As a young veteran of the Vietnam war I was quite taken by the 1979 epic Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now; but as an crotchety old 63 year old veteran, my feelings about the movie have degenerated into complete dislike. It’s not unusual for our views to change as we get older;some people for the better and some for worse. However my anti-war feelings are not the reason why I dislike this movie classic. My reasons have to do more with the movies’s detachment from the reality of the war and my prejudice against its source material.First of all let me explain what I mean by detachment from reality.
In the opening scene we see Captain Willard awakened from a nightmare by an ancient ceiling fan, which evoked in him the familiar sound of a Huey helicopter. He is obviously in an alcohol induced state of irritation driven by guilt and war weariness; a common symptom of what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This is something that most combat veterans can and do relate to. after this we go to a briefing where the details are given by a very young Harrison Ford who is very convincing as a young Intel officer. His demeanor as an officer was pretty spot on, at least in my experience with this type.
If you haven’t seen the movie I will try not disclose the details of Capt. Willard’s mission. After the briefing we see a refreshed and renewed Willard in starched and clean fatigues ready and raring to go. From this point on the movie degenerates into a slow spiral into the absurdity and perversity of war. Sounds pretty good so far! This scenario is typical in anti-war movies. Then The river interdiction scene happens; this is especially disturbing for its portrayal of trigger happy and unprofessional river boat sailors. No self-respecting navy small craft commander would interrupt a mission to do a routine interdiction. When delivering special forces members it’s in and out as fast as possible. That’s the first detour from the reality of military protocol.After this it only gets worse. It’s amazing that with all of its attention to detail of uniforms, rank insignia and patches, that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to give a more accurate depiction of the workings of the chain of command and military protocol.
The further up river Capt. Willard goes the more chaotic the situation becomes. I know that this is supposed to be a metaphor but in the context of the movie it doesn’t reflect the reality of the war. There is a complete absence of any command structure in the bases that he stops at on his trip up river. We witness some pretty playboy playmates threatened by a mob of horny out of control soldiers who are undoubtedly bent on raping them to death. They are rescued by a helicopter just in time to escape with their lives. This scene is an insult to all service men everywhere and in any era. There has never been this kind of incident at any USO show ever not in the history of USO shows. Our service men are raucous but well behaved and certainly not prone to rioting at this kind of event.They are mostly appreciative for the fact that they are not forgotten by the folks at home.
The mud base could have been any firebase during the monsoon season, but again we have no chain of command. It appears to be mostly abandoned with no external security, no activity just muck and mess and the stranded playmates selling their bodies for chopper fuel, so they can get the hell out of there. By this time they are are bedraggled and unappealing and more than slightly pathetic. Okay! The late Bob Hope who did a show on Guadalcanal, while there was still fighting there, would tell you that the USO and the military would never put women or anyone else in such a precarious situation. So what was the purpose of this scene other than gratuitous sex and more harping about how screwed up the military is. Since the movie was made in 1979 it was still too close to the war to recognize such men as General Norman Schwarzkopf jr. and General Colin Powell both who served as junior officers in Vietnam. Without officers the whole thing would have broken down much sooner than it actually did; and that was more political than it was lack of leadership and incompetence which is what the movie insinuates.
The bridge to nowhere, (not the infamous pork barrel project in Alaska.) Was a bridge that was rebuilt daily and blown up every night. One of the reasons that they have Navy Seals is to prevent this kind of attack. I am pretty sure that the VC or the NVA, (North Vietnamese Army) would have a hard time trying to get to a critical life line such as a bridge, time and time again. They might have initial success, but would find it increasingly difficult once the element of surprise was lost. The panicky soldiers trying to escape this forward operating base is another portrayal of the unwilling unprofessional, often cowardly American soldier. To add insult to injury the scene of the dope smoking soul brothers hunkered down in the bunker was an indictment of black soldiers as useless drug abusers. The one bright spot in the movie was the black machine gunner and the squad grenadier who was obviously a seasoned veteran, who was an expert with the M79 grenade launcher. Taking out the enemy in the black of night just by listening; that was an awesome feat of skill. Once again we find Capt. Willard unable to find out who’s in charge here. The impression one gets is that the American officers of that era were a bunch of slackers who more often than not abandoned their post and their men.
The only officer up river that can be found is the slightly psychotic “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Music actually was the sound track of his life. Playing the ride of the Valkyrie over the loud speakers while making a helicopter assault on a village makes a great movie scene but wasn’t par for the course during wartime. The pattern of this movie is that, the only officers doing anything are the ones that are crazy or are going crazy; which brings me to Colonel Kurtz.
Colonel Kurtz is a rogue special forces officer who is the leader of a group of rogues and primitive bushmen that apparently have committed enough atrocities to come to the attention of the U.S. government. He is in such a black hole of depression that he welcomes death at the hands of Capt. Willard. This scenario is a departure from the original novella Heart of darkness but, it is also a departure from the fact that special forces officers are relieved from duty at the first sign of any irregular behavior and not assassinated. When Willard reads a report by Kurtz in the last scene of the movie he is horrified at the words Drop the bomb. This is the solution of bar room bigmouths and phony flag wavers, who have never even served in the armed forces, not of professional military men.
So as you can see my main grievance with apocalypse now isn’t that it’s a bad movie per se, but that many people who don’t know any better, think that it is the definitive Vietnam narrative. It is full of insulting stereotypes
of servicemen and really annoying in retrospect. considering the source material it doesn’t surprise me.
The movie is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about colonialist Africa; where Conrad worked as a river boat pilot. The story is full of unapologetic racism but not a condemnation of colonialism as some people seem to think it is. It is mostly a condemnation of the African continent for being so destructive and corrupting to the white man. Heart of darkness is not just a metaphor for the dark heart of man but a literal location, the heart of the Dark continent,the Congo river. As in Apocalypse Now the farther up river the hero goes the more decay and despair become the norm. After taking charge of and repairing a badly damaged river boat he is sent up river to retrieve station manager Kurtz. Kurtz is an ivory trading company agent and reputed to be one of the best. In the novella his success is based on raiding and murdering native tribes and stealing their Ivory. Kurtz is also an agent for the International society for the suppression of savage customs, (meaning the suppression of Africans.) Kurtz footnote of exterminate all the brutes. was mirrored in Apocalypse Now.
Despite the fact that Kurtz had gone native, having an African mistress and leading an African tribe he apparently thought that genocide was the only way to settle Africa peacefully. If Conrad was actually an anti-colonialist he never expressed it through advocacy of any kind. In fact he was a complete Anglophile and admired the British empire and the colonial system. Heart of darkness is a story told without true understanding of the nature of colonialism. The instances of blind hatred and brutality are merely incidental window dressing, told in a matter of fact and unsympathetic manner. The narrative is told from the perspective of the colonial exploiter as victim of the harshness of the African environment; just as Colonel Kurtz is depicted as a victim of the brutality of the Vietnam War. There is no clear delineation between Conrad’s real feelings about colonialism and the narrative.
I have read plenty of history books with anecdotal accounts about colonials, most of them about the English and not once was the N word bandied about like in Conrad’s novella. I know that there was no such thing as political correctness in his time, but for some one who aspired to be an English gentleman, his vocabulary was very low class. The harshness of the blatant racism in the story made it almost impossible to read, but between the lines I see a story of racism told by a racist, with no compunction about the brutality of colonialism. “The horror, the horror.”
The fact that this story has been so widely read and re-imagined onscreen as Apocalypse Now proves that it has merit to some. But I fear that this just means that people still don’t understand the awfulness of colonialism, and have rationalized this story as something that it isn’t. If Conrad had been an ardent anti-colonialist I would most certainly have felt differently, but he wasn’t and I don’t.
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