Beach Party Vietnam
Since its initial, serialized publication in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness has been surrounded by critical controversy, inspiring ongoing debates in high school classrooms and literary conferences alike. The book’s narrator, Marlow, tells his experiences traveling down the Congo River in Belgian-occupied Africa while in search of an ivory merchant named Kurtz. Marlow’s hold on Western civilization loosens as he is confronted with the primitive savagery of the “dark continent” and its native inhabitants. Marlow finds Kurtz at the center of this madness, a former company man turned demi-god, now worshiped by the native Africans even as he perpetrates unspeakable abuses against them.
Literary and historical scholars have praised Conrad’s work as an indictment of the exploitative colonial practices of Belgium, England, France, and other European nations—countries that routinely laid claim to the resources of dark-skinned peoples under the guise of “spreading civilization.” (Conrad, in fact, wrote the novel after learning about the Belgian ivory traders’ practice of severing the limbs of Congolese natives who didn’t meet work quotas.) Still, other critics have lambasted Heart of Darkness as an extension of this same colonial mindset, seeing the natives in the text as nothing more than props that allow Conrad to ruminate on the intricacies of Anglo society. Support continues to be voiced for both sides of this debate and the dense imagery and complex narrative of the book only encourage multiple, potentially conflicting interpretations.
The struggle over the true significance of Conrad’s work has been equaled by the struggle to transform this novel into a film. Renowned filmmaker Orson Wells, while he did manage to create a radio version of Heart of Darkness, was forced to abandon his cinematic vision of Conrad’s work after scheduling and budget setbacks doomed the project. Much later, a made-for-TV movie, starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz, was released to a lukewarm reception in 1994. But between Wells’ failure and the disappointment of the Roth/Malkovich version, Heart of Darkness did inspire one of the most respected films ever made: 1979’s Apocalypse Now.
Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of Conrad’s tale takes place during the Vietnam War, following the plight of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a covert operations specialist who is ordered to kill one Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Brando). Kurtz, at one point an elite commander, has apparently gone insane during his time in Vietnam (his methods, it is revealed during Willard’s briefing, have become “unsound”) and it is up to Willard to spare the Army any embarrassment that might result from the revelation of Kurtz’s unseemly practices. The film follows Willard into the dark heart of the Vietnam War, exposing the insanity and horror of the conflict at every turn. As you might expect from this summary, the film demands a lot from an audience. Although heavy on the usual gore and violence of most war movies, the film also delves into the psychological aspects of man’s inhumanity to man, with brooding, slowly evolving scenes that mire its audience in moral terror. This pacing made the film’s original substantial running time of 144 minutes seem longer.
With the release of Apocalypse Now Redux, this effect is only heightened by the addition of 53 minutes of previously cut footage. The marathon length of Redux may seem an extravagant indulgence on the part of the filmmakers, who perhaps ask too much from audiences used to the relatively instant gratification of ninety-minute quick flicks. The film, however, is well worth the leg cramps and numbness caused by its extended screening. While fans of the original may enjoy the added scenes (though many of them are tangential to the film’s central narrative of Willard’s quest for Kurtz), the true benefit of the Redux release is the chance to revisit a riveting, classic piece of cinema on the big screen.
Particularly compelling is the film’s exploration of the senselessness of the Vietnam War—as powerful as it is relentless. At times comical, at times bitterly ironic, and at still others borderline surreal, Coppola’s direction deftly highlights the insanity of the war and its debilitating effects on those who are forced to fight it. When Willard accompanies Colonel Bill Kilgore (played famously by Robert Duvall) on a helicopter raid of a Vietnamese village, he encounters the requisite strafing of jungle, burning of hutches, and machine gunning of soldiers and villagers. In the midst of this chaos, though, the camera lingers on the image of a cow being hoisted into a net by an Air Cav helicopter. As the village bleeds and burns below it, we follow the cow, confused as it is lifted into the air. The madness of the violence is underscored by the subtlety of this image, which encapsulates the absurdity of war.
Coppola also makes frequent use of jarring chiaroscuro, particularly showing Willard and Kurtz in close up, their strained faces washed in pale light one moment, swallowed into darkness the next. Such flourishes enhance the film’s brooding mood, inviting the viewer to contemplate a larger struggle, between the light of peaceful reason and the violent darkness that threatens to consume it.
If these themes seem too heavy or maudlin, Apocalypse Now Redux also allows us to appreciate the film’s evocations of American popular culture. While the film uses a variety of iconographic references to illustrate the perversions of war (a besieged American camp is made more desolate by the presence of Christmas lights hung in the trenches and the strains of Hendrix-esque guitar on a soldier’s radio, a USO performance by Playboy playmates degenerates into a brawling mob of overeager, oversexed G.I.s), it is also clear that Apocalypse Now has itself become part of pop culture. Duvall’s turn as Kilgore offers several examples of this, as epithets such as “Charlie don’t surf!” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” have worked their way onto t-shirts and are now quoted in the common vernacular. Kilgore’s fanatical enjoyment of surfing was even memorialized in the Dead Milkmen’s song, “Beach Party Vietnam.” And the haunting final whisper of Marlon Brando as Kurtz—“The horror! The horror!”—has become a catchphrase. The release of Redux, ultimately, allows us to celebrate a film that has become idelibly ingrained into American popular consciousness while, at the same time, forcing us to question the violence and inhumanity that characterize the troubling past of this same culture.