Shoot 'Em All!

Apocalypse Now Redux extends an epic allegory of American megalomania into the 21st Century

They love "Vietnam" in Vietnam. They can't get enough of it: the Thai-speaking North Vietnamese who force De Niro to play Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter; the trainees who pummel Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. And most of all Colonel Kilgore, Robert Duvall's air cavalryman in Apocalypse Now, who speaks in an officer's fixed shout yet is surfer enough to stop and smell the napalm.

Perhaps someday, like Oliver Stone in his youth, or the backpacker in Alex Garland's The Beach, the Vietnamese will want to go to "Vietnam," too. They'll crave our experience of their country, and our fantasies of that experience--and wish they could fight America's war as we did: to leave home, face death, and return forever changed.

For now, though, the Vietnamese have only their own Vietnam: the streets where they hawk fake G.I. dog tags to tourists, wear China Beach T-shirts, and crowd into clandestine video parlors in Saigon (nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City anymore) to see "Vietnam"--that is, the real Vietnam. In the dark (according to journalist William Arnold), they take in the first moments of Apocalypse Now--the slowly moving helicopter blades, the line of palm trees, and Jim Morrison's priestly intonation: "This is the end." When the green landscape goes up in orange flame, the flowering napalm has an appalling beauty--the Tao of Dow Chemical rendered as pure cinema. At last, we have won their hearts and minds--or whatever part contains the capacity for rapt wonder.

Good morning, "Vietnam": Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
Good morning, "Vietnam": Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now


Here in America, "Saigon...shit" was the "Rosebud..." of the Easy Rider generation, and Apocalypse Now was the first great "Vietnam": psychedelic and shell-shocked, thrilling and literary, as rich in submerged symbolism as Gone With the Wind--and about as historically accurate. Producer-director Francis Coppola gave us the Indochina Western that John Wayne couldn't manage in 1968's The Green Berets--a fantasy so wishful it even let the sun set in the east. Coppola's cowboys were moral madmen, like Duvall's satirically named Kilgore. And by the time the movie opened in the summer of 1979, it was a foregone conclusion that they would retreat from their manmade sunsets on the jungle horizon.

Coppola's "Vietnam" was a hit precisely because audiences saw the war less as an American Tragedy (Newsweek's My Lai headline) than the Invader's Blues. Our own rapt attention to the evening news had registered the 1965 grunt with "Sorry About That" written on his helmet--a good joke about strafing civilians--and these details stuck with us as the horror stories mounted. When Apocalypse opened, Newsweek's Jack Kroll praised the movie as "a journey into the consuming madness that was the Vietnam war." But insanity is always a plea for the defense, and most people polled by Gallup were already saying that the war was not merely a "mistake" but "fundamentally wrong and immoral." The persistence of this silent majority is sometimes called "the Vietnam syndrome"--the real enemy that Mel Gibson is fighting in the elephant grass of We Were Soldiers, his forthcoming "Good Vietnam."

I've seen plenty of "Vietnams" over the years--along with "El Salvadors," "Nicaraguas," and "Iraqs" (but no "Colombia")--and yet I still couldn't help dreading the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene at a screening of Apocalypse Now Redux, the new and extended version of the picture. Something more is at stake in this scene, and how it holds up, than whether Coppola's boxed set redeems him as an artist--or whether the rerelease succeeds in funding his return to megalomaniacal moviemaking. A Vietnamese favorite, the episode has Kilgore leading a fleet of helicopters against a coastal village held by the National Liberation, sorry, Vietcong, in "Vietnam"--the better to liberate an ideal surfing beach. As schoolchildren flee for shelter, the colonel blasts Wagner's "Die Walküre" on the loudspeaker. "It scares the hell out of the slopes," he explains.

Replaying the battle in my mind before watching Redux, I could imagine why Pauline Kael once tried to talk Coppola out of using Wagner: Apocalypse Now was made before irony became our national language, and the scene's exultant fascism is so cinematic--the Tao of the Domino Theory rendered as pure action--that it might even play straight if you took out the racism. Yet the "Valkyries" scene remains a spectacular judgment--a soaring satire of blind, swaggering cruelty. Part of Coppola may have regretted it: The rest of the movie is a form of retreat, and 1987's Gardens of Stone feels like penance. Yet even when Redux adds scenes that might humanize Kilgore (the colonel now sees to a wounded Vietnamese child), the alterations only make him more awe-inspiring and more convincingly awful. Reedited by Walter Murch, Coppola's new "Vietnam" is both funnier and more terrifying. And when the napalm wind comes in, Duvall seems to inhale more deeply before uttering his immortal line: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

No, wait--that was George Bush père, in CNN's Persian Gulf. My mistake. Sorry about that.


Coppola loved "Vietnam," too: The bravura of the helicopter sequence was synonymous with Kilgore's, and the megalomania Duvall lampooned was the same character trait that got the movie made in the first place. The filmmaker had persuaded John Milius to adapt the script from Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness on the implicit dare that not even Orson Welles could lick it. George Lucas was slated to direct said adaptation in the late Sixties, with a plan to shoot on location in Vietnam while the war was raging. There was untroubled machismo in all this--and a boomer's inflated sense of historical mission.

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