Hearts and Minds (1974) Criterion Collection Review: A Riveting Documentary of the Vietnam War

This 40-year-old documentary feels as relevant today as ever, and is one that I will not soon forget.
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The Academy Award-winning Hearts and Minds is the most riveting war documentary I have ever seen. The raw footage and the interviews that director Peter Davis has collected here tell an incredible story. And while it would seem to be an impossible task to tell the story of the war in Vietnam without taking sides, much of Hearts and Minds is beyond politics. The most gripping material in this film comes from the people who never had a voice, the Vietnamese themselves. What are the politics of watching your son being shot by the very soldiers who are there to “save” your family from the Communists?

General William Westmoreland has an answer. In an interview segment, Westmoreland states, “The Oriental does not place the same high value on life as does the Westerner.” When the film was widely released in 1975, this comment created a furor, as it should have. But the comment was not taken out of context at all, as is proven in the outtakes. One of the bonus features is the full 26-minute interview. Not only did Westmoreland mean what he said, he expanded upon his theory of “Orientals.” It is very clear how he felt. The Vietnamese were sub-humans.

It is the focus on the people of Vietnam, both of the North and of the South, that makes Hearts and Minds so powerful. Every other discussion of the war I have seen focuses on our perspective. Whether it was about the anti-war movement, the draft dodgers, troops returning home hooked on heroin, or whatever, the conversations never includes the Vietnamese people themselves. In Hearts and Minds we meet some of them, and it is humbling experience.

Davis speaks with families from both sides, whose idealistic sons had signed up to defend their country. Then we see U.S. soldiers torching huts with their Zippo lighters, while the former occupants look on in complete bewilderment. And in one of the most unforgettable scenes, we watch randy young American boys literally fucking the Vietnamese. It is a scene shot in a Saigon whorehouse, and one of the guys turns to his buddies, grabs a tit, and laughingly shouts, “If only my girl at home could see me now!”

Ha ha ha. Davis shows us the roots of such arrogance at a Pee-Wee football game with the coach exhorting his team to “Win, kill ‘em, win!” While Davis is pointing out that we have had this attitude ingrained from a very early age, it also captures the American post-World War II belief that we were invincible. It was this conviction that led us in to Vietnam, and it was the war in Vietnam that shattered it.

Although the strongest material in the movie comes from the Vietnamese people, there is no way that a documentary about the war can avoid the political aspects of it. The fact is, both sides were culpable. In fact, it couldĀ  be argued that Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson did more to put us on the path of “no retreat” than anyone. I like the way Davis sums it up in his essay in the accompanying booklet. He talks about the American perspective and breaks it down to whether the war “was a crime (radicals), a mistake (liberals), a mistake not to win (conservatives), or a crime not to win (hard right).”

Hearts and Minds contains some incredibly graphic footage, some of the strongest I have ever seen. There are people who say that we have become a jaded nation thanks to violent movies and video games. Trust me, watching soldiers shoot a person in half with machine-guns for real is nothing like watching Scarface (1982).

Hearts and Minds is one of the Criterion Collection’s new combo packages, with a single Blu-ray, and two DVDs. As mentioned earlier, the supplemental features include some of the full interviews that were conducted for the film. Davis collected somewhere around 200 hours of material, which was eventually edited down to 112 minutes. The full interviews (and times) of six of the participants are as follows: Philippe Devillers (10:53), George Ball (19:30), Tony Russo (34:21), David Brinkley (23:49), General William Westmoreland (26:14), and Walt Rostow (24:22).

Each segment also includes a page of biographical text about the interviewees. The remaining two pieces highlight the toll the war took on the people of the Southeast Asian country. The “Quang Nam Funeral” (5:23) features footage from a funeral in that small community, and “Cong Hoa Hospital” (2:52) contains footage of injured soldiers from the hospital. There is also a commentary track featuring Davis, and a booklet with numerous essays about the film and its continuing impact.

Hearts and Minds is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. What is truly amazing is how all of this looks on Blu-ray, especially when you consider the sources. The scenes of soldiers in action were filmed under some pretty extreme circumstances. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, and splices were removed, and they did a fantastic job.

The title Hearts and Minds comes from a speech LBJ gave in which he said that the war would not be won on the ground, but in the hearts and minds of the American people. What Davis shows us so clearly is that both sides were talking as if they were the parents of a child. The “children” being the Vietnamese people. The condescension is astounding, yet it seems like this attitude has returned in our dealings with countries in the Middle East.

There are many reasons to see Hearts and Minds, but the best comes from the saying “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” This 40-year-old documentary feels as relevant today as ever, and is one that I will not soon forget.

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