Film and Literature of Vietnam War Era Explored in UMass Amherst Course

March 17, 1997

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AMHERST, Mass. - The war in Vietnam has been over for nearly a quarter of a century, but as a course at the University of Massachusetts makes clear, the wounds from that conflict are still fresh.

The course, titled "Vietnam in Literature and Film," looks at the Vietnam era from a variety of perspectives. Without taking political sides, it examines the conflict through the film and literature of the cultures involved: Vietnamese, American, and French.

The students in the class also reflect this comparative approach to studying the war. As creator of the class, comparative literature professor Edwin Gentzler points out, they include children of war protesters, Vietnamese exchange students, veterans, and Eurasians, just to name a few.

"We get into some pretty intense discussions," Gentzler says. "Yet we do our best to respect each other’s opinions. That’s my goal, and the students seem to appreciate that."

To help encourage objectivity, Gentzler concentrates on the texts and not the politics behind them. He also includes sources from all possible sides for instance, when he’s focusing on recollections of the war, he discusses Vietnamese novelist Le Ly Hayslip’s "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places," before having his students view Oliver Stone’s film adaptation of the book "Heaven and Earth."

The class also views the war in a broad historical perspective. Beginning with Vietnamese folk poetry, Gentzler gives his students a background in Vietnamese culture, then moves on to the colonial period, exploring through both Vietnamese and French literature the war’s roots. Later he includes the diaries of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, followed by John Wayne’s pro-war epic film "The Green Berets."

A baby boomer in his mid-40s, Gentzler admits he has his own passions about the war. While his father was pro-war, he has always been more ambivalent. He says he saw friends both protest against and die in the war, and that he’s still trying to come to terms with the meaning of the experience.

Yet, he says, now that the class is entering its third semester, he feels more optimistic about the future. He notes demand has led him to expand the class from around 20 to its present size of nearly 100, and that he’s still had to turn many away.

"The country has yet to address the war in Vietnam on some level," Gentzler says. "But maybe things are beginning to change. If interest in this class is any indication, at least we’re starting to make some headway."