Analysis of “Hearts and Minds” and “Harlan County, USA”


Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds (1974) shows the devastation of the Vietnam War and discusses the anti-war sentiment that started to appear in the USA during the 1960s. Vincent Canby states that the director, Mr. Davis “makes no attempt to justify the American involvement in Vietnam, which, it’s obvious, he believes to have been a disaster” (1975). The film starts in a North Vietnamese village with children running around and people working in the fields. And with-in the next few minutes the audience hears about American entitlement and power followed by guns being fired. Sometimes the film shows or mentions pro war sentiment in attempts to be objective, but ultimately leaves the viewer with a negative opinion of the Vietnam War. Take for example the scene in Linden New Jersey where the town welcomes home Lt. George Coker. Or one of Lieutenants many speeches in the town that tell of how the troops were helping and saving the Vietnamese and world from communism.

The film is a collage of “old newsreel footage as well as new material that he (the director) shot in Vietnam, in this country and in France,” as well as “clips from old Hollywood movies and dozens of interviews with peasants and policy-makers, with American civilians and fighting men” (Canby 1975). There a hundreds of shots of destroyed houses and villages, with men or women rummaging through the rubble trying to find anything they can. There is also a scene with an older man in a city that is partially rubble who makes coffins, mostly for children that die from the gas that is being spread by the US troops. Seeing and hearing about the destruction of the war advocates for the Vietnamese. However, destruction is not the only thing that advocates of the Vietnamese and against the war.

In this film Ebert states that there are “scene of incredible power” (2005). Take for example the scene of “a little girl running screaming down a road, her skin burned by napalm” (Ebert 1974). It is heart-wrenching and maddening at the same time. There is also a scene during which a pilot “who, in a moment of truth, says he never thought at the time about what his bombs were doing down below, but now he’s haunted by the notion of his own daughters being napalmed” (Ebert 1974). Hearing a pilot second guess his actions speaks strongly against the war and they way the Vietnamese were made to suffer. Another powerful scene in when “U.S. veterans are learning to use artificial limbs and now question why they were in Vietnam first place” (Ebert 1974). When the people fighting the war start to question it, that says a lot and when coupled with shots of destruction and suffering, it says even more, which is why this film is most defiantly advocacy.

Harlan County, USA

Harlan County, USA (1976) follows the coal miners’ strike in 1973 -1974 in Harlan County, Kentucky. The film is very obviously advocating for the coal miners rights. According to Tom Weiner the “camera focuses on the desperate plight of people still living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and working dangerous jobs with little security and few safety rules”. Towards the beginning of the film (and throughout) the audience sees the houses the miners (the look more like shacks) and their families live in. The audience also sees a child bathing in a metal wash-bin on the table, which is almost too small of the child to fit in. The opening shows men working in small spaces and riding down ramps, the only other people around are the other workers. Then the audience hears, from older miners how accidents frequently happen. Or how the people in charge are more concerned with the goat, which helps pull the coal out, getting out alright than the worker.

Throughout the film the audience sees “images of struggle: picket lines, meetings, face-to-face interviews with UMW militants” and is “punctuated by funerals” (Biskind 1977). The workers are at the base of the coal mine well before the current employees show up in their trucks and cars. And the coal miners on strike continue to stand there throughout the day, with their signs and sometimes the occasional stick for protection. The film goes back and forth from meetings, where they debate how to have their voices heard and stay out of jail and even alive, in a local center in the evening to the streets in the morning. Men and women are seen at both locations. According to Biskind at times the “film focuses on the women… We see them facing down the state troopers, forcing the sheriff to arrest the mine foreman”. Women seem to play just as important a role: they picket, and are carried off by police officers; have meetings both formally and informally, about getting miners their rights; and take care of their families.

During the film the audience finds out that “the sheriff allows the company’s ‘gun thugs’ to use their weapons, including a machine gun, but prohibits the strikers from using theirs” (Biskind 1977). The audience sees a few shots throughout the film, of current company employees and the thugs carrying guns or keeping their hand on them to get their way. This film has a “famous scene where guns are fired at the strikers in the darkness before dawn, and Kopple and her cameraman are knocked down and beaten” (Ebert 2005).  To the normal viewer all that is know is that the camera is knocked over, thus heightening fear for the coal miners on strike safety.

Another very telling part of the film is the “hilarious confrontation between a picket and a sympathetic New York cop. They exchange information on salaries, benefits, and the sorry lot of workers everywhere—a cop on Wall Street and a miner in Harlan County” Biskind 1977. The cop keeps mentioning low salaries and the coal miner keeps shaking his head and laughing, saying he wished he could make that much. The cop is upset when he hears that the coal miners have no workmen’s’ compensation or retirement. Seeing and hearing about what the coal miners deal with does a lot to make this a film that advocates for them and for their rights.


Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds (1974) is a mishmash of many pieces of footage from many locations or as Vincent Canby puts it “a collage of scenes that, though blunt and often harrowing, eventually demonstrate something” (1975). This film advocates for the Vietnamese and against the war, but there are a few things about the collage style that detract from that message, though overall the point still remains strong. Some of the time the mishmash of real footage, newsreel, movies and interviews is distracting.  Take for example the scenes with the football matches or the football team in the lockerroom; they do not seem to fit the rest of the film. The scene in the brothel is also distracting. Where it might be accepted that soldiers visit brothels during war, it does not add to the film. If those scenes were cut nothing would be lost from the film, and it would flow better.

Roger Ebert also believes that the film takes “such pains to make its points that it doesn’t trust us to find our own connection” (1974). There is the “tearful graveside scene in North Vietnam” (1974), where women and children greave for the family members they have lost. Directly following is “Westmoreland soberly explaining that Orientals don’t place a high value on life,” which makes him come across as “racist and stupid” (1974). According to Ebert putting “these two pieces of film together… undermines the film’s effectiveness” and is “too heavy-handed” (1974).  Even with the few detractions, the film still advocates against the wars and for the Vietnamese.

Harlan County, USA

According to Kopple in an interview she had with Roger Ebert ” ‘Harlan County’ came out of the tradition of Albert Maysles and Leacock and Pennebaker, documentarians who went somewhere and stayed there and watched and listened and made a record of what happened” (2005). The film take place in jails, courtrooms, stockholder’s meetings, on the streets in Kentucky and New York City, as well as the homes of the coal miners and other meeting places they had; all of it following the coal miners as the strike continued. Ebert states that “Kopple and Perry spent 18 months in Harlan County, filming what happened as it happened” (2005). Kopple and Perry caught many details; like the funeral of one of the men on strike that was killed by one of the gun thugs. Or the arrest of the foreman who had been showing off his gun and using force again the coal miners and their wives who were on strike. This act of catching this as they unfolded added to the advocacy of the film.

There are however a few parts of this film that detract from the advocacy. According to Biskind “Kopple uses the music too liberally, flooding the sound track with ballads and union songs,” he says that there are times that she should have “allowed the people their moments of silence” take for example during the first funeral (1977). The ballad played over top of the funeral dampened some of the sadness and cruelty from the moment, even though it was talking about unsafe conditions of coal mining. Also damaging to the film was “the technique of slow disclosure… The shooting of one of the miners, Lawrence Jones, is revealed slowly in a close-up pan from his stomach to his head as he lies in the hospital” (Biskind 1977). It is confusing to the audience because there is no identification of who the man is or why he is laying in a hospital. More background information is needed for that shot to make sense to the audience. Even with the mass amount of music and the occasional confusing shots, the film still advocates for the coal miners well.


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