"My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."
Francis Ford Coppola said those words at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, debuting his epic Apocalypse Now as a "work-in-progress." Apparently still a work in progress, the film appears again as Apocalypse Now Redux, a reedited version that adds 50 minutes of new footage and forces us again to contemplate Coppola's grandiose claim.
What does "Vietnam" mean in this context? The last thing that Coppola, or America itself, associates with the word "Vietnam" is Vietnam itself -- the country and its people or their particular experience of that war. Apocalypse Now is surely not about that "Vietnam." Though more thoughtful and truthful than other celebrated American films on "Vietnam," most notably The Deer Hunter, one of the central failings of Apocalypse Now is still its refusal to give voice or perspective to the Vietnamese themselves. Not a single Vietnamese speaks in the film (or, rather, those permitted voice in the film's aural background are denied subtitles), and the closest thing to an actual Vietnamese presence in the entire film is a young VC woman who throws a grenade into an invading American helicopter before being shot down.
The "Vietnam" in Apocalypse Now is really "America" and our particular experience of that war. As an examination of this "Vietnam," the film is a bag of mixed messages. The film's opening sequence is bravura filmmaking, with visions of Vietnamese jungle decimated by napalm and the flutter of helicopter blades morphing into a ceiling fan in the hotel room of Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard. Synced to Jim Morrison singing, "This is the end," the scene ignites a fever dream about American confusion. Willard glances out his window as the off-screen narration mutters, "Saigon shit." Audiences in 1979 could surely relate.
With its plotline lifted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the film is also a mystery story. Willard joins a group of American GIs on a river journey into the heart of the war, his mission to assassinate the rogue Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who Willard's commanders say has gone insane. In this context, Willard is an audience stand-in, with Kurtz a personification of America transformed by its experience of the war. But the film's fatal flaw isn't so much its lack of an answer as its insistence on trying to be all things to all people -- to embody all of the feelings its audience would bring to the film. War is hell and war is awesome spectacle. The white man is a devil and the white man is a god.
The bulk of the film's new footage concerns a stop Willard's boat makes at a ghostly French plantation, a remnant of the land's colonial past. But this scene only adds to the mixed message. "Why didn't you Americans learn from our mistakes? With your power, you can win it if you want to," one Frenchman says to Willard, speaking for the hawks in the audience. "You Americans are fighting for the biggest nothing in history," says another, speaking for the doves. The film's famously bad acid-flashback of an ending likewise gropes for poetic vagaries rather than saying anything clear about the war or America's involvement in it. Dennis Hopper babbles incoherently, Sheen rises from the swamp in a shot that looks like parody now, and a bald, fat Brando spouts T.S. Eliot.
Perhaps the truest "Vietnam" this film is about is filmmaking itself, an epic visualization of director Samuel Fuller's axiom, "Film is a battleground." Coppola's comments at Cannes continued this way: "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." These comments are almost obscenely glib but not unwarranted. Much like his country, Coppola took his megalomania and noble cause to the jungles of Southeast Asia (Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines), only to be dragged into a quagmire with no sight of victory and a decidedly unsure exit strategy. The epic scope and foolhardy passion of the production itself are like something out of silent cinema, on par with the likes of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille or Erich Von Stroheim. It is mad, passionate cinema that shames the timidity and artificiality of current Hollywood product, but I'd still rather watch a more modest Coppola film like The Conversation.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is the inherent impossibility of making a mainstream entertainment about something as politically prickly and tragic as the Vietnam war. Coppola's battle scenes, regardless of his politics, are filmed to be exciting. The famous, technically magnificent helicopter attack by Robert Duvall's mad Col. Kilgore, ushered in by Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries," may be a deeply sarcastic commentary on military power run amok, but I don't think viewers cherish it for its irony. The cinematic power and glory of the sequence bulldozes all irony. It's a triumph of sorts, but I was dreading its approach and not just because of what happened last Tuesday.