Tag Archives: Robert Duvall

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.

The Great Santini (1979)

I sometimes tell people that my mother was like Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth from Ordinary People and my father like Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum from The Great Santini. It’s a harsh characterization, not completely accurate, and, even though it does have a grain of truth, it’s mostly the result of how both movies were in constant rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. Ordinary People framed my image of the toxic feminine. The Great Santini framed my image of the toxic masculine.

The Great Santini opens with a group of United States Marines stationed in Spain in 1962. Franco, unmentioned, is still dictator. Vietnam lurks ahead in the not too distant future. Castro is consolidating power in Cuba. The United States Marines are having a going away party for Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Meechum is a veteran, a popular, charismatic senior officer. He is also, as we shall soon see, a 40-year-old fraternity boy. After a waiter, then a senior United States naval officer, comes into their private room to ask, then order them to quiet down, Meechum and his buddies play a practical joke on the other people in the restaurant. They stagger out into the main dining room, drunk, and pretending to be even more drunk. There’s a band playing. Meechum grabs a woman and forces her to dance with him. She pulls away, indignant, then sits back down. Meechum, who had hidden an open can of cream of mushroom soup under his jacket, then walks up to the stage, and pretends to be sick. He then “throws up,” spilling the can of cream of mushroom soup. His fellow Marines start barking, get down on their hands and knees, and drink up the soup as if they were dogs drinking up their own vomit. It’s all good “fun and games” for the “men” who operate multi-million dollar fighter aircraft.

The scene changes to a military airport in Atlanta Georgia. Lillian, Meechum’s wife, Blythe Danner, Ben, his oldest son, Michael O’Keefe, younger son and two daughters are waiting for his plane to arrive. Anybody who’s seen the famous image of an American POW greeted by his family upon his return from Vietnam will immediately recognize the image. Meechum has never been a POW, and the war in Vietnam hasn’t even started, but the director Lewis John Carlino is reminding us exactly where we are in history. The conflict between the generations that will soon erupt in the streets and on the college campuses is also brewing in the Meechum between Meechum and his older son Ben.

It’s much easier to misinterpret The Great Santini than it is to misinterpret Ordinary People. If the family in Ordinary people, that icy, funereal trio of suburban Chicago WASPs, is so utterly cold and loveless that we realize from the very beginning it needs to crack up, the family in The Great Satini is a lot more complex. Lillian Meechum, and Blythe Danner is a much better actress than her daughter Gwynneth Paltrow, is a southern “lady.” She’s warm, gracious, kind, nothing like Mary Tyler Moore’s vicious upper-class Yankee bitch. What’s more, she and her husband, while they may fight, trade blows, and yell insults, genuinely love each other. After we see them in a post coital embrace, a long married couple in their 40s who still sleep with each other, they wake up, pile into a station wagon, and drive north to Beaufort, South Carolina and the 321st fighter squadron, which Meechum has been brought back to the United States to command. They sing. Lillian, a southerner starts out with Dixie, and Meechum, a Yankee, drowns her out with Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, it’s effective at making its point. Beaufort, which is near the famous Marine Corps base at Parris Island, is not Selma Alabama, or Philadelphia Mississippi. It’s part of the Sea Islands. It has a substantial black population and was the site of a famous experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The Marine Corps means there’s a substantial presence of the federal government. This isn’t a grim, backwoods redneck hellhole with night riders and burning crosses. It’s a gorgeous old Tidewater city with gigantic old plantation houses, a substantial population of people from outside the south, and no obvious signs of Jim Crow.

That said, racism, as we will see in the film’s climax, is still front and center. After Meechum rents a huge ante-bellum plantation house, he jokingly baits Arrabella Smalls, their black maid, with accusations that she’s a potential thief. Meechum is no racist, and Lilian treats Arrabella Smalls no differently than she would if she were white. But Arabella’s son Toomer, a fisherman and beekeeper, who we earlier saw driving his cart full of honey jars into town, will soon get into a fatal conflict with a local gang of racists.

The Great Santini is an old school 1970s liberal movie. While there is a nod to Meechum’s older daughter Mary Anne, Sarah Jane Persky, who codes “Jewish, smart, plain, feminist,” his son Ben is squarely at the center of the narrative. If Robert Redford, in Ordinary People, went right for the jugular, gutting his Chicago WASP family, and exposing it as a complete fraud, then Lewis John Carlino seems a bit confused about whether he wants to make a movie that’s genuinely feminist and anti-militarist, or if simply wants to tell a story about a father and son. I haven’t read the Pat Conroy novel the Great Santini is based on but here, in the film, Mary Anne Meechum seems as needy for her father’s attention as she does critical of his patriarchal authority. She mocks her father’s authoritarian personality, but always seems like her brother’s sidekick. She makes up stories about sleeping with black dwarfs to get his attention, which become more and more outlandish as he simply pretends she doesn’t exist. For Bull Meechum, his two daughters really don’t exist. There’s a darker side to his oddly likeable frat jock, but Carlino never quite exploits it as well as he should.

Ben’s feminine role model, his path out his father’s twisted, macho world view, is not a woman at all, but Toomer, the maid’s son. That a black man is used to symbolize feminized masculinity and a white man patriarchy is politically problematic to say the least, but at the very least it does put race and class at the center of the story. Even as Bull Meechum becomes more and more of a caricature of boy man, as he drinks, bullies his kids, and bullies his wife, his wife still defends him. “I want to give my son the gift of fury,” Meechum says to Lillian, “or else the world will tear them apart.” Lillian, the bourgeois southern lady, seems to agree. She plays both sides. She defends her son against his father, as soon as her son rebels, she defends her husband. Lillian doesn’t reject patriarchy at all. On the contrary, after Meechum viciously bullies Ben, who had the temerity to beat him as basketball, Lillian defends him. “Your father loves you,” she said. “He just wants you to be the best.”

And why shouldn’t she? Lillian Meechum isn’t stupid. She knows, along with her husband, that she lives in the United States, a capitalist country that values male aggression. To raise her son to be a feminist would, indeed, be a form of child abuse. It would take from him his ability to succeed, to make money, to attract women, to start a family of his own. Lilian is no Beth Jarrett. She loves her son deeply and has no trouble standing up to her husband when she knows he’s wrong. But she’s no radical either. How could she possibly know that in 1962 helping to impose a traditional masculine identity on her son might mean he’ll die, or, even worse, commit war crimes in Vietnam?

Toomer, on the other hand, is something of a revolutionary. These days, it might be possible to see Stan Shaw’s stuttering, folksy black bee keeper as racist, as a “magical negro,” but, if you look more closely, you can see that Toomer is the black, working class equivalent of Judd Hirsh’s psychiatrist, the benevolent father figure who helps the hero break out of his tyrannical WASP family. Toomer has no trouble standing up to racists, and not only verbally. When a group of “shrimp folk” break his honey jars and try to get in the way of his livelihood, he wrenches the leader into a headlock, and threatens to crush his skull under the wheels of his cart. When the gang comes out to home, he sets up a trap to overturn two cages full of bees. The racists scatter,  howling in pain. When the leader of the racist gang starts shooting his dogs — Toomer keeps about 20 — and accidentally shoots Toomer, Toomer, with his last bit of strength, opens the kennel door. His pack of hounds chase down the racist and kill him.

Indeed, Toomer’s willingness to use violence to defend himself puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to the Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman of Mississippi Burning.

But it’s still Ben’s story. While Ben never challenges Meechum over the neglect of his two sisters, he does stand up to him over Toomer. After the father orders the son not to interfere — “when the crackers and blacks go at it we don’t stand in the middle” — Ben defies his command and goes out to the bus. It’s too late to save Toomer, but, by at least trying, Ben saves himself. The tables are turned. Ben is no longer the bullied son. Indeed, as Bull Meechum continues to degenerate into the alcoholism that symbolizes his toxic, vicious patriarchal authority, his son becomes the parent, he the child. When Ben hunts down his father, who’s wandered off after a drunken binge, he not only saves him from public humiliation, he yells in his face “I love you dad. I love you dad.”

If Ordinary People’s toxic mother in 1980 meant Reaganite neoliberalism, The Great Santini’s toxic father would very soon, in the 1960s, mean Vietnam.

Meechum is killed after the fuel gage in his fighter jet malfunctions, and he crashes it into the ocean rather then kill civilians.  Ben and Lillian take command of the family, and try to maintain things as they’ve always been. Lillian orders Mary Anne not to cry at the funeral. Ben drives the family out of town, leading them as they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father’s old song. Ben’s Oedipal fantasy has come true. He has Lillian and the kids all to himself. He’s the man now. But Vietnam is only a few years away. Ben, 18 in 1962, is soon going to face a choice. Will he go to Vietnam, napalm civilians, become an agent of the imperial state as his father surely would have done, or will he rebel? Will he resist the draft? Will he go to Canada or jail rather than participate in genocide and war crimes? Will Lillian help him? We have no way of knowing, but, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, he does at least have a fighting chance.

THX1138 (1971)

THX1138 was George Lucas’s first movie. Even though it starred the talented Robert Duvall as the titular character,  it was not commercially successful. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t exactly panned, but, even though it fit in with the general run of dystopia science fiction popular at the time, no critic was particularly interested in hyping it.

The main problem is the pacing. THX1138 can be crushingly dull. A character named SEN 5241, played by Donald Pleasance talks incoherently and disconnectedly. The plot justifies SEN 5241’s style of conversation, but it just goes on, and on, and on. And then it goes on. I quite literally fell asleep in the middle of THX1138. When I woke up, I found I hadn’t missed much.

THX1138 does have its strengths. Not only does it create a coherent, sterile, dystopia, a creepy, self-contained, underground, totalitarian state, it anticipates, by decades the idea of a “networked” reality. It’s much better than “Her,” for what that’s worth. In keeping with the early 1970s, every citizen in Lucas’s city of the future is required to take a mandatory course of mind-altering drugs every day. These drugs lower the sex drive and induce passivity.

But it’s the idea of a “hive,” the above mentioned “networked reality” that gives THX1138 whatever originality it has. There is no sex. There is no privacy. But there is communication. At his job assembling mechanical policemen, THX is under constant surveillance. Key loggers, as far as I know, hadn’t been invented, but every hand movement is tracked. There are mechanical policemen, drones. There are holograms. There’s an electronic confessional booth with the image of Jesus where THX1138 confesses his sins. Robert Duvall’s character seems almost as much an Internet addict as he does a drug addict.

Hey. He could be me.

Decades before The Matrix, THX1138 imagined what it was like to escape the hive mind. But therein lies the problem. The story THX1138 has been told before, and told much better. I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of Clockwork Orange or The Matrix. Logan’s Run was silly, poorly acted, and looks like it was filmed in a shopping mall — it was — but it had the melodramatically compelling idea of a world where we got to live the good life through your 20s but had to submit to euthanasia at the age of 30.

I came away from THX1138 with the idea that dystopian fiction is boring and unimaginative. From Brave New World to 1984 to Blade Runner to The Matrix to the Hunger Games, the idea of a far off, or not so far off totalitarian hell has been told, time and time again. Jack London’s Iron Heel, by far the best of the lot, as well as the most realistic, hasn’t yet been put to film. Perhaps it’s too radical.

THX1138 made me wonder if, perhaps, optimistic science fiction takes more imagination than dystopian science fiction. The capitalist, class-bound, quasi-totalitarian hell hole the United States of America has been evolving into since the Gilded Age makes it ridiculously simple to imagine a fictional, class-bound totalitarian hell. Star Trek, on the other hand, which projects American liberal democracy into the future, with its swaggering, charismatic all American captain and its noble Vulcan intellectual, allows for the writers to have their cake and eat it too. They can imagine a dystopia like The Cloud City and have the crew of the Enterprise bring democracy and enlightenment.

Star Trek of course reproduces American liberal imperialism in space. They never quite obey the prime directive of non-interference. The characters are also, quite obviously, 20-century Americans. But perhaps if George Lucas had gone in another direction, had tried to develop a genre of science fiction where we imagine a better world, instead of staging Japanese samurai films disguised as space operas laced with Joseph Campbell’s mysticism, he wouldn’t have burned out after the 1970s.

Still, however, its ironic that even as Lucas released the awful Star Wars prequels, it was The Matrix films, which closely resemble THX1138, that reinvented science fiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s.