Tag Archives: Marlon Brando

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

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.

A Dry White Season (1989)

Anybody who’s seen Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel is familiar with the cinematic technique.

A black man is being tortured by two white policemen, but we see him only from behind. We hear his screams. The police taunt him in a bored, indifferent way. We know he’s been water boarded, and, perhaps, beaten, but there’s not very much we can see by looking at the back of his head. The door opens. It’s a black messenger. The two policemen scream at him never to come in without knocking. The horrified expression on the messenger’s face tells us this isn’t the kinder, gentler torture we saw in Zero Dark Thirty. This is hard core Gestapo stuff. Later in the film we see what went on before the camera pulled away. The movie flashes back to the torture we had witnessed earlier, only, this time, we see it from the messenger’s point of view, from the front. The torture victim has had most of his face caved in. His eyeball has fallen out. It’s hanging down onto his cheek. His hands are broken. His body has been contorted so violently that even if he’s released — and we know he won’t be — he’ll spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. He’s a dead man, moments away from the end.

A Dry White Season by Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, and the only woman ever to have directed Marlon Brando, is such a vivid depiction of apartheid South Africa that I’m surprised it’s not better known. Rarely have I seen a film that so perfectly captures the viciousness of a police state. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Nelson Mandela’s funeral notwithstanding, we don’t talk much these days about the struggle against apartheid. The film itself, which is about the ways people avoid confronting reality, about the ways we manage to ignore the state violence that’s necessary for our wealth and privilege in a racist, colonial settler economy, is probably the best explanation about why it’s not better known.

The time is 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising. Donald Sutherland is Ben du Toit, a former rugby star with Suzette, a college age daughter, and Johan, a younger son. He teaches history at an exclusive, and, naturally, all white private school. Du Toit is a decent man with a good heart, but, like all white South Africans, he’s learned not to see what’s right in front of his nose. Du Toit’s world is placid, idyllic, sheltered. Soon, reality hits, and hits hard. Du Toit employs a gardener named Gordon Ngubene. Ngubene, in turn, has a son Johan’s age. The two boys are good friends. Ngubene doesn’t want his son getting involved in politics. But in the South Africa of the 1970s that’s easier said than done. Black men and boys don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. Jonathan, Ngubene’s son attends a segregated school. Du Toit is generous enough to pay his tuition, but the curriculum is Afrikaans, not English, an intentional policy that effectively isolates blacks from the larger world, and Jonathan wants none of it. He joins a protest. He’s caned. Gordon comes to du Toit for help, but du Toit doesn’t take him seriously. He doesn’t take the word of a black man seriously. He also knows, keep down inside, that once he sides with the black majority, his whole life will be turned upside down. Let it go, he advises. He doesn’t quite understand that Gordon can’t just let it go. Jonathan participates in the famous protest march that led to the Soweto massacre. The police pick him up. He’s sent to prison, where he dies under torture. Gordon comes back to Du Toit, who agrees to investigate.

The biggest strength of A Dry White Season is how well Euzhan Palcy communicates to us what a momentous event the Soweto protests were. The black majority is viciously repressed. But the white minority is terrified of the inevitable end of the apartheid regime. They close ranks. Du Toit’s white privilege has its limits. He’s warned, subtly at first, then not so subtly, that there’s a line he shouldn’t cross, that, once he does, he puts himself in danger. Du Toit knows this, but, to his credit, he presses on, helping Gordon find his son, and then, after Gordon himself is murdered, trying to get justice. He hires a famous anti-Apartheid lawyer named Ian McKenzie, Marlon Brando in a brilliant, almost forgotten performance. McKenzie, a flamboyant, William Kunstler style radical knows the “justice” system in South Africa is a sham. “Every time I win a case,” he warns Du Toit, “they just change the rules. Nevertheless, he decides to take the case, more for Du Toit’s education than out of any belief he’ll get justice for Gordon. What follows is the film’s best scene, one of the great courtroom scenes in all of cinema. Again and again, McKenzie demolishes the state’s witnesses. Again and again, the judge simply overrules him. Brando is just magnificent. Every once of his then considerable bulk expresses the absurdity of being a lawyer inside a corrupt legal system. His words and his manner have a revolutionary fire you never quite saw in Burn or in Viva Zapata, his 10 minutes on screen such a dominating presence you remember him long after he walks off stage.

But there will be no justice for Gordon. Nothing else in A Dry White Season quite matches Brando’s performance, but Donald Sutherland still manages to convey what it’s like for a man who’s taken the first step out of his gated, all white community, a first step that’s, in effect, a final step. There’s no going back. There’s no fence straddling. You can’t be a liberal in apartheid South Africa. You either stand for justice, and get crushed beneath the full weight of the police state, or you stand with the fascists. Du Toit stands for justice. His young son comes along. His wife and daughter side with the status quo. They just want things to go back to the way they were before the murder of Gordon’s son rudely intrudes on their sheltered existence. Suzette, Du Toit’s daughter, is a reprehensible human being who betrays her own father to the secret police, but, while we don’t understand the way she feels inside, we understand her motives. She wants the impossible, moral innocence in an unjust world. A Dry White Season demonstrates how, by her reluctance to get involved, she becomes one with the torturers, the murderers, and the police.

Burn ! (1969)

Burn, Gillo Pontecorvo’s followup to The Battle of Algiers, is more talked about than actually watched. Unlike Heaven’s Gate, Burn — also known as  Queimada — is a legitimately great film, but, like Heaven’s Gate, its distribution was botched. First of all there are two versions. There’s the truncated version, 102 minutes in English, the only one widely available in the United States. The full version is about 130 minutes. Just before he died, Pontecorvo restored all the missing scenes, but, since he had lost the original audio, he re-dubbed it in Italian, essentially destroying the performance of its star Marlon Brando.

The culprit in the whole fiasco was none other than Generalissimo Francisco Franco. A few years before, Pontecorvo’s distributor Columbia had released a movie about the Spanish Civil War called Behold A Pale Horse. It so enraged the Spanish dictator that he decided to block Columbia’s entire catalogue. Responding to pressure from Columbia, Pontecorvo rewrote the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish. Portugal is a much smaller market. He also chopped all of the potentially offending scenes out of the original theatrical release in 1969. If Charles De Gualle held up The Battle of Algiers for 5 years, Francisco Franco managed to butcher Queimada before it ever got made.

To get the full effect of Burn, you probably need to see both versions. That being said, while the unabridged, Italian release isn’t available on DVD, I still think it’s worth watching the English version, currently on Youtube. While it has gaps in the plot that may leave you scratching your head, you will also get the full effect of Marlon Brando’s performance in English. Not only is Burn an indispensable comment on The Battle of Algiers, no amount of incompetent editing can take away from its visual impact, or from its unabashedly revolutionary politics.

If The Battle of Algiers is a fully realized masterpiece, then its last five minutes can sometimes be confusing. Why does the film dramatize a tactical, military victory of French imperialism, and yet end on a triumphal note, the strategic victory of revolutionary Algerian nationalism? Burn tells us why. The victory of the Algerian National Liberation Front depended on the French people having a limit, on their being unwilling to cross the line over into genocide, on the idea that they could look at themselves, realize that, in embracing torture, they had become the Nazis, and feel shame. But what happens when the imperialists have no bottom, when they’re incapable of shame? What happens when they’re even not a nation at all, but a corporation? Burn gives us the answer.

Burn opens on board a ship coming into an island in the Lesser Antilles, Queimada, a composite of Guadeloupe and Haiti (with perhaps a bit of Vietnam thrown in for good measure). William Walker, a professional revolutionary, agent provocateur, and agent of the British admiralty, is standing on deck with the ship’s captain, who’s giving him a brief history lesson. 300 years before,  the Portuguese met with such stiff resistance from the indigenous population that they resorted to genocide and environmental destruction, burning down all the island’s vegetation, extermining the natives, and importing black slaves from Africa. The bare white rocks visible as they sail into the harbor glisten in the sun because they’re still made up of the scorched bones of the dead, giving the island its name, “Queimada,” or “Burn.” Eventually, Queimada recovered, becoming such a lucrative, slave-based exporter of sugar that the British government now wants a piece of it.

William Walker’s job is to foment a rebellion against the Portuguese among the slaves, and organize the whites and mulattos, the planters and latifundists, into a republic willing to give trade concessions to Great Britain and the Royal Sugar Company. He succeeds, teaching an ex-slave and luggage porter named Jose Delores, played by non-actor Evaristo Márquez, to be a revolutionary general and popular champion, a character very clearly meant to evoke Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. He also convinces the island’s creoles, the white elite, that a wage labor economy is better than a slave economy. It’s better to pay for a prostitute by the hour than to support a wife. He picks out a nationalist leader, Teddy Sanchez, an elegant puppet who, like Barack Obama, spreaks in glittering generalities without substance,  and pushes him into assassinating the Portuguese colonial governor — literally holding the gun in his hand and aiming it for him — the signal for a general insurrection in the capitol, and sets him up as the first president of the independent Republic of Queimada.

Ten years later, after an unsuccessful mission to Indochina — “a place none of you have heard of” — Walker returns to Queimada, this time not as an agent of the British government but as an agent of the Royal Sugar Company, and this time not to stir up a rebellion, but to put one down. While Teddy Sanchez is still President and still a compliant puppet, Jose Delores has turned out to be a genuine revolutionary, an incorruptible tribune of the people who can neither be bought nor bullied into making the same mistake twice. Walker had previously convinced him to demobilize his army. But after the former slaves had realized that they liked being wage slaves no more than they liked being chattel slaves, prostitutes not wives, Delores organized a guerrilla army in the high sierra, living among impoverished villagers who, according to Walker, are natural revolutionaries because they have nothing to lose. He is, in short, a threat not only to the creole, puppet government, but to the Royal Sugar Company’s bottom line.

That Pontecorvo see Burn as at least partly an allegory for the United States occupation of Vietnam becomes clear when Walker swings into action. First he has Teddy Sanchez, Queimada’s Diem, lined up against the wall and shot. Sanchez not only turned out to be an incompetant strongman, but, for a brief moment, dared to suggest that the interests of Queimada weren’t the same as the interests of the Royal Sugar Company. I couldn’t but help think of Barack Obama. Perhaps that’s why he shows such baffling loyalty to Wall Street and the banks.

Teddy Sanchez dispatched, Walker then organizes a counterinsurgency campaign far more deadly than the one we saw in The Battle of Algiers. William Walker is no Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu. He doesn’t use a scalpel. He uses a flamethrower. Like the United States in Vietnam, he’s willing to burn down the whole island to prevent it from becoming a “bad example” to other colonial possessions of the British Empire. He’s willing to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

As Walker destroys more and more of the island, works himself up into a rage because he can neither capture nor kill Jose Delores, as the holocaust of Queimada unfolds, we see the ugly reality of imperialism unmasked. For William Walker and the British empire, the black proletarians of Queimada aren’t even prostitutes. They’re not even human. They’re product, raw material, an inferior race to be exterminated along with their natural habitat in order to teach the world a lesson. Thou shalt not rebel against your capitalist masters. Queimada visualizes like few other movies the nexus between racism, capitalism, imperialism, and the white man’s diseased urge to control not only his fellow human beings but nature itself. No wonder Franco wanted it killed.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see someone get a knife in the gut than I was after watching William Walker get his just desserts. But is there hope at the end of Queimada, or is the film unremittingly dark? Jose Delores proves himself to be genuinely incorruptible, calmly going to his death rather than escape and denounce the revolution. “Fire doesn’t destroy everything,” he says to one of his guards. “A blade of grass, of hope, will always remain. Some day the white man will die in his own fire.” Perhaps he will. But will he take the rest of the world with him? Our response to global warming has not been encouraging.