Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past.
In another timeline, Oliver Stone or some other White director made a movie called The Last Tour. Scripted by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the plot follows a group of Vietnam War vets, probably all of them also White, reunited for a trip to present-day Ho Chi Minh City and then into the jungle to retrieve a treasure stashed fifty years earlier. In that same timeline, I skipped out on doing a list of movies to watch next. Because it would have just been a total repeat of my list of movies to watch after Triple Frontier.
In our universe, Bilson and De Meo’s script was instead reworked by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott and released as Da 5 Bloods. The Netflix Original follows a group of Vietnam War vets, all of them Black, reunited for a trip to present-day Ho Chi Minh City and then into the jungle to retrieve a treasure stashed fifty years earlier. And I am doing a list of movies to watch next, even though I have to overlap a tiny bit with the one for Triple Frontier. Because Lee’s movie is much more deserving and doesn’t have to be a rehash.
So, don’t be surprised at not seeing Dead Presidents (about Black Vietnam War vets who rob an armored car after returning to the States) or Three Kings (which shares cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel) or Kelly’s Heroes (the go-to classic about soldiers committing robbery). However, the earliest of my recommendations from last year’s list had to be repeated because it’s actually a direct and blatantly referenced influence on Lee in making Da 5 Bloods.
Also, I should remind that this is all about the movies that came before Da 5 Bloods, but I want to note some of its non-cinematic DNA: August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, particularly the character “Herald Loomis,” who was first portrayed by Delroy Lindo in 1988 and then again in 2009; and Wallace Terry’s 1985 nonfiction book Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History; and Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, numerous tracks from which are in Lee’s movie.
Last Flag Flying (2017)
Given Laurence Fishburne’s iconic role in Apocalypse Now, he might have made a good addition to the cast of Da 5 Bloods, but the actor, who hasn’t worked with Lee since School Daze in 1988, already did the Vietnam War veteran reunion thing a few years ago. He co-stars here alongside Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston as part of a trio brought together to bury Carell’s character’s son, who was killed in the Iraq War. It’s less specific in its reflection of Vietnam but similarly overlaps sentiments about war and America of the past and present.
Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre (2017)
The story of Crispus Attucks may have been a brief moment in the history of America, but his death at the hands of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre became hugely symbolic, particularly because he was Black and the first casualty in the fight for the nation’s independence. He may deserve more than just the reference in Da 5 Bloods or a short YouTube video, but this concisely told episode of One Minute History is as much of a biographical film as he’s received so far.
Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers (2015)
For some of the posters for Da 5 Bloods, Lee brought Emory Douglas out of retirement to rework one of his pieces from the 1960s that adorned the cover of The Black Panther newspaper. Douglas, who was appointed the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, appears in many documentaries about that organization and the Civil Rights movement, but in this short documentary, he’s the sole focus. You can also see Douglas alongside Lee in a bonus feature put out by Netflix about recruiting Douglas for the poster art.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Da 5 Bloods begins with a clip of Muhammad Ali speaking out against the Vietnam War, a conflict that wound up harming the boxer’s life back home as he declared himself a conscientious objector. There are many films about Ali and some of them, including the biopic Ali, even focus a lot of attention on those years of protest. But this documentary from Kartemquin Films concentrates entirely on his legal battle with the US government as well as the aftermath of his opposition to the war and serving his country in that manner.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Twelve years ago, Lee made another lengthy movie about Black soldiers in war, in service of a country that didn’t offer them the very freedoms they were fighting for. It’s not so hard-hitting as Da 5 Bloods, and it was mostly panned by critics for being an overlong and unfocused slog, but I think it’s worth looking back at Lee’s earlier attempt at a war epic, which pays tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers of World War II, in contrast with what he’s now achieved with his focus on the Vietnam War and where the world is at half a century later.
Most movies about soldiers stealing caches of gold, art, and other treasures follow them during wartime. Like the characters in Da 5 Bloods, two of the main subjects of this quirky documentary by Darius Marder (which I named one of the best of the 2000s) are instead returning to locate items they hid long ago. In this case, they’re World War II veterans and they’re seeking separate stashes of jewels in different parts of the world (one man served in Europe, the other in the Pacific) while also digging up the past in other surprising ways.
Delroy Lindo is receiving Oscar buzz for his performance in Da 5 Bloods. He definitely deserves it, just as he deserved it for this, his last movie with Lee (he had also been in Malcolm X and Crooklyn), for which he was talked about then snubbed for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Lindo plays a Brooklyn drug lord in a portrayal that, as in the new movie, almost makes him a likable character. He’s paternal and community-minded but also ruthless. Lindo is the best thing about Clockers, which is a good, not great Lee joint.
The Walking Dead (1995)
I could recommend watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action movies, as they’re mentioned in Da 5 Bloods. They’re brought up derogatorily, but I believe it’s good to be familiar with the thing being criticized. But you’re likely to find this one more interesting because it’s sort of the Black version, tracking African-American soldiers, who realize they’re deemed expendable, during a POW rescue mission. It is set during the war, however, not later in an attempt to “win” Vietnam in the ’80s with action heroes.
The Five Heartbeats (1991)
Fans of The Temptations surely noticed that the main characters in Da 5 Bloods are named Paul, David, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin, the same as the “Classic 5” lineup of the Motown vocal group who famously performed the anti-Vietnam song “War.” The Temptations were also an inspiration on Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans in the creation of this fictional musical about a similar group. Townsend had meant for David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick to serve as advisors, but instead, another five-member group, The Dells, were brought on.
The movie is a little light in substance considering the time in which it’s set, with not one mention of the war and not much in the way of dealing with the racism of the era. Townsend has been generally contrasted against Lee as a filmmaker (one review of The Five Heartbeats at the time called him the good cop to Lee’s bad cop), which makes me wonder what a true biopic of these guys would look like in Lee’s hands. Regardless of its flaws, I still recommend it over the 1998 Temptations biopic miniseries.
The Bloods of ‘Nam (1986)
One of Lee’s biggest influences for Da 5 Bloods was the aforementioned book Bloods by Wallace Terry (which also inspired Dead Presidents). The filmmaker likely also sought out this Frontline documentary based on that bestselling nonfiction work. Terry, who was a reporter for Time magazine stationed in Saigon and embedded with soldiers during the Vietnam War, appears as a corresponded for the series and interviews Black veterans about their experiences in the war and what their lives have been like since returning to America.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Arguably the best and the most influential Vietnam War movie of all time, this epic from Francis Ford Coppola is almost too well-known to include on this list. Yet Lee acknowledges it as one of the two primary film influences on Da 5 Bloods. And of course, there are direct and unmistakable references, including a sequence set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” — here involving transport by boat rather than helicopter — and a scene in a club in Ho Chi Minh City, which actually exists, named for the movie.
Lee’s appreciation for Apocalypse Now and its Black roles is acknowledged in an interview with Esquire, in which he states:
“I loved what Francis [Ford Coppola] did with Laurence Fishburne and Albert Hall Jr in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ But I wanted to do a film where the *focus* was on the African-American soldiers…These young men, boys really, were snatched out of high school, shipped to the front lines. That’s something I wanted to portray in the film.”
Apocalypse Now is not the only Vietnam War movie that inspired Lee, though, and he doesn’t mean to criticize any of the past for its depiction of mostly White experiences. However, there is one specifically that he’s not a fan of. He told Vanity Fair:
“I’ve always given homages to films I love in my films…I want to go on record on this. I’m not being disrespectful to any Vietnam film that’s been made, except maybe ‘The Green Berets’ with John Wayne, who is not a hero of mine.”
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
At the end of Da 5 Bloods, Otis (Clarke Peters) is nearly dead at the conclusion of a battle with the traitorous French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno) and laughingly shouts, “Madness! Madness!” This has also been linked to Apocalypse Now, which ends with Marlon Brando’s Kurtz whispering, “The horror. The horror. The horror.” But it’s more directly quoting from this war movie, which ends with the uttering of the same words, “Madness! Madness!” Plus, Sigel has cited David Lean epics as an influence on his work on Da 5 Bloods.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s classic stars Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston as a trio in search of gold in Mexico. It’s sort of a Western despite being set in the 1920s (when its source novel was published) and deals with greed and paranoia as the men turn against each other, not unlike some of the vets in Da 5 Bloods. While not directly involving any war, this movie was made after World War II by a director whose service was in the form of making propaganda films, so there’s a darkness here that’s reflective of what was seen in the war.