A long time ago, I saw an essay in a book of film criticism entitled, “How Hollywood Won the War in Vietnam.” I started to buy the book, but to my regret I did not, and so I never got to read the essay. However, I think I am safe in saying that Missing in Action was one of the movies the essay would have discussed, along with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
People who worry about words will quibble as to whether we “lost” the Vietnam War. Well, we did not lose it in the sense that we were not conquered by the Viet Cong, but we lost in the sense that we failed in our mission, that we gave up, pulled out, and let the Viet Cong take control of the entire country. And that made us feel bad.
But it is Hollywood’s job to create a better world than the one we actually have to live in. Now, Hollywood could not make a movie showing us conquering the Viet Cong and making the country safe for democracy, because the direct contradiction to reality would have been too stark. Instead, it made a movie in which an individual soldier, Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris), along with a few associates, goes back to Vietnam and succeeds in freeing some American soldiers still being held in a prisoner-of-war camp.
The Vietnamese government categorically denies having these prisoners, but to what end is a mystery. We simply have to assume that they just enjoy making these American prisoners of war miserable, or that they know that we know they have the prisoners, and that they just enjoy frustrating American efforts to get them back. In either event, they are mean and spiteful.
But what is important is that they give Braddock a mission that he can carry out. The first part of Braddock’s mission is to appear at a diplomatic function and display his contempt, as when he refuses to shake hands with a Vietnamese general. This ostensibly is directed toward the general, but it is really a put-down of American politicians who think that diplomacy is the way to get things done.
The second part of his mission is to personally kill the general and a high-ranking officer who is shown through a flashback to be cruel and evil. This allows him some personal revenge before he sets out to kill a bunch of generic bad guys.
The third part of his mission is to sneak into the jungle and free the American prisoners. Braddock and his few associates kill over ten times their number in doing so, proving that the American soldier is a vastly superior to his Vietnamese counterpart. You see, it was embarrassing that the world’s greatest superpower was unable to defeat such a puny country. This movie essentially declares that it must have been a bunch of spineless politicians back home that caused America to lose the war, probably the same sort that are busy being polite at diplomatic functions, because it is clear that men like Braddock would have won the war given the chance to do so.
This movie allows us some imaginary revenge against an enemy that humiliated us, and that makes us feel good. Of course, we would have felt a whole lot better if the movie had actually been entertaining instead of dull and plodding.