Americans are never more narcissistic than when they make films examining their own narcissism.
So it made sense for Francis Ford Coppola to use Heart Of Darkness to frame his epic about the war in Vietnam. White men traveling to central Africa and finding nothing but a reflection of the genocidal heart and soul of western civilization? What can be more American than that?
Heart of Darkness is a work of genius, but it is clearly a work of its age. As much as he deplored the savagery and hypocrisy of King Leopold and the Belgians in the Congo, Joseph Conrad was a white European writing in 1899. In other words, he was a racist. As writers like Edward Said and Chinua Achebe have observed, Conrad dehumanizes Africans, seeing them almost exclusively as a blank slate on which Europeans, whether for good or evil, have written their history. 1979 is not 1899. For Apocalypse Now to succeed on the highest level, Francis Ford Coppola, a contemporary of the Civil Rights and Third World Liberation movements, would have to transcend Joseph Conrad’s blinkered views on race. He would have to see the Vietnamese as conscious historical actors, subjects not objects, as human beings not simply as a yardstick to judge the United States government and the United States military.
Apocalypse Now is a staggering technical achievement, a highpoint of cinematic artistry that may never again be reached, either by Americans or by else. But is it a work of genius? I would say no. Dennis Grunes is correct. The film is a muddled cop out.
How much Coppola’s decision to work with the fascist John Milius — who also wrote Dirty Harry and Red Dawn — and not, for example, an anti-imperialist screenwriter can be debated. But of this much you can be sure. Apocalypse Now is no Battle of Algiers, a collaborative effort between Gillo Pontecorvo and veterans of the Algerian War of Liberation. On the issue of race, Francis Ford Coppola, an Italian American born in 1939, is no more enlightened than Joseph Conrad, an Anglo Pole born in 1857. At no point in the over 3 hours of the directors cut of Apocalypse Now Redux do Coppola and Milius ever flip the script on Heart of Darkness. In the end, Coppola’s Vietnamese, who conducted a sophisticated anti-imperialist struggle against the most powerful military the world had ever seen, never speak. They are, like Conrad’s Africans, or Kipling’s Burmese, tribal primitives, merely a reflection of the white man’s desire to live “east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”
Nevertheless, I think Dennis Grunes misses something important about Apocalypse Now. More accurately, he briefly raises the issue then dismisses it. “If Coppola’s aim was to turn Heart of Darkness into jungle farce,” he says, “bull’s-eye.” Bulls-eye indeed. To judge from everything I’ve read and heard, from both mainstream and radical history, and from eye witness accounts, the ten year American occupation of Vietnam as “jungle-farce” is precisely the point. What makes American imperialism different from French or British imperialism, what a good American artist would want to add to Joseph Conrad’s great short novel, would be the music of that violent, doped-out carnival that the United States had become in the 1960s and 1970s. For Joseph Conrad, Belgian imperialism was a “whited sepulcher,” a slaughterhouse covered up by an attractive, whitewashed facade, the terminal state of western and Christian hypocrisy. The ethereal Aurore Clément in the much criticized interlude on the French rubber plantation is a tip of the hat to Conrad’s original aesthetic.
But for the United States, the country that gave us Charles Manson and Altamont, Richard Nixon and the Chicago Police Riot, Coppola needed an entirely new vision. Here I think he succeeds. Take the famous sequence of the helicopter attack helicopter attack. Robert Duvall’s insane, California surfer colonel is justly celebrated as one of the great moments of American cinema. Dennis Hopper’s murderous boy next door in David Lynch’s overrated Blue Velvet doesn’t even come close. But there’s a deeper level to Coppola’s portrayal of the First Airmobile Cavalry. Colonel Kilgore and his men are wearing the famous “Black Hats” worn by members of the Iron Brigade, a celebrated unit of the Army of the Potomac during the United States Civil War. But they attack the village at the mouth of the Nung River to the sound of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, the same music DW Griffith used in his racist film Birth of a Nation. The Iron Brigade has now become the Ku Klux Klan. The army that fought the slave power is now fighting for empire. American patriotism rides to the tune of Hitler’s favorite composer, “Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” now a technologically superior “master race,” swoops out of the sky to slaughter women and children, to rip up an ancient civilization, and replace it with t-bones, beer, and the Beach Boys.
And of course a highly trained scholar of world cinema like Francis Ford Coppola would have done this consciously.
While some of the scenes Coppola added to the original theatrical release may indeed slow down the film’s narrative drive, they also add to our understanding of the film as a whole. The sequence with the Playboy bunnies at the destroyed Medevac made me cringe, and I’m not even a feminist. But it’s clear that at least part of the reason “Clean,” Larry Fishbourne, shot up the sampan “Chief” stops on the river for an inspection is sexual frustration. Clean, a teenage boy and a virgin, is the only member of the crew who doesn’t get laid. Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore came off like a badass in the theatrical release. In the Redux version he just seems nuts. Chef’s fluent French, which is a lot clearer in the Redux version, reminds us that the crew of Chief’s swift boat is an elite crew. With a French chef and a famous surfer, it’s as representative of “blue” America as Michael Cimino’s east European steel workers in The Deer Hunter are representative of “red” America. The long sequence at the French rubber plantation may indeed be jarring, but it’s a jarring reminder that the war in Vietnam was, after all, a war for empire. When the articulate French fascist played by Christian Marquand talks about Điện Biên Phủ and the Henri Martin Affair, it’s Coppola’s admission that his narrative and aesthetic never quite address the history of French and American imperialism in Southeast Asia.
Just about the only thing about Apocalypse Now Redux that still never quite works is Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Colonel Kurtz. Why hire a great actor like Brando to play the enigma at the heart of the film’s anti-climax? Indeed, by the time Willard finally gets to Kurtz’s compound deep in the jungle at the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, we’ve already broke the 3 hour mark. To explore Kurtz in depth would turn Apocalypse Now into a mini-series. So Brando pretty much just mumbles. What’s more, the Gothic horror, the primitive savagery in the last half-hour are perversely racist and imperialist. Kurtz throws Chef’s head into Willard’s lap. Willard screams in horror, something he never did while Kilgore’s Huey attack ships were slaughtering women and children at the mouth of the Nung River. Coppola has become an apologist. Kurtz “going native” is scarier than the idea of technologically state of the art mass murder.
The most irritating part about Apocalypse Now, whether in the theatrical or Redux versions, remains Captain Willard’s voice over. If anything, it’s gotten worse with age. Willard’s description of the crew of Chief’s swift boat as “rock n rollers with one foot in the grave” may have made some sense in 1979. Now it just makes you groan. The inane voice over adds nothing to our understanding of Colonel Kurtz, and, indeed ,may subtract from it. Are there CIA operatives who speak in the noir hipster way Willard speaks? There may be. But I’ve never heard one. Conrad’s Marlowe, stodgy, unreliable narrator though he may be, still draws us into the world of a British river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, his language accurately mirroring the language of a merchant seaman. Had Willard been a believable covert operative the voice over might have given Apocalypse Now an added dimension. Here it’s just annoying. Let Apocalypse Now Redux II just cut it out altogether. If Ridley Scott did it for Blade Runner, surely Coppola can manage it here.