The Art of War: Apocalypse Now (1979/2001)

As the two dates after the title suggest, I’ll be discussing scenes from the Redux as well.

It struck me about midway through the film that, in contrast to most war films, which either glorify war, unveil its brutal realities, or glorify the brutality itself (as in the case of Hacksaw Ridge (2016)), Apocalypse Now (1979/2001) isn’t actually a war film at all. 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 mean 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 the job’s merits—which 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, seen in spades in the book behind Catch-22 (1970), whose film 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, it’s the source of most of the humor here, too: Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) fixation on surfing; that goddamn tiger; the hypersexualized Playmates (if that’s possible); and so on. I’m tempted to add the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene to this list, but despite any absurdist intentions, I think it actually manages to pull off the music, and we see exactly what Willard (Martin Sheen) 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 film.

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All this gallows humor is undergirded by the excruciating notion that the war could’ve been won, if we actually tried. That oppressive ideal is what Kurtz (Marlon Brando) 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 during the Playmate scene: 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 the bridge scene, and at the base gone nuts where, in a restored scene, Willard and co. barter a second meeting with the now-traumatized Playmates. And they order Willard to up and murder the best and most efficient soldier of the entire war. They have to, of course, because if they don’t—if they implicitly authorize his actions and tactics—then they’d be admitting that, as Kurtz describes the Vietcong, war requires “men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordal [sic] instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment—without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” As Sun Tzu observed all the way back in the 5th century BCE, 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.


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