Charlton Heston is an airline pilot. He smokes a pipe during take-off. Mariette Harltley is an expectant mother, who not only flies while eight-months pregnant, but orders a Bloody Mary from the stewardess. Susan Dey is a Hippie who flies first-class. Yvette Mimieux is a stewardess who is, of course, having an affair with Heston, the pilot. Rosie Grier plays a cool cello player.

It must be 1972.

What really gives the date away is James Brolin’s performance as… wait for it… a crazed Vietnam War Veteran. He laughs at the wrong times. His head crooks to the side when he talks. He has flashbacks of the USA not welcoming him back. He waves a gun around and hijacks the plane… to Moscow! In the end, (SPOILER ALERT) the Soviets don’t want him any more than America did. They gun him down and blow him up with his own hand grenades.

This got me to thinking… where did the trope of Crazed Vietnam War Vet come from? What was the first instance of it to penetrate popular consciousness? What was the Patient Zero of the CVWV?

There is no truth to cliché, of course. Vietnam War Vets were no more likely to prowl the woods and streets, dishing out violence, than the next person. But it became such a trope that even by 1977, when Henry Winkler played a sympathetic War Vet in the film HEROES, people kept waiting for him to snap. The Fear of the Veteran was endemic.

I asked around. Many people named RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD II and THE DEER HUNTER. But these were made in 1985 and 1978. The cliché was firmly established by then.

DEATHDREAM (directed by the criminally underrated Bob Clark and written by the equally unjustly neglected Alan Ormsby) is a version of “The Monkey’s Paw,” featuring a re-animated and very disturbed Vet. It was made in 1972.









ROLLING THUNDER (written by Paul Schrader) is perhaps the flag bearer of all the Non-heroic hero pictures that came from this particular war. William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones go on a vengeance spree, Devane sporting a prosthetic hook and a lot of attitude. It was made in 1977.

Of course, there have been other movies made after other wars that dealt with the difficulties of returning Vets and Shell Shock or Battle Fatigue or whatever Post Traumatic Stress was called during that war. THE ROARING TWENTIES. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

But the mad killer, neglected by society, and thirsting for revenge seemed to be the special territory inhabited by the Crazed Vietnam War Vet in film and TV.

Not that he was always the villain. In his 1967 biker film BORN LOSERS and its far more successful sequel BILLY JACK (1971), Tom Laughlin played a peace-loving Vet who, when pushed too far, could destroy anyone and anything in his path. Rambo before RAMBO.

The search for the Ur-Crazed Vet leads to a 1970 episode of HAWAII FIVE-0, called “Killer Bee.” I haven’t been able to see it, but its IMBD synopses is as follows:

• Ted Frazer, a Vietnam veteran, thinks he is cracking from mental strain. In reality, he is being tormented by fellow vet George Loomis. George makes Ted think he is kidnapping children (who George has really abducted). Ted’s mother also wants nothing to do with him, increasing his emotional strain. McGarrett & Co. determine there’s something wrong with George’s story; he has told Five-O he was in Vietnam at about the same time as Ted when, in fact, they served in the same unit. Five-O must determine the motives behind George’s lies. The answer lies in an incident that took place in Vietnam.- Written by Bill Koenig

Is this the first instance of the trope?

But wait. When John Wayne made THE GREEN BERETS in 1968 – the flag waving pro-Vietnam epic – Wayne was surely reacting against something. The anti-Vietnam sentiment was alive in the county. Was the demonizing of the Veteran also thriving?

The earliest film I’ve been able to find with this character is a grade-Z exploitation film called MOTORPYSCHO!, directed by the auteur of the Nudie film Russ Meyer and made in 1965. In it, Stephen Oliver plays a crazed vet, tortured by flash-backs of the war, who rapes and murders his way through the country-side. The last scene where he delivers a monolog to the desert hills about waiting for choppers and in which he dares the “Commies” to come out of the “rice paddies” puts it all in a nutshell. In 1965.

Can anyone think of an earlier instance of this particular, long-standing cliché?








Phoef Sutton

Phoef Sutton

Published novelist - living in South Pasadena, California with his wife Dawn and his daughters Skylar and Celia.
Phoef Sutton