CAPTION: An American soldier in Vietnam, as seen in “In the Year of the Pig,” a 1969 documentary film directed by Emile de Antonio. Photo Credit: UCLA Film & Television Archive
This review originally appeared in the REWIND section at the NYTimes.com.
In the Heat of the Battle, ‘In the Year of the Pig’
By J. Hoberman
To watch “In the Year of the Pig,” the 1969 Vietnam War documentary by Emile de Antonio (1919-89) is to be dropped into the middle of a long-germinating and still-developing disaster.
The movie, screening this weekend in a newly restored 35-millimeter print as part of Metrograph’s current de Antonio retrospective, is not a history of the Vietnam War so much as an immersion in the ideas that were held while the war was going on.
“In the Year of the Pig” (which can be found on YouTube) is also a landmark in film history. Commonplace now, the notion of a documentary without a voice-over, predicated on the juxtaposition of archival footage and contrapuntal interviews was novel in 1969 and proved highly influential.
De Antonio’s first feature, “Point of Order” (1964), a chronological assemblage of TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings made with Dan Talbot, was the first documentary feature to treat American politics as a media spectacle. “In the Year of the Pig” — a movie in which politicians, generals, journalists and academics posture and declaim against a backdrop of battle scenes and patriotic pageants — was described by de Antonio as “political theater.”
Although not strictly chronological, the show has three acts. The first concerns France’s futile attempt to keep its Indochinese colonies. The middle section mainly deals with the origins of South Vietnam and includes graphic sequences of the self-immolation that underscored the Buddhist uprising against the repressive, United States-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Not until the movie’s final third do American soldiers arrive, one with a helmet emblazoned “Make War Not Love.”
Given the number of speaking parts and vast range of visual material, “In the Year of the Pig” is extremely well edited (the photographer Helen Levitt is among those credited) and creatively scored by Steve Addiss who composed what de Antonio described as a “helicopter concerto” as the movie’s overture. Vietnam was not yet a rock ’n’ roll war, at least on film. Played on traditional Indochinese instruments, familiar anthems like “La Marseillaise” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are rendered weird and melancholy.
“In the Year of the Pig” was not easy to distribute. After its theatrical premiere in Boston in February 1969, it was shown mainly at colleges. A Los Angeles theater was vandalized; bomb threats discouraged bookings in Chicago and Houston. When the movie opened in New York, the New York Times critic Howard Thompson described it as “stinging, graphic and often frighteningly penetrating.” Not simply an indictment of the Vietnam War, “In the Year of the Pig” is more broadly an illustration of American ignorance with regard to the history of other peoples and nations.
It’s depressing but unsurprising when generals happily hold forth on the presumably innate “Oriental” indifference to human life or when President Lyndon B. Johnson compares the corrupt dictator Diem to Winston Churchill. What’s really shocking is hearing Senator Thruston B. Morton, a moderate Republican from Kentucky, give a rational explanation why, from a Vietnamese perspective, the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was their George Washington.
Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.