In the 1960s and 1970, it’s safe to say that the war in Vietnam was the national obsession of the United States of America and the Western world in general.
While the lives lost, money spent, and political and social ramifications of the war are rightfully viewed as the most important aspects of that time period, the war also had wide-ranging effects on all aspects of American culture, including film. The decade stretching from the late 60s to the late 70s is dotted with films that grapple with the Vietnam War directly, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
The influence of the Vietnam War wasn’t limited to films that directly dealt with the fighting and its aftermath, however. For decades, film scholars have identified other films of the era as having been strongly influenced – or had their reception strongly shaped – by the war. It might surprise you to learn that Sam Peckinpah’s subversive western masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969) is widely viewed in film scholarship as really being about Vietnam.
In the film, a rag-tag group of outlaws travel across the border into Mexico in order to escape a group of bounty hunters who have foiled their planned robbery of a railway and are determined to track them down. The outlaws’ plan is complicated, however, by the fact that in 1913, the year in which the film is set, Mexico is in the throes of the Mexican Revolution. The outlaws try to make it back to the United States, but almost none of them get out of it alive.
So what does this all have to do with Vietnam? If you’re willing to go past the details of plot and examine the fundamentals of the story, you’ll see the parallels. A dangerous journey to a foreign land. Entanglement in a local civil war. Unspeakable horrors. And little hope of survival.
Need another example? How about Chinatown (1974)? On the surface, it’s a film noir throwback that deals with shady land and water deals in 1930s Los Angeles. Within the film, though, Chinatown itself can be seen as a metaphor for Vietnam: a place where honest people become jaded, pessimistic, and indifferent… and that’s if they even survive the experience at all. The famous line “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” might as well be “Forget it, Jake. It’s Vietnam.”
Which finally brings me to Alien.
Surprisingly, I’ve never seen Alien mentioned as a possible Vietnam parable. (Which means that I should probably be saving this idea for a proper academic paper, but I’m going to give you the gist of it here anyway.) Given the time period in which the film was made and its overwhelmingly Anglo-American origins – a largely American and British cast, American writers, American producers, and a British director – a comparison to Vietnam seems inevitable, if not immediately obvious. Science-fiction has a long history of utilizing futuristic and fantastical settings to address real-world contemporary issues, and whether intentional or not (and I suspect it was largely unintentional), Alien does feature some clear parallels to the United States’ experience in Vietnam.
The comparison begins with the planet that the Nostromo visits, identified in Aliens as LV-426 but unnamed in the original film. The planet’s environment is hazardous and uninviting, with a persistent layer of fog cover and a damp, almost marsh- or swamp-like quality. For the flight officers and engineers of the Nostromo, used to high technology and relative comfort, it’s very much outside of their comfort zone. (Incidentally, the planet is featured in even greater detail in Aliens, which can be seen as an even more obvious Vietnam parable.)
The experiences of the crew of the Nostromo on the planet parallel those of soldiers in Vietnam: they venture off and come back profoundly changed. For Kane (John Hurt), this transformation is all too real, as the “facehugger” attaches itself to his head and he is ultimately unable to survive the experience. Indeed, aside from Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) all of the members of the crew eventually share Kane’s fate. By journeying to an unfamiliar environment and inserting themselves into a complex situation that they don’t entirely understand, the crew place themselves in grave danger, and like in Vietnam, too many of them lose their lives.
A parallel can also be drawn between the political and military aspects of Alien and the United States’ experience in Vietnam. American troops were initially sent to Vietnam as part of the United States’ “domino theory,” which posited that if one country were allowed to turn communist and join the Soviet bloc, many more would follow. The lives of American troops – average people from all walks of life who were drafted into military service – were subservient to overall American political interests, even though America’s “domino theory” was unproven (and indeed turned out to be false) and a war in Vietnam meant meddling in Vietnam’s internal civil war. In Alien, correspondingly, the mysterious Company instructs the ship to divert to the planet to investigate in hopes that one of the alien creatures will be returned to earth, presumably for examination by the Company’s weapons division. The members of the crew are deemed to be “expendable,” much like American troops in Vietnam, and the entire enterprise places military interests ahead of human ones.
And finally, the issue of the alien creature itself. To make a crude comparison, the alien can be seen as something of a stand-in for the Viet Cong: its tactics are seemingly less organized than the highly regimented methods of the Nostromo’s crew, but it is nonetheless able to thrive. Like the United States military, the crew of the Nostromo feel that their technology – a makeshift tracking device, flamethrowers, and so on – give them an advantage, but the alien, bereft of this advanced technology, more than holds its own anyway.
If anything, one can say that it is the pride and hubris of the Nostromo’s crew (and their Company minders) that leads to their ultimate demise. Like the military casualties of Vietnam, they fall victim to an ill-conceived and unnecessary mission carried out under the purview of a misguided militaristic worldview. And like The Wild Bunch and Chinatown before it, and in spite of its sci-fi and horror elements, Alien can’t avoid grappling with such a seismic event in American and world history.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: