Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now. Zoetrope Studios 1979.
Apocalypse Now. Zoetrope Studios 1979.

Before watching the movie:

Here’s one I’ve been putting off for a while. I almost went with it once, but then wasn’t available to me anymore, and only recently came back. I feel like my selections have been getting monotonous again, so I decided that since this was newly available, I’d get it out of the way.

I’ve been reluctant because I expect an extremely dark, probably graphically violent story. It’s a Vietnam War movie based on a book about colonial Africa. Hardly anything concrete I’ve seen come out of it necessarily backs that up, but since it’s about tracking down a guy who’s gone crazy and set himself up as a warlord, and is rated R, it seems very likely that this is the sort of movie I’ll be gladder to have watched than to watch.

After watching the movie:

Captain Benjamin Willard is a US Army special operations assassin who lost the desire for anything but another mission on his first tour in Vietnam. He gets assigned the ultimate mission: a brilliant army colonel went rogue, and has crossed past getting results into sitting as a god among the natives in Cambodia. As Col. Kurtz will not submit to orders and is killing natives without offering proof of his suspicions they are V.C. to his superiors, Willard is assigned to kill him. In order to get to Kurtz’s compound in Cambodia, Willard has to travel up the river on a boat with a small detachment of men, making stops for supplies and connecting with escorts, taking a tour of the excesses of the war as he studies Kurtz’s path to madness.

While many other films have the thesis “the US wasn’t a White Hat in Vietnam” (it’s a Hollywood thesis as safe and bankable as “the holocaust was bad” and “African-Americans got a raw deal”), and most are more personal (Willard has to keep moving and the audience doesn’t have time to get attached to anyone) I was struck by the lavish scale of recreating the war for the camera. Several times I stopped and wondered how much it cost to stage such large battle scenes, reserving entire beaches for covering with soldiers, filling the skies with helicopters, building villages just to burn and explode them. This was before CGI, and I didn’t detect any modelwork, so it would have had to be all done with real heavy equipment, live pyrotechnics, and makeup. And it looked so real that if they’d taken a crane-mounted camera to the actual combat in Vietnam during the war it probably would have looked fake by comparison. The verisimilitude does a lot to atone for the puzzling plot shift.

The first part of the film made a lot of sense to me. Traveling up the river, the audience gets a spectacular look at the horror and pettiness of the war on the ground. A company destroying and holding a village because it’s in a good spot for surfing. A lewd USO show lighting up the jungle. A war zone where nobody’s in command and everybody is shooting in the vague direction of where the enemy probably is. A tense search of a civilian boat going pear-shaped. Willard’s study of Kurtz finds a man unorthodox and without patience for the chain of command, but getting results. And then Willard arrives, and finds a mad poet and brutal dictator worshiped by locals and dead-eyed American soldiers. The connection was lost on me. I don’t understand how the one lead to the other. The Kurtz writing a manifesto on the hypocrisy of the American army makes sense, but the madness has made him just as hypocritical, and I don’t understand where most of his followers came from.

However, in plot terms, by that point the story has moved on from “why did Kurtz go crazy/is Kurtz really the enemy?” to “will Willard be able to carry out his mission?” The moral ambiguity seems to have been driven out. Kurtz may have his head in a better place than the Army, but he’s clearly a much more sinister threat than a bunch of generals too far away from the action to understand what they’re doing. I suppose I could consider my confusion about the shift a commentary on the lack of conclusive answers in the Vietnam War, but it’s probably closer to the medium’s need for a story to have an endpoint clashing with the film’s function as a tour of the grisly, face to face part of the war. Or maybe I just lost focus at the wrong moment.

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