Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Art of War: Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his cavalry charge into battle in Apocalypse Now Redux. (Photo: Getty)

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film that needs no introduction. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, had a legendary troubled production history of this Francis Ford Coppola, documented in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. The film features only the second leading performance by Martin Sheen (after 1973's Badlands) while also including known commodities such as Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. It’s a lush piece of episodic cinema (shot by Vittorio Storaro) that ends in a world even more surreal than the build-up, or even the novella, could prepare us for. Captain Willard (Sheen) takes on a mission to find and kill super-soldier Colonel Kurtz (Brando) deep in the Southeast Asian jungle, and his numerous and wide-ranging but almost always antagonistic encounters along the way show him and us the true face of the Vietnam War. In 2001, Coppola and editor Walter Murch released an extended and re-edited version called Apocalypse Now Redux, and that’s the one I saw.

It struck me about midway through that, in contrast to most war films, which glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge in 2016), Apocalypse Now isn’t actually about war per se. It’s about the absurd tragedies that occur when a rational strategy or cultural institution is guided by humans and their inherent irrationalities. War is but the most extreme case.

By rational I don’t allude to reason, that elusive ideal espoused by Enlightenment types and, later, Colonial types. I’m referring to instrumentality, or instrumental reason, the type of reasoning required to get a job done, regardless of its merits – that characterizes war precisely: a massive, collective, supposedly organized undertaking of questionable merit. The heightened clash of Platonic-ideal war plans with their imperfect execution often results in absurdist humor, as seen in spades in the Joseph Heller book behind Catch-22 (1970), a film that also includes Sheen and is decidedly darker in tone. (Funny story: in a serious academic discussion of a gruesome scene from Heller’s novel as quoted in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, the professor was drawing our attention to how it depicts the traumas of war, while I and the classmate next to me were trying our damnedest not to laugh – and failing.) Indeed, the absurd clash between reason and irrationality is the source of most of the humor here, too. First, in the scene after the air cavalry take the river mouth to insert Willard's team, there's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s (Duvall) fixation on surfing, given a lengthier treatment in the extended version; his evaluation of the waves and passion for chasing them would be normal in almost any other circumstances. Then there's the scene after Willard begins his journey upriver where he accompanies Chef (Frederic Forrest) into the jungle to find some mangoes; already paranoid about the Vietcong and indigenous hostiles, he runs into the one thing people should fear most in a jungle but that happens to slip their minds: a goddamn tiger. And don't forget the R&R scene, where Willard and his crew stumble upon a camp in the middle of nowhere hosting some Playboy Playmates; you'd think the girls would anticipate being sexualized, but they and the emcee are utterly unprepared for the hypersexualization that awaits them and have to be evacuated. I’m tempted to add the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene to this list, but despite its absurdist intentions, I think it actually manages to pull off the music, and we see exactly what Willard means when he says that Kilgore’s cavalry unit basically just “cashed in its horses for choppers,” because -- holy shit~ -- that’s a completely bonkers number of choppers for a single scene.

Willard (Sheen) arrives at the French plantation run by de Marais (Christian Marquand). (Photo: Getty)

All this absurdist humor is undergirded by the excruciating notion that the war could’ve been won, if we’d actually tried. That oppressive ideal is what Kurtz represents with his ruthless efficiency. Willard reads a letter from Kurtz in which he writes that the American GI would fight much better if deprived of his sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll; it’s the reason Kurtz uses indigenous warriors. Willard makes the same observation when watching the Playmates strut around on stage: that "the Vietcong’s idea of great R&R is cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.” Redux adds a scene at a French legacy plantation, where Willard listens to the family talk politics at the dinner table. Their sentiments about the American invasion can be summed up in this one line: “Why don’t you Americans learn from us, from our mistakes? Mon Dieu, with your army, your strength, your power, you could win if you want to!” Instead, the Americans rebuild a bridge every day that the Vietcong blow up every night, just so they can claim that the road is open. They fuck around when they lose their CO, in both blowing up the same bridge every day and, in a restored episode, at a base where Willard and co. trade fuel for a second meeting with the now-traumatized Playmates, a place full of GIs running around like headless chickens. And they order Willard to up and murder the best and most efficient soldier of the entire war.

The military brass has to have Kurtz eliminated, of course, because if it didn’t – if it implicitly authorized Kurtz’s no-hold-barred actions and tactics – then it’d be admitting the impossible paradox that war requires, as Kurtz describes the Vietcong, “men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment – without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” This is the dark heart of Apocalypse Now: the absurd fact that you have to dehumanize your own troops to destroy the enemy. As Sun Tzu observed all the way back in the 5th century BCE in The Art of War, the point of waging war is to win the motherfucker as fast as you can. (I’m paraphrasing.) Everything else is just the smell of napalm in the morning.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog reviewfilmreview.wordpress.com, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

No comments:

Post a Comment