How Magnum P.I. Normalized Vietnam Veterans

Solomon Kenworthy

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     Often, our perception of people we don’t know or understand are formed by the images that are portrayed in the entertainment we consume. Such is the case with the veterans of the Vietnam war. We were taught to think of them as deranged killers and terrible people by the media, who were largely against the war and its struggle to defeat communism. Magnum P.I. capsized that idea, and used this new version to show a lesser seen side of the struggles of a veteran’s life.

Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, on set. Photo courtesy of Flickr

     The show dealt with seeing how different people came back and sparred with war. Co-creator Donald Bellisario discussed this in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, saying that he wanted to show a different side of Vietnam veterans than was portrayed in film. Here Bellisario said, “When I created Magnum, I got thousands of letters from Vietnam veterans thanking me for portraying Vietnam veterans as something other than killers, and drug addicts, and crazy, and unable to function in society.” 

     One example of this can be found in the 2 part, season 3 premiere, “Did You See the Sun Rise?” These episodes show how the characters of T.C. and Magnum handle their experience in Vietnam. The episodes deal with a past Soviet interrogator, Ivan, who they escaped from, and who’s back for revenge. T.C. upon hearing this doesn’t take this news lightly. When told, he has a flashback while driving, and swerves into the opposite lane. He then prepares for Ivan’s arrival by turning back into the Vietnam version of himself. 

     Whereas Magnum is cautious at first. He wants proof, evidence instead of simple eye witness reports. He understands that they’ve replaced the jungle filled forests of Vietnam, for the beaches and palm trees of Oahu.

     Another example is the character of Rick. Bellisario analyzed the original idea for Rick saying, “…to deal with Vietnam, Rick went into this mode where he was doing Bogart,” referring to the actor Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca). Bellisario talks about how CBS wasn’t ever very interested in Rick, and thought he had a bad Bogart impression. “That was the point!” Bellisario said on the topic. 

     Many episodes of the show dispense plots where the idea of war affect the case trying to be solved. Most times when this happens, Magnum doesn’t deal with it on his own, he tends to get advice from groundskeeper Higgins.

Photo courtesy of IMDB

     Higgins always goes off about how he served in World War Two. In the episode “Black on White,” a group of ancient African warriors from Higgins past come to Hawaii to kill Higgins, and members of his battalion. The twist of the episode is that one of Higgins’ old battalion members is so traumatized by an event he witnessed on duty that he went crazy, putting all the blame on himself, and is on the killing spree. 

     Both Magnum and Higgins use their long ago experiences with war to figure this out. This matters because Magnum and Higgins working together shows how the memories from our pasts, even if bad, can be used to help us in the present. 

     Magnum P.I. didn’t necessarily popularize the idea of having a past event that happened in real life, affect the life of a fictional character, but it did change it. Most of the soldiers in Vietnam were drafted, doing the job of the government. They were just like us, and aside from a Ferrari, we were just like Magnum.