The last film ever produced by the legendary John Ford was a work of propaganda commissioned by the United States government in support of the Vietnam War. Production of the documentary, Vietnam! Vietnam!, began a few months after the Tet Offensive, and by the time the film was completed at the end of 1971, American policy toward the war shifted toward withdrawal and negotiation for peace. This made the message of the film obsolete, and even embarrassing, the very moment it was ready for distribution. It was never released.
Federal law at the time prohibited the domestic exhibition of any motion picture financed by the government’s in-house foreign propaganda bureau, the U.S. Information Agency. This included Vietnam! Vietnam!, and so John Ford’s last film was locked away in a vault. It remained there for the next 27 years, when a change in the law allowed the National Archives to make the film available to the public.
I learned about the existence of Vietnam! Vietnam! sometime in 2004. I don’t remember exactly how —but I had a blog about the relationship between Hollywood and Washington back then, so I’m sure it came up while reading something about American propaganda. I had this vague dream of turning my blog into a video-on-demand site, but the only progress I ever made toward this goal was curating a list of movies about Congress and Presidents and linking to them through the Amazon Associates program. One day I made $50 because someone clicked on my link and then bought several hundred dollars worth of gardening equipment.
YouTube came around in 2005, as did a whole mess of competitors. It was now possible to distribute video on my website, and this was very exciting! So I went through the whole National Archives requisition process and had the ancient reels of Vietnam! Vietnam! digitized onto a DVD. The reels were in bad shape. The audio tracks were partially rotted away. My cousin, Jim, who knew a thing or two about media technology, spent a good several weeks restoring the soundtrack to the best of his ability.
Back then, the maximum duration of a YouTube video was something like 10 minutes. Vimeo allowed feature-length films, so I uploaded it there, but they only allowed you to upload videos that you created entirely yourself, and when they noticed what I was doing, they deleted the file. Vietnam! Vietnam! was live on the Internet for only a few months. With no other viable solution for hosting, I moved on and forgot about the film.
This summer I was cleaning out a closet and found the DVD-R that held the lost John Ford movie Jim and I cleaned up. YouTube now allows you to upload feature-length videos with a 20GB maximim file size, so this weekend I returned Vietnam! Vietnam! to its rightful place on the Internet.
As I noted four years ago, the documentary is quite terrible. Nothing about it even resembles a John Ford film. Accounts vary as to the extent that Ford was actively involved in the production —he apparently spent time on location in Vietnam toward the beginning of the shoot, but he was pretty old at the time and poor health kept him home during almost all of the principal photography. According to Ford scholar Tag Gallagher, Ford supervised the editing of the film and rewrote its scenario. Regardless, John Ford clearly wanted his name associated with Vietnam! Vietnam! —it reflected his strong belief that we should certainly bomb communists wherever they might be found— and for that reason it is considered part of his repertoire.
So, Vietnam! Vietnam! is back. Go take a look at this little oddity, which was an anachronism before it was even finished.