Approach Apocalypse Now with much trepidation, as you must an elephant. It is large. It is iconic. It is considered one of the finest American films of the 20th century. And in a time of bloated-budget computer-generated tent-pole productions, it is precious, like a rare beast from a bygone era.
For three decades, Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now has been referenced or parodied by TV shows that are themselves iconic instances of American mass entertainment: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Sex and the City, more. There are lines from the film that have worked their way into the national psyche: “Terminate with extreme prejudice”; “Charlie don’t surf”; “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Its style continues to influence Hollywoodland, with the most recent version of King Kong, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, deliberately lifting visual elements nearly wholesale.
At this point, more people probably know of Apocalypse Now than have actually seen it. It has become integrated into our mass media culture. It may be the most iconic film about the American conflict in Vietnam, yet, much like Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, which in many ways predicted the escalating American involvement in the post-colonial civil struggles in Indochina, the greatest absence in Apocalypse Now is Vietnam itself.
Whereas in Greene’s novel the fight was between a European and an American over a woman who symbolized Vietnam yet had little to say for herself, in Apocalypse Now, the fight is between two Americans in Indochina’s jungle, surfing the edge of a thematic heart of darkness. Both narratives have become key instances of the larger narrative of America’s war in Vietnam, yet in both narratives Vietnam acts merely as the exotic backdrop for Caucasian angst. As America once again teeters on the verge of a land war in Asia, these narratives merit our attention.
Let’s say it now and get it over with: Apocalypse Now is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking. The cinematography, the editing, the soundtrack, the visual and sound design, the casting, the acting, the dialogue, the sets, are all incredible. If it fails anywhere, it is in its pacing. There are two versions to choose from and neither quite feels like a well-constructed story.
The plot is simplicity itself. An edgy American Special Forces soldier on special assignment travels deep into the jungle to kill an American Special Forces officer who has made himself into a warlord. That isn’t a logline, that’s the entire plot. From this one-note composition, Coppola managed to create a three-and-a-half epic that mirrors both the symbolism of The Odyssey as well as Joseph Conrad’s 1899 much lauded novella, Heart of Darkness.
Back in 1979, United Artists balked at this run-time, which included a long interlude in French, and cut an hour of footage and re-arranged some scenes for the theatrical release. The result is paced more like an action film than an art film. Nonetheless, this version is hardly brisk.
In 2001, Miramax released a “redux” version that restored the missing footage and arranged the scenes in the original order…and one can quickly tell why the studio execs back in the ’70s required the cuts. Meandering up the river — a long scene that Coppola wanted to be like a journey back through time — feels far longer than the three and half hour run time. The French plantation sequence in particular throws off the pacing—it’s like we’ve strayed into a different movie for 30 minutes.
Fans disagree about which cut is best. The answer is, watch them both.
The film’s production is as iconic as the film itself. Much like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the massive production woes of Apocalypse Now have become the stuff of legend and add to the mythic aura of the film. This mythmaking was extended by the 1991 release of a documentary of the production titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse. In the documentary, the improvisatory nature of the production is what comes to the fore. Coppola’s artistic vision of things-falling-apart-in-the-jungle quickly became a reality in the worst possible ways.
A typhoon wrecked the expensive and beautiful sets; helicopters and pilots on loan from the Philippine military would be suddenly called away to fight an insurgency, leaving the gargantuan production at a standstill for an unknown amount of time; star Martin Sheen, as the Special Forces assassin Willard, suffered a heart attack, and while he survived the cardiac attack, production went off the rails for weeks; the film’s other star, Marlon Brando as the warlord Kurtz, showed up on set without preparation and was hostile to doing any work at all.
All of that is the anecdotal legend, the aura, the cosmology of this remarkable piece of film making. But we are not here to expand the myth. We are here to explode it.
Coppola has said that the film is a metaphor for the institutional horror of war. However, critics have pointed out that film cannot help but glorify combat. The charge is that because the nature of film itself is to create spectacle, it is impossible to film a war scene that is not spectacular, not scintillating. It seems an obvious point. Real life is not experienced with swelling soundtracks, jump cuts, ADR, and all the other filmmaker’s tricks.
Apocalypse Now‘s most iconic scene is a helicopter attack on a coastal village and it is a masterwork of craft. The use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is coupled with action-film style editing and a ton of explosives to take the audience on a thrilling ride into a souped-up version of combat in which dozens of faceless Vietnamese are blown away in a scene that could come straight from an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, only Coppola’s craft is far superior to anything starring the one-man Army of Arnie.
While this scene is a war movie spectacle at its best and worst, that does not mean that movies cannot effectively convey the stupid and quick brutality of war, and Apocalypse Now is no exception.
A later scene later in which Willard’s patrol boat stops a sampan is a good counter-example. The Americans have a standing order to search such vessels since they may be used to covertly transport weapons. The scene ends suddenly and violently, with the nervous Americans killing the entire crew of unarmed Vietnamese because a young woman on the boat made a sudden dash for a closed barrel. Turns out there was a puppy inside.
The stupidity of the deaths, the horrified and perplexed reactions of the sudden killers, the finality and banality of civilian casualties in war, are all compactly brought to the screen in a scene that lacks the heart-pounding action of the helicopter attack but is just as well made. In fact, this scene is so reminiscent of a moment in Greene’s The Quiet American that it may have inspired it. Fowler, the protagonist, is along for a bombing run in a French plane. The task complete, they are heading back to base when they spot a sampan on the river.
Down we go again, away from the gnarled and fissured forest towards the river, flattening out over the neglected rice fields, aimed like a bullet at one small sampan on the yellow stream. The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks: we don’t even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climb higher into the air and make for home. […] There was something so shocking in our sudden fortuitous choice of prey—we just happened to be passing, only one burst of gunfire was required. There was no one to return our fire. And we were gone again, adding our little quota to the world’s dead. That scene did not make it into either film adaption of Greene’s novel, but the moment is echoed so closely in Apocalypse Now that it can serve as the big screen adaption.
To answer the critic’s charge, the question is not whether it’s possible to film an anti-war movie, but we should be questioning how the movie is filmed. Coppola’s helicopter attack is so lovingly made in the action film mode that it might as well be lifted from Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), while the sampan scene demonstrates his ability to bluntly depict the war’s indiscriminate killing. This bluntness grooves with the primary source material for the story — Conrad’s novella depicting the horrors of the ivory trade in the Congo, Heart of Darkness.
Exotic Phantasmagoria of Futile Violence
At no point is it announced on screen that Apocalypse Now is an adaption of Heart of Darkness, but the book served as more than a passing inspiration. In rereading it for this article, I was amazed at how closely some of the elements in the book are re-imagined on the big screen.
Cliffnotes online offers a point-by-point comparison and can tell you which character names were changed or not (Kurtz is the same but Marlow becomes Willard, etc.), but Coppola adapted and staged entire scenes from the book. The scene late in the film in which Willard’s boat is attacked by a hail of arrows is taken directly from the book, but Coppola and screen writer John Milius also reproduced dialogue nearly verbatim. Here is an important moment in the story, when the killer, captured by Kurtz, is confronted by him:
Kurtz: “What did they tell you?”
Willard: “They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound.”
Kurtz: “Are my methods unsound?”
Willard: “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”
And from the book, where Marlow and the manager of an ivory trading company discuss Kurtz’s condition:
“I don’t deny there is a remarkable quantity of ivory—mostly fossil. We must save it, at all events—but look how precarious the position is—and why? Because the method is unsound.” “Do you,” said I, looking at the shore, “call it ‘unsound method?'” “Without doubt,” he exclaimed hotly. “Don’t you?”… “No method at all,” I murmured after a while.
But most importantly, what the filmmakers took from the book was atmosphere. The Africa of Heart of Darkness is an exotic phantasmagoria of futile violence. Here is an example:
“For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere.”
This scene is not recreated in the film but the general mood prevails. The closest the film comes to this moment is an incident that goes unremarked upon by the cast. Willard’s boat passes beneath the tail of a downed American B-52 bomber that has recently crashed. It’s a superb visualization of “a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight”: the massive tail looming over the boat like a portion of the carcass of some uncanny beast, the tiny men peering up at it like the fell there from another world, its purpose both obvious and senseless. This brilliant capturing of Conrad’s atmosphere is one of the film’s greatest strengths, but also its greatest weakness.
One of the long-standing criticisms of Heart of Darkness is that Conrad’s phantasmagorical Africa is simply a flimsy backdrop of primitive strangeness for a white man’s existential agony. That same criticism holds in the transference of the book’s phantasmagoria to Coppola’s film. It comes out in his much cited comments about the making of the movie at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979:
“My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”
His simile is perhaps correct (he didn’t serve in the war), but remember that the Vietnamese call it the American War. Coppola’s film treats Vietnam, much as Conrad’s book treats the Congo, as a symbolic “jungle”, an allegorical place where white people—and their ideals, their philosophies, their methods—become “unsound”. The film’s production may have come to resemble the madness of America’s war in Vietnam, but the films’ phantasmagorical vision does not shed any light on Vietnam itself.
Expendables: Asians and Women
This is evident in the fact there are hardly any Asians on screen at all. Until the third act, they are usually glimpsed quickly then shot. In the final act, we discover that Kurtz’s rag-tag army is made up of tribal peoples who, deep in Cambodia, are not Vietnamese. Actually, they are local Ifugao tribe people hired as extras. It’s unrealistic to expect Coppola to fly a planeload of Cambodian tribesmen to the Philippines, were such a thing even possible, to shoot his movie. But still, by glossing the aboriginal people as “primitive”—the native folk of the heart of darkness—and by using one tribe as interchangeable with another, Coppola, unwittingly perhaps, perpetuates a very old American stereotype: one redskin looks like any other redskin.
The lack of Asian onscreen is complemented by a lack of women.
In the theatrical release, every speaking character is male. The redux version offers a relatively small role for Aurore Clément as a brief love interest for Willard, and it expands the screen time of three Playboy bunnies who appeared in the original. However, the only women who have speaking parts are Caucasian and they all merely act as mirrors of the male characters’ sexual desires. Quite literally, every white chick on screen is there to get screwed.
The Asian women are there to get shot. Two nameless, voiceless Vietnamese women are given brief moments of prominence. One blows up an American helicopter with a grenade and is then machine-gunned to death. The other appears as an innocent woman shot on a sampan that Willard’s Navy boat has stopped to search.Despite the panoramic sweep of the film, the perspective is limited to that of a professional killer, his enablers, and his quarry, all of them American men (two of them are black).
The Vietnam War Movie Industry
When Apocalypse Now came out on VHS cassette in the mid-’80s, it became not the progenitor of an entire spawn of Vietnam War movies, from those still remembered like Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’ Full Metal Jacket (1987), to disposable action fare such as the Missing in Action franchise and comedy hits that are now embarrassing, such as Barry Levinson’s sentimental romp through the war zone with a high-voltage, self-centered Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) or the studio-packaged Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Air America (1990). Twenty years after the Tet Offensive, America’s war in Vietnam had become a Hollywood cottage industry.
In fact, in the decade between 1984’s Missing in Action, in which “a Vietnam veteran goes back to Vietnam to free secretly held POWs”, to 1995’s action thriller The Walking Dead, in which “in the waning days of the war, a group of Marines are sent to rescue US POWs,” Hollywood cranked out no fewer than 35 films about the war (see the Wikipedia list here). The production line eventually tapered off as the trend wound down, but there’s still a film released almost every year since that deals with America’s disastrous Southeast Asian adventure.
Some argue that the surge of films in the late ’80s and early ’90s were the outcome of an aging America that was finally ready to confront its demons, but it got to the point where even veterans started a backlash against the commercializing of their experiences. I remember a bumper sticker that read: “Vietnam was a war, not a movie.” The slogan misses the point: Vietnam is a country, not a war.
What Apocalypse Now and all of its puny pretenders show us is the mirror that America holds before itself when engaging in overseas conflicts. First, we project our values, our democracy, our free market capitalism, our beloved individualism and supposed liberty, onto the oppressed, the wretched refuse, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And then we bring conflict to save them, to redeem them by bringing them into our light. If that project fails in bloody atrocity, as they often do, we reflect on our failure and blame the allegorical jungle, the darkness out there. The darkness is never in here. In that, Graham Greene’s diagnosis in The Quiet American was absolutely correct: Blinded by our own bright righteousness, we cannot see our own darkness.
Apocalypse Now shows us that darkness but does not bring much light to it. The director sees only his reflection, his own Technicolor “Vietnam” and sprawls it across the big screen. (But far more noble than Donald Trump proudly boasting to Howard Stern that he fought his “personal Vietnam” in a minefield of women’s vaginas. That’s the President of the United States, folks.)
In the end, there’s something about Apocalypse Now that’s utterly indelible. It has the power of a fine film.
On my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City ten years ago, I peered out of the hotel room curtains in the morning and, undoubtedly like many Americans who had visited the city before me, recited in a murmur the film’s famous opening lines, “Saigon, shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”
My Asian girlfriend looked at me as if I were insane.
This is the second of two articles on pop culture depictions of the American War in Vietnam by William Gibson.