Coppola’s War

by Stanley Kauffmann

When I read three years ago that Vittorio Storaro had been chosen as the cinematographer for Apocalypse Now, I was shocked. Storaro, the lush Vogue-style photographer of Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, for a picture that was being billed as the definitive epic about Viet­nam! But, as it turns out, the fine moments in Francis Coppola’s film depend heavily on what Storaro has done for them.

Because Apocalypse Now, despite Coppola’s claims for its moral stat­ure, despite its simplistic relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is at its best in delivering the texture of the first freaked-out, pill-popping, rock-accompanied war. For the American forces, Vietnam seems to have been divided pretty much between military virtuosi, grateful for any chance to exercise their skills, and most of the troops, who never believed in anything except the possibility of being killed, who were tormented by fear and pointlessness into rank barbarities and new pits of racism. Pinched between a growing anti-war movement at home and an unwinnable war in front of them, they suffered; and their suffering was often transmuted into gross slaughter, into drugging, into hysterical hilarity set to music. It’s this wild psychedelic war, much more a jungle disco­theque with butchery than face-in-the-mud naturalism, that Coppola understands and renders well. And for this splashy fantasy on a war that was hideously fantastic, Storaro’s boutique eye is perfect.

In London recently I was interviewed for a BBC program about Vietnam films, and I was asked about the effect of television coverage on the making of fiction films about Vietnam. I forget what I answered, but I remembered the question during Apocalypse Now, which I didn’t see until I came home. The film libraries are full of newsreel footage of this century’s bloodshed, but Vietnam was the first living-room war (in Michael Arlen’s phrase). I think that Coppola, together with John Milius, co-author of the screenplay, anticipated the BBC question and decided that the picture had to be something other in texture than representation, had to lift past what television had made familiar. This is a trip film, an acid war. Storaro was the right choice.

Everything that tends toward this aim is superb. A helicopter attack on a Cong village at a delta, in which the planes broadcast both “The Ride of the Valkyries” and napalm, after which some of the victors go surfing, after which one copter drops a river patrol boat into position for a journey upstream; a sudden encounter up that river with a USO girlie revue in a huge amphitheater surrounded by giant phallic missiles; a lighted bridge like a misplaced festival; the boat crew’s nervous destruc­tion of a family on a sampan; the arrival of the patrol boat at its destina­tion, a temple deep in the jungle, gliding in between canoes filled with silent, white-daubed natives in a scene that marries the archetypal jungle- princess movie to the Babylon sequence in Intolerance—these, and more like them, show Coppola at his height. He likes size, and he can use it. Of course it can be argued that other American directors, given $30 million to pour, might also produce scenes of sweep and flourish, and Coppola surely couldn’t have done it without money. But, in this regard at least, he uses the money well, to give himself the orchestrated crowds, the immense vistas, the stunning juxtapositions that lie aptly to his talent, to his apparent sense that the world is seen most truthfully when it is seen as spectacle.

Where Coppola is short is in thought. He stumbles when he thinks, when he thinks he’s thinking. His most wholly successful film, The Conversation, faltered in its idea-structure. The Godfather, both parts, was strongest in its execution (also its executions), not in its adolescent implication of analogy between the Mafia and corporate capitalism. In Apocalypse Now the attempts to dramatize private moral agony and general moral abyss are disjointed, assumptive, weak.

The very first sequence is discouraging. The protagonist, Captain Willard, is seen closeup and upside down, then bits and pieces of his Saigon hotel room are filtered in, like a record-album-cover collage. He’s drunk and drinking, he smashes a mirror with his fist. He starts his voice-over narration (written by Michael Herr, author of the admirable Dispatches, and surprisingly flatulent). The symbols of disorder are stale; any union in anguish between us and him is missed from the start. From that point on, his moral pilgrimage is fabricated while his physical pil­grimage is vivid.

Willard, who has done jobs like this before, is given a top-secret mission: to proceed upcountry and “terminate” Colonel Kurtz, a bril­liant Green Beret officer who has gone imperially egomaniacal and mur­derous. On Willard’s journey upriver, the boat is attacked first by ma­chine gun, then by arrows, then by spear. The message—we’re burrowing down layer by layer—is too patent to affect us. Politically, too, the film is empty, but then it doesn’t have much political ambition. What it wants is to be a moral allegory, like its Conradian model, and there it fizzles completely. Unlike Conrad, the experiences along the way do not knit toward a final episode of revelation, throwing retrospective light. No theme is developed. The film is a string of set pieces, through which we are teased with advance data about an eccentric who turns out to be more or less what we expect.

This Kurtz is just a literature-lacquered version of the arch-villain in Superman or the James Bond scripts: a mastermind who has seen through the spurious niceties of human behavior. This Kurtz was a top officer with every chance to go higher, who at thirty-eight opted to become a paratrooper, ostensibly because (like T. E. Lawrence) he wanted to take hard ways, to test himself. Yet this lover of the knife edge has only recently discovered that war is horrible. The turning point came for him after he led some men into a village to inoculate children against polio. The Viet Cong slithered in after he had left and cut off the inocu­lated arms of all the children. (Note: a number of Vietnam War authori­ties objected to the Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter because they knew no basis for it in fact. Is there any basis for this inoculation story? If not, what’s holding up the experts’ objections? The fact that in this film we also see Americans murdering Vietnamese?) It seems a bit late in Kurtz’s day for him to become, like Camus’s Caligula, a murderer as a defense against the horrors of murder everywhere.

Kurtz’s quotations from Conrad and from Eliot (who quoted Conrad) are glib attempts to enlarge him. His own dialogue is larded with what I’d call sound-track profundities. “You have the right to kill me,” he tells Willard, “you have no right to judge me.” Try that on your piano.

As with the quotations, Coppola tries to deepen the picture, literally, with deep sound. Over and over again, the score hits ultra-low notes— made electronically or with an organ?—that shake the theater like Sen- surround—an aural caricature of the picture’s frantic failed ambition to delve.

Marlon Brando, as Kurtz, is bald in several ways, shorn of hair and power, posturing and pompous. Martin Sheen, the Willard, who has given good performances in the past, is utterly inadequate here. It’s as if a filling-station attendant had been sent on this mission. Even the redoubtable Robert Duvall is pallid as the crazy helicopter commander, and not always comprehensible. What’s worse, in his old-style cavalry hat, Duvall looks like Truman Capote at a costume party.

Apocalypse Now ultimately reduces to the story of a special-services assassin sent to kill a grander assassin; with a decor of eye-filling adven­tures along the way; but with nothing at the end except that, just as predicted, the victim is an inflated lunatic. What moral experience is in it for Willard? None. (After he kills Kurtz, there’s a slight hint that he might himself take over this Dore kingdom, but it passes.) What moral insight is given into the Vietnam War? None. Coppola and Milius simply clung to the framework of their great model, hoping that it would aggrandize their film the way they hoped that quotations would aggran­dize Kurtz.

New Republic, 181; September 15, 1979