Few movies have wormed their way into the American subconscious the way Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) has. The movie has been discussed, quoted and parodied to no end, and its seemingly endless number of new cuts (which are matched only by the “Blade Runner” editions in plurality and pointlessness) keep it in the news and on the arthouse cinema circuit. Although adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 serial “Heart of Darkness,” the film has become the classic American Vietnam War movie, and has risen above “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” in terms of influence. Everyone knows something about “Apocalypse Now,” from Robert Duvall’s iconic monologue to the pairing of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” with a helicopter attack. The movie is a masterpiece of pop cinema. It is also casually, shockingly racist in its portrayal of Vietnamese “characters” (if they can even be called that), who serve as either victims or enemies of the film’s white characters.
The movie follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who is on a mission to assassinate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Green Beret who has become, in the words of his superiors, “unsound.” Kurtz has taken refuge deep in the heart of the Cambodian jungle, where a group of natives worship him as a god. The movie offers no clear answers as to what made Kurtz, a model soldier with “about a thousand decorations,” break, but suggests that it has something to do with American hypocrisy and the contrast between what the U.S. military preaches and practices. Willard notes the Kurtz’s problems aren’t “just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everybody.” The movie is unflinching in its portrayal of American brutality and stupidity, and does not shy from criticizing the United States.
The problem arises with the film’s portrayal of Vietnamese people, who are practically erased from the narrative. A South Vietnamese soldier has a single line of dialogue in the entire movie, in which he refuses to give a dying enemy water. The other Vietnamese soldiers and civilians simply scream, die and babble. This kind of storytelling sets a dangerous precedent for how we talk about imperialism and the Vietnam War.
Vietnam, and the Vietnam War, are not the subjects of Coppola’s film. They aren’t even really the backdrop. The primordial jungle is all that Coppola needs, the space where the “civilizing” forces of white imperialists collide with the “savage” natives and where Willard collides with Kurtz. This is the true conflict of the movie: a white man’s conflict with the most savage aspects of himself and his people. The Vietnamese are depicted via stereotypes, yes, but even worse is that they’re forgotten in the film, reduced to set pieces. Their most important quality is their non-whiteness; the only roles that they serve are as either threat or victim to the white characters. The use of the Vietnamese people as set dressing for a larger conflict eerily mirrors the war itself. For both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Vietnam was merely the staging ground for the two great imperialist countries’ battle, another domino in a long line. Vietnam is a country however, not a domino, and not the primordial swamp of Coppola’s imagination. It is filled with people, people who undeniably bore the brunt of the war. One would think that, in making a film about the conflict, Coppola would have had the tact to avoid overlooking the Vietnamese in the same way that the U.S. and the Soviet Union did. Instead, he has merely reinforced the idea that people of color are mere pawns in the conflicts of superpowers.
It’s easy, in our (relatively) enlightened time, to wag fingers at a film for its racism. “Apocalypse Now” certainly isn’t alone in its erasure and stereotyping of non-white characters. The majority of war movies (especially Vietnam movies) are guilty of this. That doesn’t excuse the fact that this movie, supposedly about man’s inhumanity to man, treats its non-white characters as literally nonhuman, as more props to be incinerated in the furnace of Coppola’s creative vision.
“Apocalypse Now” doesn’t show Kurtz until the very end, where he appears as a grotesque, obese wreck of a man, wracked with illness and madness. The film ends with Kurtz’s “children” bowing to Willard, his killer. Kurtz’s followers, realizing that their idol has been revealed as a showy, bloated fake, move onto a new one.
I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the canonical films that the critical community prostrate themselves before, but I, for the life of me, can’t find it.
For a Vietnamese perspective on “Apocalypse Now,” check out Viet Thanh Nguyen’s excellent novel “The Sympathizer,” which tackles torture and cultural imperalism through the eyes of a Vietnamese assistant on set.