Written by Katelyn Henry (B.A. student).
Nominated by Professor D. Kinsey.
Apocalypse Now is a 1979 American film produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Internet Movie Database, 2012). The screenplay, written by John Milius was intended to be a modernized film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel on 19th century colonialism, Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now was a highly influential film which has garnered much critical acclaim, winning a number of awards including Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, two BAFTA awards, and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or (Internet Movie Database, 2012). The film has remained so durable and influential because it provides a critical perspective not only on the pros and cons of the Vietnam War, but also on what the War meant in terms of the modern American empire ….
In 2001, a new cut of the film, entitled Apocalypse Now Redux, was released, adding nearly an hour of extra footage. According to Coppola, the 1979 cut of the film was “sanitized” while the Redux provides a more truthful portrayal of Coppola’s intentions with the film (Gordon, 2012). For the purposes of this review, the Redux version will be examined due to its better reflection of the author’s intentions and its addition of the French Plantation scene. This review argues that the Apocalypse Now provides a critical perspective on American interventionism in comparison to colonialism through its depictions of cultural appropriation, randomized violence, and comparison with the French colonial project in Vietnam.
Apocalypse Now takes place during the Vietnam War and debuted shortly after the end of that engagement, in 1979. The storyline does not follow particular events from the war itself, but rather evokes its overall emotion and environment. The story begins in Saigon, Vietnam, and the main plot unfolds along the Nung River as Captain Willard sets out to exterminate the insane Colonel Kurtz.
One of the key themes of Apocalypse Now is its treatment of American interventionism in comparison with colonialism. The behaviour of the American troops in Vietnam evokes similar actions taken by historical colonizers, such as wilful ignorance of the region’s population, self-imposed segregation, and appropriation as a technology of rule. Another theme encountered in the Redux is French colonialism. Captain Willard and his crew visit a French rubber plantation and engage in debate with the plantation’s owners, who wish to remain in Vietnam as they consider it to be the last vestige of France’s past imperial glory. The contrast in appearance and personality of the American and French characters helps to further the interventionism-colonialism theme, drawing the viewer to compare and contrast the two.
Some of the primary issues that the film deals with that relate to its imperialism-interventionism debate include cultural appropriation and Orientalism. Colonel Kurtz’s outpost is the predominant portion of the film exploring cultural appropriation as he uses traditional Vietnamese and Cambodian architecture, clothing, and rituals as a technology of rule to control his followers. Kurtz is regarded as insane by his American colleagues, who wish to exterminate him. This conflict reflects the division between the ‘old’ style of imperialism that Kurtz reflects, and the ‘modern’ style reflected through American interventionism. Kurtz utilizes direct rule whereas the American interventionists enter Vietnam under the pretence of exterminating the Communist threat. Orientalism also plays a considerable role in the film. None of the American soldiers appear to pay any attention to the Vietnamese as a people.
The interactions these two nationalities have are largely superficial with very little dialogue, and make the Vietnamese appear as inferior by depicting them as acting hysterically before ultimately being killed. This is evident in the helicopter scene with Kilgore where a Vietnamese woman runs up to the medevac helicopter before being shot down, and when Mr. Clean indiscriminately kills a group of Vietnamese merchants sailing down a river because one woman attempts to hide her pet dog from the soldiers. The Americans also refer to the Vietnamese using racist names such as ‘gook’, demonstrating a dehumanizing process. Orientalism is further evident in the scene involving Willard’s romantic encounter with the Frenchwoman Roxanne. She wears a kimono and her bedroom is decorated in a stereotypical Oriental style with elaborately carved wood and luxurious textiles. She and Willard also smoke opium, a drug long associated with Asian conquest. Roxanne provides a dual representation of Orientalism. First, she represents colonialism as she is part of a traditional French plantation family and has appropriated much of the region’s aesthetics. Secondly, she represents the sensuality of Orientalist thought through her means of seducing Willard. It is interesting to note that Willard is not seduced by an Asian woman, but by a European who has appropriated Asian aesthetics. This is in line with the Americans’ complete ignorance of the Vietnamese people they encounter in the film. There is a conscious separation between the Americans and Vietnamese in this model of interventionism, unlike the cultural appropriation in colonialism.
The influences and particular style of Apocalypse Now as a war movie are best understood through an analysis of the methodology of the film’s director and producer, Francis Ford Coppola. Apocalypse Now was Coppola’s second war film, the first being Patton for which he co-wrote the screenplay (Internet Movie Database, 2012). While Patton is a biographic film with a strongly pro-American, pro-war message, Apocalypse Now provides a more voyeuristic perspective which induces the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the purposes of the Vietnam War. The Redux version of the film adds a truthful depiction of some of the popular opinions regarding the Vietnam War at the time. According to Coppola, the heated political debate that occurs in the French plantation scene was originally a debate that occurred between the actors. Coppola felt that including it in the script would add realism by demonstrating widely held and differing opinions of the Vietnam War as an early instance of interventionism (Peary, 15).
There are two primary themes that Apocalypse Now elucidates in the form of conflicts. The first conflict is that of pro versus anti-war, while the second is that of American imperialism versus colonialism. The first conflict, pro- versus anti-war, is the one that the film appears to be most known for, and thus it will not be explored in detail here (The Guardian, 16; Ebert, 2012). This conflict has permeated modern historical consciousness as the film has been interpreted in both lights and its release shortly after the end of the war has had lasting effects on popular culture to this day (Ibid.; Library of Congress, 2012).
The second conflict, American imperialism versus colonialism, is potentially of more significance considering that the film is an adaptation of a literary work on colonialism. As demonstrated previously, the American soldiers in this film behave negatively and ignorantly towards the Vietnamese people, as traditional colonizers did towards the individuals they encountered on their journeys of imperial expansion. The way the Americans behave towards the Vietnamese in Apocalypse Now evokes imagery of Dutch imperial missions. There is no attempt at a ‘civilizing mission’ in either scenario; rather, the peoples are largely ignored in the quest to complete the ultimate mission (in the case of the Dutch this was territorial, for the Americans it was a policy of the containment of communism) (Burbank & Cooper, 2010, p. 157). The Americans ignore the collateral (the non-aligned Vietnamese people) in order to reach their goal (eradicating the communist threat posed by the Viet Cong).
It is evident that Apocalypse Now was intended to provide a comparison between imperialism and interventionism. The film was based on Heart of Darkness, a book specifically about colonialism. This implies that the film is criticizing interventionism as a modern form of colonialism. Although the Americans did not make territorial inroads into Vietnam, the policy of containment would ideally result in creating American allies who could in turn provide the U.S. with labour and resources through the American model of a capitalist liberal democracy. Perhaps what Coppola envisioned with Apocalypse Now was the globalized world system we live in today: although states are sovereign, many are tied in relationships of dependence to one another for reasons of ‘development’ and foreign aid as well as commercialism.
Apocalypse Now was filmed during and released only shortly after the time period which it depicts, and therefore can provide a relatively accurate representation of the time period in question. The use of pop culture references also help to situate it and give insight into the other social and cultural aspects of the time period. The film is intentionally unstructured to an extent in order to demonstrate the confused, drug-induced state that many of the young soldiers in the Vietnam War were in. This also provides realism in that it creates a personalized depiction of the conflict rather than an abstract, strategic one. Coppola structures the film thematically rather than chronologically in order to evoke an emotional response rather than simply an historical overview. The argument of interventionism as modern colonialism is symbolically rather than overtly elucidated, save for the French plantation scenes, which provide a more candid perspective of the Vietnam War’s meaning to those that experienced it.
Overall, Apocalypse Now does an excellent job of portraying the complications of American interventionism by depicting the loose relationships between the Americans and Vietnamese, as well as through the extensive use of cultural appropriation as a technology of rule near the end of the film in Kurtz’s outpost. The heavy use of realism and symbolic imagery helps provide a striking message to the viewer, while the voyeurism encourages the viewer to analyze their perceptions of the conflict to come to their own conclusions. Apocalypse Now interprets American interventionism as a modern form of colonialism and demonstrates this through its gritty realism. The film was one of the first in a series of critical analyses of Vietnam, and has created a legacy of public critique and consciousness regarding armed conflict and its motivations.
Anderson, Ariston. “Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration.” Accessed 27 October 2012. http://99u.com/articles/6973/Francis-Ford-Coppola-On-Risk-Money-Craft-Collaboration.
Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: The Politics of Difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Ebert, Roger. “Apocalypse Now.” Accessed 16 October 2012. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19991128/REVIEWS08/911280301/1023.
Gentleman’s Quarterly. “Devin Gordon Interviews Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now.” Accessed 20 October 2012. http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201010/francis-ford-coppola-apocalypse-now.
The Guardian. “Francis Ford Coppola: Apocalypse Now.” Accessed 16 October 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1999/nov/04/josephconrad.
Internet Movie Database. “Apocalypse Now (1979) – Awards.” Accessed 15 October 2012. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078788/awards.
Internet Movie Database. “Apocalypse Now (1979) – IMDb.” Accessed 15 October 2012. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078788/.
Internet Movie Database. “Patton (1970) – IMDb.” Accessed 27 October 2012. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066206/.
National Film Preservation Board (Library of Congress). “National Film Registry.” Accessed 27 October 2012. http://www.loc.gov/film/registry_titles.php.
Peary, Gerald. “Gerald Peary – interviews – Francis Ford Coppola.” Accessed 15 October 2012. http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/abc/coppola.html.