I sat down to write today convinced that I'd either be analyzing the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson, or waxing poetic about James Dean's work in Rebel Without a Cause. As it turns out, I'll be doing neither. See, Paul Thomas Anderson has only made four films, and James Dean only made three. It seems like abject laziness to write about either of them without seeing all of their films (I've seen three of Anderson's four, and only one of Dean's three. This wrong shall be righted in due time). So, instead, I took a look back at my favorite stable topics: hippie musicals, animation, bromance, and war (man, that James Dean post is just going to kick bromance's ass). I spun the dial, made a choice, and today, we'll be talking about war.
No, let's be completely honest. We're going to talk about insanity. Madness. Hell on Earth.
Like I said: war.
Everyone should see Apocalypse Now at least once, but make no mistake: it's not easy. At two hours and forty minutes, the film is a bit of a butt-number, though, admittedly, we've all sat through longer. No, what makes Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic so tough to sit through is its slavish dedication to imagining what hell might look like. The film, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, revolves around Captain Benjamin Willard: his mission is to take a small boat up Nung River, passing through enemy territory to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who has set himself up as a God to the Montagnard tribes of Cambodia. Those who are familiar with Conrad's novel will recall Kurtz's affinity for brutality, his views on controlling those around him ('exterminate all the brutes!'), and his morbid fascination with death, or, more specifically, horror. The Kurtz of the novel and the Kurtz of the film share these traits. The major difference, however, lies in the approach to Kurtz: Conrad's novel is a quasi-mystical journey through primordial lands, fueled by intense curiosity about Kurtz as an individual. Apocalypse Now spends two hours creating an environment in which Kurtz's methods seem not only sane, but appropriate. Technically, Captain Willard is supposed to terminate Kurtz on charges of the murder of four alleged double agents. Willard sees the inherent fallacies in this, saying that 'charging for murder here is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.'
When the film begins, it would have us believe that Kurtz is completely insane. That may be true. What it does next is a masterstroke: it attempts to drive its audience a little bit insane. Starting with a drug-induced panic in a seedy hotel room, the film throws set-piece after set-piece at the audience, each one more unsettling than the last. We start relatively simply: a bloody helicopter attack set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." An experience with the Vietnam jungle. A USO show; Playboy bunnies performing for rabid GIs who quickly turn violent. An abruptly violent encounter with a group of peasants. A primitive attack in a dense fog. A night-time siege. By the time we finally arrive at Kurtz, it doesn't seem strange that a corpse is hanging naked from one of the nearby trees. Nor do the other dead bodies, the silent soldiers, or the piles of disembodied heads seem out of place. The finale (avoiding spoilers: if you've seen the movie, you know what I mean), which would be grotesque and film-ruining in any other movie, is simply maintaining the tone set by the first two hours.
And all for what? What could Francis Ford Coppola possibly gain by subjecting his audience to this? I humbly submit a quote from Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried:
"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil...You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth."
I've had people tell me that they don't care for Apocalypse Now because it fails to accurately reflect the Vietnam experience. 'Platoon is much more realistic,' they say. On the surface, I agree with them completely. Apocalypse Now is far too surreal, to absurdly macabre to be accurately held as a mirror to reality, unlike the pseudo-cinema verite aesthetic to which Platoon so determinedly adheres. The true reality, however, lies in the souls of the films. Platoon offers a simple moral dilemma with exactly two sides, cleanly narrated and shown. Apocalypse Now offers nothing but vignettes of sheer terror, and doesn't attempt to make sense out of anything it sees. I've never been in a combat zone, and can't begin to understand what the jungle felt like, but I ask now: which film's soul feels more accurate? The film in which the morality of each situation is readily evident, or the film in which the whole world has been reduced to fear and chaos? Perhaps Apocalypse Now is as close to an accurate war film as is possible precisely because of its disregard for reality. After all, war must not seem like a war movie to those who witness it. Instead, each day is a new showcase in just how strange and horrific a place the world can be. Moments happen, and then fade into the mist, like dreams. Perhaps one begins to feel mad, because madness is the only option in the face of such insanity.
Kurtz: We train our young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene.