The times they were a-changin’
THE WAR AT HOME, 1979 documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles – Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against? – Whaddya got? — from The Wild One, 1953
Every generation faces its own particular challenges, its own dragons to slay. For the post-World War II baby boomers, the generation that came of age in the mid-1960s, the defining beast of the era was the Vietnam War. Some went to fight in it, some got draft deferments or left the country to avoid it, some took to the streets of cities and college towns across the county to protest it. Some did all of the above.
In 1979, just six years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, with the napalm still warm in the jungles of Southeast Asia, a young filmmaker and anti-war movement veteran named Glenn Silber made a documentary (along with his co-director, Barry Alexander Brown) about the anti-war protest movement as it unfolded on and around the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin in the years from 1963 to the war’s end. The War at Home was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature. Silber would get another nomination two years later for El Salvador: Another Vietnam.
In the nearly four decades since the film’s release, new times have produced new traumas, and the war in Vietnam has receded in memory. For today’s college kids, it is as shrouded in the mists of history as World War I was to the young men and women who hoisted signs, handed out fliers, marched in the streets, and occupied university buildings as the Vietnam War grew and began to imprint itself on the nation’s consciousness and conscience.
Silber, now a Santa Fe resident, looked around and saw people thronging the streets again, marching for women’s rights and in support of science and immigration and in protest against troubling developments at home and abroad. He began to wonder if this was not in fact the perfect time to bring The War at Home back to theaters, to remind grey heads of what those days were about and to introduce young people to the moral issues that galvanized their parents and grandparents to action.
“I walked up to the Jean Cocteau with a DVD and I said, ‘Hey, I’m Glenn, I’ve got a couple of Oscar nominations, I made this film, and I think it’s pretty much in line with the 12,000 people who marched in town.’ ” The Jean Cocteau Cinema took up the offer. “Once I saw The War at Home,” said Jean Cocteau programmer Jacques Paisner, “it quickly became obvious that this film was something Santa Feans would really respond to. Boomers will have a chance to reconnect with the time and the message, and millennials can use it as a sort of manual for resistance.” The picture opens on Friday, May 5, for a one-week run, and will launch a series called Films of Resistance, which Silber will help to curate.
“The basic idea was to tell the story of our generation,” Silber said. “I was there [at the University of Wisconsin] from ’68 to ’72, while the war was still raging. I felt we had lived through this extraordinary experience in Madison. As a young filmmaker, I wanted to make big stories. And we had a great one that we knew so well. Ten years of sustained anti-war resistance, and how it changed and kept escalating. You see in the film, it’s so vivid, because I was able to gather all the local news film footage from that time frame. And I just didn’t want to let it go. I knew what the story was, but the goal then was, one foot as aspiring documentary filmmaker wanting to change the world, and the other trying to hold onto
the feelings and the politics I was still processing. I self-identified as a radical filmmaker.”
Silber had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of veteran documentarian Emile de Antonio (Point of Order, Rush to Judgment, and
Millhouse: A White Comedy), who advised him to focus on the area he knew the best. “‘Glenn,’ he told me, ‘you’ve got the whole story right there in Madison. Don’t go to Berkeley or Columbia or any of those other places. You don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep.’ ”
Madison in 1963 was an American postcard. Fifteen years earlier it had been dubbed “the best place to live in America,” by LIFE magazine, and on the surface not much had changed. Drum majorettes led parades, and the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl. But there were a few early stirrings on the university campus, amid lingering ripples of the civil rights movement and a dawning awareness of a faraway place called Vietnam.
Then John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson became president, and American troops by the hundreds of thousands were being committed to the spreading combat. In August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the trigger to plunge the U.S. deeply into the war. Evidence soon emerged that the Tonkin story had been rigged to justify the massive deployment of troops, and protests erupted on activist college campuses. The war at home was on.
As chronicled in Silber’s skillfully assembled footage, much of it from television news and interviews with the still-young participants, we see the escalation from peaceful protest to confrontation with club-wielding police, and finally deadly assault on both sides. The stakes rose with the chaos at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon as president. One lethal encounter was the National Guard’s killing of four students at Kent State. Another was a bomb that accidentally killed a graduate student in the U.S. Army Mathematics Research Center on the Madison campus. It had been set to go off in the middle of the night by four young activists protesting the university’s research connection to the war.
“We learned the hard way that bombing buildings is not a very good idea, when you’re trying to win people over. I could understand that act — that’s a big part of the film. And that was a personal challenge to me as a twenty-year-old, that somebody did that, that they felt so strongly about it. I know their plan was to immediately give themselves up and have a political trial and spend 10 or 15 years in jail, but for the fact that a person was killed because he was typing his wife’s term paper at 4:23 in the morning, between semesters, after they called in a warning that was not paid attention to. Once that happened, the whole thing changed.”
Silber’s film takes us through the arc of the Vietnam protest movement step by step, showing the flashpoints that spurred the change. “The War
at Home today is not a nostalgic blast from the past,” Silber said. “It does connect. It’s almost like Cliff Notes on how to resist, because you see that the entire spectrum of resistance is there. It compresses 10 years into a hundred minutes. Today’s generation can’t understand that period by reading a book. You have to see a film like this to visually and viscerally get it. It’s preserved history, but it’s living history.” — Jonathan Richards
Director Glenn Silber will participate in a Q&A with the audience after the screenings at 7 p.m. Friday, May 5; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 6, and 2 p.m. (benefit for KSFR Public Radio) and 7 p.m. Sunday, May 7.
Bombing of the U.S. Army Mathematics Research Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison, August 1970, photo Norman Lenburg; below, director Glenn Silber
A clash at the University of Wisconsin, October 1967