For me, the Vietnam War began on June 14, 1974, less than a year before that final helicopter took off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. It was my 18th birthday, and I dutifully drove down to the county courthouse and registered for the draft. There was no draft anymore, of course; it had ended the year before. But you were still supposed to register, just in case. In fact, it was a federal offense not to register, punishable by five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. I'd always wondered what I would do if drafted. My older brothers were among the millions of young American men who found ways to avoid the draft ' 4F for one, a sudden wife and kid for the other. But I didn't have their...courage. Though terrified of going to Vietnam, I was even more afraid of being thought a coward.
I was theoretically opposed to the war, even participated in the cutest little teach-in you ever saw my sophomore year in high school. But the fact is, I didn't really understand what was going on over there. I was too young, too stupid. And that didn't change very much when I went away to college at the University of Illinois, which, in the fall of 1974, was still meting out punishment to antiwar activists. (A popular political-science professor was denied tenure.) Strangely enough, the war almost never came up in class, as if that was all behind us. Like many others my age, I felt that, as far as understanding the war went, I'd arrived at the seminar several years too late. A poly-sci major myself, I resolved to catch up. And five years later, I finally did.
That's when I first saw Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola's journey into the moral and physical squalor of what we call the Vietnam War but the Vietnamese, returning the favor, call the American War. If the Vietnamese-American War already resembled a Hollywood blockbuster, with a budget of $120 billion and a cast of millions, then Apocalypse Now may be as close as we'll ever get to a sequel ' a gargantuan film that seems to have swallowed the war whole and spewed it back on the screen. "My film is not about Vietnam," Coppola told reporters from all over the world at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where he debuted Apocalypse Now as a work in progress. "It is Vietnam." With the same mixture of grandeur and delusions thereof, Coppola had also suggested that his film would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
It didn't. Nor did it win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Nor did it win over the country's top movie critics, many of whom liked the first two-thirds and loathed the final third, which they considered both pretentious and boring. Audiences, too, were divided. "Half the people thought it was a masterpiece," Coppola told Rolling Stone after a sneak preview, "and half the people thought it was a piece of shit." Personally, I thought it was both. Like the war itself, Apocalypse Now was an act of monumental hubris, an attempt to find not just the craziness of this particular war but the craziness of all wars ' the Unholy Grail that lies deep inside the human heart. The result, which partakes of both tragedy and farce, was at best a flawed masterpiece. All I knew at the time was, it blew my mind.
Twenty-two years later, it still blows my mind. And you can give it a chance to blow yours starting Sept. 7 at the Orpheum Theater when a new-and-improved version hits the screen. Apocalypse Now Redux adds nearly an hour of new material to the 1979 release version, some of it welcome, some of it not, but all of it contributing to the sense of a work still in progress. The movie's also been reedited and restored, the brand-new Technicolor prints bringing out the Philippine landscape's myriad shades of green. But mostly this is an opportunity to reassess Apocalypse Now with the benefit of hindsight, to gently nudge it into the history books. So I would like to propose that we get back in that patrol boat and head up the river to Cambodia. Who knows what we'll find ' maybe even a proper ending.
Coppola boldly began at the end ' specifically, "The End," by the Doors. As a line of palm trees erupts into apocalyptic flame, Jim Morrison starts crooning his ode to Oedipal conflict. And what's striking about these opening images, which melt into one another like end-of-the-high hallucinations, is how avant-garde they seem. Also ahead of its time is the use of sound. Walter Murch, who had to invent the phrase "sound design" to describe his work on Apocalypse Now (Murch also edited the movie, a Herculean task given the one million feet of raw film), combined five channels with subwoofers, the first use of quintaphonic sound in a dramatic film. "My goal was to combine density and clarity," Murch has said, but it's the density we remember, the sense that we are being aurally bombarded from all sides.
Or from one side and then the other. Or from the front and then the back. Or from the front-left, front-center and back-right, then just the front-center. With five channels to draw on, Murch had a veritable symphony orchestra at his fingertips, and he made the most of it, especially with respect to what he called his string section ' i.e., the helicopters. Thanks in no small part to Apocalypse Now, the sound of whirlybirds chopping the air "says" Vietnam to us, whether it's the thwarp-thwarp-thwarp of the HUEYs or the whoop-whoop-whoop of the LOACHes. Both threatening and lulling, these sounds permeate the movie's opening section. And in a montage that will be remembered as long as movies are, they fade imperceptibly into the soft whir of a ceiling fan's rotor blades.
Martin Sheen's Willard remains an enigma in Apocalypse Now Redux but less so than in Apocalypse Now, and not just because we've gotten to know Sheen a little better during his term of office on "West Wing." The added material, especially a long sequence set on a French rubber plantation, helps nail down the civil war that's taking place inside Willard's heart. Like Kurtz, the renegade colonel he's being sent upstream to "terminate with extreme prejudice," Willard has arrived at the border between rationality and irrationality, good and evil, Western civilization and everything that Western civilization seeks to deny. And this time, fortunately, we have more to go on than the deathly monotone of Sheen's voice ' a voice destroyed by cigarettes and booze ' as it narrates our journey to the heart of darkness.
For example, this time the spectacular aerial assault on a Vietnamese village culminates with Willard stealing Kilgore's surfboard, a middle-finger salute that humanizes him and binds him to the patrol-boat crew. The Kilgore sequence, which takes up where Dr. Strangelove left off ' even the name "Kilgore" seems Kubrickian ' is as guiltily pleasurable as ever, a Mad magazine parody sprung to life. And Robert Duvall's Kilgore, with his air-cavalry-to-the-rescue Stetson and yellow scarf, remains the embodiment of the American war machine at what was supposed to be the height of its powers. Everything is so wonderfully overblown here ' Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blasting from the helicopter speakers, surfers trying to hang ten while shells explode around them, Kilgore waxing poetic on the smell of napalm in the morning. "It smells like...victory," he says.
Today, it smells like defeat, of course ' the kind of humiliating defeat where you win every battle and yet lose the war. What's so great about the Kilgore sequence and the following USO sequence, in which a Playmate of the Year and her two Bunnies in Waiting narrowly escape being fondled to death by a crowd of horny GIs, is that they get at what made the Vietnam War so different from our country's other wars. Yes, we lost. And yes, we probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. But it was the way we fought the war ' the over-the-top absurdity of trying to bomb a country back to the Stone Age ' that Coppola captures on the screen. That, and the accouterments we took with us: the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Instead of the Andrews Sisters sitting under the apple tree, it's Jimi Hendrix lost in a purple haze.
In the old version, the next stop was Do Lung Bridge, an expressionistic nightmare that, in the sheer pointlessness of its fighting, recalls the trench warfare of World War I. In the new version, we first stop off at a Medevac post that looks like the set of "M*A*S*H" after all the jokes have been told and everyone's headed home. Shot in the middle of an actual typhoon, this sequence features the patrol-boat crew trading two barrels of fuel for some R and R with the Playboy Bunnies, who are stranded there after their brush with mass testosterone. I'm not sure the sequence adds anything, but it does include the amusing spectacle of a Bunny complaining about always being objectified while absent-mindedly having sex with a guy she doesn't know from Adam.
Obviously, some of the film snippets that had been left on the cutting-room floor should have stayed there. But I can make a pretty good case for the French-plantation sequence, despite zee theek French accents and a rather didactic imparting of information. Bathed in golden light, as if preserved in amber, the inhabitants of this colonial outpost ' a family that carved its fortune out of the jungle ' don't seem to realize that the world has passed them by. They're ghosts, basically, or characters out of a Chekhov play. And although I had trouble understanding what they were saying, it was obvious they were giving Willard (and us) a crash course in France's involvement with Vietnam. "This is our home," one of them says, whereas we Americans are perceived as interlopers sticking our ideological noses in other people's business.
The French-plantation sequence also gives Willard a reason to resist Kurtz's charms later on. Her name is Roxanne, and as portrayed by French actress Aurore ClÃment she's a sad widow with a weakness for philosophical platitudes. "There are two of you," she tells Willard between tokes on an opium pipe, "the one who kills and the one who loves." Well, duh. But at least the new version evens the playing field a little bit. Previously, Willard showed few signs of humanity, and Sheen's self-contained performance didn't help matters. Taking Method acting to extremes ' and pushed beyond the limit by Coppola ' Sheen had both a heart attack and a nervous breakdown during the filming of Apocalypse Now. This might have made for a great performance if the movie weren't having a nervous breakdown of its own.
"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," Coppola told that roomful of reporters at Cannes. He wasn't talking about the U.S. military, he was talking about his film crew, which endured one of the most demanding shoots of all time ' way over budget, way behind schedule and punished by God Almighty when Hurricane Olga blew in from the South China Sea. Not that Coppola didn't bring it on himself. Flush with the success of the Godfather films and The Conversation, he arrived in the Philippines with an imperialistic sense of his own importance. An ending? That could be taken care of when Marlon Brando, America's greatest actor, showed up. Marlon and Francis would improvise an ending on the set.
The Kurtz sequence, which is strewn with mutilated bodies, doesn't really work, but it doesn't not work either, if only because by this point in the film we've lost our bearings for judging art. (My critical detachment departs for good when a real-live water buffalo is hacked to death by bolo knives.) As is well known, Brando showed up vastly overweight. And he hadn't bothered to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which the movie is more or less based on. But he gets off some good lines, courtesy of an earpiece and cue cards. And besides, who would you want waiting for you at the end of a journey to the dark, dank roots of human nature? Wally Cox? Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who kept Brando in the shadows and made strategic use of a stand-in, turns the tub of lard into a mythic god.
"Where Coppola is short is in thought," Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic upon the film's initial release. "He stumbles when he thinks, when he thinks he's thinking." And it's true that the movie's mythological underpinnings ' Homer's Odyssey, for example, with Kilgore as Cyclops and the Playboy Bunnies as sirens ' seem more applied than integrated, like Post-It notes stuck to the pages of a script. And by basing the story on Heart of Darkness, one of the most controversial books in the Western canon, Coppola all but invited the criticisms that have chiseled away at Joseph Conrad's literary reputation over the past century ' that the movie is both antiwar and pro-war, anti-imperialist and imperialist, antiracist and racist. Wasn't it a little late in the game to be worshiping noble savages?
Like Conrad's novella, Apocalypse Now is at war with itself. And how could it not be, with a script by John Milius, a high-flying hawk, and direction by Coppola, who to the extent he was political was a dove. You could argue that the clash between these two points of view has resulted in a movie that doesn't know what it's about. Or you could argue, as I do, that not knowing what it's about is what it's about. No wonder Coppola couldn't end the film. He still hadn't completely worked out the beginning and the middle. Apocalypse Now may be what critic Stuart Klawans calls a folly ' a film so outrageously ambitious that it slips off the tracks into madness, a film like Griffith's Intolerance and Stroheim's Greed. But are these movies really such bad company to be in?
And what was the war itself if not a folly? To fully appreciate Apocalypse Now, you have to reject an old critical argument known as the imitative fallacy, which maintains that, say, a play about boredom shouldn't itself be boring. For better or worse, Coppola's folly is as bombastic and confusing and seemingly endless as the war itself. Personally, I would argue that it's for the better ' that the movie, while failing to provide a definitive statement about the war, provides a definitive reflection of the war as it was filtered back to us on television, in newspapers, in magazines and in books like Michael Herr's Dispatches. Herr, who wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now, and from whom Milius stole like a magpie, came up with a new literary style for covering war ' an offshoot of New Journalism that could be described as Hemingway on acid.
At his best ' in the Kilgore and USO and Do Lung sequences ' Coppola translates Herr's literary sensibility onto the screen. At his worst, he gets lost traveling up his own navel. But has any Vietnam movie tried so hard to both stay on top and get to the bottom of things? Viet vets may prefer what Pat Aufderheide calls "noble-grunt films," in which American soldiers are depicted as victims, not villains. (Oliver Stone's Platoon offers a Manichean battle between good and evil, and guess who wins?) Or they may prefer Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies, in which a Willard-like Green Beret returns to the jungle to kick some gook ass. It was one of Rambo's biggest fans, Ronald Reagan, who tried to snap the U.S. out of its "Vietnam Syndrome" with a carefully chosen invasion of Grenada, that Caribbean pushover.
Hollywood studios ignored Vietnam during the war. Today, they seem to have forgotten about it, preferring to wallow in the simpler pleasures of World War II via such movies as Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. Which leaves Apocalypse Now as one of the few reminders that the next conflict we get ourselves involved in may not be a glorified videogame, as the Gulf War often appeared to the viewers at home. "We all have our Vietnams," David Halberstam told Salon recently, and until something better comes along Apocalypse Now will remain a big part of mine. The way Vietnam was different from other wars is the way Apocalypse Now is different from other war movies ' a head trip to the middle of nowhere. The movie's ending, its meaning? I'm reminded of a line that was supposedly uttered over and over in Vietnam: "It don't mean nothin'."
Nothin's plenty for me.