When Michael Moore used his Oscar acceptance speech to attack George Bush just days before the outbreak of war in Iraq, it was not the first time the Academy Awards had witnessed a controversial anti-war protest from one of its winners. Close to three decades prior, producer Bert Schneider's outspoken response to receiving an Oscar for the searing Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) so infuriated co-hosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra that they immediately cobbled together a disclaimer denying any responsibility for the evening's "political references".
The Bush administration's failure to pull themselves out of their current military quagmire has apparently sparked renewed interest in the films that documented the conflict in Vietnam. Hearts and Minds - arguably one of the greatest documentaries ever made, composed largely of interviews with US soldiers and Vietnamese citizens - has been re-released in the UK after revisiting screens in the States. Likewise, Winter Soldier (1972) has hit US cinemas again after more than 30 years. Based on the three-day gathering of war veterans in 1971 that I helped fund, it was a film intended to document American war crimes in the conflict. A third film, Sir! No Sir!, details how GIs were converted to leading members of the peace movement and has recently won plaudits at several film festivals.
Watching Hearts and Minds again after so many years, the parallels between the two conflicts seem quite remarkable. The dubious initial premise for war, the polarised society back home of hawks versus doves, and of course Lyndon B Johnson's promise that "the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there" - from which the film takes its name - all still stick in the throat.
It may not have been the first feature film to attack American policy in the conflict (Emile de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig arrived in 1968), but it shook the country like no other. While the film received mixed reviews from critics of the time (ranging from "a cinematic lie" to "brave and brilliant"), Hearts and Minds succeeded in cementing in the US psyche the horrific image of a naked girl running from a US napalm attack, as well as the point-blank execution of a prisoner by a South Vietnamese official.
Director Peter Davis's film gave a voice to Vietnamese citizens who up until that point had been painted by the national media only in primary colours. He turned the two-dimensional stereotypes into complex human beings - interviewing a coffin-maker about his child-size boxes, an entrepreneur hoping to make a fortune from building a prosthetic limb factory, and showing a grieving family at a funeral - swiftly juxtaposed with a clip of General Westmoreland's infamous comment that "the oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the westerner". As well as traumatised veterans, he finds draft-card burners, hundreds on peace marches and a returned navy veteran who, when asked by a child what Vietnam looks like, replies: "If it wasn't for the people, it [would be] very pretty."
However, it was the focus on the Vietnamese families and the suffering of ordinary individuals that had the biggest effect on Americans in 1974. This was the year after troops had been officially withdrawn from the country, but still a year before the south fell to the National Liberation Front. Inflation, unemployment and the Watergate scandal caused Americans to retreat inward in an attempt to forget about the conflict. Paul Zimmerman in Newsweek described the film at the time as "a thoroughly committed, brilliantly executed and profoundly moving document . . . Unlike our leaders who encourage us to put Vietnam behind us, Davis wants us to confront our feelings about it first and to understand the experience before we bury it. We turn away from this portrait of ourselves at our peril."
The life of the film, eventually edited down to 110 minutes from over 200 hours of footage, began smoothly but soon ran into difficulties. Schneider's success with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces led to the unusual step of Columbia offering a generous budget with relative freedom - he soon hired Davis, who was at the time receiving critical acclaim for his TV documentary The Selling of the Pentagon. However, the company executives grew nervous after an early version was screened for Columbia lawyers, and expressed their concerns to Schneider. Against their wishes, Hearts and Minds was shown at the 1974 Cannes film festival and - just like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which also had problems with its distributors - received rapturous applause. Columbia refused to budge, though, leaving them at a stalemate until Schneider and Davis eventually bought the film from them. It went on to win best documentary feature at the Academy awards, during which Schneider made the controversial decision to read his message of "greetings of friendship to all American people" from the Provisional Revolutionary Government delegation to the ongoing peace talks in Paris.
Winter Soldier wasn't quite as successful in its reach. The film documents our attempts during a three-day gathering in Detroit to expose the true nature of our country's war crimes in Vietnam - known famously as the Winter Soldier investigation. It was shown widely in Europe but, until recently, never found a distributor in the US, partly because the conflict was still ongoing. The name Winter Soldier invoked Tom Paine's reference to the revolutionary soldiers who, through the terrible winter of 1777-1778, volunteered to remain at Valley Forge. The idea was for Vietnam veterans to testify about atrocities they had committed or had witnessed while in Vietnam.
The motivation for the film was the My Lai massacre. When the story about My Lai broke in the New York Times in November 1969, it had staggered the public. What had enraged a lot of Vietnam veterans, however, was the way the government was scapegoating Lieutenant William Calley and the men he commanded, calling My Lai an "isolated incident of aberrant behaviour". To the membership of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War - numbering 25,000 to 30,000 members in 1970-71 - the My Lai massacre was remarkable only in the number of victims involved and the fact that it became public.
The vets knew that atrocities were occurring as an inevitable part of our Vietnam policies and that if justice was to be served, the architects of those policies - from the president down - needed to be held accountable.
Preparing for the Winter Soldier investigation required fast fundraising - and I hit the road running, raising most of the money through a six-week speaking tour that took me to 54 college campuses across the country, and during which police arrested me for "drug smuggling"(vitamins, actually).
On January 31 1971, hundreds of people from all over the country crammed into the large conference room in a motel to witness the event. The heart of the Winter Soldier investigation was the testimony from the veterans. Sitting solemnly in front of microphones at a long table covered by white cloth, they made an unusual sight with their medals, uniforms, long hair, and beards. One by one they said who they were, where they had served, and what category of war crime they would testify about.
In voices sometimes choked with emotion, the men told how they and others had randomly killed Vietnamese civilians and tortured Vietnamese prisoners. They told of raping and mutilating women and girls; cutting off ears and heads; rounding up entire villages into concentration camps. They told of B-52 carpet-bombing; throwing Vietcong suspects from helicopters; using white phosphorous, which burned endlessly though a person's body. Only this week, the US admitted using the same substance during the assault last year in Fallujah.
I was numb as I listened to speaker after speaker describe these atrocities. I heard what was being said, but I couldn't get my heart to grasp it. This was partly to do with my own emotional state. My nerves were shot. I couldn't sleep. Picketers outside the hotel were brandishing signs saying I was a communist. My father wasn't speaking to me and, because of the news reports about my arrest, probably thought I was a drug-smuggler. My Hollywood connections feared I'd never work again.
A month or so later, sitting in the projection room of Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope offices in San Francisco, watching a rough cut of the documentary with other funders of the film, I finally broke down. And once the tears came, they were unstoppable. Until then, I had thought that what was important about the Winter Soldier investigation was its indictment of the US government for sending men to fight a war whose very nature made atrocities inevitable. But something far more profound than the question of blame had transpired over those three days in Detroit.
A spiritual shift had occurred that signalled hope. These men, as they gave witness, were pointing the way for all of us: if they, who had done and seen the unimaginable, could transform themselves by their collective truth telling, then couldn't we all? Today, we do those who served in Vietnam a grave disservice to feign outrage at what these men said and did, and to deny that any atrocities were committed by Americans.
These ranks of brave men are joined by the subjects of David Zeiger's welcome new documentary Sir! No Sir!, which shows how some of the most dedicated troops turned their backs on violence and devoted themselves to the peace movement - from setting up anti-war groups to wearing peace signs instead of dog-tags. It was recently shown at the Lincoln Center in New York and was followed by a dialogue between Vietnam and Iraq veterans - the latter talking about how the film spoke to their feelings about the current situation.
Reading over old reviews of Hearts and Minds, one comment by the New York Times journalist Vincent Canby, written in 1975, struck me as identifying with acute precision why each of these documentaries is still so vital: "An interview with Clark Clifford, the former Secretary of Defense, at the beginning of the film sets what I take to be the theme when Mr Clifford recalls the extraordinary economic, military and industrial power the United States found itself with at the end of the second world war. The film goes on to examine the nearly suicidal effects of that power when it was explained, justified, defined and, in particular, when it was wielded as something that had been God-given rather than as something inherited through one of the most marvellous accidents - the unplanned conjunction of people, place and time - in recorded history. I don't think the film means to knock American achievements but only to point out that a certain lack of perspective, of modesty, perhaps, can be close to fatal."