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Final word on the Vietnam War?
Apocalypse Then and Now

MOVIES: Apocalypse Now Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, written by John Milius and Coppola, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper.

Review by ALAN MAASS | August 31, 2001 | Page 11

FRANCIS FORD Coppola's Apocalypse Now is back in theaters, in an expanded and reedited version. Just as it was 22 years ago, the film is being hyped as Hollywood's "definitive statement" on the Vietnam War.

Apocalypse Now Redux is many things--a lot of them good things that make it worth seeing. But the final word on Vietnam it isn't.

The movie is a retelling of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness about colonial Africa in the 1890s. In Conrad's story, a man named Marlow describes how he was hired by a Belgian trading company to track down Kurtz, the company's agent in the Congo, who went insane and set himself up as a tyrant.

Most of the book is spent on the long journey upriver toward Kurtz's mad kingdom--a journey into the "heart of darkness."

The book seems to question the corruption and brutality of colonial rule. But Conrad didn't necessarily think this was the fault of the colonialists. For him, their aims were warped by contact with a race of savages--making it inevitable that civilized Europeans would begin acting like the African barbarians surrounding them.

Obviously, this is a deeply racist and conservative conclusion. Which explains why Heart of Darkness appealed to John Milius--who wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now by resetting the Heart of Darkness story in Vietnam, with Kurtz (Marlon Brando) a U.S. Special Forces officer gone crazy, and Marlow, renamed Willard (Martin Sheen), a mercenary for the Pentagon.

Milius is a right-wing dingbat. He's infamous as the director of the 1984 film Red Dawn, one of those so-unbelievably-bad-it's-funny movies that portrays the former USSR's Latin American minions invading the U.S. and imposing a totalitarian dictatorship--complete with concentration camps for NRA members and guerrilla bands of high school football players and cheerleaders fighting the Communist oppressors.

Milius' opinions about Vietnam are made clear in a rambling speech by Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now, where he describes an atrocity--completely made up--in which Vietnamese soldiers hacked off the arms of children vaccinated for polio by the do-gooder Americans.

"I thought: 'My God, the genius of that,'" Kurtz says. "The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we."

This sequence does double duty for Milius. First, it confirms that the Vietcong are psychopaths who think nothing of mutilating children to further their political goals. Second, it offers the same old right-wing claptrap about why the U.S. couldn't win in Vietnam--Americans didn't have the stomach for a real war.

If there's more to Apocalypse Now than this awful ranting, it's because, as director and co-screenwriter, Coppola pulled the movie in a more liberal direction.

Coppola insisted, for example, on a scene during the river journey where Willard and his squad massacre an entire Vietnamese family--a reference to the war crimes carried out by U.S. troops.

And Apocalypse Now has one of the most memorable portrayals of American military madness ever put on film--Lt. Col. Kilgore (acted brilliantly by Robert Duvall), who goes into battle with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring from loudspeakers, casually declaring, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

Kilgore is a strutting thug, one minute demanding water for a dying Vietnamese soldier, the next reorganizing his assault to give a champion surfer time to hit the waves in the midst of the fighting.

Scenes like these make Apocalypse Now a much better film than might be expected from the right-wing ideas at its core. But there are a number of conflicting points being made at every step of the way.

What the movie does best is show the nightmarish chaos of war--the horrible tension of a situation where death comes suddenly, with blinding violence and no clear meaning.

The message is that "war is hell." But saying this isn't necessarily to oppose war-as flag-waving movies like Pearl Harbor or Saving Private Ryan show.

So what people take from Apocalypse Now depends a lot on the social context--and on the ideas they bring to the theater.

The movie was made in the late 1970s, only a few years after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and while the debate over the outcome was still fresh. For me--as a teenager just beginning to learn about the war and concerned that the U.S. government was trying to bring back the draft as a step toward new interventions in Central America--Apocalypse Now confirmed my developing antiwar beliefs.

It seemed to show that war destroyed the humanity of everyone involved--so my government shouldn't get involved in them and get people like me killed.

But much more needs to be said about Vietnam. Most importantly, millions of people around the world came to oppose the U.S. war effort not because they opposed all violence--but because they concluded that the Vietnamese were fighting a just war for liberation against U.S. imperialism.

When it comes to this discussion, Apocalypse Now is no help. At best, the Vietnamese are seen as bystanders in their own country. At worst, they're savages who turn innocent American boys into monsters.

Ultimately, what was truly monstrous about Vietnam was the U.S. government's determination to shed rivers of blood to crush all resistance.

When the Vietnamese drove the U.S. out of their country, they won a victory for the cause of peace and justice. Of course, we shouldn't expect Hollywood movies to be history lessons--with Marxist conclusions at that.

There's a lot to be admired about Apocalypse Now in purely movie terms. The cast of characters is one of the most memorable in any film. And the movie was put together by some of the most skilled filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood.

The surreal mood of paranoia and fear that they create for the movie is riveting. And at three-and-a-half hours, the expanded Redux version has even more to be amazed by.

So go see Apocalypse Now Redux. Just don't believe the hype that this is the final word on Vietnam.

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