Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Horror, The Horror

Posted on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons,
photo by Doug Kline of Robert Duvall's costume.
In 1979, one of my sisters and I had an odd “Vietnam” Saturday. We drove to Moline, Illinois, where the largest cinema complex in our area was located, and watched two movies, practically back-to-back.

One was “Hair.” The other was “Apocalypse Now.”

Sunday night, I re-watched “Apocalypse Now.” I’m not sure how well “Hair” has aged, but this retelling of “Heart of Darkness” in Vietnam is still a movie classic. It’s a strange narrative, a more than slightly off-kilter story that starts inside a claustrophobic room in Saigon.

I also rented a copy of the documentary that was made some years later about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” but I have not watched it yet.

“Apocalypse Now” is very episodic, with discrete scenes taking place as a small Navy patrol boat moves up a river to deliver an assassin whose mission is to eliminate a rogue colonel. There is the famous assault on a village staged so that a helicopter cavalry commander could find the best waves for surfing.

Most quoted lines from the movie: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Or: “Charlie don’t surf!”

Later, there is the tense search for mangos that ends in a tiger attack. There is the massacre of the civilians in the sampan. And finally there is the encounter with the rogue colonel and his strange tribe of followers deep in the jungle.

As a narrative, it follows the source material, the colonial novel “Heart of Darkness,” surprisingly well. Instead of a jabbering Russian, there is a photojournalist extolling the genius of “Colonel Kurtz.” I did find myself wondering at the story, a bit. If they had helicopters that could deliver combat troops to a village with ultimate surfing waves, and that could pick up a patrol boat and put it where they wanted—why did they bother riding that boat all the way up the river? Why not start the journey at the eerie bridge that was the last American outpost?

For that matter, the ending of the movie is a bit unsatisfying. Why is the assassin popping up out of the water with a machete and sneaking up on the colonel when he’s been spending days in the colonel’s company previous to that?

Still, despite my minor qualms at the plot, I think the movie has a lot to offer. It puts you on edge, and has a lot to say about the dehumanizing effects of violence and war.

I’ve now binge watched “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon.” It’s been an odd week. Of the four, “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now”are the most evocative.

In part, I suppose, that’s because neither Mathew Modine nor Tom Cruise seemed to fit their leading roles well in “Full” or “Born.” In part, it’s because the other two movies are more surreal, taking you to some other place and time and making you feel that you’re not in Kansas (nor Iowa) anymore.

“Hair?” Honestly, it’s not enough of a Vietnam movie for me to include it on my watch list. For now, the Vietnam film fest continues. Again, if you have any suggestions, feel free to comment.


  1. I remember that day in '79. I came out with a monster headache.
    Not a movie, but a book suggestion: Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato." I think you mentioned reading his "the Things They Carried," which, if I remember correctly, is a collection of short stories. The novel I mentioned shares some of the surreal qualities of "Apocalypse Now" and is beautifully written. I read it in college and re-read it about 10 years ago; it holds up well.

    1. I like the book idea. I'm doing some side reading (Harper Lee's new book) and other research-related reading for the Vietnam speech series, but I'll try to get a copy soon. "Things" definitely feels like a collection, and I would like to read one of his novels.