"The Platoon" recently finished filming. So did "Full Metal Jacket," a Stanley Kubrick film adapted from the novel "The Short-Timers." "84 Charlie Mopic" may start shooting in August or September. "Hamburger Hill" will start in October.
All are about the Vietnam war. It's unusual to have four such films in the works at one time. What really makes them unique, however, is that all were written--or in one case, based on a novel--by men who served in the war.
Vietnam vets have written many plays and books based on their experiences. But none wrote the two Vietnam film hits of the '70s--"Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter." No vet, either, wrote the current crop of heroic, explosive revenge-and-rescue films typified by "Rambo, First Blood: Part II."
Why so long for veterans to have their say in film? The four now getting that chance have varied theories, ranging from studio fears of no mass audience for serious Vietnam films to a lack of influence by Vietnam vets in Hollywood.
The lack-of-clout theory is offered by Patrick Duncan, whose "84 Charlie Mopic," a Sundance Film Institute project, shows the war cinema verite -style via an Army combat cameraman accompanying a long-range patrol in South Vietnam's Central Highlands.
"I don't think many veterans are in any kind of power here," he says. He may be right. A random Times survey of studios failed to turn up one. ("I think you'll find a lot of old (Vietnam) protesters, but not any vets," said one studio secretary.)
'It's purely a commercial problem," says Gustav Hasford, a former Marine combat correspondent whose novel about the battle for Hue in 1968 became Kubrick's "Jacket."
"Vietnam was not a commercial subject for a long, long time," says Hasford, the only one of the four veterans-writers who doesn't want a career in Hollywood. He's working on his second Vietnam novel--in which his main character from "The Short-Timers," a Marine correspondent turned rifleman, gets captured by the Viet Cong, then joins them.
Interviewed by phone from Perth, Australia, where he now lives, Hasford said that the passage of time is the reason why the three other veterans now have the chance to tell their Vietnam stories in film.
"I attribute it to the fact that Vietnam's so far away now . . . you don't have the knee-jerk reaction to it that hawks and doves did back then," he said. Still, "not commercial" was the refrain heard by Oscar-winning Oliver Stone, author and director of "Platoon," and James Carabatsos, who wrote "Hamburger Hill." Both of their scripts are about the young draftees who fought in Vietnam.
Carabatsos has strong opinions about the not-commercial argument, which he says he kept getting until March, when RKO Pictures agreed to back his film.
He thinks this explanation is due to a hoary mind-set that the men who fought the war became deranged, haunted, drug-addled psychotics.
Past films have fueled it, he says. "You never see a movie about the guys running medcaps"--field medical clinics for Vietnamese villagers--"or doing anything good. It's all depravity, and I think this is to justify the (anti-war) beliefs of the people who didn't go."
He wants to rebut that stereotype with his movie, he says, to show the good as well as the bad done by young Americans, to tell both sides of the story, to say "there was good and bad. But there was not a My Lai every day."
Stone also wants to tell it the way he saw it, as a war within a war, the Left versus the Right in the Army that was fighting the Vietnam War.
He thinks that "Apocalypse" and "Deer Hunter" were superb films, but really were "about the state of mind at the time of Vietnam--the darkness, the civil war, the conflict between Americans. I would hope also to explore those corners.
"But I would like to explore the everyday realities of what it was like to be a 19-year-old boy in the bush for the first time."
When he first showed his script around in 1976, he says, many in Hollywood liked it but thought it too much of a "downer," too dark, too depressing. That it finally got financing last year was in no way due to Hollywood or the mega-success of "Rambo," he says.
"Naw, they (Hollywood studios) would go the other way--they want to make a right-wing movie," asserted Stone, adding that his "Platoon" is far from that.
(In "Rambo," Sylvester Stallone, while rescuing American prisoners of war, personally kills at least 60 North Vietnamese soldiers, 22 Russians and eight river pirates who try to turn him over to the North Vietnamese.)
"The only reason my film is being done is because a British company"--Hemdale Film Corp.--"happened to like me, happened to like 'Salvador.' " He was referring to his recently released, Hemdale-backed film about a journalist covering the war in El Salvador.
His "Platoon" will be out long before that of Carabatsos even reaches the film editors' desks. But Carabatsos says he isn't worried.
"I'm ecstatic for Stone because it's obviously been as much of a burr in his side as it has been in mine," he says. "I'm just tickled that veterans are making movies about their experiences."
Duncan, echoing a thought also expressed by Carabatsos, says he wants his film not only to show what one part of the war was like, but also "to show what was of value for the guys who fought the war. . . . I want people to care. I want them to understand why the guys did what they did."
And that, he says, really is his intent and that of other veterans-turned-screenwriters: "We have a brotherhood, a greater loyalty to them (other veterans) than we do to other people. We owe it to them."
John M. Wilson contributed to this article.