Peter Davis on Hearts And Minds
How did Hearts and Minds come about? Was it initially your idea or Bert Schneider’s?
Well not exactly either. Hearts and Minds came about after I had made a film for CBS News, for whom I worked, called The Selling of the Pentagon, which was an investigative exposé of Defense Department propaganda. This created quite a storm, pro and con, in the United States. The pro were many awards, good reviews and a great deal of public attention, which involved a re-broadcast, something that doesn’t happen very often in the US – a re-broadcast of a documentary. The con part was that Congress investigated us and demanded my notes. I refused to turn them over. CBS refused to make me turn them over. Then they demanded the outtakes and they couldn’t get them, so they cited the President of CBS for contempt of Congress, which is a very serious charge. He could have gone to prison. He was cited, first by a sub-Committee and then a full Committee of Congress. Then it went to the full House, which is usually just a rubber stamp for the Committees. In this case CBS mounted its own offensive through its affiliate stations around the country and they were able to win in the full House, so there was no punitive citation, which could have sent the President of CBS to prison. All this was headline material for months on end, every day. At the end of that I was sort of a marked man at CBS. They were very proud of me and glad of what I had done, but equally resolved that it should not happen again because it got them into too much trouble with the government.
After that a mutual friend of Bert Schneider’s and mine, Bob Rafelson, who is a wonderful movie director – he made Five Easy Pieces and a number of other movies – put me together with Bert, who called me and asked me if I would like to make a film about the Pentagon Papers trial. This had nothing to do with my film, The Selling of the Pentagon. The Pentagon Papers were a group of documents that the Defense Department had commissioned and written about the secrets of how the Vietnam War happened. When Daniel Ellsberg released this information to the newspapers he was prosecuted for having given away government secrets. I was intrigued by the prospect of doing something about the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, which was what Bert had really called me up about. I thought, Well, I could get witnesses on both sides, the prosecution and the defence, and get a whole global picture of what happened during the Vietnam War. But neither the defence nor the prosecution wanted to have anything to do with me because they were preparing for what was thought would be the trial of the decade, at least, and maybe of the generation. It was so important because of the issues. That trial got delayed and delayed and, finally, by the time the trial took place I had long since realised that I couldn’t make a film about it anyway. No cameras were allowed in the courtroom at that time and the defence and the prosecution weren’t going to make their witnesses available to me to talk to outside of court. The trial was ultimately thrown out of court on the grounds that Nixon had bribed the judge with the offer of the Directorship of the FBI if he would run the trial in a way that favoured the government.
though, because I had a large budget, I was able to take a step back
and say, Okay I can’t do that but I have a chance here to do something
much grander if I can just figure out how not to get lost in the whole
[issue] of Vietnam and all the coverage that had already occurred –
all the films that had been made and the television news coverage. So
I did several months’ research and some shooting.
We went around [the US] taking the temperature of the country in terms of patriotism, the war itself, and how [the American people] felt about America. We didn’t use very much of this but it enabled me to find out things about where America was. It wasn’t just the people on the two coasts that were so opposed to the war. I finally winnowed all of this down before we had done the principal part of our shooting, before we had gone to Vietnam. There were three questions I wanted to address. Those three questions were: Why did we go to Vietnam in the first place? What was it that we did there? And what did the “doing” do, in turn, to us as a people? The film doesn’t answer those questions and you never hear them in the film because I didn’t want to make a narrated film, but each sequence in the film is about, or addresses itself to, one or more of those three questions: Why did we go there? What did we do? And what did it do to us? That made things a little bit more focused, but we had to go to Vietnam. We went in the Fall of 1972.
By the time I began making Hearts and Minds the Vietnam War was already our longest war, having just passed the American War of Independence against [the British]. That made all of us, whether we were for the war or against it, begin to question the whole premise of the war. It’s 10,000 miles away. It’s against a tiny country, about the size of California, that doesn’t threaten us at all, has never threatened us, has never said, “We’re coming to get you.” So what is it that we are trying to achieve there? And the Right was asking that question as well as the Left. President Nixon was trying to get out of Vietnam from the time he took office and, indeed, every year he took more troops out. Lyndon Johnson had had over half a million troops there and Nixon kept drawing them down. By the time I got there in 1972 there were only about 100,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. That’s way down from half a million. The idea was to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, with what was called “Vietnamisation”. Now, in Iraq, what’s going on might well be called the “Iraqisation” of the war.
How long did you spend in Vietnam shooting footage?
We were shooting in Vietnam for seven weeks in the Fall of 1972 and that was in South Vietnam. I wasn’t permitted by the North Vietnamese to go to North Vietnam. I’ve been since and it’s a beautiful country. To my amazement they actually like Americans now, for a variety of reasons. There have been a number of humanitarian, sort of penitent missions to Vietnam since the war, some religious and some just by secular groups who want to help them with landmines and their environment and so forth. Anyway, I was in Vietnam for seven weeks in the Fall of ’72.
Was it your intention from the outset to make an anti-war film?
Yes and no. I really felt strongly that the war had gone on too long. But that’s not the same thing as making an anti-war film. I wanted to convey the experience of the war far more than I wanted to make any political statement. I have made narrated films and I’ve nothing against them. I’m not a cinéma vérité purist but I thought that what I could do best was to convey the experience of the war as it happened, almost in real time, unlike what the television networks were doing which was plastering their footage with a narrator who, the better he was, the worse it was in terms of conveying the experience, because he took the experience of the war away from the audience and gave it to himself. I went to a village on our first day there. We weren’t filming. I was still very jetlagged and sort of confused about everything. I certainly wasn’t intending to make a pro-war film but it wasn’t my idea either to make the slam-bangest anti-war film that had ever been made. That was not it. When I got to Vietnam it became much less “it” even, beyond politics or, I should say, prior to politics. Here I was in this little village that had been bombed. I saw a bomb crater and I saw this kid’s bicycle wrapped around a tree and some shards of pottery from a cooking pot that had been blown to smithereens. This bomb crater, thirty feet across, was not even one of the biggest. Then I saw the head and the arms, legs and torso of a child’s doll. That’s all it was. Of course, I thought of all the things that these three items – the doll, the bicycle and the cooking pot – stood for, which was the war in its human dimensions, something I wasn’t even looking at yet. But I was so horrified by seeing these artefacts destroyed that I thought at that moment, Okay, never mind being anti-war, let the Americans win this war – God, somebody – or let the Communists win the war or some other third party, but just stop it now. Don’t let this happen one more time in one more place. That sort of de-politicised it, although the film has plenty of political moments in it. At that moment I was de-politicised and, I hope, made more human by the experience. Anyway, it also told me, technically, how to proceed.
Here’s what they do on television: they start with a close up. They start with a close up on that bicycle and it’s twisted around a tree, then they pull back and you see the shards of pottery. Then you see the little kid’s doll, broken. Then you keep on pulling back and there’s the commentator, the reporter, he’s not broken. His arms and legs haven’t been separated. He hasn’t been bombed. He looks great – or now, “she”. At that time almost all the reporters or correspondents, for American networks anyway, were men. You could identify with him. He’s okay. And the more eloquently he expresses his feelings about what he’s seen in that village, the more you are with him, rather than with the villagers. That pull back takes between ten and fifteen seconds and is what American networks call “dead air”. Well, I decided I wanted to make a film about those fifteen seconds of “dead air”.
While you were shooting the film, did you have the support of the American Forces?
Oh no. But I didn’t ask for it either. I didn’t ask for protection or support. As a freelance journalist, and since I wasn’t with one of the networks, even though I had once worked for CBS News, I was independent there. [Hollywood] studios didn’t have bureaus in Vietnam. No, I was completely independent and that was very helpful. It meant that nobody was telling me how to feel, or how we’d just had a great victory in this or that province. I was able to find out for myself. I did hear some optimism from Americans but I heard more pessimism, and what I heard most of all was, “Jesus Christ, let this end.” Which was my own feeling when I saw that bomb crater than first day. The soldiers were tired of the fighting. They just wanted to get home.
In terms of the Vietnam footage, how much of it is original footage shot by you and your crew and how much is newsreel footage?
It’s about 88 to 90 per cent [original]. One of the two film editors did one count and one did the other count. So, 88 to 90 per cent of the film is footage that we shot. However, the stock footage was terribly important. Of course, I wasn’t present when that guy was executed on the sidewalk during the Tet [Offensive] and the American public hadn’t seen that footage. They’d seen the still photograph. The still photograph became one of the most famous photographs taken during the war. Another one was the little girl that was napalmed. But we’d also only seen the still photograph of her, which was graphic and memorable and horrible enough. But actually obtaining the film footage of it…
the case of the execution, that had apparently been broadcast once during
the day, not on a nightly or morning news show, but just as it came
in, almost as, “Here’s some new stuff from Vietnam that
just came off the satellite.” At that time they were using a satellite
feed and they played it without even knowing they were doing it. After
that the producers and executives at the networks said, “No more
of that, it’s too frightening.” So we used it and I have
yet to run into somebody who saw Hearts and Minds [at the time of its
initial release] who wasn’t looking at that particular footage
for the first time. As I said, the stock footage, the historical footage,
is terribly important but it was only a very small fraction of the film.
Richard Pearce was our cameraman and I guess he’s the best one
I ever worked with. He’s just fantastic, completely brave, I would
even say to the point of becoming foolhardy. One of the other members
of the crew actually wanted to go and defect for a few days into the
arms of the Vietcong, the North Vietnamese, and I said, “No.”
I wasn’t going to do it anyway. I was the only one of us who was
married with children at that time, but I didn’t want them to
do it either.
A lot of the film’s emotional power comes from Richard’s work and from Lynzee Klingman’s editing.
And now they’re married [to each other]. They didn’t even know each other then. He was living with someone else and she had a boyfriend, so they got together later. The other film editor, Susan Martin, is a Canadian who is also a filmmaker. She’s a film director now in Canada. It was very helpful to have her pair of eyes, too, which were not, strictly speaking, American eyes. The two of them were great, Lyndzee and Susan, as were Dick Pearce and Tom Cohen, the soundman. Dick and Tom were also Associate Producers, which was not a title that meant terribly much except it meant that on every day of our shoot they were very involved. They weren’t on the film for the whole two years it took to make, but they were for one of those years and the editors were there for the other. First I hired the editor [Lynzee] and she said, “I’d like to work with my usual soundman, Tom Cohen.” I had been in the army with Tom Cohen so we knew other slightly and my mother and his father also knew each other. The fourth member of our crew was a guy called Brennon Jones, who had worked for the National Council of Churches in Vietnam for two years before we started filming Hearts and Minds. He came to CBS News after that and I hired him away from CBS News. So that was our unit: Lynzee, Dick Pierce, Tom Cohen, Brennon Jones and me. They all knew what they were doing so that made my life a lot better as a filmmaker.
How much danger were you in during your time in Vietnam?
Well, I tried to keep us out of danger – now that’s not Dick Pearce – I, as the director, was trying to film the effects of the war, not the war itself. I kept saying to Dick, “We do not need to go where there’s a fire-fight. We have that footage until it’s coming out of our ears in the stock footage and we won’t use very much of it anyway.” I’m not saying the other members of the crew wanted to do that, but Dick, he would have gone anywhere, but my desire, my goal, was to see the effects of the war.
I like the coffin maker [in the film], who became terrifically important to me. Now these were people of opportunity. I never knew the Vietnamese coffin maker before I went to Vietnam. I also worked with another American there who became part of our unit when we were shooting, a guy named Tom Fox who now edits a national Catholic magazine. Tom is married to a Vietnamese woman and he speaks much better Vietnamese than Brennon Jones. So Tom took us around and did a wonderful job of interviewing people. With the coffin maker we wanted to find out who he was making the coffins for and why? What effect had the war had on him and on his family? He was so eloquent. He was in more danger than we were. In fact, we filmed him in the basement of a hospital where we were in no danger at all, but if he had been overheard by a Vietnamese official, just a lowly policeman walking by, he could have been imprisoned just for talking to us.
We were in danger – clear and present danger – in one place. We were filming in a village in a northern part of South Vietnam that had been destroyed by accident. It was the wrong village. The American Air Force had not meant to do that and they were going around offering a form of payment. I remember it was thirty dollars if a person had died and it was about ten if it was a cow, five if it was a child. They were giving out these payments, or had done before we got there. They actually weren’t doing it the day we were there or I would have filmed them. The community had been destroyed and while we were there a great rainstorm came and combat started between the South Vietnamese Army and either the North Vietnamese or the Vietcong. At that point it was probably the North Vietnamese Army. There we were, looking at this firing just across a meadow right next to where we were filming. I wanted to get right out of there. Dick Pearce, of course, wanted to keep on filming. The dangerous part was we couldn’t leave that village – and the combat was getting closer – because the bridge to take us away had been washed out, so we had to wait there. We didn’t hide, we watched and [Dick] tried to film for a couple of hours until the bridge was repaired enough to get us out of there.
You shot 200 hours of footage. How did you manage to edit that down to 2 hours for the film?
That was, at the time, an enormously high ratio [100:1] of film shot to film used. I had usually shot 30:1 in my earlier documentaries, which is already high. A lot of filmmakers were doing 10:1 and doing quite a good job. Taking it down was partly done by focusing on the questions: Is this footage about why we went to war, what we did there or what the “doing” had done to us? If not, too bad. It’s nice footage, it looks good but it’s not what we want. Also, I didn’t want to have anybody in the film who was not for the war or in favour of the war, either at the time he was fighting or at the time he was making policies. So, a guy like Clark Clifford, who was an adviser to many Democratic presidents, had turned against the war but he’d first been a hawk, as we called them. Daniel Ellsberg was a marine in Vietnam and then went back as Defence Department Adviser, working for the Defence Department as a civilian, but still carrying a smaller carbine rifle. He didn’t turn against the war for several years. In fact his wife helped turn him against the war, as happened in many instances in America. Randy Floyd, the pilot, Bobby Mueller, the paraplegic in his wheelchair, Lieutenant Coker, the former prisoner of war, all of these guys fought the war. Then Randy Floyd and Bobby Mueller turned against it, Lieutenant Coker stayed for it. So I decided, I don’t want the peace movement, we know all about them. They’ve been complaining forever and I’ve been on their side but I’m sick of them. I just want to know what makes people want to pick up a rifle or get into a plane and go and kill other human beings. So that was my take on how to reduce the footage.
After that, I sort of had a ten-hour first assemble. Then we started to take out things that were repeated. By the way, I had interviews with a lot of people I didn’t use. Not names that would be familiar here but, for instance, an Undersecretary of State, who is a very important guy in America, named George Ball. He gave a wonderful interview but he was against the war from the start. Okay, forget it, goodbye George Ball. A famous American television correspondent called David Brinkley never liked the war. Okay, goodbye David Brinkley, you’re not going to be in this movie. Similarly, a couple of French intellectuals we filmed while we were in Paris filming Georges Bidault, who got the offer of the two atomic bombs. We got it down to five hours and then we had an actual screening and Bert Schneider, whom I love, invited all his friends. I just wanted him to come, but I think he was afraid to come alone because so much was at stake he thought he’d better invite friends who knew about film. He did that with every screening we had.
Anyway, it was Christmas Eve 1973. I’d been working on the film for a year and a half and it was still five hours long. It was one of the most miserable screenings I’ve ever been to in my life. [Bert] had all these people, some were filmmakers and understood, but none of them were documentary filmmakers and some of them were just assorted friends of his that weren’t in the movie business at all. I remember on the way out I heard one guy who I really respect and like a lot – he has nothing to do with the film business – he said to his wife, “My God, that was forever.” Thank you, as if I didn’t know that. I died a thousand awful deaths during that Christmas Eve screening.
One of the assistant editors, I think it was Lynzee’s assistant, who wanted to go out on her Christmas Eve party, she ran through the office and picked up the phone afterwards and said, “I have just seen the worst piece of crap, not that I have ever worked on, but that I have ever even seen in my life, but I’ll be with you in half an hour.” And she slammed down the phone. That’s my own team. This is what she thinks about it. The two editors and I realised we had a lot of work to do, we knew that, but we thought putting it all together and looking at it would be an education. It was more like going to a funeral but, of course, it was an education too. You can tell when an audience’s attention begins to fade and as my father – a lifelong film editor before he was a screenwriter, and as an editor he knew something – so beautifully said to me, “When you lose an audience’s attention you have to work all that much harder, you almost have to have a gun go off in their ears, in order to get it back again. So try very hard not to lose the audience’s attention.” My poor dad came to the screening too and afterwards Bert Schneider said to us, “Well, it’s incredible but it’s a mess.” Those were great words actually because it was absolutely true. My father said, “Well, this is the most powerful documentary I’ve ever seen.” But my father didn’t see documentaries, whether they were powerful or not, he was just trying to cheer me up. So then we broke for Christmas Day, came back the next day and we knew what to do immediately.
Okay, there are two funerals in this film. We do not need two funerals. One funeral was, politically, more on the Left side of things and was for a woman who had been in the mistakenly bombed village, was killed for absolutely nothing and was being mourned by the entire village, particularly her family. The funeral that’s in the film was actually the funeral of one of our allies, a South Vietnamese soldier who got killed fighting for us. Originally, the whorehouse scene was used a couple of different times because I thought we’d make one point here, make another point there and come back for a zinger at the end. Not necessary. We get it, okay, the whole country is prostituted by the American warhorse, blah, blah, blah. Don’t fall in love with your own footage.
A great thing that one of our best authors, William Faulkner said was, “Kill all your darlings.” So we started to kill a lot of darlings and the next screening that Bert saw was probably two and a half hours to two hours and forty minutes long. After that screening, a filmmaker who I respected named Alan Myerson – I don’t know this guy at all but I was talking in Bert’s office afterwards and he came in – said, “We only get one chance at this and you’re blowing it.” Now, “we” was a very interesting pronoun for him to use. He meant the Hollywood community. I mean there were many other documentaries made about the war but not with major studio funding, not made with an expensive budget such as I had, which was a million dollars, an unheard of amount for a documentary at that time. Well, I knew what he meant. The Hollywood studio community was a very big “we” but I didn’t feel myself to be part of it. I wasn’t part of that “we.” I was some guy from the east at that point. I didn’t consider myself Californian even. So that sharpened me. Then Bert, who was very patient, because I did take too much time and I did finally use up the budget, said, “Well, maybe in this case the parts are going to be greater than their sum. Maybe the whole will never add up to the sum of its parts, but the parts will be great. Because you have a lot of great parts.” So that sends you back. I mean, he didn’t consider himself a filmmaker in that way. He considered himself a producer, which he certainly was, but he was also an enabling and inspiring force always pulling the best out of the filmmakers that he hired – Dennis Hopper for Easy Rider, Bob Rafelson, who he didn’t hire but was his partner, for Five Easy Pieces, and Peter Bogdanovich for The Last Picture Show, among them. These people never did better work than when they were somewhere near Bert. Likewise for me.
Anyway, we finally got it down, under two hours and that’s when the Cannes Film Festival happened. So I took it to Paris, not as a rough cut, but a black and white print made from the work-print; a quickly burned print that had nothing but the soundtrack before we had mixed it or anything. I took it to Paris and the guy who was the head of the Cannes Film Festival said, “Yes, we’ll take it.” I went back to California and rushed to get it ready for Cannes, and it was sort of a favourite at the Cannes Festival that year, in 1974. The head of Columbia Pictures, which had financed it, David Begelman was asked there, “When are you going to release this film?” He said, “Oh, well, we’re just trying to tie up the right insurance.” Well, we got more insurance. Bert Schneider went and got it, but they never released the film. They kept finding one excuse after another, so Warner Brothers got it due to Bert and another partner who raised the money to buy it away from Columbia and give it to them. Warner Brothers had begun to distribute it when Walt Rostow, who’s in the film, filed a suit against them. He said, “This is a guy that has broken his agreement with me. I get to say which parts of me are in the film,” which was a lie. It wasn’t true. He got a temporary restraining order against the film, but as soon as the judge who issued that order actually saw the film he came out of the screening and said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” then cancelled the temporary restraining order and the picture was released the next week. That was at the very end of 1974.
Was Columbia’s reluctance to release the film due to a fear of prosecution or was it a political decision?
It certainly wasn’t a fear of prosecution. I think it was a fear of having its other, more profitable films boycotted by veterans and Right-wing groups. Also, at that time, the studios didn’t really know how to release documentaries so this was a foreign language to them. But Warner Brothers was at least enthusiastic about doing it and the head of Warner Brothers at that time, John Calley, was not afraid of boycotts. There were some marches against the film, and the boycotting of a given theatre. One theatre had its seats torn up by a veterans group, but there was no overall boycott of Warner Brothers’ other movies.
At what point did Columbia realise they had a documentary on their hands? Is it true that Bert Schneider led them to believe it was a fictional feature rather than a documentary?
He didn’t lead them to believe that. He didn’t lead them
to believe anything. He never talked to them about it and that was his
deal with them. They were to finance six movies that his company, BBS
Productions, made and no questions asked. They didn’t get to see
the script, if there was a script, and there was for all the others.
They didn’t get to see rough cuts. They didn’t get anything
until they received a delivered film and then they would distribute
it. So he didn’t deceive them.
Was winning the Oscar overshadowed by the comments made by Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra at the Academy Awards ceremony?
Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra interrupted the proceedings to say, “We disagree with anything that’s not patriotic, we’re for this country, we’re not for this film” or for the telegram that Bert had read when he accepted his Oscar. [Bert] read a telegram of friendship from our former enemies, saying the war is now over and the Vietnamese delegation in Paris has said now we can be friends again and has offered the hand of friendship to the American people. They didn’t say, “Up with Communism” or anything like that, or “Down with Capitalism.” It was a non-political telegram but because of who it came from made it very controversial. So Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra both made sort of pro-administration little speeches at the Academy Awards. But then Shirley MacLaine, who was one of the other presenters, got up and said, “I just want to say this is a great film. I hope everybody will see it.” That was very generous on Shirley MacLaine’s part because she herself had a documentary nominated opposite us that night, a documentary about China, which was very good. So, yes, it was controversial.
Didn’t Francis Ford Coppola support the film on the night too?
I don’t recall anything like that from Coppola although when I met him later, he wanted to talk to me before he went to make Apocalypse Now, which was the next thing he did. He invited me to dinner and he said he saw Hearts and Minds two dozen times when he was getting ready to make his film. He’s a larger than life sort of person and I think he made a larger than life comment there. I wouldn’t hold him to two dozen times but he’d seen it anyway and he made a great film. Actually Apocalypse Now is my favourite fictional film about Vietnam. I’ve liked a number of them. The only one I didn’t like was The Deer Hunter. I hated it. I was at a screening of The Deer Hunter that included a number of journalists in New York and two of the most famous journalists in America walked out. The first time they saw the Russian roulette… They covered the war in Vietnam, they knew what Vietnam was about. They knew, as I knew, that Russian roulette was not a metaphor for the Vietnam War. It’s a perfect metaphor for Hollywood. So it’s a movie about Hollywood, not about the Vietnam War. Also, the racism in the portrayal of the Vietnamese in that [film]. They are all either shady characters or they’re weak or they let you down. When you need them, they’re not going to be there. I mean, it was the worst kind of Gunga Din-ism. It was much worse than Kipling, or anything he ever did. I just did not like that movie.
Does it bother you at all that something like Apocalypse Now, unintentionally perhaps, glamorizes the Vietnam War and makes it seem cool?
No, it doesn’t bother me. I think that all war films – except maybe Paths of Glory, and perhaps All Quiet On The Western Front, going back forty-some years and eighty-some years – all war films except those are doomed to portray something that is very exciting and you’re never more alert, alive and awake than when you are at war, whether as a soldier or as a journalist or a filmmaker. You’re just there. Every ganglion is just quivering. It’s very hard to show without at least part of it looking like a show, a deadly circus but nonetheless a circus, and journalists get addicted to covering war. So, no, it doesn’t bother me. In fact I think Apocalypse Now, like Platoon and Coming Home, are at least as much anti-war statements as they are glamorizing of war. It’s very hard to have a movie star in a movie – and the movie star is himself glamorous – that doesn’t in some way say, “Ooh, gee, wouldn’t it be great to out there.” After all, the whole concept of a hero is something society has when it is afraid, like God, an invention by the fearful.
When you interviewed William Westmoreland for the film, were you surprised at how openly racist he was during that interview?
Well, I was surprised when he said [what he said], but I grew up pretty racist about the Japanese during World War II. I was brought up in California and everybody in California was taught to expect that we would be bombed, and that after Pearl Harbor we were going to get it too. And who was doing this to us? These inhuman little – as we said then – “Japs.” The Japs. And nobody would ever dare use that word anymore except to describe a Jewish American Princess. “Jap” is now in the vocabulary as something else entirely. Everybody felt that way and Westmoreland I admired for being honest enough to say it. I no longer felt that way myself, and hadn’t since I was a teenager, but during World War II, the Japanese were inhuman and the Germans were, too, in another way. But there was always the sense that [the Germans] could be reclaimed into the family of cultured, civilised nations. It was the country of Beethoven and Nietzsche. We’ll get them back. The Japanese were an unknown quantity and the racism implicit in dropping the atomic bomb on them, you know, this carried over. So Westmoreland was certainly no more racist than other people. Now, he is from the South, so he had another kind of racism in his background. He was living in Charleston, South Carolina at the time I interviewed him and he’d been a Southerner all his life. So he had that kind of racism. On top of that he had the racism that was almost inherent in World War II, added to not liking the Vietnamese very much. So he made this comment and, of course, the incredible thing about it is that although the Vietnamese killed 58,000 Americans, over three million of them died. So who values human life less, really?
The parallels between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq are fairly
obvious. Do you think people will ever learn and is this problem an
American problem or a global one?
I do think it’s a global problem and relates to how people respond when they feel threatened. It’s a human problem; it’s not even global. We [America] felt very threatened after 9/11 but before that I think we did learn lessons from Vietnam, which was witnessed by the 25 years – a whole generation and more – of relative peace and disinclination to intervene, even when, as in Rwanda, a humanitarian intervention would have done a lot of good. So we learned the lesson of don’t go to war unless you’re really threatened. Yet 9/11 was this hard blow to the head that caused amnesia and we forgot the lesson, and we are still in that period now. I hope the re-release of Hearts and Minds will help restore the sense of not going to war unless you are directly threatened. I did feel that the United States had some justification in going to Afghanistan after 9/11. That’s where the guys who attacked were trained, hidden and protected, and the government was supportive of them. So going after the Taliban and Al Qaeda made some sense. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in the way it was done but it made sense to do something. But Iraq? Why Iraq and not Brazil? I mean, these guys did not threaten us at all. They just didn’t like us. The president of Brazil doesn’t like us either. Nobody in Latin America likes us. Mexico has this wonderful sort of motto, a slogan, “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so near to the United States.” Everybody in Latin America wishes we could somehow detach ourselves and go somewhere else, so long as they still had access to our borders and could send their poorest people across them. But no, it made no sense to attack Iraq.
The re-release of Hearts and Minds in the US sparked lots of comparisons to Michael Moore’s work. How did you feel about that?
I’m happy to be compared with anybody who is contemporary and particularly someone as gifted as he is as a filmmaker.
Do you think they are fair comparisons?
I don’t think they are either fair or unfair. I’ve liked each of the films of his that I’ve seen, such as Roger And Me. I saw a feature fiction film I bet students at film school don’t even know he made called Canadian Bacon. It’s hilarious, terribly funny. He’s a satirist and a comedian in a way that very few documentarians are. I liked those two films. I like Bowling For Columbine a lot. The scene in the bank, where a new depositer is offered a rifle for just putting money in the bank, that tells you so much about America. You’ve got nothing like that, thank God, in the British Isles. But we have this gun culture. So he really got it. And in Fahrenheit 9/11 he really gets the nature of an arrogance of power. I don’t care what technique he uses to show that, I thought it was wonderful. But I can’t make comparisons between somebody else’s work and mine. He says that he learned a lot from Hearts and Minds. Interestingly, when I met him, and I only met him one time, he said, “Listen, in The Selling of the Pentagon you had something about my high school.” Well, he was brought up in Michigan and there’s a mention, about three seconds long, of a high school in Michigan that had invited the Pentagon’s PR or propaganda spokesperson to come to it. I’d forgotten I’d even used that but Michael Moore had been paying attention to this work that I had done before Hearts and Minds. He’s a guy that’s sort of a natural resource now, and this is not a matter of how I can compare myself to him, but I’m glad that the United States has Michael Moore right now.
What have you worked on since Hearts and Minds?
Well, after Hearts and Minds I started to veer, ever so gradually, towards being a writer, which I’d always wanted to be. This was a moment when I could do it, so I began to write non-fiction books. I’ve written three of those and they were received fairly enthusiastically, especially the last one that deals with the American underclass, the poor people. And I’ve written scores of magazine articles. I’ve also made films since Hearts and Minds. I can’t remember the number exactly. I made a series about America called Middletown. The country turned inward after the twin disasters of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal and people really went back to their communities. I’m very interested in that, so I did that and then I wrote a book about it but dealing with a different community than the one that I made the films about. I’ve made a film since then about Skid Row, and a couple of others, including a film that I made with my son about President Kennedy. I did twenty-two for the Kennedy Library in Boston. Even though the documentary I made about Kennedy was not pro-Kennedy, I made these films for the Kennedy Library, which is essentially a presidential museum. They just call it a library. So anybody who goes to the Kennedy Library and walks through the exhibits sees these twenty-two films of all different lengths. Some are as short as four minutes and some are as long as twenty-five, but those films are decorating the Kennedy Library. That was in the ’90s and since then I have really just been writing.
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