has obscured the fact that Platoon was essentially only one half of a critique of U.S. foreign policy intentionally spread across two films. Most scholarship on Salvador and Platoon has also ignored or openly rejected Stone’s attempt to position the films in relation to the phenomenon of ‘Rambo America’. Often, they are not considered in relation to their specific historical and political context, but as superficial ‘primers’ for Stone’s later and more controversial work, such as JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994).[14] Critics who do concern themselves with the politics of Salvador and Platoon, with very few exceptions, are harshly critical of the notion that the films provide any measure of sustainable critique of U.S. diplomacy. For example, in her influential book Tangled Memories, Marita Sturken argues that Platoon allows viewers to feel that ‘they too have undergone the trauma of the Vietnam War by experiencing its cinematic representation’.[15] She categorises Platoon as one of a number of Vietnam ‘docudramas’ that seek, through a retelling of the history of the war, to provide ‘therapeutic relief for collective guilt’. For Sturken, then, and she makes this point quite explicitly, the film is no better than the Rambo series.[16]

This type of reading has invariably represented an attack from the Left on Salvador and Platoon‘s perceived conservatism, rather than a celebration from the Right.[17] But why have both films been portrayed so negatively? Stone is often seen to have exaggerated or simplified both the history and politics of U.S. intervention in El Salvador and Vietnam. He is also accused of an inherently racist and sexist approach to storytelling. Both films privilege the voices of white, male protagonists, marginalising women and those of other ethnicities, and have therefore been characterised as ‘unthinkingly Eurocentric’.[18] This has resulted in a tone of criticism that suggests that Stone’s films are simply not ‘Left’ enough. Whilst certain elements of this criticism cannot be ignored, it seems necessary to point out that they do not necessarily prevent Stone’s films from providing anti-imperialist critique of U.S. foreign policy. The battles of any oppositional political tendency are always fought on a multiplicity of terrains, and the Left engages the politics of issues such as race, gender and foreign policy in a variety of often-contradictory ways. It is therefore important not to write off the potential of Salvador and Platoon to offer an anti-imperialist critique simply because they do not conform to a conception of what the perfect ‘Left cultural text’ should be. By avoiding such a tone of criticism in favour of a close interrogation of the intertextual political discourses at work in the films, this paper offers a reconceptualisation of Salvador and Platoon as intellectual-political cinematic texts with close links to the discourses of anti-imperialism established by the Reagan-era American Left.

Throughout the 1980s, various Left wing intellectuals and protest groups sought to make significant negative comparisons between U.S. intervention in Central America and the war in Vietnam. Van Gosse, a participant in and historian of the post-60s American Left, has shown that various movements sought to resist the Reaganite attempt to ‘re-fight’ the Vietnam War in the Western hemisphere, and that their essential struggle could be pithily summarised by a popular slogan of the time: ‘El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam’.[19] This sentiment gathered around a broad Left resistance to the right wing notion that something called the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ was having a negative effect on American power in the world-system. ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, broadly defined, related to the psychological effects of U.S. defeat in Vietnam. These effects, it was argued, had produced in the American psyche a belief that the human and material price of the war should be avoided in the future, and that the U.S. should recognise the limits of its power by refraining from non-essential military intervention anywhere in the world.[20] The phrase entered the popular imagination when Ronald Reagan used it in a speech during the 1980 presidential election. He argued that ‘for too long, (America) has lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome” ‘ – the result of a reaction to the war that fostered feelings of guilt and diplomatic timidity. It was, Reagan contended, time to combat the effects of the syndrome, and recognise that America’s intervention in Vietnam was a ‘noble cause’.[21] Reagan also linked this criticism to U.S. interests in Central America, where he argued that ‘Cuban and Soviet-trained terrorists’ were importing civil war because American diplomacy had not been forceful in the wake of Vietnam.[22] Reagan’s exaggerated rhetoric demonstrates the distinct link between the reassessment of the history of the Vietnam War and the Right’s desire to intervene in the politics of Central America’s ongoing social revolutions.

This was a project that the films of the Rambo trilogy explicitly endorsed. When, in First Blood: Part II, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) approaches an imprisoned John Rambo to recruit him to find American prisoners of war in the Vietnamese jungle, Rambo asks him, ‘Sir, do we get to win this time?’ To this Trautman replies, ‘This time it’s up to you’. Later, the colonel describes the film’s hard-bodied protagonist as ‘a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war someone else lost’. When Rambo finds the POWs, he quickly discovers that the evil at the heart of their continuing imprisonment is of Russian origin: control over the camp lies in the hands of the ridiculously caricatured Soviet Colonel Podovsky. Of course, Rambo is able to triumph against Podovsky and rescue the prisoners, in spite of attempts by weak-willed civilian commander Marshall Murdock to stop him from doing so.

The film’s portrayal of American involvement in Vietnam as a ‘noble cause’ is therefore almost comically revisionist, and rabidly anti-communist. In a 1987 essay entitled ‘Ronald Reagan and the Politics of History’, radical historian Mike Wallace characterised the use of such representational strategies by the President and by various elements of American popular culture as a type of ‘historical revanchism’. He argued that the Right, in its attempt to rewrite American intervention in Vietnam, was waging a ‘symbolic war on the terrain of history’ that sought to reconstruct the conservative approaches to the history of American foreign policy that were ‘dismantled’ by the New Left during the 1960s and 1970s.[23] This process was taking place, Wallace believed, so that the administration could destroy ‘that annoying cluster of public memories impeding their filibustering in Central America’.[24] He therefore argued that various popular and public history projects were needed ‘to ensure that the Vietnam Syndrome enjoys a long and hearty life’.[25]

This was a sentiment that tied in with the work of another historian closely associated with the Left, Gabriel Kolko. In 1985, he published Anatomy of a War which argued that Vietnam was the centrally important event in twentieth-century American history. For Kolko, Vietnam was so important because it proved that the U.S. had ‘set for itself inherently unobtainable political objectives’ in the Third World.[26] This further exposed ‘the ultimate constraints on (American) power in the modern era.’[27] In Kolko’s analysis, the U.S. had not lost the war. Rather, the Vietnamese Communists had won it, and had therefore revealed the frailty of Cold War ideology and the imperial policies it was used to justify. However, in a vital move in the book’s conclusion, Kolko suggested that policy-makers in Washington had not yet learnt the historical lessons of Vietnam, a fact he believed should be clear to anyone with knowledge of the Reagan administration’s attitudes towards Central America.[28] The chances for ‘profound social change’ in the world system would therefore depend on whether or not American foreign policy was constrained by the effects of defeat in Vietnam.[29] For those on the Left in the Reagan era then, and especially those who directly opposed American involvement in Central America, the effects of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ were viewed positively as anti-imperialist world-political developments that the movement’s struggle should promote and maintain.

This was a struggle that Oliver Stone would directly engage in Salvador. In a speech in 1994, the director described his visit to El Salvador and Honduras to research the film:

When I saw American soldiers in the streets…I asked if any of them remembered Vietnam. These were younger people, but there in green uniforms, just like I was in Vietnam a few years before. And they really didn’t. They were embarrassed to draw any parallels to our behaviour in Central America. I honestly feel they knew nothing about Vietnam.[30]

Indeed, Stone had recreated this experience almost identically in a scene that occurs in Salvador. During a party at the U.S. embassy, the camera interrupts a conversation between Richard Boyle’s travelling companion Dr. Rock (James Belushi) and a young American soldier. Rock asks, ‘Vietnam, you know, Vietnam. Are we going to invade here or what?’ The soldier gives Rock a blank look, and then replies, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was kind of young during all that’. The references to Vietnam continue during an angry encounter between Boyle, CIA agent Jack Morgan (Colby Chester) and U.S. Army Colonel Hyde (Will MacMillan). Boyle directly compares American involvement in El Salvador with previous examples of imperialism in the Third World: ‘Don’t tell me about the sanctity of military intelligence’, he says, ‘Not after Chile, not after Vietnam.’ Later in the conversation, he adds, ‘Is that why you guys are here, some kind of post-Vietnam experience? You need a re-run or something? I don’t want to see another Vietnam’.

Salvador‘s final reference to Vietnam comes immediately after this scene. Stone cuts away from Boyle’s speech to the lobby of a hotel in San Salvador containing a large group of American soldiers who have just arrived in the country, some of whom are being interviewed by TV journalist Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman). She elicits the same response from two soldiers (‘We have orders not to speak to the press’), before she reaches their commander, Colonel Hawn. She asks if the soldiers’ arrival signals, ‘a build-up of U.S. troops here in El Salvador’. To this, Hawn replies, ‘These are not combat troops; they are trainers, officially authorised by Congress. I have no further comment.’ Whilst Vietnam is not directly referenced, the immediate transition between Boyle’s angry denunciation of Hyde and Morgan’s need for a ‘re-run’ of the war in Southeast Asia and this scene inextricably links the two. Hawn’s assertion that the soldiers are ‘trainers’ rather than combat troops clearly echoes similar assertions made in the years before the ‘Americanisation’ of the Vietnam War, until which point all American military personnel in Vietnam were classified as ‘advisors’. The film therefore makes clear that intervention in El Salvador is an extension of the American imperial project, in which the lies and propaganda used to justify involvement in Vietnam are simply recycled by the powers that be, in an attempt to legitimate the latest bid for inter-systemic hegemony.[31]

In all of these examples then, Stone uses the spectre of Vietnam to make anti-imperialist statements that seek to draw negative links between American involvement in El Salvador and previous intervention in Southeast Asia. The young soldier’s ignorance of the history of U.S. imperialism, and Colonel Hawn’s recycling of the superficial justifications for American power projection, imply that the lessons of Vietnam have gone unlearned. Furthermore, Boyle’s speech makes it clear that Hyde and Morgan are not ignoring or forgetting the lessons of Vietnam, but are tragically misunderstanding them. Stone can therefore be seen to be arguing against ‘Rambo America’s’ attempt to recast the Vietnam War as a ‘noble cause’, and in so doing to cancel out the effects of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. Instead, much like Mike Wallace, Gabriel Kolko and others on the Left at the time, the director portrays the ‘Syndrome’ as a constructive factor in American foreign policy-making, one whose influence should be maintained.

Whilst the Reagan-era Left seldom referred to the Rambo trilogy more than in passing, it regularly confronted many of the specific problems embodied in the concept of ‘Rambo America’. It was vital for those on the Left to resist, as one writer in Radical America put it, the ‘reheroicization’ of the Vietnam War.[32] It was necessary to regard American imperialism in the Reagan era as an inherently gendered project, that relied on a version of machismo entrenched in the political cultures of both North and Central America.[33] The imperial project was also argued to be problematic from a racial perspective, because the ‘official national hatreds’ used to justify military intervention encouraged the ‘bonding of collective national Selves’ against an Other that was often coded racially as well as politically.[34] Finally, as Noam Chomsky put it in 1982, it was vital for the Left to understand that issues such as nuclear armament and imperial domination of the Third World were explicitly linked by a militaristic logic that ‘maintained the Cold War system of confrontation for the mutual advantage’ of the superpowers.[35]

Oliver Stone used Salvador and Platoon to make several explicit intertextual references to the type of filmmaking exemplified by the Rambo trilogy, and in doing so, proffered a similar message to his contemporaries on the Left. In Platoon, critique of ‘Rambo America’ is located in the characterisation of Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger). Barnes is representative of the brutal side of the conflict, and is implicitly linked to characters such as John Rambo through his physical appearance. Everything about Barnes’s visual coding bears similarity to the stereotypical ‘hard body’ action hero: his physique is muscular and highly toned, he bears the masculinised scars of previous injuries (most notably on his face), and he is regularly depicted in a highly aestheticised manner, covered in sweat and only partially clothed.

Rather than detecting in this visual signification the seeds of an inherently conservative aestheticisation of the Vietnam War, as Marita Sturken has done, I prefer to read it as a subtle yet powerful intertextual critique of the politics of ‘Rambo America’. [36] This reading is based on Barnes’s characterisation throughout the film, and on his centrality in its narrative arc. In terms of characterisation, it is clear that much of Barnes’s behaviour is linked to the racism of the American imperial project. He is introduced to the viewer on patrol in the jungle during a scene in which he observes a dead Vietnamese soldier and calmly states, ‘That’s a good Gook. Good and dead’. This comment echoes General Philip Sheridan’s regularly quoted comment of 1869: ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’. In doing so, the remark links Barnes’s racism to the origins of American imperialism in the history of westward expansion.[37] This type of bigotry is again clear when Barnes murders a number of innocent civilians during a My Lai-like slaughter committed by the platoon. His lack of respect for the lives of the Vietnamese ‘Other’ can only be compared to that of John Rambo, who shoots ‘Gooks’ on sight, also assuming that the only good Vietnamese are those that have been on the receiving end of his AK-47.

In his conflict with Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), Barnes also shows a mistrust of military authority that echoes the revisionist tendencies of ‘Rambo America’. He describes his rival as ‘a water-walker, like them politicians in Washington trying to fight this war with one hand tied around their balls’. Stone therefore aligns Barnes’s crude understanding of the war with those elements in Reagan-era politics and culture who sought to apologise for Vietnam by blaming defeat on liberal politicians in Washington. This is echoed later in the film after Barnes has murdered Elias. In a famous line, he tells Chris, ‘I am reality…there’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is’. Barnes’s Vietnam is the ‘real’ Vietnam, shorn of any respect for abstract notions such as human rights, and overwhelming in its brutality and racism. Of course, this also happened to be the view of Vietnam encouraged by ‘Rambo America’, whose central protagonists were ‘soldiers of fortune’ who worked in opposition to the authority of timid civilian command structures, and ‘went it alone’ in order to secure the symbolic victories so badly needed to recuperate the American imperial project.

The key distinction between Platoon and such films, one mobilised to brilliant political effect, is that Stone, unlike the Reagan Doctrine’s official cinematic spokesmen, does not portray the war as a ‘noble cause’. This is where Barnes’s position in Platoon‘s narrative arc is important. Unlike the films of the Rambo trilogy where John Rambo is the central protagonist and hero, in Stone’s film Barnes is not. Instead, Chris Taylor, as retribution for his murder of Elias, kills Barnes in the film’s dramatic finale. In doing so, Chris destroys the physical embodiment of the immoral approach to war he has come to despise. As such, rather then ending the film triumphantly, Stone’s Rambo-figure dies in the jungle and his revisionist, racist and overtly masculine approach to the Vietnam War dies with him.

‘Rambo America’ is also figuratively critiqued in Salvador through the representation of Colonel Hyde. He is the embodiment of the militaristic logic of the Reagan era, constantly asserting the need for aggressive confrontation with the enemies of American power. His overwhelming desire for U.S. intervention is clear when he expresses the options to Ambassador Kelly during a rebel attack on San Salvador: ‘We either restore military aid or move to stage three. The 82nd airborne is on alert, and the marines are ready.’ In his eyes, if military funding for Right-wing forces does not work, U.S. military intervention is necessary: violent confrontation with the forces of anti-systemic revolution is the only option in his crude understanding of world politics.

This harshly militaristic approach to American intervention in the Third World makes Hyde the archetypal Reagan-era military bureaucrat, one who has ‘learnt the lessons’ of Vietnam. When Boyle urges him to re-think American funding of the repression in El Salvador that has led to the murder of Archbishop Romero and three American nuns, he retorts, ‘It was that kind of crap thinking that lost us Vietnam, you liberal asshole.’ Hyde is the opposite of Marshall Murdock, Rambo: First Blood Part II‘s deceitful politician, who organises the film’s central mission, but betrays Rambo as the protagonist makes an apparently heroic (and customarily violent) attempt to follow the mission through to its logical conclusion. Unlike Murdock, Hyde is fully committed to Rambo-style military engagement in the Third World, convinced that the ‘crap thinking’ of the liberal elite was the decisive factor in American defeat in Vietnam. Like Sergeant Barnes, though, rather than being a hero, Salvador‘s representative of ‘Rambo America’ is one of the villains of the piece.

Michael Denning has shown that, in analysing certain ‘cultural fronts’, one must

recreate the moment in order to give them life. Otherwise they appear as dead letters, the ephemera of cultural history. If such works rarely evoke responses in other times and places, if they do not in themselves constitute a political culture, nevertheless one cannot imagine radical culture, indeed any cultural flowering at all, without them; they are the crocuses of a radical culture.[38]

When considered alongside other Left political texts from the Reagan Era, and positioned in explicit opposition to the period’s myth of ‘Rambo America’, Oliver Stone’s interpretation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and Central America in Salvador and Platoon points towards such a ‘flowering’ of cultural forms during the Late Cold War, in which certain elements of mainstream filmmaking were able to develop an identifiably anti-imperialist accent. Since the Reagan-era American Left has thus far received so little scholarly treatment, both films provide a useful cultural lens through which to conceive of the developments in American anti-imperialist politics after the Vietnam War. In struggling against Reagan’s attempts to rid the U.S. body politic of its Vietnam Syndrome and thereby criticising the myth of ‘Rambo America’, Salvador and Platoon implicitly and explicitly reference the cycle of Hollywood filmmaking exemplified by the Rambo trilogy. In doing so, they dramatise a moving, politically astute and fundamentally intertextual critique of the gung-ho militarism encouraged by the Reagan-era Right. Filmmakers wishing to resist the hegemonic foreign policy norms of the twenty-first century could, therefore, do a lot worse than to return to Salvador and Platoon in order to learn some of the lessons of a previous era of anti-imperialist activism, and, perhaps in small part, to gain inspiration.

University of Nottingham


[1] Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith, Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p.485.

[2] Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser, ‘Never Having to Say You’re Sorry: Rambo‘s Rewriting of the Vietnam War’ in Film Quarterly 42:1 (Fall 1988), p.11.

[3] Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), p.643.

[4] Ibid. p.650.

[5] Marc Cooper, ‘Playboy Interview’ in Charles L. P. Silet (ed.) Oliver Stone: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp.76-79.

[6] ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ in Films and Filming 393 (June 1987), p.15.

[7] ‘Who the Hell is John Daly?’ in Interview 18:8 (1 August 1988), p.92.

[8] Richard Coombs, ‘Beating God to the Draw: Salvador and Platoon‘ in Sight and Sound 56:2 (Spring, 1987), p. 137.

[9] Ibid. p.92; Karen Stabiner, ‘Fast Times at Hemdale Films’ in American Film 12:9 (1 July 1987), p.33.

[10] ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’, p.15.

[11] ‘Fast Times at Hemdale Films’, p.34.

[12] Ibid. p.34.

[13] ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’, p.17. For Stone’s arguments, see Cooper, ‘Playboy Interview’ op. cit. p. 79.

[14] For example, Frank Beaver, Oliver Stone: Wakeup Cinema (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994) p.81; Richard Keenan, ‘Salvador: Oliver Stone and the Center of Indifference’ in Dan Kunz (ed.), The Films of Oliver Stone (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 1997), pp. 97-98.

[15] Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p.96.

[16] Ibid. p.113.

[17] Indeed, critics on the Right seem to dislike Stone’s filmmaking just as much as those on the Left. See, for example, Michael Medved’s excoriation of the director’s films in Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), pp. 217-227.

[18] The phrase is that of Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, who briefly mention both films in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 24, 205.

[19] Van Gosse, ‘ ‘El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam’: A New Immigrant Left and the Politics of Solidarity’ in Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas (eds.), The Immigrant Left in the United States (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 302-330.

[20] Geoff Simons, Vietnam Syndrome: Effect on U.S. Foreign Policy (Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1998) pp.24-25.

[21] Ronald Reagan, ‘Peace: Restoring the Margin of Safety’ (speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, Chicago, August 18, 1980), (accessed June 30 2008).

[22] Ibid.

[23] The essay was originally published in Tikkun in 1987 and is reprinted in Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), pp. 250-267.

[24] Ibid. pp. 25-251.

[25] Ibid. p. 267.

[26] Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, The United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 545.

[27] Ibid. p. 547.

[28] Ibid. p. 548.

[29] Ibid. p. 558.

[30] Oliver Stone, ‘The Dream State of Recent History’ (commencement speech given at University of California, Berkeley, May 18 1994) (accessed May 5 2008).

[31] Australian journalist John Pilger made a similar point in the same year that the film was made. In an essay entitled ‘The Americas – Vietnam Again’, he argued that the San Salvador Sheraton ‘echoed with Vietnam’ because of the number of U.S. army personnel in residence. See John Pilger, Heroes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 452.

[32] Lynne Hanley, ‘The Official Story: Imagining Vietnam’ in Radical America 21:6 (November-December 1987), p. 8.

[33] Cynthia Enloe, ‘Bananas, Bases, and Patriarchy’ in Radical America 19:4 (July-August 1985), pp. 7-23.

[34] ‘Forward’ in New Left Review (eds.), Exterminism and Cold War (London: Verso, 1982) p. xii.

[35] Noam Chomsky, ‘Strategic Arms, the Cold War and the Third World’ in New Left Review (eds.), Exterminism and Cold War (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 235-236.

[36] Sturken, Tangled Memories, p. 109.

[37] There is a vast literature on the links between the developing ideologies of American racism and Western expansion in the nineteenth century, but perhaps the single best text is Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

[38] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997), p. 57.