Dec 5, 2013
The Secret History of G.I. Joe
Posted on Aug 15, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
By the time Saigon fell in 1975, children like adults existed in a remarkably story-less realm. The very word war had been stripped out of children’s culture and childhood transformed into something like an un-American event. The subterranean haunted and haunting quality of children in the 1950s had risen to the surface. The young were now openly threatening adults. Some were challenging American power with evidence of the destruction of minority children at home or out there (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”), while others, whether as political radicals, part of the counterculture, or GIs in Vietnam, seemed in the process of defecting to the Eastern enemy.
Yet, paradoxically, that victorious enemy was nowhere in sight—not in the movies, not on TV (despite the image of Vietnam as a television war), not even in the press. Where the Vietnamese should have been, there was instead an absence. Because it was impossible to “see” who had defeated the United States and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been lost. So American victimhood, American loss—including the loss of childhood’s cultural forms—became a subject in itself, the only subject, you might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent that loss a particular aura of unfairness.
So, in a final, strange reversal in that era of reversals, American postwar “reconstruction” would begin not in Vietnam, the land in ruins, which should have been but was not the defeated country, but at home in a land almost untouched by war, which should have been but was not the victor; and the rebuilding would focus not on some devastated physical environment but on the national psyche. In this postwar passage from John Wayne to Sylvester Stallone, from Pax Americana to Pecs Americana, this attempt to rebuild a furloughed American narrative of triumph, children were to play a special role.
2. Empty Space
Director George Lucas had already celebrated his teenage years in American Graffiti (“Where were you in ‘62?”), the surprise hit of 1973, which sparked a wave of nostalgia for the years before Vietnam and inspired the TV series Happy Days (1974). As a moviemaker, however, he had had a desire to reach even deeper into his California boyhood, to return to those moments when he had acted out World War II scenarios with toy soldiers, or watched old Flash Gordon serials, cowboy and war films on television.
Like movie audiences (as box office receipts of the time indicated), he wanted to reverse the cinematic cannibalism of the 1960s. In this, he stood apart from directors as disparate as Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mel Brooks, and his own mentor Francis Ford Coppola, who for years had been dismantling space and horse operas, war and detective films; in fact, all familiar on-screen space.
“There’s a whole generation,” he would later say, “growing up without any kind of fairy tales.” Although he undoubtedly identified with the countercultural politics of the time, his was a conservative vision. Instinctively, he wanted to still the mocking voices and return the movie audience not just to his own childhood but to a childlike viewing state.
Throughout the early 1970s, he struggled to construct a script that would rebuild the missing war story in outer space. The heavens had been empty since, at the end of the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick blasted an American astronaut into a fetal state in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Planet of the Apes took its astronauts on a mocking journey to a post-nuclear Earth where humans were not the dominant species; and the USS Enterprise of TV’s Star Trek left the “final frontier” to be mothballed.
In 1975, Lucas signed on with Twentieth Century Fox to produce a space film that (he reassured his wife) “ten-year-old boys would love.” To make it, he had his costume designer study books on World War II uniforms and Japanese armor, while he turned to films ranging from Frank Capra’s Battle of Britain (1943) to The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) to construct dogfights in space. In casting, he avoided white ethnics like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, who had played on-screen rebels for years, in favor of unknown WASP-y actors who might bring to mind the one-dimensional whiteness of his movie past.
Summoning up enemies from his screen childhood, he patterned his evil emperor on Ming, ruler of Mongo in Flash Gordon (as well as on Richard Nixon), and cloaked his dark Jedi, Darth Vader, in gleaming black visor and body suit. Although there would be no blacks on screen, he hired the black actor James Earl Jones to play Vader’s hissing techno-voice. In Chewbacca, the “Wookie” with the Mexican cartridge belts strung across his hairy chest, the Others of the previous decade from ascendant ape to Native American would be returned to their rightful place. This nonwhite would not even be capable of Hollywood-style broken English; only of King Kong-ish howls of frustration or rage (made by mixing bear, walrus, seal, and badger calls).
In early 1977, the almost finished film seemed an unlikely candidate for success. Fox’s research showed that the word war in a title would turn off women, that robots would turn off everyone, and that science fiction was a dead category. Fox’s board of directors had only reluctantly financed the film; and at a special screening, those directors who did not go to sleep were outraged. As movie theater owners showed little enthusiasm, the film opened in only 32 theaters nationwide.
Not in his wildest flights of fancy did Lucas imagine that his cinematic vision would sweep all before it, that his reconquest of a child audience and of “the kids in all of us” would be crucial to the reconstruction of a narrative of triumph, that he would help give a new look of entertainment to the design of war and reintroduce the spectacle of slaughter to the many screens of America.
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