Apocalypse Now Redux
(Reviewed September 1, 2001)
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Movies are to America what epic poems were to Greece and Rome or Shakespearean drama was to Elizabethan England: namely, the primary means by which national history is turned into a serviceable political mythology. But where the mythology of the classic Western taught us how to think about westward expansion and the gangster film about immigrant assimilation and the World War II epic about the superiority of American individualism and democracy to the ideologies of Europe, the myth-making of the last thirty years in Hollywood has been of quite another kind. America’s role as the world’s pre-eminent power and the great good place which sets an example of peace, freedom and enterprise for the rest of mankind has served primarily as an ironic backdrop for bitter nihilists persuaded that America is a source of evil and corruption in the world.
In no episode of American history has this seemed more evident to the philosophers and sages of Beverly Hills than the Vietnam War, and in no movie about the Vietnam War has their myth-making been more influential than in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). You could see this influence only a few months ago when, in apologizing for former Senator Bob Kerrey’s killing of civilians in Vietnam, the New York Times editorialized that it scarcely mattered whether the killing was accidental or deliberate since, either way, the story “with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic aftermath—sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.”
This is a translation into Times-ese of one of the most famous lines from Coppola’s film: “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” It is also a lie. As the conflicting accounts of Kerrey’s actions showed, both sides had a very clear understanding of the difference between war and murder. But the fact that the Times’s outrageous remark passed virtually without notice is a tribute to the effectiveness of Coppola’s watershed exercise in myth-making—which has even erased the Times’s own institutional memory, since the “rationale” for the Vietnam war was something that earlier generations of editorialists in its pages had helped to formulate. Their successors may now regard that rationale–namely that Soviet expansionism was using the indigenous guerrilla movement in Vietnam to threaten the peace and security of the United States—as having been grievously mistaken, but that is no excuse for pretending that it never existed.
Now re-released in a director’s cut running over three hours, with additional footage originally excised for commercial reasons, Apocalypse Now Redux shows even more clearly than its predecessor that Coppola and his co-writer, John Milius, have only one thing to say about America’s intervention in the Vietnamese civil war: that it was mad. Crazy. Insane. And they keep saying it over and over again. Indeed, if one of the hallmarks of madness is obsessive repetition of the same thing, Coppola’s film looks in retrospect a lot more like the product of a diseased intellect than the Vietnam War. The experience of watching it is like that of being hit over the head repeatedly. It must have one of the noisiest sound-tracks in the history of film, and much of the dialogue is inaudible. No rationale for the war could be heard here even if there was one, but the assault upon the senses reminds us of the fact that the war being represented by this deliberate sensory overload was—what else?—mad, crazy, insane. Get the message?
The added episodes extend the number of repetitions of the same idea to—well, an insane length. They also contribute to the film’s dated, 1970's feel. In one of them, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his men visit a French plantation, improbably existing intact in the middle of bandit country where the French planter adds his voice to the chorus calling the war mad, claiming that “you Americans, you fight for the biggest nothing in history.” Once this obligatory point has been made, a pretty French widow offers Willard opium and sex and philosophy. Remember that? Remember when people believed that drugs were a source of enlightenment, especially political enlightenment? Sex too, of course. You can date it as precisely as the disco craze, with which it largely overlapped. Likewise the adolescent pseudo-profundity (repeated twice) of the French widow’s saying: “There are two of you, don't you see: one that kills and one that loves.” Heavy!
The men—and their captain—also smoke marijuana and the California surfer, Lance, drops acid. In another of the restored segments, Willard’s crew trade fuel for sex with a couple of stranded Playboy bunnies in country. Lest this seem too exploitative, the bunnies are made to act not like good-time girls at all but more like automata, shell-shocked themselves by the horrors of the sexual war in which they are the grunts. Thus it seems natural for them to mate (as it were) with these doomed Adonises on their hopeless mission—and for Hollywood, not coincidentally, to eat its politically correct cake and have it too. “I can't believe I'm here,” says one of the addled men. “If it hadn't been for the Vietnam War I never would have met you, Miss December.”
“Miss May,” she corrects him.
It is an illustration of the hole that the movie’s anti-Americanism leaves at its center. Coppola is like a spoilt child whining to its parents that they never let him have any fun: having lost all sense of the context in which his relationship with his parents exists, he finds everything wrong with it. For Coppola, the madness is not just the war but sexual repression and sexual exploitation and the consumer society and official hypocrisy and the gung-ho military culture and the fact that the government won’t let its boys in uniform write f*** on their airplanes. For him, too, context is missing. We never meet a single Vietnamese, for instance, who is not a victim of the Americans. Whom does he suppose was shooting back? He keeps the enemy out of sight in order to make the American military effort—which seems to consist mainly of blazing away at the forest or the tall reeds along the banks of the river, or else innocent civilians—look not only futile but crazy. Like the phantasmagoria of the trip upriver, like everything else in the movie, the phantom enemy is designed to show us the futility, the insanity of the war. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is insane to try to fight him.
Yet, 22 years on, anyone not already committed to the new, post-Apocalyptic New York Times’s view of the war must have the feeling that this is protesting too much. Even the film’s most memorable example of American madness, the surfing Air Cavalry Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who says “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” today doesn’t seem quite the booby he was meant to be at the time. If you’re not careful, you might almost be tempted to admire the style and panache with which his black helicopters swoop down out of the clouds while blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on their loudspeakers. Isn’t that better than the hangdog, self-pitying Captain Willard? The Valkyries, we remember, were the “choosers of the slain” who transported fallen warriors to Valhalla. Neither to them nor to the ancient and medieval tribesmen they carried would the horrors of war have come as any surprise.
But Coppola and his hero, again like overgrown adolescents, persist in imagining that they have discovered these for the first time. As the voiceover narration puts it, “If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I wondered what they had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder. There was enough of that for everyone.” The film wants us to believe from the outset that there is no difference between war and murder, so it really has nowhere to go. Right from the first moment we meet Willard he is brooding on the same “horror” that Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the renegade Colonel he has been ordered to seek out and kill, refers to in the end. He drinks to make it go away and screams with mental anguish when the MPs come to take him to report for duty. “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet...” he tells us in voiceover. Then why does he look so rocky now, we wonder? What will he do for an encore?
“The horror,” in other words, is not something discovered on the journey up-river to Kurtz’s camp but taken for granted from the start. What the movie is really about is not war or politics, which never make any sense in it, but suffering chic, the intellectual and artistic currency of the therapeutic age. The subtext of the film—which of course Coppola could never admit to—is that he just loves this suffering, this victimization at the hands of a heartless bureaucracy. It’s sexy. Chicks dig it. Captain Willard is Coppola’s alter ego and a romantic hero even though he never does anything. Or anything much. He merely suffers. Even when he kills Kurtz, even when he kills the peasant woman in the sampan, the focus is not on his victims but on him as victim. Here’s another horrible thing he has to do. Poor man. Don’t you feel sorry for him?
Of course all the paraphernalia derived from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, including the name Kurtz, the remote jungle locale, the oppressed natives, “the horror, the horror” (Kurtz’s last words) and the insane final instruction to “Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all!”—these are merely an attempt to add portentous significance and literary cachet to a pathetic mishmash of falsehood and self-pity. Conrad would never have used such an absurdly overstated title. The word “apocalypse” used to mean something. The end of the world. Now it’s just another of the many ways to say, “See how I’ve suffered!” So coveted is the reputation of having suffered that people regularly lie about having served in Vietnam in order to claim a small share in the supposed misery, as the case of the historian, Joseph Ellis, last summer once again demonstrated.
Ellis, like so many other Vietnam fakers, just wanted that moral T-shirt: “I survived The Horror!” Like Kurtz, they want to be able to reach that cozy spot where they can say: “I have seen the horrors” and, therefore, “you have no right to judge me.” Yet hard as it may be to accept the fact today, The Horror and the madness are mainly retrospective superimpositions upon the reality of Vietnam. At the time there was also a serious purpose to it all, undertaken in good faith by honorable men. Those who risked their lives in doing so simply were not the madmen and criminals that Hollywood—and the New York Times—now want us to believe they were.