The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

War then and now

A Film Studies class on the Vietnam War is sparking debates on the similarity between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam.

Stephen McPherson, who teaches the class, is an army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam. He served as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, and as a communications specialist with the 5th Special Forces Group. After his Vietnam service, he attended the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University, where he majored in philosophy. Years later, McPherson is now a college instructor at Santa Barbara City College teaching film studies, including Film Studies 115: “The Vietnam War in Film.”

This class is an examination of how the Vietnam War has been portrayed cinematically. Students analyze and discuss a diverse selection of significant films.

These include such films as, “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July.” “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and many more.

Story continues below advertisement

McPherson enjoys teaching this particular class for different reasons. “This class brings together two important aspects of my life,” he said. “I have a passion for film and a real passion for my military experience.”

During the semester, McPherson shows the films related to the Vietnam War, and the students then discuss and analyze these films. From the 12 films listed on the syllabus McPherson speaks about which one affects him personally the most. “I suppose “Platoon” because it is the most realistic portrayal of the war,” he said. “This film is best described as a ragtag discipline unit.”

“Platoon,” is first of the three movies directed by Oliver Stone, a Vietnam Veteran himself. This trilogy of movies also includes “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth”.

McPherson played a major role in how the class would be created and developed for City College. He said that when he was living in Los Angeles years back, writing and producing television series, he came across a book by Walter Capps, a religious studies professor at UCSB. McPherson learned that Capps was teaching a course about the Vietnam War. After leaving Los Angeles, McPherson moved to Santa Barbara in 1992, and visited Capps’ class in Campbell Hall. This was the first in many visits to Capps’ class.

McPherson was impressed with Capps and how the class was conducted around the Vietnam War experience. “It was a healing process,” McPherson said. “Capps was finding a common ground for people to access things and move on.”

Capps asked his students to bring family veterans of the Vietnam War to class to share their experiences together. McPherson found that watching all the survivors from war on stage together to be terribly moving.

His class inspired McPherson to go to the film department at Santa Barbara City College with the idea for a course. The objectives were submitted to the college, and then approved in Sacramento for funding and put into the course catalog.

This book will enhance the students understanding of the events they see dramatized in the film, to include the antiwar movement.

McPherson also mentioned that he would be introducing 1960s music as part of the curriculum, particularly music directly related to the war.

McPherson wants his students to think about important issues after having taken the course. “I want the students to take in an appreciation for the power of cinema, to be critical watchers of film, to pay attention on every level of the choices being made, because they are not accidents, they are intentional choices,” he said. “It was a pivotal time in our history.”

Some in the class feel that the same mistakes that were made in Vietnam are being made in Iraq.

“War in Iraq is very controversial because we have people very much for it, and people very much against it,” he said. “And then we have people who are not quite sure where they stand.”

McPherson knows something about the trauma of war. When he returned home from Vietnam, McPherson threw his medals on the U.S. Capitol Building to protest against the Vietnam war.

“This class sheds light on a subject I knew little about and through films presents it in a very interesting manner,” said Jenny Rosenbaum, one of the 80 students enrolled in the class.

The controversiality of the class, in which students often engage in a discussion about the war, stems from students’ strong beliefs for or against the war

McPherson warned that the class is emotionally heavy. “The course requires a fair amount of maturity,” he said. “The students have to think about the movies they’ve seen and talk about it intelligently.”

The goal of the class is “To acquaint students with the power of cinema as a moral and political medium while helping them learn to decode and analyze the sub textual meaning of the films they see,” he said.

McPherson said that the course aims to give students intense exposure to a painful and controversial period in our nation’s recent history, with the intent of exploring how an understanding of events taking place in the recent past can clarify and illuminate events taking place in the present.

More to Discover