Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Cool Hand Luke follows its titular character as he is arrested and placed on a chain gang for two years. Similar to Shawshank Redemption’s portrayal of prisons, this one also includes a nasty warden and guards that are willing to beat the men. While this movie is less extreme, and the prisoners are more laid back, it is still a story about one man who refuses to let the system win. Luke is in jail for drunken property damage. He is a war veteran with several honors and medals, but he was busted from sergeant to private. It is immediately clear that Luke is not like anyone else. He is quiet, with a quick, dry wit. His unwillingness to back down during a brawl early on earns him the respect of his peers. The thing we learn from this fight is that Luke, quite literally, will always pick himself up.

Luke doesn’t really fit into society. This is especially clear when his mother, dying, comes to visit him and they discuss how he never really found a place to settle down. He also explicitly denies the existence of God, and has several mocking conversations (and one serious one) with him throughout the movie. Especially for an early 20th century rural Southern area, this is odd. Most people, even prisoners and morally bankrupt wardens wouldn’t claim God didn’t exist. Luke refuses to conform to prison life and prison rules. He’s impulsive and cheerful, bets on nothing, and he ate 50 eggs in one hour. The movie transforms him into a folk tale, really a folk hero to those that were imprisoned alongside him.

When Luke’s mother dies, the warden locks him up in the box (solitary confinement) to keep him from running until she is buried. It is after this Luke later makes his first attempt at escape. He is caught shortly after, and this where things start to go wrong. He is given a set of ankle chains. His next attempt gets him farther, but again he is caught. Luke is beaten, given two sets of chains, and forced to continue working even when everyone else is done. The warden and the “bosses” break him, but not permanently. Luke acts like an obedient prisoner, serving as errand boy on the road for the head guard, “The man with no eyes,” right up until he steals a truck (along with the keys for the rest of the car.

Luke has proven that no matter what he will always get back up. We cheer for him and pray for his escape because he never seeks to harm anyone. His final prayer to God shows regret even for the people he killed in the war. But he doesn’t know what to do with the hand he was dealt anymore. He is an outcast, someone people admire, but don’t strive to be. So the police, the warden, and the prison guards corner him in an old church. Luke’s friend Dragline, who escaped with him, begs him to come quietly, as the guards have agreed not to beat him or add too much to their sentence if he comes quietly. Luke’s response is to go to a window and use the warden’s own words against him: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” And because they couldn’t break him, the head guard shoots him. The prison was the last place an outcast like Luke could go, but he didn’t fit there either, so they had to kill him. We are left with his story though, the story of a man that couldn’t be beaten, that always played it cool.

–        Josh

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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The Man Who Would Be King follows ne’er-do-well soldiers and Freemasons Peachy (Michael Caine) and Danny (Sean Connery) on their journey to become rulers of Kafiristan. The tale is recited to fellow Freemason Rudyard Kipling (who wrote the short story the movie is based on) by Peachy after he returns, ragged and possibly mad.

The two con-men, firm in their belief of superiority above the savage, non-British people they set out to conquer manage to make it Kafiristan with twenty state-of-the-art rifles. While their military background and ability to think quickly, and charisma are critical to them being able to pull off this incredible con, it is mostly luck that leads to their success. For one, they find a Gurkha named Billy Fish that speaks English and the local language. As Danny and Peachy help the village they first encounter conquer their enemies, they slowly gain respect as war leaders. Then Danny is struck by an arrow, but unhurt by it. The native people think this makes him a god, possibly the Son of Sikander (Alexander the Great, who previously ruled the area) when in reality, it had struck his ammo belt underneath his clothes. Then, when Danny is ‘tested’ by the high priests (they want to shoot him with another arrow, shirtless this time) his Freemason necklace is revealed, which happens to be the symbol of Alexander the Great. The priests bow to him and give him their treasure (a hoard of jewels and gold).

The con completed, Peachy wants to take the treasure and leave. Unfortunately, Danny becomes convinced of his own divinity and power. Here the movie examines how far the idea of White Supremacy can go. Danny begins to believe he is the Son of Sikander, that he should stay as god-king of Kafiristan, create a modern nation (by western standards of course). He is convinced of his right to rule, and that he knows the right way to rule.

Before they left on their adventure Peachy and Danny signed a contract not to partake in alcohol or women. Tempted throughout their stay, Danny eventually gives into his lust, which is unsurprising as he doesn’t plan to leave or complete the plan they had made. It is this base human drive that is his undoing. The god is brought low by the woman he desires. Believing she will die if Danny sleeps with her, the woman, Roxanne, bites him and draws blood. Enraged at being tricked a mob chases Danny, Peachy, and Billy. Billy is killed trying to fight the mob off. Danny is killed and Peachy crucified for a day.

The film reminds me of Heart of Darkness in its message. It shows the perils of falling victim to your own sense of pride and superiority. Peachy and Danny thought that India was too small for men like them. They relied heavily on luck while all along calling it skill and cunning. It was for these reasons that they failed, that one was killed and the other left poor and half-mad. They treated their ‘subjects’ like savages and were in turn treated savagely.

– Josh

Intolerance (1916)

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Director D.W. Griffith’s expensive and ambitious silent film masterpiece Intolerance marks a significant landmark in cinematic history. Many reviewers and film historians consider it the greatest film of the silent era. The four widely separate, yet parallel stories are set in different ages throughout human history. In the original print, each story was tinted with a different color in order to distinguish them from one another. Three of the four are based on factual history. All of the stories featured in the film, including the Modern Story, the Judean Story, the French Story, and the Babylonian Story, span many hundreds of years and cultures and are held together by themes of intolerance, hypocrisy, bigotry, religious hatred, persecution, discrimination and injustice achieved in all eras by entrenched political, social and religious systems. This wide span of time and issues illustrates vividly the transcendence through time of mans inhumanity to man, a universal issue facing all peoples in all times.

The villains of the four connecting stories are the mill owner Jenkins and his intolerant minions, the opponents of Christ, the evil Queen Catherine, and the cunning High Priest of Babylon. These villain’s evil actions set in motion disturbing consequences for characters in the other stories, the modern-day working-class couple, for the average French Huguenot family and their daughter Brown Eyes, for Christ, and for the enlightened and revolutionary Prince Belshazzar. The recurring symbol of the Eternal Motherhood throughout the film serves to further connect the stories in the mind of the viewer. Connecting all these tales of intolerance serves to again reinforce the universality of the actions and consequences of the characters. The aftermath of the villains treacherous decisions transcend time barriers and affect others other than their intended victims.

Griffith’s project was a major step in, when the idea of the feature-length film was still in its infancy. Intolerance was a colossal undertaking, featuring monumental sets, detailed period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. The projected cost was around 47 million dollars, an enormous sum in 1916. Part of the appeal of Intolerance was its lavish and rich cinematographical appearance. People were drawn in to watch the film in order to experience the immaculate detail of the imagery. This allowed Griffith to spread the films message to a wide number of people in the American public.

ImageIntolerance also benefited in the American box office from the fame of its inflammatory and contradictory predecessor, Birth of a Nation. Intolerance is often described as Griffith’s cinematic apology for this openly racist detail of the Civil War and the Klu Klux Klan. However, both Intolerance and Birth of a Nation can be viewed as merely cinematic examinations of racism and prejudice. They both intended to show the history of prejudiced thought and behavior.

-Claire

The Searchers (1956)

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Another John Wayne classic, The Searchers, follows former Confederate soldier Ethan (Wayne) as he returns to the home of his brother, who married the woman Ethan loved.  From the start it is clear that Wayne’s character is not the most noble of soldiers. He has a lot of gold “Yankee dollars” that he never explains how or where he obtained them, and doesn’t return until three years after the war. The local Ranger captain treats him with equal parts respect and caution. In addition, He immediately reacts negatively to the adopted son of his brother and sister-in-law purely based on the fact that he is part Native American. It becomes clear that Ethan has nothing but hatred for Native Americans, and specifically against Comanches.

One fascinating thing about The Searchers is that it is a western that actually questions the racism and animosity of the cowboys towards the Native Americans. It is interesting to note that Ethan is not ignorant to the ways of the Comanches. He has been victimized by them (they killed his mother) so he learned everything he could about them. So, this Western doesn’t really fit the genre. We have an antihero that we genuinely disagree with. He’s not just gruff or mean, he is genuinely hateful, suspicious, and a probable criminal. His hatred is so blinding that after the Comanche kill his family and capture his niece he would rather kill her for being indoctrinated than try to get her back. It seems John Wayne is at his best when he doesn’t play his classic gun-fighting hero (see the drunken Rooster Cogburn of True Grit). He is the character we want more than anything to change, to give his adopted nephew Martin a chance, and above all else, spare his niece.

One thing that must be said for Ethan is his tenacity. He never stops looking, even years after the raid. He and search everywhere for a lead to the band of Comanches that have his niece Debby. He even talks about how humans are the one predator that never gives up.

What makes this movie powerful is its display of how there was no perfect side when it came to Cowboys and Indians. The Native Americans are not portrayed as heartless savages, or even the deceptive noble savages. They bury their dead with ceremony, have a code of honor, and have themselves been wronged by the people that have claimed their land. The chief of the Comanches tells Ethan and Martin that his sons were killed by white men, and that is why he takes so many scalps. The movie is one of very few that has attempted to address the atrocities committed on both sides of the long conflict between white settlers and Native Americans.

Of course, in the end we all need heroes. Ethan and Martin do eventually find Debbie, and while the Texas Rangers raid the camp Ethan chases her down. Ethan’s humanity comes out and instead of killing her, he carries her home. It is also important to note he made Martin his sole heir. He has come to accept his 1/8 Cherokee nephew, his niece that turned “injun,’” and for the first time seems genuinely at peace. As he leaves them at home, Martin reunited with the girl he loves and Debbie safe, Ethan walks away into the sunset. He seems to accept that his hatred, his way of viewing the world, is no longer needed. So he moves on, leaving behind the people that can make this place better.

– Josh

Duck Soup (1933)

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About 3 years after the beginning of the Great Depression, Duck Soup made its appearance on screen for the first time. The Marx Brothers created this frantic and funny satire with rapid-fire gags and some of the most inspired physical comedy ever to hit the screen. In the film, the small state of Freedonia, which is in a financial mess, borrows a significant sum of cash from wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale. In order to get her money donation, the state must replace the current president with eccentric Rufus T. Firefly. Mayhem erupts almost immediately. Firefly (played by Groucho Marx) manages to offend half his staff and fellow world leaders and lead his country to the brink of war. To make matters worse, the neighboring state sends inept spies Chicolini and Pinky to obtain top-secret information, creating even more chaos for Freedonia.

Duck Soup is a highly adept and intelligent satire of government processes and government officials that perpetuate them. The whole film is an opportunity to poke fun at unintelligent and corrupt rulers, the nonsensical government bureaucracy that is universal across all governments, pompous diplomats and the absurdity of reckless war. This satire was particularly well received during the time period in which it was released. During the midst of the Great Depression, there were high levels of distrust and outright distaste for the government and its programs. The processes required to receive any aid from the government was full of loopholes and was extremely difficult to deal with, especially for working class Americans, who were the most drastically affected. People lived in “hoovervilles”, a popular name for the large shantytowns that were built by homeless people during this time period. They were named for the current president Herbert Hoover, who was largely blamed for the Great Depression by the American public.

The statement against warfare was particularly heard in the broader American audience. One of the many causes of the Great Depression was the collapse of the economy, which couldn’t transition from wartime to peacetime production after WWI. Many women were left widows after WWI as well since most men at that time fought in the war, throwing them into the Great Depression as single mothers or relying on only one salary to make ends meet.

The war in Freedonia ends with Groucho commanding the Freedonian troops in a pitched battle that appears to be more like a pie fight, shooting his own men by accident and wearing every uniform known to man from World War I to Boy Scout. This variation in uniform reinforces the message of governmental rejection to all countries, time periods, and bureaucracies. The ridiculousness of the battle itself mirrors the nonsensical logic behind war in general, but especially country-to-country rivalries and disputes.

This film reached out to the American public with humor and a message of camaraderie during a particularly dark time, mostly void of humor and community. The slapstick humor and clever quips that so much make the Marx Brothers ageless, gave a little comic relief to the poverty stricken America in 1933.

 

-Claire

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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Only a month and half after Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released to over 4,000 people in Washington D.C., including senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and Cabinet members. While it was banned in Nazi Germany for fear that it proved that democracy worked, the premiere screening in D.C. caused these political members to leave in anger over the portrayal of the Senate and the U.S. political system. Obviously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was more than just a movie.

After the Great Depression hit men and women across the nation in the 1930’s, many Americans blamed the government for their situation. Though never said outright in the film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington does play on those anti-government sentiments, addressing the corruption of Taylor’s “political machine” and Senior Senator John Paine’s crookedness and ability to be influenced in such important business. It is only too obvious the other senators’ complete indifference and disrespect towards Junior Senator Jefferson Smith. He’s new, sure, but he’s also democracy personified. In the filibuster scene where Sen. Smith is forced to loudly whistle to wake up the senators who are blatantly sleeping or reading the newspaper in front of him, it is painstakingly clear that these senators are determined not to let Sen. Smith ruin the status quo or have his way. Their silence and apathy is proof of their compliance with Taylor’s corrupt political machine.

The real-life senators who watched the film had one of two reactions: either they laughed along with the “absurd” portrayal of the Senate or they denounced the film altogether for its allegations that the U.S. government was corrupt in any way. In both cases, no one was willing to admit to any faults portrayed in the film holding a grain of truth. However, Sen. Smith’s declaration before he collapses rings true:

“Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”

Thankfully, somebody did.

Countries across the world who were feeling the encroachment of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism used Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a beacon of hope for true freedom of speech and a rallying cry against their oppressors. Upon the announcement in 1942 that Nazi-occupied France was no longer to show American movies, the title theatres chose for the film to be the last one shown before the ban took effect, one theatre even showing it nonstop for thirty days prior to the ban. For all the perceived “anti-democratic” sentiment of American political viewers, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was truly the hope for the pure and honorable democracy of the past to continue on in the present and future.

Even after countless warnings by the production company to be extremely careful and to take great caution lest the movie anger politicians (oops), Frank Capra spearheaded the project forward, because he knew that lost causes “were the only causes worth fighting for.” To this day, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continues to inspire people across the globe to realize that even a common man and a lost cause can change the world.

-Grace

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Far and Away (1992)

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In an interesting twist of events, Far and Away effortlessly combines stunning visual splendor and an extremely simple plot to create a film that makes a historical fiction that’s fun to watch and easy to learn from.

Directed by Ron Howard, Far and Away follows the struggles of two Irish immigrants (one with a past in poverty and another with a past in luxury) who have come to America for land. Joseph and Shannon, played by American actors with convincing accents (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, respectively), start out with the guise of being brother and sister, but eventually find that they have a passionate and everlasting love for each other. After almost starving in the harsh Boson winter, they are separated and meet again by chance in Oklahoma, their ultimate destination. Inevitably, there is a rivalry between Joseph and Stephen, Shannon’s new beau for Shannon’s love, which Joseph wins (of course). Unfortunately, this results in Joseph’s death at the hands of an enraged Stephen. But, (spoiler alert!) Joseph magically regains consciousness as Shannon cries out her love for him to the heavens, and they end up getting a large chunk of land to call their own.

While shrouded in a strange mix of Western/Adventure/Romance/Historical fiction, Far and Away does tell a valuable lesson in the brutal conditions of immigrants upon arriving in the U.S. All of Shannon’s wealth is stolen from her by a con man and other impoverished people struggling for survival. They are forced to work in brutish conditions and save every penny they earn. There is a visible and dramatic change in Shannon’s character, as well as Joseph’s as he is finally able to make good money as a boxer.

Their living conditions are in a whore-house (and a kid-friendly one, thanks to Ron Howard) and Shannon’s work usually includes plucking chickens in a warehouse for basically no substantial amount of money. Even in a romance, their squalor is still extremely impactful. There is nothing desirable about their conditions until they reach Oklahoma and have the ability to stake out their own land. Finally, their destiny is in their own hands. However, the trials they must face before that are extremely poignant to those who have always believed America to be the land of equal opportunity. Far and Away is able to combine the aspects of a fun romance with actual historical facts that can take the audience out of the moment and into the stark realization that immigrants have had to work so much harder than those born in America for even less than we are given.

Though Far and Away has its faults in plot, this becomes an advantage, as such a kid-friendly show is able to teach people from a young age the actual struggle of immigrants. To have the power to both entertain and teach such an impressionable age is a rare thing, and Far and Away uses it well.

-Grace

Sahara (1943)

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Starring the iconic Humphrey Bogart, the 1943 war film Sahara, is an action-packed epic that revolves around the trials and tribulations of a U.S. tank commander during the Western Desert Campaign in WWII. Highlighting the Battle of Gazala, one of the most pivotal conflicts of the war, Sahara is an entertaining and cinematically advanced film that proves just how cruel and harsh war can be. The crew of a United States tank, commanded by Sergeant Gunn and nicknamed Lulu Belle, become separated from their unit during a retreat from German forces. They arrive at a destroyed field hospital they pick up a diverse collection of survivors, including a British doctor Captain Halliday, four soldiers, and the French Corporal Leroux.

1943, when this film was released, World War II was just two years away from its end. The American public was starting to loose hope and confidence in the war efforts and support of the 6-year war was waning fast. Sahara provided not only a glimpse into what war was really like while enduring hunger, dehydration, and fear, but also glamorized the war setting for the audience.

The harsh realities of World War II were realized by a civilian audience in the viewing of Sahara. Generally, propaganda for the war effort during this time exclusively glamorized the wartime conditions abroad. Sahara provided a more accurate view of what it was really like overseas for American troops. This fact-based representation of the war served to redouble American civilian efforts to send help/support overseas, which had dwindled in the last years of the war. This film made it clear that the soldiers didn’t have the supplies or materials for victory. Victory gardens, donating tin, and refraining from buying silk stockings so that silk could be used for parachutes instead were all necessary civilian actions to support the war effort over seas. Once the American people witnessed the reality and struggle on the part of the soldiers that was World War II, they were eager to help in any way they could.

Sahara also infused enough glamorization and romanticisation of wartime and the individual soldiers that the audience remained engaged and hoped for victory instead of retreat. Bogart’s character as the leader of the group is excellent example of a romanticisation of wartime personalities. He gave what many considered to be the most archetypal portrait of the truly “American” fighting man portrayed on the screen.
During World War II, the government was highly influential in making sure that the films produced during this time were patriotic, full of propaganda, and in favor of the war effort. This film clearly represents the U.S government’s political agenda through Hollywood films and the national necessity of civilian support for the war effort. Sahara managed to convey both the need for continued support overseas and unfaltering American power compared to other nations. This feat is what makes Sahara such a remarkable and influential wartime film.

 

-Claire

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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As one of the first great science-fiction movies of all time, Robert Wise’s film The Day the Earth Stood Still was based off of Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master” and quickly became a staple in science fiction films. It’s legacy still remains in the commonly used phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” by science fiction fans, including George Lucas’ use of it as names for three of the bounty hunters in Star Wars.

In the wake of trendy flying-saucer films of the time, The Day the Earth Stood Still came out on top and continues to be a film audiences find significant and classic. The premise of the film begins with Klaatu (an alien) and his robot partner (Gort) touching down on Earth in Cold-war era Washington D.C. He is immediately detained and examined, all receiving visits from all the higher-ups, including the President. Gort remains guard of their ship, which has been closed off from prying eyes in the hopes of gaining what little control the humans have over the bizarre situation. Upon realizing that he is doomed to death, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and takes up house at Ms. Helen Benson’s house, a widow with a young son, Bobby, who becomes fast friends with Klaatu (whose alias becomes Carpenter). After learning a bit more about human culture and helping out a brilliant professor figure out the science behind his flying saucer, he teams up with Helen to communicate his mission with the people of Earth: to give them the choice to either stop their violence or to be ruled by robots such as Gort. He is able to escape with Gort (after a few altercations), leaving the people of Earth to decide their own fate.

Interestingly enough, The Day the Earth Stood Still would appear to have some subtle Christian themes, such as Klaatu coming from another word and taking up the name Carpenter (Jesus’ profession). He warns the world of imminent destruction if they do not believe him and change their violent way. He also dies and is resurrected, aiding in people’s belief in his almighty power. Although the director wasn’t aware of these themes at the time, they might have played a part in the film’s warm reception.

To this day, The Day the Earth Stood Still has played a large role in influencing science fiction movies, including the 2008 remake of the film. It truly captures the fear of the unknown and the rash action taken by society when it does not and cannot understand someone or something. Finally we have an all-powerful and yet non-violent being whose sole mission is to stop our own violence, and what do we do? Shoot him immediately out of fear for the unknown. We don’t want to know. We want him to leave us alone because we aren’t great, but hey, we’ve survived this long, haven’t we?

And therein lies the perpetual problem we face (and are faced with at the end of the film). To be non-violent should not be a difficult goal, and yet change scares us, leaving us stuck in our own destructive ways.

 

-Grace

Guns of Navarone (1961)

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Guns of Navarone was an extremely popular Anglo-American movie, released in 1961 and directed by J. Lee Thompson. The film utilizes some of the most famous actors of the time, including Gregory Peck, James Robertson Justice, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn. The film was based on Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone. Guns of Navarone was wildly popular upon its release; it grossed more than $28 million at the worldwide Box office and became one of the top two films of 1961. The plot is simple, focusing on an Allied commando team’s efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, during World War II.

The film was released during a time period of great global unrest. The United States was in the middle of the Vietnam War and American’s fear of other cultures rose along with global distaste for American involvement in conflict. Global relations were stressed and America was loosing ground in the race for dominance in the world stage. The Guns of Navarone served to reinvigorate the American people in their zeal for wartime and reaffirm American status and power in the world. The main character and leader of the crew, Mallory, is American and represents the United States’ natural place at the forefront of the war effort. The group, led by an American, is trying to save a group of stranded British soldiers on an island near Navarone. This helpless placement of the powerful British army and the ease with which the group dominates all other non-American foes clearly makes a statement of American power and dominance.

The Guns of Navarone also focused on working together with other cultures that have similar values. The film built on the variation in the action genre focusing on a team of specialists each of whom brings his or her personal skill to a dangerous mission. The Guns of Navarone was among the first of the “global productions” that started in the ’60s and continue to this day. With a characters and cast assembled from a variety of nations (the U.S., England, Mexico, Greece, Ireland and Wales), the film was designed to have the widest possible appeal at the international box office, but also sent a message of cooperation to the United States allies. This statement was essential during this time period due to the almost universal distrust and disenchantment with the United States across the world, even among the United States’ supposed allies.

The universal appeal of the action genre, the diverse cast, and the broad, global advertisement base allowed The Guns of Navarone to be a worldwide statement of allied unity and American pride. Unity and cohesive attitudes were essential during this time of war in the United States. Even its own people were rejecting the Vietnam War, its goals, and its methods of combat utilized by US troops. The United States needed support from its people and also any global support systems in order to further their goals in Vietnam.

 

-Claire