Apocalypse Now
The absence of history

by Michael Klein

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, p. 20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

"It was my thought that if an U.S. audience could look at … what Vietnam was really like then they could put it behind them."
— Coppola

In the late 1960s Marlon Brando starred in a film ostensibly about colonialism in the Caribbean in the nineteenth century but whose real subject was the U.S. war in Vietnam. That film, BURN, was produced outside this country and because of political pressure received little attention at the time. (When I first saw and reviewed BURN, it was being distributed as a second feature in rural California drive-ins.)

APOCALYPSE NOW, also starring Marlon Brando, but directed by Francis Ford Coppola and completed in the late 1970s, is explicitly about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Unlike BURN, it has been distributed with a good deal of publicity and ballyhoo. But whereas BURN offered a clear perspective about the causes of war and colonial domination of the third world, APOCALYPSE NOW is infused with an inadequate and incoherent vision.

While BURN is one of the few commercial films distributed in the U.S. during the Vietnam war to reflect the radical analyses that emerged in that period, APOCALYPSE NOW is a film of the late 1970s that looks back on the 60s with cynicism and despair.

APOCALYPSE NOW, very loosely based upon Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness, presents the story of a Captain Willard who journeys upstream from Vietnam to Cambodia in 1968 to assassinate a Colonel Kurtz (Brando), who has gone insane while carrying out counter-insurgency operations against the NLF.

Through much of the film we journey through the horrors of the war with Willard, witnessing scenes of genocide — napalm, destruction of villages by air strikes, slaughter of civilians. Always, however, it is shown from the imperialist point of view, the perspective of the helicopter machine-gunner letting loose at the natives. There are scenes of "black humor," such as a strutting, cowboy-hatted head of the air cavalry incinerating a peasant village so that he and his men can go surfing. And most all the U.S. soldiers are portrayed as acid-heads and rock freaks. The many soldiers that fought against the war and fragged their officers and covertly helped the NLF don't appear in Coppola's version of Vietnam. Coppola defines the war not as a horror in humanist terms but as a grotesque absurdity. The film does not aim to create sympathy for the war's victims but, perversely, to render the war as a merely fantastic, absurd, mind-blowing spectacle.

When we arrive at Kurtz's lair, an explanation of a sort is offered for the war and the nightmare world we see in the film. Kurtz reads a passage from T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men" and dies in high expressionist style with the words "the horror" on his lips. The images of the film extend this perspective, but often in a manner so covert that any audience perception of this interpretation remains privileged and elitist. For example, the blades of the helicopter warships that attack peasant villages to the music of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" merge into the helicopter blades that spin in the background of a decadent striptease by gun-totin' female entertainers at a doomed U.S. base. These blades merge into the spears with which Kurtz's mercenaries kill a soldier, and finally into a knife blade with which Willard dispatches Kurtz. Parallel to primitive barbarism is technological barbarism, the culture of decadent fascism.

APOCALYPSE NOW offers no deeper insight into the causes of the war in Vietnam. In the final moments of the improvised last section of the film, Willard, having killed Kurtz, begins to physically resemble him. This time the message is clear, however crude and distorted: we are, all of us, decadent and doomed by nature. There are no saved in Coppola's vision of the apocalypse: no liberation fighters, no Vietnam vets against the war. But then there are no aggressors or imperialists either, only guilty liberals and assorted grotesques.

Perhaps the effect is not quite as insidious as that of THE DEER HUNTER where a stylish new U.S. superhero emerges from the war seeking continuity in chauvinist abstractions. In APOCALYPSE NOW neither Willard nor Kurtz are role models for a new generation. At best Willard is a burnt-out fragment from the 60s mosaic. We find no positive figures that we identify with because of their humanity — unlike in the better post-WWI films (e.g., ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, THE BIG PARADE) or some made at the end of WWII (e.g., PRIDE OF THE MARINES).

In APOCALYPSE NOW we are presented with a cynical spectacle — an ersatz expression of counter-culture disillusion that is, in the final sense, sanctioned by aesthetic codes of formal excellence (the extravagance of Coppola's production, the self-conscious "beauty" of the images) and a middlebrow appeal to high culture norms (the strained allusions to Conrad and Eliot). Coppola succeeds in making a film that attempts to "put Vietnam behind us" or, to put it another way, that embezzles the heritage of a whole generation's historical experience while making a few deceptive signs in the direction of cultural tradition. History is displaced by the spectacle, by the ideology and rhetoric of Coppola's mise-en-scene. That is the real horror, not Col. Kurtz's hollow cry. The reality of life in Vietnam and in the U.S. as it was affected by the war is significantly absent from the frame. Missing are not only the struggle of the Vietnamese people for independence from U.S. domination but the anguished struggle of the U.S. people, inside and outside of the army, against the war, which in many cases involved analyses or at least recognition of the imperialist dynamics of that conflict.

What a contrast to Pontecorvo's film BURN, where an historical analysis of imperialist expansion is clearly presented as an integral part of the narrative. But in BURN, instead of mumbling Eliotic mystifications in the dark shadows of an exotic set, Marlon Brando as Sir William Walker, a somewhat tragic realpolitik colonialist agent in the Third World, explains his actions with an inverted Marxist logic. Like Conrad's Kurtz, Walker believes his actions will further progress and "civilization." He also has a clear vision of the class polities involved and of the Third World's revolutionary potential. First, Walker forges a revolutionary alliance between the national bourgeoisie and the slaves of the island nation of Quemada to displace Portugal's dominance, so that England can gain influence there under the banners of "free trade" and "democratic freedom." Later, as the British sugar companies exert more and more control, Quemada's national bourgeoisie become compradors and the liberated slaves become wage slaves. The former slaves — now workers and peasants — are driven to revolution and take to the hills. British troops take over open control of Quemada and wage a genocidal war against the rebellious population. The war is a necessity, Walker maintains, to ensure that the area will be free for exploitation and development for centuries. When BURN was released in the late 60s, the parallels with Vietnam and southeast Asia were clear.

Perhaps the most important difference between BURN and APOCALYPSE NOW, related to the dialectical sense of history that permeates and structures BURN, is that APOCALYPSE NOW presents no recognizable potential counterforce to the forces of darkness — only equally demonic shadows in the jungle. BURN, however, develops the figure of Jose Delores, the leader of the sugar cane workers and peasants, to contrast with Brando's Sir William Walker. Jose Delores' statement that freedom is not something that colonizers grant but something that the people must fight for becomes the dominant theme of the film. BURN lets us arrive at both an understanding of the process of history and a sympathy with people seeking liberation. This is unlike APOCALYPSE NOW, which exorcises history and offers a message of cynicism and despair.