The Vietnam War Through a Teen Girl’s Eyes in ‘In Country’

In Country

This guest post written by Caroline Madden appears as part of our theme week on Ladies of the 1980s. | Spoilers ahead.

Norman Jewison’s 1989 film In Country is based on Bobbie Ann Mason’s young adult novel by the same name. The story revolves around eighteen-year-old Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd), a.k.a. Sam, during the summer after high school graduation in Hopewell, Kentucky. Sam struggles to understand her Vietnam veteran uncle as she tries to learn more about her father, who died in the Vietnam War before she was born. Sam’s Uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis) wrestles with the symptoms of his PTSD, but refuses to tell Sam about his triggers or experiences. She barely knows anything about her father; her mother only knew and was with him for a few months before he was sent off to war and now she rarely discusses him. Sam spends the summer trying to solve the mysteries of the Vietnam experience and the patriarchal figures in her life.

Sam is an underrated, if not widely unknown 1980s heroine. She serves as a symbol for America’s 1980s attempt to reconcile with its most controversial war. The 1980s experienced a boom in Vietnam War films, as the temporal distance from the war allowed filmmakers to fully deconstruct the experience. Rarely is the locus of these films a woman. Sam’s character manages to break through the barriers of a primarily masculine film genre. In Country uniquely explores both the female and child experience of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. This is a departure from the wide variety of films depicting the male veteran’s assimilation into post-Vietnam life, such as Born on the Fourth of July (1989) or First Blood (1982).

The exclusion of the female is central to both real life and cinematic Vietnam War narratives. As laid out in Susan Jeffords’ seminal gender study of Vietnam, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, she discusses this idea of male bonding, or male collectivity. Men’s fellowship is predicated upon the segregation of the woman — they must bond together to reclaim their lost masculinity from the war. “Why don’t any of the vets I know get along with women?” Sam asks Emmett’s friend Tom. Sam hears the same mantra from various veteran characters throughout the film, “You ain’t never going to understand it. You don’t want to,” Emmett says. “Well, you weren’t there. So you can’t understand it,” says Tom. To the veterans of In Country, Sam will never share in their communal brotherhood of war and thus they must always exclude her. Sam frequently witnesses the impairment in the veteran’s post-war masculinity that keeps them from connecting and actively disengaging from women in primarily romantic and even friendly ways, such as her uncle’s rejection of Sam’s set-up with a local nurse and Tom’s inability to sexually perform.

In Country

Women in Vietnam War films are often pushed away from men who refuse to discuss the war. However, many of these characters remain passive and do not pressure them to divulge information. In Country portrays a woman as an active investigator that truly longs to understand the men’s minds. Sam constantly engages with her uncle and his friends about the war, but any of her sincere questioning about their wounds or memories are met with sarcastic jokes or proclamations that she would not understand. Just as Emmett and his friends dismiss Samantha, her father, Dwayne, also excludes her from the dead. Her friend Dawn finds a box of his letters, photographs and war memorabilia. The text of the letters revolves around soldier camaraderie, emphasizing the bonds of brotherhood. Dwayne excludes his female reader by insisting, “Don’t ask me to tell you how it is here. You don’t want to know.” This feminine segregation, a key component of most Vietnam narratives, is mobilized by all the men in In Country.

These letters begin to change Sam’s idea of her father, who was once a phantom figure in her life, now becomes idealized and heroic. Since Sam is not able to see the ramifications of Vietnam in her father’s post-war life, she can only picture him as a romantic war hero with a good heart. She pins his photograph onto her mirror and speaks to it, “You missed everything. You missed Watergate, E.T., the Bruce Springsteen concert. You were just a country boy and you never knew me.” By defining him as a ‘country boy,’ she envisions him as the embodiment of wholesome heartland America, a beacon of innocence who was harshly victimized after being thrown unwittingly into the dangers of Vietnam. The image of her father becomes as revered as that of a pop star — akin to the Bruce Springsteen posters that loom over her — an unattainable figure which exists as a pure, steadfast body of goodness that is constantly present but ultimately unreachable.

In Country

Sam mourns that her father has not only missed her entire life, but that her father never got to see what life has been like for Americans in 1980s post-Vietnam. She prioritizes Watergate, which changed American political culture forever, and iconic 1980s pop culture. Sam particularly engages with the rock icon Bruce Springsteen, whose career skyrocketed in 1984. Although his presence is more prevalent in the novel, the film still positions Springsteen as important to Sam. It is necessary to consider In Country’s engagement with the text of Springsteen’s hit song “Born in The U.S.A.,” which no doubt speaks to Sam’s observations of the Vietnam veteran’s predicament. The song discusses veterans’ disillusionment and disappointment upon returning to America after fighting its unpopular war, which Sam sees daily living with Emmett. Part of the song’s lyrics reflect his state of being, “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up.” Emmett has been both literally and metaphorically covering up. He fears the outside world, confining himself to the home, remaining unemployed, and refusing to work at the tire plant. He is plastered to the couch playing Pac-Man or spends his time digging a hideaway hole under the house. To Sam, Emmett is a living embodiment of Springsteen’s struggling small-town and blue-collar protagonist.

Another song off the iconic 1980s album is used non-diegetically in the film, “I’m On Fire.” The lyrics play as Sam jogs throughout the town. The lyrics, “Hey, little girl is your daddy home?/Did he go away and leave you all alone?” is an on-the-nose reference to Sam’s absent father. The amalgam of the song’s sexual nature and reference to a patriarchal figure reflects Sam’s complex sexual relationship with the significantly older Vietnam veteran Tom, who she attempts to sleep with after a dance. Tom is both an agent of her growing sexuality, as she develops into a young woman, and a platform for Sam to mediate her lost childhood role of father’s daughter, for Tom can be seen as more of a father figure than a potential boyfriend. Her connection and relationship to him can be read as a strange way for her to reconnect with her father. Sam is torn, particularly in this relation to Tom, between seeing herself as the little girl within the family she never got to have and growing up as a young woman.

In Country

In addition to understanding the Vietnam experience, In Country depicts a young woman at a crossroads in her life that many can relate to. All throughout the film, characters ask Sam if she is going to marry her boyfriend Lonnie. Her mother married her father and got pregnant at a young age, and now that Sam is freshly graduated from high school, many expect her to follow in those footsteps. Sam repeatedly tells her interrogators she has “other things on her mind.” It never occurs to them that she could have other ideas for her future, such as college or a career. Sam’s conflicts of these feminine roles are embodied in the character of Dawn, her friend that deals with an unplanned pregnancy. Dawn serves as a reflection of Sam’s alternate path, to marry Lonnie and start a family, and of the past, her mother’s young marriage and pregnancy.

Interactions with Dawn also trigger Sam’s unrest about her familial relationships. In one scene, Dawn pierces her ears and asks if her mother will be upset. Sam insists that her mother is “provincial and misguided” and brags that Emmett lets her do anything she wants to do, including let her boyfriend sleep over. Dawn responds that her father would never let her do that. Dawn’s insistence at having a protective father rubs salt in Sam’s wound about her own father’s absence. Sam does not truly celebrate her absent and misguided parental figures, (as her mother lives with her stepfather and half-sister in the city) they have left her unmoored and bereft. There are no parental figures that care enough to stop and discipline Sam from having sleepovers with her boyfriend. Sam is torn between attending college in the fall and marrying her boyfriend — two seemingly disparate feminine ideals. But overall, she is conflicted because she has never been able to see herself as a daughter within a nuclear family.

Sam’s volleying between the female roles of daughter and independent young woman and her struggle to relate to the Vietnam veterans in her life are resolved within the finale. Throughout the film, Sam had been constructing an idealized picture of her father as a perfect war hero. She obtains his war diaries from her grandparents, and their candor causes her to confront the reality of his wartime experiences and his ultimate humanity. The diaries describe his unremorseful killings of the Vietnamese enemy. Up until now, the letters she has read have only been of fraternizing with his war buddies or fantasizing about home. It never occurred to Sam that her father had to kill, the equation of murder and war was far from her mind as she envisioned her heroic father fighting for his country. Sam spent the majority of the film trying to determine why the Vietnam veterans she knows are so troubled, what happened over there to cause their problems. But when the truth of Vietnam is exposed to her through her father’s experience, she recoils, frightened and upset. It tarnishes her sainted image of the innocent ‘country boy.’ As Sam reveals this to Emmett, he finally unloads the memories that he has been keeping inside, the wounds in which he spent the film “covering up.”  The uncovering of these wounds allows Sam to recognize just how Vietnam’s turmoil affected those she loves, unraveling the romantic notions of her father while allowing her to fully support her troubled uncle. Through this confession, the Vietnam veteran’s feminine exclusion, regulated through silence and hostility, is finally closed off.

In Country

In the final scene, Sam and Emmett travel to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Sam leaves a portrait of herself at her father’s spot on the wall. At the end of one of his letters, Dwayne said he wanted to see a picture of his child. This gesture allows her closure in the lack of connection she felt to him. Now, Dwayne is able to “see” the picture of his child, fulfilling his wish and thereby “acknowledging” her as his daughter. This allows Sam to fully heal and move on. We learn that she decides to attend college in the fall, pursuing her passion for higher education instead of others’ wishes for her to become a young housewife.

What is important about In Country is that it depicts a 1980s female protagonist with agency who carves out a path for herself, makes choices amidst the confusion and pressures of dominant ideologies and complex relationships. Sam Hughes is neither iconic nor well-remembered, but she should be. In Country depicts perhaps the most delicate time in a woman’s life: the transition from girl to young woman. Furthermore, it places the feminine experience within the canon of the Vietnam veteran film, a genre in which male narratives are overwhelmingly present and female characters are often reduced to largely invisible or supporting characters.

Caroline Madden has a BFA in Acting from Shenandoah Conservatory and is currently an MA Cinema Studies student at Savannah College of Art and Design. Other writing can be found on Screenqueens, Pop Matters, and her blog Cinematic Visions. Film and Bruce Springsteen are two of her most favorite things.

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