The Vietnam War was the most controversial war in American history. It was the longest and the least popular war in the history of the United States and it was the first major war that Americans had lost. 1 The American public had been saturated with images of the Vietnam War on the television screen on a daily basis and the final defeat of America in Vietnam has left the United States deeply divided 2. The topic of Vietnam was a subject that was left alone by filmmakers until they began recreating it after the last of the Americans had been withdrawn3.
Hollywood filmmakers thought that the American public were ready to explore the ideological fantasies of Vietnam against the realities of what really happened. Many films have been made about the Vietnam War and many of the realities of these films have been challenged. In this essay I am going to look at how Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, reflects how things really were for Americans in Vietnam and how Coppola’s idea of reality stacks up to historical evidence and what other historians say about his film.
Anderegg suggests that ‘the emphasis on reality is perhaps the most hotly contested assertion of the new depictions of Vietnam War4. Firstly, lets consider Coppola’s claim ‘My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam’5. Historians have understood this statement in different ways. Muse argues that the way in which Coppola went about making Apocalypse Now, the costs involved, the remote location, the secrecy and the way it was highly publicised are parallel to how America handled the war6.
Yet Rosenbaum argues that Coppola is suggesting that ‘by “Vietnam” he means “us” not “them”, Americans, not Vietnamese”7’. Suffice to say that most Hollywood films about Vietnam have been from the Americans point of view, showing the Vietnamese as faceless, mythical and often savage creatures, who lack their own culture and history. Apocalypse Now is no exception as it endeavours to tell a story about the American experience in Vietnam. Muse suggests that it is possible that the reason for this is that ‘after the war, America refused to recognize Viet Nam as victorious or as a legitimate nation’8.
The turmoil of the Vietnam war and relating it to the obsession with Communism, the governments handling of events, the lack of sensibility of the war all contribute to a war with a controversial past and a country that Americans knew only as a place of war9. Coppola’s production of Apocalypse Now was confused and chaotic and in this way as Coppola himself suggests can be linked to the confusion and chaos of the war itself. He says ‘that there were too many people, too much money spent and equipment used there, and little by little the cast and crew went insane’10.
Orr contradicts what Coppola says by stating that the film was exaggerated and distorted to the point of over-emphasis11. Quartz and Auster argue that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shows a real feeling for the madness of the war through his visual power12, yet Ellis suggests that although the production itself was a recreation of the war, and that the great visual power used in the film did give the viewer a real sense of the confused madness of the war, the excesses with which they were used became monotonous and unbelievable13.
Coppola uses loud music to scare the Vietnamese during Kilgore’s air attack on a VN village and the American style of music is played throughout the film. Suid says that the integration of music and sound that accompanies the visual images help to give Apocalypse Now its aesthetic appeal and some veterans claim that it ‘captured the surrealism that distinguished the war from all others’14. Willard’s journey upriver to find Kurtz and “terminate with extreme prejudice” can be seen as an exploration of the romanticism of American culture.
Kurtz was a loyal, decorated soldier who according to the military officers who sent Willard on his mission had become a renegade officer with his own private army of Montagnard tribesmen. Willard on the other hand, is mixed up about what happened to him in Vietnam and is trying to find himself again. He represents all that is pure and good in America. Until the early 1960s Americans, in general, viewed the military as an all-powerful and an undefeatable force for good in the world15.
However, Willard’s voyage up river takes him through a journey of self-discovery and in time he begins to respect and admire Kurtz. 16. Willard begins to identify himself with Kurtz showing the public the similarities to a time in American when everything was going wrong17 and things were confused and corrupt, such as drug addiction, youth rebellion and a growing resentment toward the military and what was happening in the Vietnam War.
Anderegg regards Willard as a hero figure of the American ideology and his mission as an investigation of an American idealism and how America views itself as being superior18. Anderegg also believes that Kurtz represents the lies about the American nation’s role in Vietnam. He suggests that both Willard’s quest and the American idealism of itself is a fraud that covers up the real reasons for their existence in Vietnam19. The scene that follows the air attack on the village shows a Vietnamese woman in civilian clothing throw a bomb concealed in her hat into a Huey helicopter.
This type of action can be used to explain why the soldiers found it hard to distinguish between enemy and foe and therefore often expressed hostility and mistrust to the people they were defending20. Lewy also believes that the entire Vietnamese population became an object of fear and hatred21. In the scene where the patrol boat comes across the Sampan carrying civilians, the Vietnamese woman makes a move towards a basket and all the civilians are fired upon. The patrol boat crew are jittery and nervous and again this shows the difficulty in distinguishing between the enemy and those they were supporting.
Willard and the crew of the patrol boat encounter many situation on the journey up river22, too many to deal with in this brief essay, but they all in some way can represent an image of the Vietnam war. They can be seen as discoveries of the true American self-image of cultural imperialism and also its failures of moral discipline in the war23. Like other historians, Nguyen Khac Vien has argued that Coppola’s story was told by Americans about Americans and that the story from the side of the Vietnamese is something that Coppola is yet to understand, arguing that this is why the ending of the film becomes unreal.
Coppola has told the ending by portraying the tribes in the mountains according to ancient myth and not how they had become – as part of the forces opposing the imperialistic forces24 We must also look at the fact that Coppola had not experienced Vietnam himself and that the story line was adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. John Millius’s script came from his imagination and stories told to him by Veterans from Vietnam and he also had no war experience.
The only person involved with the film to have any first hand experience of Vietnam was Michael Herr, who was hired to do Willard’s voice over, but he was not hired until after all the footage was complete25. Lewy argues that the problem with this is that the returning Veterans faced the problem of readjustment into civilian life because their acts in the war were seen as wrong. So to gain approval and acceptance they may have changed their stories26. He also suggests that the soldiers when they had nothing else to do, would write home about events exaggerating what actually happened27.
Rosenbaum also suggests that some of the scenes in the film are fabricated stories told by returning soldiers28. Films of Vietnam, in blurring the line between the fictive and the factual, replay the confusions and contradictions that were and continue to be central to America’s experience of the Vietnam War29. Apocalypse Now did show some insights into the war, but it may not have represented every soldiers experience30 and therefore did not make ‘a definitive statement about Vietnam31.