At the end of his career in the '60s, the great American director John Ford suddenly felt the need to redress a few sins he had unthinkingly committed many times over in his movies. He made a film honouring the American Indian (Cheyenne Autumn, 1964) and another glorifying the struggles of independent women (Seven Women, 1966).
Oliver Stone obviously reached the same turning point, for Heaven and Earth is a desperately earnest attempt to fill in the blanks of his previous Vietnam epics Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989): namely, women and the Vietnamese.
Based on the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip (played with great conviction by Hiep Thi Le), Heaven and Earth traces a woman's path through the historic traumas of war, colonisation, and relocation in America. Estranged from her Vietnamese family and quickly discovering that her American husband Steve (Tommy Lee Wallace) is more disturbed by wartime experience than she ever guessed, Le Ly turns to her Buddhist faith for strength.
Although Heaven and Earth is a far more accomplished film than Billie August's recent The House of the Spirits (1993), the two films share a very similar sensibility. Both movies starkly divide the world into, on one side, a public, masculine realm of war, rape and politics, and on the other a private, feminine domain of family, spirituality and heart.
In Stone's version of this archaic system, men who manage to cross the line and show some emotion (like Le Ly's father and, momentarily, Steve) are sensitive, honourable creatures; but women who pop up in the violent world of politics are horrid perversions of nature. On this as on several other salient ideological points, Heaven and Earth is strangely reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's aggro Vietnam drama Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Stone also falls prey to the dreaded sin of Orientalism in his strained depiction of Le Ly's home village as a timeless, conflict-free paradise. Only when the film reaches America – and Stone offers a marvellous paean to consumerism inspired by sequences in Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) – does the story begin to flow and move in a natural way.
For all its dubious aspects, however, Heaven and Earth is undeniably affecting. This is partly due to Stone's rough but commanding power as a filmmaker, driven to purge his own sense of guilt before our very eyes. But it is also because, ultimately, the film does not really uphold a grand, binary opposition of ancient Eastern and modern Western societies.
Successive waves of war bring violation and pain to Vietnam but, as Le Ly's narration makes clear, they also create "in-between" people like herself, forging a new identity across nations and cultures. Stone offers, almost despite himself, an eloquent testament to this process of change.
© Adrian Martin August 1994