by Rachel C. Kranz
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 18-20
When the Viet Nam war was still going on, columnist Art Buchwald wrote a humorous version of a Hollywood story conference whose participants were trying to make a Viet Nam war movie. An eager scriptwriter presents the classic war script, only to be reminded that Viet Nam is different: You can't tell our Vietnamese from theirs, body counts have replaced territorial markers, and besides, the State Department won't let you call it a war. Hollywood's clichés as well as Washington's were undone by the new political realities of the first war we couldn't win.
Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola would seem to have succeeded where Buchwald's screenwriter failed. Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER and Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW focus on precisely those features Hollywood thought would make the war unfilmable — the resemblance of ally to enemy; the irrationality of guerilla warfare; the breakdown of moral certitude; and finally, the United States' puzzling inability to win. These elements of the war were eventually grasped even by political leaders. What was not understood — or not made public — was the aspect of the war most central to our defeat. The fact was that the NLF and their North Vietnamese supporters constituted a disciplined political movement with a sophisticated ideology and a strong base in popular support. The films of Cimino and Coppola faithfully follow the official wisdom. Although both films evoke the superficial horrors of Viet Nam, they obscure the very realities most crucial to understanding it. The war in Viet Nam is hidden behind a filmic style that finally reinforces the futility of any attempt to understand or prevent war.
THE DEER HUNTER is the story of three young men from a Pennsylvania steel town who go to Viet Nam. They are tortured and held prisoner by North Vietnamese, who force the prisoners to play Russian Roulette while the Vietnamese gamble on the outcome. Michael (Robert DeNiro) manages to save himself and his friends, though one is crippled and the other (Christopher Walken) becomes unhinged by the experience and begins to play Russian Roulette for money in a Saigon gambling hall, Later, DeNiro returns to Viet Nam to rescue Walken, but Walken chooses suicide. In the U.S., the old friends attend the funeral and sing "God Bless America" in a last attempt to create some meaning from the death.
APOCALYPSE HOW focuses on the journey of Captain Willard, a CIA contract killer sent upriver into the Cambodian border area to kill a crazed U.S. officer, Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has set up his own kingdom of Montagnards, whom we are told "worship him as a god." Willard (Martin Sheen) is puzzled by Kurtz' insanity since Kurtz was an U.S. officer par excellence. But as Willard sees the horror of Viet Nam, and himself becomes responsible for the murder of a young woman in a sampan, he begins to understand Kurtz better. Finally, he kills Kurtz, whose murder is given a mythic aspect by cross-cutting with the sacrificial killing of bull
At almost every turn, the plot and visual devices of both movies contradict the real significance of Viet Nam. Viet Nam becomes famous for the impersonality with which machines replaced men to administer death. Both APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER focus on primitive ritual killings. The National Liberation Front's avoidance of war crimes and attacks on civilians is unparalleled by any army to fight a major mar, with the possible exception of the Chinese during the Long March. Both movies emphasize the viciousness of the Viet Cong — THE DEER HUNTER through the elaborate torture Russian Roulette scene, APOCALYPSE NOW through Kurtz' recollection of Viet Cong chopping off the arms of Vietnamese recently inoculated by the Americans. (For the record, there is absolutely no evidence of either occurrence, although there is an account of U.S. soldiers who forced Vietnamese to play Russian Roulette.) The Viet Nam war achieved notoriety for the ugliness of the pictures to return from the front: napalmed babies, maimed women, piles of mutilated bodies. Cimino and Coppola give us cinematic lushness of color, elegance of camera, delicacy of lighting. As a revolution the Viet Nam war centered on ideology, both as the war was sold to Americans and as it was fought by the Vietnamese. APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER eschew ideas to the point that we can barely discern the dialogue from the background noise because both are only there for effect.
Both directors have suggested that "accuracy" is not an issue, since they're not making films about Viet Nam so much as using the war as a backdrop. Cimino has given us a fable of heroism, in which the war functions primarily as a foil for the characters of the three friends. Coppola's war is a metaphor for the existential puzzle of an absurd universe.
Aside from the ethics of using the war in this way, the directors' denials beg the question. Neither film would have anywhere near its emotional impact if it did not draw on existing emotional and visual associations with Viet Nam. If you're over 25, chances are you've "seen" Viet Nam several times already on the six o'clock news. These movies may not be accurate, but they sure look familiar; at least the battle scenes do. On the other hand, give the audience a little credit. We know we're watching a movie. If we'd forgotten, Coppola in particular would remind us, with his color-coordinated lighting and spectacular effects. THE DEER HUNTER is more straightforward, but it too has its moments of unreality and spectacle, like Robert DeNiro coming face to face with a deer in the early morning fog.
Thus the films draw on familiar associations — as well as forcefully acted dramatic moments — to engage our emotions, while preserving a style that encourages us to forget about accuracy and concentrate on the story. The result is a powerful set of emotions — hatred of war, anger towards the (Vietnamese) torturers, sympathy for the (U.S.) soldiers — which in the context of the films is very difficult to question. But without our willingness to believe in the evil nature of the Viet Cong, Cimino wouldn't have a movie. Without our acceptance of the montagnards' primitive qualities, Brando wouldn't have a kingdom, nor Coppola a plot.
It is not only because they are about Viet Nam that the films seem familiar. Both draw on conventions of the war film and the U.S. hero which we have also seen many times before. In the context of Viet Nam, however, the conventions don't work. As Buchwald's parody suggests, they weren't devised for a war in which you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, particularly when the had guys might be us.
Each film employs the conventions in a different way. But the dominant tone of both films ends up the same: a querulous nostalgia for the "good old days," when the conventions made sense, God damn it, when clean U.S. soldiers didn't go off and commit suicide or go crazy — when, in fact, they went off and won.
THE DEER HUNTER tries resolutely to stick to the old conventions. Cimino gives us the self-sacrificing hero, courageous boys in the jungle, the buddy who ends up in a wheelchair, the boy who doesn't come back, the brave folks at home. From the beginning, however, he has to stand the conventions on their head in order to make them work.
First, he must spend the first quarter of the movie establishing audience sympathy with the boys' civilian life. The old war movies and even the old antiwar movies (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, for example) didn't need extended scenes of civilian camaraderie, because they knew we'd take it for granted that these were good clean boys and that our boys would win. In 1978 we knew they were going to lose, not to mention some of the other unsavory acts we might attribute to them, so Cimino is very careful to let us know that whatever happens, it's not their fault. He shows them working hard but cheerfully in the steel mill, drinking and joshing at the bar, celebrating a Russian Orthodox wedding whose evocation of community has impressed even some Left critics, and finally nobly pursuing the mighty deer. By the time they get to Viet Nam, anything they do, including lose, is all right with us.
Cimino stands by his hero; we truly admire Robert DeNiro's courage, resourcefulness and compassion when he saves his friends from the enemy. But when the boys return home, the conventions start to slip. The crippled man doesn't return to his loving wife — she has a nervous breakdown and he goes into a VA Hospital. The lost boy isn't a prisoner of the enemy, but a drug addict caught in the fleshpots of our allies. His girl (Meryl Streep) doesn't wait for him faithfully, but asks his buddy DeNiro if they can't "comfort each other." Finally, even the most sacred convention of all is reversed — rather than saving his buddy, DeNiro helps him to die. How else do you deal with a war where Americans became invaders, not liberators; murderers, not saviors? Cimino can't play his heroes for heroism, so he plays them for sympathy. In the biggest role reversal of all, the Americans are shown to be the true victims of the war in Viet Nam. Their real crime is that they lost, which robs all their sacrifice of meaning.
For losing, the characters must suffer, and Cimino sees that they do, but haven't they suffered enough? By the end of the movie, Cimino is able to produce an image of redemption. Even though we lost the war, Americans can still sing "God Bless America." No one could see that scene with dry eyes. The movie has established its terms so forcefully, there's nothing else to do. Ironically, even as the images of heroism and victory strain to create catharsis and close off the convention, the real suffering of the characters is glossed over. The brutalities endured by the men at the mill, the painful memory of their own brutalities in the midst of an ugly war, the pathetically constrained lives of the women — these THE DEER HUNTER manages to ignore, or to gloss over with some pretty shots of a wedding or a steel mill.
APOCALYPSE NOW's use of convention is superficially more sophisticated and hence more confused. Cimino stuck to a few central conventions as ruthlessly as his camera seemed to grip the images. Coppola's camera jumps and twists in a contorted effort to be everywhere at once, and so does his symbolism.
For the most part Coppola's imagery is not drawn so much from war movies as from a hodgepodge of existential and mythic literary sources. Captain Willard is the lonely hero in search of his own identity via the symbolic quest for a mysterious man. The journey up river is from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, of course, where Coppola admittedly got his basic plot. But the ritual killing at the end is some original cribbing from The Golden Bough. Literary buffs will appreciate the sly insertion of a shot of The Golden Bough, as they will relish the fact that Coppola's Kurtz reads from a T.S. Eliot poem, "The Hollow Men," whose epigraph Eliot took from Conrad's novel.
The fact that academically inclined viewers can glean these symbols out of the movie like picking nuts out of a pudding is an indication of how poorly they work. Some of the symbols draw on a tradition so little accessible to most Americans that it's surprising to see them in a Hollywood movie. If you know the references, you can get some sort of kick out of cataloguing them, I suppose, but if you don't, many of the scenes don't even make sense. What kind of soldier reads poetry? If the poetry were suggestive or moving in itself, it wouldn't matter that most of the audience didn't know it's an in-joke, but we hear just enough poetry to establish its importance and not enough to establish its meaning.
Other symbols aren't even accurate, although the cinematography makes the mistakes hard to catch — it's all so clearly not meant to be real. As Sol Yurick recently pointed out, what kind of CIA officer would use a boat when he could get a helicopter? Having the Montagnards forget their own traditions long enough to sacrifice a bull might make sense if Americans went in for religious killings, but since they don't, why bother? The sacrifice affects us like the poetry did. We know it's meant to be important and we might even understand why, but the effect is less one of revelation than of getting the answer to a crossword puzzle.
The contrast between Coppola's frantic striving for significance and Conrad's original symbol is instructive. In Conrad's turn-of-the-century novel, Kurtz represented the contradictory heritage of European civilization. Like his modern counterpart, Conrad's Kurtz is described as a brilliant man, who read poetry, appreciated art and was known to have musical talent. By making such a man capable of the worst excesses of European imperialism, Conrad was questioning the worth of the entire civilization.
Today, instead of symbolizing the highest aspirations of the culture, poetry suggests irrelevance and naiveté. Colonel Kurtz is already such a nut, we don't wonder he reads poetry aloud, but we certainly don't question our own values when he does. Coppola is far more appropriate when he uses living U.S. culture — rock music, surfing and television — to suggest the connections between U.S. values and our role in Viet Nam. Significantly, the moments when he does so are some of the least pretentious and most effective in the movie: the wake of a water skier following an Army boat almost capsizing a fisherman; a brief glimpse of a camerawoman as she steps back to film a dying man. Nevertheless, like Conrad, Coppola reflects the imperialism he seems to criticize. Neither the book nor the movie sees the Third World in its own terms, but only as a mirror for the imperial power.
Perhaps Coppola sensed that much of his audience might not be middlebrow enough for Kurtz' Eliot. For Captain Willard he draws on another cultural hero — Sam Spade. Willard is the archetypical man who has to get the job done, no matter what it costs. Martin Sheen does a tolerable imitation of a Bogart-like tough-talking detective (when he's not imitating, he acts very well). So does scriptwriter Michael Herr, who gives him lines like
"I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one," or "They said [the boat] was a good way to move down the river and that was O.K. … [The boat's crew was made up of] rock and rollers with one foot in the grave."
You can almost hear him add "schweetheart" and wince. The film noir allusions were probably the only way Coppola could get away with a movie whose primary guide to the plot comes through voices-over. But the stilted language suggests that the character of the man who believes in his work won't stand on its own any more.
Coppola does use one war-movie convention, or at least tries to. When he's not quoting poetry, Kurtz might have made an excellent "officer who was just too brave and individualistic to make it in the Army." The story of the young soldier who first despises, then admires, the tough old officer who can't follow the rules used to be a war film staple. Coppola last used it in his screenplay for PATTON, where he turned the cliché to ironic advantage by suggesting the actual historic limits of such a man. Here he tries to show the limits of the cliché itself, implying that the very convention is as dangerous as the deceptive Viet Nam quagmire. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. In Coppola's war, both sides act so incomprehensibly that Kurtz's kingdom seems more an effort to bring order out of the chaos than the logical outcome of an American ethos.
Both directors return continually to the bewildering nature of the war. No one in either picture makes any coherent defense of either side nor offers an explanation of anything that takes place. Much emphasis is laid on the confusion of the soldiers, whether as spaced-out drug freaks as in APOCALYPSE NOW, or as psychically ravaged victims as in THE DEER HUNTER. These movies are so free of ideology, you almost never even see a flag.
It is as though the only way the directors can explain the U.S. defeat is to make Viet Nam itself incomprehensible. Where else but in an irrational country could the U.S. Army lose a war? Coppola at least recognizes that some of the atrocities were committed by Americans. But in the existential wilderness of horror he creates, atrocities become comic, cosmic, colorful — anything but comprehensible. Certainly "no one is responsible" for them. Just before Willard and crew find Kurtz, they become involved in a horrible night battle. Far from telling the sides apart, you can't even see them. "Who's in charge here?" Willard demands. "No one — I thought you were," the soldiers answer. One doesn't expect them to come out with "the Pentagon" or "ITT" but it certainly does make you wonder. If someone had been in charge besides a crazy man who reads poetry, do you think we would have won?
Cimino's war is somewhat simpler than Coppola's, because he has a clearly defined evil enemy (although this enemy hails from both North and South Viet Nam) and because we never see our boys do anything bad. Nonetheless, at bottom, Cimino's war makes as little sense as Coppola's. The boys' sacrifices don't seem to have been justified by the nobility of their efforts. Nor are the characters conscious of any anger against the draft boards, politicians or even the officers who sent them to sacrifice themselves.
Despite both films' blatant racism, aspects of their vision are true. The Viet Nam War was irrational — for many Americans; U.S. soldiers' monumental sacrifices of life and sanity were not justified. There is a glimmer of truth in Coppola's soldiers, unsure of who's in charge, or Cimino's men, ignorant of why they fight. It may further be argued that a film doesn't have to offer an analysis of political economy to be a truthful film about war.
Of course the Viet Nam War seemed incomprehensible to many of the men who fought in it (although some did return to join organized political protests against it). But the falsity of THE DEER HUNTER and APOCALYPSE NOW doesn't lie in their admittedly excellent abilities to duplicate the confusion of battle. Their falsity is that they've made war seem out of the realm of human understanding, unsusceptible to human action.
A film like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, for example, also attempted to show that WWI was an irrational war. Yet it didn't have to dehumanize the enemy in order to excuse its own country's participation. Rather, it emphasized the essential similarity of both sides and its soldier hero's growing sympathy for "the enemy." By staying with characters who never learn more than that Viet Nam isn't what they expected, THE DEER HUNTER implies that no more can ever be learned about Viet Nam, by anybody. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, by contrast, focuses on its hero's conversion from patriotism to resentment of a needless war. The hero can direct his anger against the patriots who egged him on, thus implying a possible alternative, despite the unhappy ending. Objectively speaking, the heroes of THE DEER HUNTER and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT probably have the same amount of information on their respective wars. Yet HUNTER universalizes its hero's confusion, while FRONT puts its hero in context.
Likewise, a film can suggest great confusion and still avoid the limitations of APOCALYPSE NOW. Ingmar Bergman's SHAME is not even about a "real" war, although it can easily be viewed as a statement on Viet Nam. SHAME shows a married couple living in an occupied country that looks like Sweden. The specifics of the war, even the names of the two sides, are never mentioned; Bergman's characters seem downright indifferent to both sides. Yet in many ways. Bergman's film is more true to Viet Nam than is Coppola's. Coppola can show us Viet Nam only as the invader sees it. Whether he looks down from a plane or across the river from a boat, the invader sees only gooks, monsters, victims or slaves — never humans. Coppola is bound by the limitations of this viewpoint. Thus he universalizes the invader's confusion when he simply can't understand why things aren't working out. Bergman's heroes, while equally confused about the war on a factual level, do understand the reason for it: there is confusion because someone has invaded their country. Even Kurtz can't figure that one out.
Many responses to both APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEEP HUNGER have focused on their value as anti-war films. "Even if you don't agree with all the politics," a supporter might say, "it's important to see how awful war is. I left the film feeling more strongly than I ever have that we must never get involved in a war like that again."
With the spectres of Iran and Afghanistan looming in the foreground, with the ghosts of Kampuchea coming to light and the recent memory of Viet Nam once more being labeled "aggressor" by the U.S. press, it would be nice to believe that the New Hollywood is producing films to keep us out of war, Unfortunately I don't think it's true. It's no trick to believe that war is bad for U.S. troops. Nixon got elected by saying so back in 1968. In order to spare U.S. troops, he substituted Vietnamese armed with U.S. weapons and backed by U.S. technology. In an era where lots of machinery and very few men are needed to dole out destruction, Doonesbury's sketches of nonchalant bomber pilots probably did more to raise consciousness against future wars than the most graphic battle scenes in either movie. The movies make you not want to fight a war, yes. But with enemies as ruthless as Cimino's Viet Cong or as stupid as Coppola's Montagnards, how can you feel bad about someone else fighting it?
Both films imply their own resolutions to the antiwar tensions they raise. Cimino's characters sing "God Bless America," an assurance that the U.S. people will rise to the occasion and accept whatever tragedy the government decides to hand them. Coppola ends with a brilliantly colored bombing of Kurtz's kingdom, a scene offering a kind of catharsis for the preceding messiness, and suggesting the Army jargon for destroying a village — "cleaning the area out."
It may be that so far, the truest films to be made about Viet Nam in the United States are the documentaries: IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG; HEARTS AND MINDS; the Newsreel efforts; the recent study of the antiwar movement, THE WAR AT HOME. Viet Nam was not WWI, as the NLF were not Bergman's bewildered Swedes. We've gone beyond the old fictions before developing the resources to create new ones. In the meantime, a passage from Heart of Darkness, which Coppola adapted is still pertinent.
In Conrad's novel, the narrator, Marlowe, tells his companions that he can't bear the thought of a lie. "Not that I'm any straighter than you fellows," he cautions, but because to Marlowe, lies stink of mortality. In Conrad's hands, the passage becomes emblematic of a dying empire desperately in need of lies to hide the destruction for which it was responsible. In Coppola's film, the lines are spoken by Kurtz: "How I hate the stench of lies." How he would have despised THE DEER HUNTER and APOCALYPSE NOW.