The Big Room, 1986 (with Guy Peellaert)
Walter Winchell, 1991
Apocalypse Now, 1979 (narration only)
Full Metal Jacket, 1987 (with Gustav Hasford and Stanley Kubrick)
Michael Herr, a freelance writer who had attended Syracuse University, convinced Esquire magazine to send him to Vietnam to write a regular column on the war. Arriving in 1967, he soon decided to cover the war in a different manner. In his eleven months in Vietnam he traveled the country by helicopter, searching for the action. He managed to be present at two of the major episodes of the war, the Tet Offensive at Hue and the siege of Khe Sahn. Although a few pieces based on his coverage did make it into magazines, the bulk of his writing went toward Dispatches, a work he did not complete until 1977. Several critics consider Dispatches the best writing done on Vietnam. Although such extravagant praise is unfair to other writing on the war, Dispatches is in many respects an extraordinary work.
In writing about the Vietnam War, authors faced a formidable challenge. The conventional fictive narrative was precluded by the fact that Vietnam was a war that had no apparent external climax, no conclusion to mark either victory or defeat. Conventional nonfiction was compromised by the belief of many journalists that objective reporting was not possible in Vietnam. Skeptical reporters–Herr was one of those–stopped believing the official story that the military provided, which, because it always sounded rational, positive, and statistically clear, seemed increasingly ludicrous.
Herr was then left with the burden of creating a new form in order to communicate the war. The result is Dispatches, which in its six chapters probes the reality and significance of the war with six unique strategies. Perhaps the most dazzling is the first, “Breathing In,” a kaleidoscope of imagery that carries the reader from Graham Greene’s Vietnam to 1975, the fall of the Saigon government. Herr’s own understanding of the war moves from his lack of comprehension of a third-tour soldier to the point that he himself takes up a weapon and crosses the line separating observer and participant.
“Hell Sucks” describes the ferocious combat of the Marines at Hue. Herr notes the sharp contrast between those who work in the relative safety and comfort of the base camps and those who directly confront the war. Inevitably he comes to identify with the grunts–the foot soldiers who endure the worst conditions and suffer the most casualties. In the final episode of this section, Herr describes entering the Imperial Palace at Hue as one of the liberators.
“Khe Sahn” is Herr’s account of the time he spent at the siege of this American base. He uses the situation to explore the implications of the United States’ role in history, but the most absorbing passages describe the men engaged in the war. Although they are ordinary and fallible Americans, they become, under siege conditions, philosophers.
“Illumination Rounds” is a series of vignettes, some no more than four sentences, covering several aspects of the war. In one Herr presents the incongruity of women from the Red Cross handing out coffee to men returning from combat on Hill 875, where two hundred members of the 173rd Airborne had been killed. In another he describes his meeting with a helicopter gunner who claims to have killed 150 men. Because of this achievement, he thinks Herr should do a story on him. (This episode is dramatized in Full Metal Jacket.)
In “Colleagues” Herr presents the men he associated with in Vietnam. Most striking is Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, in Vietnam for his own kind of adventure. Ostensibly, he is a photographer, but he becomes so involved in the action that he stops even pretending to take pictures. Another photographer, Tim Page, one who does take pictures, is so determined to photograph the war that he is wounded several times, finally so seriously that he is sent home. In “Breathing Out” Herr recounts the experience of leaving Vietnam, of returning to a world on which he has new insight. He recognizes that he returns to an America that is the America that has always been, no matter how strange it suddenly seems.
After Dispatches, Herr worked on two of the more significant films set in Vietnam. As one of three screenwriters given credit for Apocalypse Now, Herr contributed Willard’s voice-over narration, which is credited with setting the film’s film noir tone. He made a more substantial contribution to Full Metal Jacket. Although the script is based on Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers (for which Hasford received lead script credit), several scenes are taken from Dispatches, presumably Herr’s contribution. In 2000, Herr wrote a memoir of his twenty-year friendship with director Stanley Kubrick, with whom he collaborated on Full Metal Jacket.
His novel Walter Winchell, based on Winchell’s career, covers the rise of this early media figure with scenes from all phases of his life. Although the subject matter has no connection with his other work, the style shows a similarity with the vivid imagery and careful phrasing of Dispatches. Herr himself has described the work as more a scenario for a film than a novel. Although Walter Winchell is an interesting work, it does not have the power of Herr’s Vietnam material.