Over about four or five days, in twenty to thirty minute snippets, I re-watched Apocalypse Now, a movie I had not seen since 1979 when I was seventeen. Vietnam had been a hush-hush kind of topic when I grew up. It was never discussed in school. On TV, I totally understood that M*A*S*H was a critique of Vietnam, not Korea (even though that is where it was set). As a kid, I got the impression that for the first time, America had messed up in a war. We hadn’t gone in with all of our hearts, set unfathomable limitations on our troops, and reaped the results. Apocalypse Now did nothing to underscore these impressions. It seemed surreal, violent, and although set in the Vietnam War, not exactly about it.
And then there was the water buffalo. Toward the end of the movie, a water buffalo is sacrificed at the same time the protagonist goes up against the villain. In every movie before that I had seen to date, I knew the animals, even when they appeared to die, were protected. I was appalled that they would actually kill an animal for “entertainment” (there is no question it was real, long before CGI). I came out of the movie thinking I had learned little of Vietnam, angry that they had killed the poor beast, and really kind of feeling dirty for watching it. Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, had glowed about the movie. But I gave it a big thumbs down, back then.
Adult, chaplain, minister, and veteran Tom definitely took it all in differently. What was unknown to me at the time was that the movie was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the author, using the African slave trade as a backdrop, explores the darkness in the human soul. Coppola was trying to do the same, only changing the venue to Vietnam. Indeed, it is an anthropological, psychological, and even spiritual story as much as it is a film on war. How can people do the dark deeds they do sometimes? And why do we lie, often to ourselves, so easily? And where does that lead?
The protagonist, if we can call him that, seems to be traveling as much toward hell as toward a military objective. The insanity that surrounds him, and increases as he proceeds further and further from Saigon toward Cambodia, isn’t the result of crazy individuals but the results of seeds sewn and lies we tell ourselves from all the way back home. The villain is simply yet the end result of those lies in the end. He has gone totally mad and is acting as a deranged god.
The key moment in the movie, which to me is what it really was all about, occurs long before the villain appears. It was when the Navy patrol boat pulls over a Vietnamese boat that is packed with food on the way to market. The skipper is convinced they are transporting something illicit and orders the ambivalent crew, against the advice of the protagonist, to search the boat. One woman is slow to follow orders, somebody moves unexpectedly, and they open fire – killing all but one who is severely wounded. It ends up being the slow moving woman who was trying to protect not illicit material but a puppy. The skipper orders her brought aboard but the protagonist shoots her. In the narration he says that the crew will never look at him the same again but they had stopped an innocent boat, full of innocent people, killed almost all of them for nothing, and then tried to put a moral band-aid over it by trying to take one of their victims to a hospital. He would have none of it and finished her. They were lying to themselves about the supposed good they were doing. Very dark movie.
If I had a time machine, I would ask my younger self why I was so appalled at the loss of a water buffalo but not thought through the real people who struggled, and continue to struggle, as the result of bad policy and self-deception. How many real Americans and Vietnamese died when we hadn’t really thought through that war? And why, young Tom, are you worried about that particular water buffalo when other water buffaloes are still sacrificed by some cultures in Asia (and, for that matter, how many animals are killed not for our entertainment, but for our lunch)? My younger self would probably think such a question was mumbo-jumbo at first but maybe it would make me think later on. When we get involved in anything, maybe especially a war, what is our underlying motivation? Why are we there? What is our goal? Where will it likely lead? And, overall, how are real people and animals being treated as a result of our lifestyle versus just ones we see in a fictional story?
I do think my younger self was right that this movie really doesn’t teach you about Vietnam. But it points beyond it. It points back home. It points to our hearts and our lifestyles. It points to the shadow that surrounds us and why we need God so very much in our lives.
It is a dark film. It is not easy to watch, even today. I once read that Ezekiel was a book they wouldn’t let young rabbinical students read till they were thirty because of the heavy matters it deals with. I very much think it about this film. My seventeen year old self didn’t have the life experience or point of reference yet to take in its message. And, even 54 year old Tom thinks they could have pulled off the same message without actually slaughtering an animal on screen. Nevertheless, it is a film with a strong statement against self-deception and of the depravity of thinking yourself god simply because you have the money and the power. And those two messages are ones our society still needs to hear.
For that, I reverse my younger self and give the film its deserved thumbs up.
Did you watch it then, or more recently? What did you think?