Shoot 'Em All!
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.
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 Front...er, 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.
Alas, Hollywood was more cautious when production began in 1975, so Coppola played Citizen Kane to the project he adopted: raising the startup funds himself, spending freely, revising the script as he directed it, and amassing some 250 hours worth of footage. (Shoot 'em all! he might have said. Let [editor] Richard Marks sort 'em out!) The results may well mark the creative zenith of the New Hollywood--the Sixties generation's establishment insurgency. But Coppola circled around the material so intuitively that Redux can easily extend an already long movie by 43 minutes--and still leave a five-hour version floating around the Internet (see "Apocalypse Almost," right).
We know now that Coppola's movie became a famously disastrous experiment in Method directing--a running autobiography fleshed out by Eleanor Coppola's Notes and the riveting documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Yet even as Redux deepens this psychodrama, the debate over whether the extended dance mix restores a masterpiece or lengthens a classic failure leaves me cold. Yes, Apocalypse Now is still a great "Vietnam," and perhaps an even greater "Francis." It's just a very bad America, in ways no one seems to notice.
To begin with, the crimes of King Leopold II in the Congo Basin a century ago were a good model for an American director's myopia in the Philippines. Yet Conrad, who had witnessed the horrific Congo Free State firsthand, essentially asked the timeless imperial question: How on earth could a good colonial ivory trader go bad in darkest Africa? Coppola merely chucked the book's power-mad Kurtz into the G.I. acid tests of Michael Herr's Dispatches, with Herr himself penning the Chandleresque narration.
From its earliest scenes, Apocalypse Now strains against this mountain of material. After a night of waking flashbacks and too much Rémy Martin, Capt. B.L. Willard--played by our current president, Martin Sheen--is hauled into a Nha Trang base in 1969 to be briefed on a mission improbable: He must boat upriver through the jungle into Cambodia, where he will "terminate" the command of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, a Special Forces officer once considered "outstanding" and "humane." Kurtz currently commands a rogue army of Montagnards who, in the words of Harrison Ford's throat-clearing intelligence nobody, "follow every order, however ridiculous."
After some careful weighing of words, G.D. Spradlin's general puts the Kurtz situation plainly: "In this war, things get confused out there...and very obviously he has gone insane." Willard ponders what he hears, and he realizes he has missed his cue: "Yes, sir--very much so, sir. Obviously insane." The joke of this eerie scene is that that everyone in the room knows that the war has institutionalized evil. ("Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Willard grumbles in voiceover.) Yet Willard takes the mission anyway, perhaps because he sees in Kurtz an advanced case of himself: a war robot who wants to know what he has been programmed for.
The fact that, in the real world, there isn't any river leading through the jungle to Cambodia is beside the point: Coppola's covert opera is about himself and us, and the fleeting apparitions of the Sixties--with Willard's means of transport aptly ensuring that the backdrop always spins or drifts by. Through Vittorio Storaro's lens pass the kids who died without a clue (Laurence Fishburne's teenage Clean); the collateral damage of the sexual revolution (the Playboy Playmates, given a creepy sex scene in Redux); and the counterculture, as represented by the spaced-out surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms), who adapts so easily to Kurtz's Manson family values. The restored "French Plantation" sequence allows a ghostlike colonial patriarch to inform Willard that "you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history"--apparently forgetting that the U.S. robustly supported the French beginning in 1950. Still, by the time the movie dead-ends into Dennis Hopper and the mountainous inertia of Marlon Brando's Kurtz, we have been primed to see it all as part of the metaphor.
Like an extension of the fevered minute it took Michael Corleone to resign himself to killing Solozzo and McCluskey, Apocalypse Now is about steeling yourself past the point of no return. Yet when Willard puts a bullet through the chest of a wounded Vietnamese girl--an act of resolve that Kurtz himself would admire--the filmmaker pulls away, shielding us like a bad CNN reporter. (What if he had let the girl speak in subtitled Vietnamese, pleading for her life?) Coppola has said the scene was meant to evoke My Lai, but that's a Newsweek-esque obfuscation: Charlie Company worked slowly and systematically, dutifully carrying out its small part in a mass program to eliminate the people from the people's war. Rather, Willard's decisiveness echoes Coppola's: The director shot his "Vietnam" in one of the dominoes that didn't fall, exploiting destitute Filipinos and Vietnamese boat people; he rented helicopters from Ferdinand Marcos, who sometimes diverted the birds of prey to battle real-life insurgents.
George Lucas had written Coppola into his own Vietnam parable, Star Wars, as Han Solo: the reckless mercenary who eventually sides with the rebels. Yet by the late Seventies, Coppola might have come to see Darth Vader's good points. When he introduced Apocalypse Now at Cannes in 1979, he announced: "My film is not about Vietnam: It is 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." That this defense attorney's plea for the war, himself, and Kurtz was utterly glib only helped to proved his point: Like the U.S., Coppola had confused Vietnam with himself.
Twenty-two years later at the same festival, the filmmakers were asked whether there was any connection between "postcolonial critiques" of Heart of Darkness and the French plantation scene in Redux. Walter Murch replied, explaining that the French were defending their homes (an admiring characterization), while the Americans were "virtual" colonialists, playing "this very complicated chess game with the Soviet Union." Maybe I was out getting popcorn when the Soviets invaded and bombed South Vietnam. In fact, Apocalypse is not postcolonial for the simple reason that it isn't postimperial.
It's true that the Vietnamese are conspicuously absent from all our "Vietnams." But in a way, so are the Americans. The men who planned the war weren't ivory hunters or madmen, but bureaucrats--an admittedly uncinematic breed. Carrying out their plans were technicians, who went about the dull job of dropping more ordnance on Southeast Asia than we expended during all of World War II. America didn't get lost in the jungle: We bombed the jungle. In Apocalypse Now, this crime is reduced to Conrad's "postscriptum," a few words scrawled across a typewritten page in Kurtz's journal: "I hated my enemies even before they held me captive, because hate sustained me in my devotion to their complete destruction."
No, wait--that was Sen. John McCain in Kerrey's War. My mistake. Sorry about that.
Last month, in the lesser Vietnam, the communist government closed down the Apocalypse Now bar, which had long been an open market for the oldest profession--and the fastest-growing occupation. Ho Chi Minh's inheritors, who swept in after we demolished the National Liberation Front, have been losing their battle against the depredations that accompany "market reform." The communal village systems destroyed by the French and replaced by the rebels have evaporated. The country lurches toward Western fantasies of itself.
Someday we'll make a "Vietnam" about this Vietnam. Or about the allies we ground under--the Hmong and the Montagnards, who in Apocalypse Now are rendered as gentle savages without their God, already forgotten as they silently make way for Willard to lead Lance back home.
Yes, someday we'll make a "Vietnam" about Vietnam. But at the moment, they still can't get enough "America" in America.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.