Re-viewing Apocalypse Now: A Meditation on the Greatest Vietnam War Movie Ever Made

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In “The Garden of Reflection,” Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highland Park. [Photo: David Kramer, 11/25/18] From Thrown Into the Bird

Recently, George Cassidy Payne  published “A LOOK BACK AT THE VIETNAM WAR: Poems and photos” in The Mindful Word. Today, George looks closely at Apocalypse Now that he considers to be the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

Re-viewing Apocalypse Now: A Meditation on the Greatest Vietnam War Movie Ever Made

George Cassidy Payne

Every now and then I find myself going through a fixation with the Vietnam War. This time around I watched the epic 10-part documentary on the war written by Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. After watching all 10 episodes over the span of two nights, I proceeded to dive into a plethora of essays and primary documents including Norman Podhoretz’s “A Moral and Necessary Intervention,” Robert McMahon’s “A Strategic Perspective on U.S. Involvement,” Steven Ambrose’s “The Wisdom of U.S. Nonintervention,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the 1967 bombing campaign, General William Westmoreland’s reflection in 1977 on the U.S. military’s strategy of attrition, and several firsthand accounts from soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

See Michael Herr’s Delhi

From the Dryden Theatre. [Photo: David Kramer]

From the Dryden Theatre. [Photo: George Payne]

This intense distillation of Vietnam War material inspired me to re-view, Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic triumph about the heart of darkness and the Vietnam War.

More metaphysical and unflinching that The Godfather, Coppola tells the story of an assassin sent to kill an assassin, an Army Captain (Martin Sheen) going up a river into the place where the enemy lies. Lies, the viewer learns, is what exists under the veneer of civilization. The real horror is the lies. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is the one man who tells the truth. As such, he is both a monster and a God. To kill him is to kill the only voice that is convinced enough to tell the world what real psychosis is.

Apocalypse Now works on several levels. Set during the war’s peak, Coppola is of course talking about the exhilarating madness of Vietnam. But Coppola is also talking about the history of warfare and human violence in general. Coppola is talking about the sacrifices we must make and the random accidents of life: the mistakes, wrong turns, and terrorizing unpredictability of merely living; he is also talking about what it means to have a purpose and how that meaning leads one down a path towards both enlightenment and despair. In the words of the director, “Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos.”

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Cambodia and Phnom Penh. From map engraved in stone at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park [Photo: David Kramer 12/2/18] From Talker’s foreign correspondent in Cambodia and the plaques in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Highland Park.

Watched as an unfolding fable, the Cambodia where Kurtz oversees his army of children warriors is not a single place on a map. There is an aspect of that Cambodia which resides in each of us. There is a Kurtz inside each of us. There is a heart of darkness inside each of us. Resisting the temptation to make another film about Vietnam, Coppola set out to make a film that was Vietnam. And Vietnam was fucking crazy. History is crazy; our fears and passions are crazy. Our dedication to causes is crazy. Our need to carry out a mission that no longer makes sense is crazy. To machete to death the caribou just because you were ordered to is crazy. And in the end, the only thing that is not crazy, is the surreal moment when Captain Willard and Lance B Johnson are allowed by Kurtz’s army to leave on a Navy gun boat alive. It is a scene that captures every contradiction about the war, and it is a moment of artistic genius that Coppola would never again realize as a filmmaker.

More than a film, Apocalypse Now is a horrific meditation on the history of violence in America. visually, sonically, viscerally, and in every other way, it forces the viewer to become an active participant in what is happening on the screen. From start to finish, it is a war film completely devoid of glamorized violence. If anything, it is a film that is hugely entertaining because it portrays violence so “well,” while remaining fully aware of the paradox. To solve this conflict, Coppola decides to make the killing seem real and unreal at the same time. Always present like touching an electric fence, the killing dissipates into the purple haze of Lance’s flare.

 

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Four Brighton High School graduates killed in Vietnam. The Walk on Honor at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park. 11/09/18. [Photo: David Kramer] From Veterans Day in Brighton

As a history lesson, Apocalypse Now is telling the truth about how our nation got into Vietnam, why it remained there in a combat role for over 25 years, and what America was willing to sacrifice in the end. Played by Martin Sheen, Captain Willard is the spirit of a nation that believed its military could do anything, destroy anyone, and accomplish any mission. Willard is not just the embodiment of the U.S. military, he is also the embodiment of American male masculinity.

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Candle light vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 9/17/16 [Photo: David Kramer] From The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester: A Meditation on the Cost of War

Dennis Hopper’s character is simply known as the photojournalist. He is meant to represent not only the world of mainstream media — and those who profit from the broadcasting of war —  he is also that inner voyeur in all of us — that unnamable voice telling us to look at the horror without touching it or feeling it ourselves. The photojournalist confronts us with the voice inside us that tells us how bad it could be if things completely fall apart. Perhaps that is what Coppola’s masterpiece does: it shows us what it looks like when things fall apart. As Willard says, “there is no CO here.” All of the people in charge are either dead (Kennedy, Malcolm, MLK, Bobby, ) or they have gone insane.

From The Walk on Honor at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. [Photos: David Kramer]

(left to right, top to bottom) John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy. From The Walk on Honor at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. [Photos: David Kramer]

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore is Robert Duvall’s greatest supporting role. Has there ever been a more perfect encapsulation of American masculinity than Kilgore? Kilgore is the soldier in ‘Nam who loved the smell of napalm in the morning because it reminds him of victory. But what he loves more than that smell, is the way he looks in his uniform, the way he wears his Calvary hat in battle, and the way he isn’t afraid of an incoming round. Kilgore is the prototypical American male killer. He can kill and order others to kill out of a profound sense of duty and high moral standards. Kilgore is remorseless because he kills for God, family, and country. When he blasts Wagner out of the helicopter’s loud speakers before air raiding a village with screaming children and crying babies, you know that you are witnessing the reason why America got involved in this war and refused to quit even when it knew the war was lost. And anyone who has watched the scene that occurs right after the choppers land in the village courtyard, will never forget the power of cinema to make the hellish reality of warfare come alive. Some critics have called Apocalypse Now the most important anti-war film ever made for that scene alone. It is unspeakable.

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From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park [Photo: David Kramer, 12/24/18] From Another Staged Thanksgiving

After watching this film again, I can say that I have a deeper appreciation for Francis Ford Coppola’s poetic mastery and his ability to transport viewers to another world. There is not another film like it. Although dozens have tried to emulate the technique and style, they have all come up short. There is a reason Brando is Brando. There is a reason why Martin Sheen makes every movie he is in better. There is a reason Robert Duvall is one of the most underrated actors working today. There is a reason Dennis Hopper owns every scene that he is in. Simply put, there is no film that comes close to capturing the nightmare of war better than this one. As hard as it is to watch, I think it should be required viewing for every citizen in this country.

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SEE ALSO George’s poems on the Laotion Civil War “Four Stemmed Glasses”

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From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park [Photo: David Kramer, 12/124/18] From “Four Stemmed Glasses”