John Harbert was my grandfather, my hero, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He retired from the army in disgust during Vietnam, and his mantra during my childhood was, “No one hates war more than those who fight it.” Then one afternoon when I was a teenager, sitting on the edge of his bed, he delivered the quote above. There was nothing heroic in his opinion of war, even though he was a decorated war hero who’d single-handedly saved a ship by shoveling burning gunpowder off the deck. He considered war with sorrow, and it was this sorrow that inspired me to protest the first Gulf War specifically and helped turn me into a lefty in general.
I love war movies. Not so much for the violence (I tend to hate all other action movies) but because they’re about vast groups of people engaged in difficult undertakings. I can appreciate that scale of drama. And if it’s three plus hours long, I’m all over it. Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, even sword and sandal period epics like Kingdom of Heaven do it for me. But none comes close in beauty or complexity to Apocalypse Now.
As with Brazil, I have an ongoing relationship with Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement. The first time I came across it must have been in an edited-for-TV version, and all I remember from that viewing was the arresting sequence of Martin Sheen going batshit crazy in some hotel room. And apparently a lot of this wasn’t acting. I’ve watched it a couple times since, queuing up the Redux version when it came out in very official-sounding Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier a couple years ago. I have yet to see it on the big screen, and this is my cross to bear.
When I watched it again the other night I was struck again by the thought that came to me when I first watched The Godfather: This is what a movie made for adults looks like. Nowadays, if you want to watch shit blow up in a movie, most likely you’re watching something featuring people in masks. And most likely the explosions you’re watching were made by some guy on a computer. The hand-made quality of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, for my money, still stands heads and shoulders above such CGI fare.
It also struck me at this go-round how cautionary the film is, how seriously it considers its task. Coppola’s masterstroke was to take another era’s material, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and place it within the confines of a new global conflict, on another continent. The film proceeds as an argument against colonialism, certainly (especially with the addition of the French plantation scenes), but it struck me this time that the argument cuts deeper than that. That is, it’s not really a political film. It accesses human conditions that lie beneath the plane of politics.
We spend most of the film with Captain Willard and his crew, bringing death and American culture with them into the jungle. The fruits of this culture–surfing, Playboy Bunnies, the Rolling Stones–is carried along as if in a bag slung over the collective shoulder of the invading army. It is Kurtz’s opinion that victory is impossible for those who bear the burden of trivialities such as these, that one must shed these affectations when entering the temple of horrors. It’s only after Willard has been adequately deconstructed as a son of American culture that Kurtz allows Willard to kill him. Willard, Kurtz’s manuscript in hand, upholds his part of the bargain, promising implicitly to share Kurtz’s thesis from the abyss to the world. That the film itself is a product of America’s great image-making machinery is perhaps the ultimate irony.
I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker but I’ve heard it’s a very fine film that takes war seriously. I worry, though, that our cinematic depictions of our conflicts in Iraq will come to appear like the interchangeable backdrop of a two-person fighting game. Here the avatars face off on a Tibetan mountain top. Here they face off in a Roman square. Here they face off among some ruins in Baghdad. As long as we view the Iraq war through a political lens, we’ll be committed to propping up certain tropes, such as that American troops are gallant heroes beyond reproach. Perhaps the difference between most war movies–set during any war–and Apocalypse Now is that the latter is about war as a condition, not a specific conflict.
Apocalypse Now offers us something difficult and metaphysical, something timelessly linked to Conrad and forward-reaching into the society of the spectacle that was just getting warmed up upon the film’s release. It warns us. In the same sort of ways my grandfather warned me.