Hearts and Minds is a 1974 documentary film directed by Peter Davis.
It is a history of America's involvement in The Vietnam War. The film is a searing indictment of the United States and its presence in Vietnam, depicting the ghastly toll of pain and suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the American armed forces. Documentary interviews were filmed in 1972 and 1973 just as active American military involvement was drawing to a close and before the war actually ended; the film first screened in the United States barely four months before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Persons interviewed ranged from people of power and influence—U.S. Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, President of South Vietnam Nguyen Khanh, General William Westmoreland, etc—as well as ordinary soldiers and civilians. Special attention is given to the suffering of Vietnamese civilians. The film does not merely question the wisdom of American foreign policy or American intervention in Indochina. It also indicts the American character, portraying a nation that is militaristic and aggressive.
See also Last Days in Vietnam, a documentary about the fall of Saigon in 1975, and The Vietnam War by Ken Burns, a documentary miniseries telling the whole history of the conflict going back to the French colonial era.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Some viewers may not know that there was a brief interregnum between the final end of active American military involvement in Vietnam (January 1973), and North Vietnamese defeat of the South and unification of the country (April 1975) in which it was possible to imagine that America "won" the war by preserving South Vietnamese independence. This film was made right in the middle of that two year "decent interval." So that's why George Coker talks about how he's happy that America won the war.
- An Arm and a Leg: One sequence shows maimed American servicemen getting fitted for artificial limbs.
- Asian Hooker Stereotype: One of the grosser parts of the film shows two American servicemen having sex with two prostitutes.
- Death of a Child: There's even a scene where a man is making tiny child coffins.
- Draft Dodging: One young man who has been hiding out from the draft decides, against his mother's advice, to turn himself in and make a public statement.
- Fighting for a Homeland: Why some of the more clear-eyed American observers think the Vietnamese are going to win; they have something to fight for while the Americans don't. Also leads to What Might Have Been (see below) when considering how history might have played out if the USA had backed Ho in 1945 instead of backing the French and pushing Ho into the arms of the communists. Also leads to some uncomfortable parallels between the North Vietnamese and the Americans of The American Revolution, both fighting for independence from a foreign occupier from overseas.
- Ironic Juxtaposition: Used many times. One dramatic moment shows a burial in South Vietnam, with a distraught mother trying to climb into the grave with her son's coffin, followed by General Westmoreland making a racist comment about how "the Oriental" doesn't value human life. Another moment shows Harry Truman talking about "our vision of progress" in Vietnam, followed by the French blasting the hell out of a village.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Used sparingly, as the film is mostly live footage. One instance shows a picture of Ho Chi Minh, then zooms out from the picture as Senator Fulbright muses about how Ho wrote to the United States government in 1946, expecting support for a rebellion against colonial oppression.
- My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: One of the most strident pieces of anti-American Flavor 2 cinema ever made. If this film and Yankee Doodle Dandy were ever showed as a double feature, the matter-antimatter reaction might destroy the world. Peter Davis even includes clips from a high school football game that have nothing to do with Vietnam, but do serve to portray Americans as loud and stupid and violent.
- The Noun and the Noun: Hearts and Minds
- Obligatory War-Crime Scene: Bombing civilians, setting fire to villages, spraying napalm that poisons children, this film has it all.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Well, there's Lt. George Coker calling the Vietnamese "gooks" and talking about how the Vietnamese are "primitive" and "backward". Coker might be excused for his comments by having spent 6 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but the film is not interested in any suffering inflicted by the North Vietnamese on George Coker or anyone else. William Westmoreland's horrific comment about "the Oriental" not valuing life is a more straightforward example of a Politically Incorrect Villain.
- Red Scare: The role of the Red Scare and anti-Communist hysteria in leading America into Vietnam is examined. One deeply bizarre old newsreel has some small town staging a mock Communist takeover, including the sheriff being "arrested" and a hammer-and-sickle parade down Main Street.
- Stock Footage: Quite a bit as one might expect of any documentary. Among the newsreel bits that make up the film are Nguyen Ngoc Loan's execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, made famous by a still photo◊, and a clip of a naked little girl named Kim Phuc running down a road and screaming after being burned in a napalm attack, as made famous in another still photo◊.
- Talking Heads: Many. William Westmoreland humiliates himself.
- Time Passes Montage: Five US presidents, from Truman to Johnson, are shown in succession mouthing very similar platitudes about how things are going to turn out great in Vietnam if we just keep at it.
- Title Drop: Lyndon Johnson talks about winning "the hearts and the minds" of the Vietnamese people.
- War Is Hell: Quite the booming business in coffins for dead children.
- What Could Have Been: In-Universe, as Senator Fulbright talks about how things might have been so different if the United States had chosen to respond to Ho Chi Minh's overtures instead of backing the French to the hilt.
- While Rome Burns: One scene shows South Vietnamese bigwigs and government officials drinking, eating, and cracking jokes in a fancy club. One of them spots the camera and urges everyone to calm down and not make them look bad.
- Yellow Peril: There's the contempt that William Westmoreland and George Coker have for the Vietnamese, and there's a selection of clips from horrifyingly racist American films like The Mask of Fu Manchu.
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: And the film talks about how the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong see themselves as freedom fighters. Captain Randy Floyd, an American pilot, says that when a people believe they are fighting for their freedom that changes in tactics and application of technology aren't going to defeat them. The film makes an obvious comparison by showing reenactors in Revolutionary War gear at a 4th of July celebration, suggesting the North Vietnamese are like the Patriots of the Revolution and the United States is like the British Empire.