Where "Apocalypse Now" Went Wrong

This post includes discussion of Apocalypse Now (1979), director Francis Ford Coppola and documentary films including Why Vietnam? (1965), US Defense Department; Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), Eleanor Coppola and others; Terror in Little Saigon (2015), PBS Frontline; and the novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 2014).



Until recently I thought that Apocalypse Now (1979) was the best of the major narrative films that dealt with the Vietnam War—that it made the richest and the most compelling evocation of that long journey through blood and psycho-political darkness. It was certainly not the most realistic or historically accurate portrayal of the war, but cinematic realism and the documentary approach never seemed adequate means for approaching that war.


But this summer I revised my high appraisal of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic after reading the novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 2014), and again after I saw the PBS Frontline documentary film, Terror in Little Saigon in fall 2015.


From my first viewing of Apocalypse Now at the end of 1979, right from the first long take of green palm trees that suddenly explode into flames, a sequence that becomes a montage, with thudding helicopters swishing across the screen until they coalesce into the ceiling fan in a Saigon hotel room—I thought that this was the real deal. Coppola was showing it like it was, scorching off all the lies. 


Lies such as those told by the US Defense Department documentary Why Vietnam?, shown to the entire student body in the fall of my junior year at college in 1965 (see it on YouTube). Even back then, when the antiwar movement was just awakening, this film seemed phony and cinematically outmoded, with static talking heads, its familiar black and white historical footage—Anthony Eden claiming to have secured “peace in our time,” Mussolini and the invasion of Ethiopia, the Korean War—these clips offered as historical precedents that frame the dangers to the Vietnamese children we are shown, kids who will presumably be protected by our fighter jets and the bombs we watch sifting down from B-52s. President Lyndon Johnson answers the title’s question: “Why Vietnam?”: he is sending in more troops because we must maintain commitments made by Eisenhower and Kennedy before him.


“We do not want an expanding struggle . . . nor will we bluster nor bully or flaunt our power. But we will not surrender and we will not retreat,” LBJ says—words that all rang false by 1975. The voice of God narrator calls the enemy “terrorists” and identifies our soldiers as “freedom fighters” who are risking their lives because they know that “half a world away has become our front door.”


Soon after that film was shown at my college, a pro-engagement professor was invited to address the student body, and some 20 or so of us prepared to picket his speech. The Dean of Men visited the dormitory basement where we were working on placards and politely tried to talk us out of demonstrating. The next morning we boycotted the speech and marched around with our signs in front of the auditorium. Some jocks in letter jackets elbowed their way through the middle of our circle and the local TV news that night concentrated on the faces of the few students with beards and the longest hair.


From that fall in 1965 it would be more than a decade and after the US had withdrawn before—barring the exception of John Wayne’s The Green Beret (1968), a pro-war, WWII-style movie—narrative films treating Vietnam began to appear. And these were not like those patriotic films made during World War II—Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, They Were Expendable—but were a very mixed lot. Many, with fresher cinematic forms and a wide variety of approaches, attempted to address the national sense of failure, shame, anger, and confusion that swirled in the wake of the long war that wasn’t a war.


Although Apocalypse Now eschewed verisimilitude in favor of surrealism, lavish attention was paid to recreating a convincing look and feel of the war. While Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) Air Cavalry attack on the seaside Vietcong village is surreal in many respects—a bugler plays “Charge,” the copters ride in broadcasting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and he launches the attack not so much to help Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), but because the waves are ideal for surfing—even so, these are the actual war machines, and the cast and crew suffered through 16 months in a tropical jungle to get it right.


From Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), the documentary that evolved out of Eleanor Coppola’s notes and filmed record of how Apocalypse Now came to be—it is clear that her husband sought a supercharged realism or a realism on acid. If he did hold up a mirror to the war, he would show it as if filtered through a combatant’s drug enhanced vision. Hearts of Darkness shows how those months in the Phillipine jungle proved to be a long, alcohol and drug infused, and sometimes farcical simulation in miniature of the war itself.


As Coppola, grandly and grandiosely, says in the opening: ‘‘My movie is not a movie. My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like . . . . And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”


The true pomposity of his claim, the hubris of Coppola’s pose as an auteur was powerfully brought home to me this summer as I read Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer (2015).

When he was four the author fled with his parents from Saigon—they were “boat people”—and he grew up in San Jose, CA. The unnamed protagonist of his novel was also born in Vietnam to a teenage Vietnamese mother and a French Catholic priest who never publicly acknowledged him. Like the author, the protagonist also escapes from Saigon to live in California—but he does not leave of his own volition. He had served in with the South Vietnamese army but was all the while a spy for the communists. He is ordered to flee and serve as a mole, reporting back to the communists as they fear the defeated expatriates may attempt a counterrevolution. He is selected for this mission since he had gone to college in California and is fluent in English and familiar with American culture.


He is a deeply divided soul, who was bullied and marginalized as a half-caste growing up, and his internal division—European father, Vietnamese mother; soldier in the army of South Vietnam but secretly working for the North—is exacerbated when his ex-general refugee boss in California requires him to participate in assassinations and get involved in a plan to mount armed incursions into now communist Vietnam. But before these plans mature, he is asked to serve as a consultant for a film on the Vietnam war.


After sending in notes on the script, the protagonist is summoned to a meeting with the director, called only the “Auteur,” who is insulted and offended that he found a lot to criticize. What bothered him was that in this movie about the Vietnam war “not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.”


The Auteur would use the Vietnamese “merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people . . . . In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.”


It didn’t take me long to suspect that this subplot satirized Coppola and the shortcomings of Apocalypse Now. My suspicions were confirmed in the Acknowledgments, which lists many works on Coppola, including the Hearts of Darkness documentary and the director’s commentary on the Apocalypse Now DVD. While the there are many good laughs in Nguyen’s sendup, his critique includes some of the same points the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe made in his 1975 essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”


Achebe explored how white Europeans and Americans tend to see Africa as a place of negations and overlook or fail to register the full and equal humanity of nonwhite peoples. Conrad’s novella was a great work of art, but while Conrad famously wrote, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see”—in Heart of Darkness the reader cannot really see the Africans. While his main white characters are individualized and fully rounded, not only are the blacks are seen en masse or described as exotic specimens, but they are largely silent or incoherent: “It is clearly not part of Conrad's purpose to confer language on the ‘rudimentary souls’ of Africa,” Achebe says. “In place of speech they made ‘a violent babble of uncouth sounds.’”


Despite the fact that Conrad may have been concerned “not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind,” Achebe concludes that he was “a thoroughgoing racist.”  Since Apocalypse Now was a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness, it is less than surprising that Achebe’s brief against Conrad applies equally to Nguyen’s against the Auteur (read Coppola). In the Auteur’s film script neither the Americans’ Vietnamese allies nor the communist enemies have speaking roles; the only vocalizations they make are screams—and even these, the narrator explains, are wrong. And considered in this context, Coppola’s film is fundamentally about Captain Willard on a mission to find and “terminate” Major Kurtz (Marlon Brando)—one American on a quest to find another American—and even though we understand this is an allegorical excursion into the darkest recesses of the American soul—the film is set in a real war where millions of Vietnamese died, and it might seem worse than insensitive that those people are almost entirely interchangeable extras: Charlie, the VC, gooks. They are granted about as much humanity as was so parsimoniously accorded to Native Americans in hundreds of Hollywood cowboy and Indian movies.


And I once thought this movie was a masterpiece.


While I credit Nguyen’s novel for causing me to reevaluate Apocalypse Now, I realize some film scholars had discussed such shortcomings at least as early as the 1980s, but I either missed these assessments or failed to read them with sufficient attention. An article originally published in 1982, for example, argued that “Coppola views Vietnam as the projection of southern California into an alien landscape where even American idealism stands at last exposed” (John Hellman, “Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film . . . ,” reprinted in Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television, ed. Michael Anderegg, 1991). And so what we hear Coppola saying in Hearts of Darkness— “My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam”—might be more truthfully rendered: “My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is America.” Maybe he deserves credit for making some sort of masterpiece about that subject—but not for “capturing” the multiform reality of Vietnam and its people.


In an interview, Nguyen says that Coppola’s film glamorized violence, and turned it “into an entertaining spectacle.” He satirized the film “to show how American culture as a whole has always looked at the Vietnam War as a gigantic spectacle playing out for American interests and audiences” (Sara Nelson, “An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen, Debut Author of The Sympathizer. Omnivoracious, The Amazon Book Review. 7 April 2015).


I would also like to note that the novel The Sympathizer opened my eyes to a feature of the Vietnam war I could scarcely have imagined ever happening, but which apparently did occur and continued after the fall of Saigon in 1975. For in this “Vietnam war novel” only the opening 50 pages deal with events that happened in the Vietnam before that date. The rest is set later, either in California and concerns the refugee community or in Laos and Vietnam where the protagonist has traveled to engage in a guerilla-style incursion.


As I read those pages, I assumed that Nguyen was taking considerable artistic license in his portrayal of Vietnamese refugee organizations and how some remained fervently loyal to the idea of a non-communist Vietnam to the extent of carrying out assassinations and plotting guerrilla attacks in their homeland. But a November 2015 PBS Frontline documentary, Terror in Little Saigon, showed me that such a portrayal was actually based in reality:  


The program takes a fresh look into the murders, between 1981 and 1990, of five Vietnamese-American journalists who worked . . . [on] Vietnamese-language publications in California, Texas and Virginia that serve several of the refugee communities that formed in this country after the fall of Saigon in 1975 . . . . “Many of those publications had criticized a prominent, anti-Communist organization called the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam—or, ‘The Front’—whose ultimate goal was to restart the Vietnam War.” (Michael Getler, PBS Ombudsman, “Unsolved Murders: A Vietnam Battle Still Being Fought in This Country.” Nov.19, 2015. PBS.org. Online)


Nguyen’s novel more than hints at CIA awareness and complicity activities such as those covered by the Frontline film, which also shows that the FBI filled yards of files but never brought any charges against individuals in these groups. What the truth about such matters is will probably never come to light or may be even too amorphous and shadowy to be fully known to anyone, save to those who participated in the actual events. But the novel and the new documentary film provide tantalizing glimpses into dark recesses of the human heart: such as those explored in Marlow’s journey up the Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or in Captain Willard’s Odyssey going up a Vietnamese river in Apocalypse Now. Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer and the documentary Terror in Little Saigon help us see that our American rivers, such as the Potomac, also flow out of an immense heart of darkness.

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