Platoon – written and directed by Oliver Stone
Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola
No organized human activity is uglier than war. In Southeast Asia, Americans were fighting for an abstract political concept while Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were defending their homeland against foreign invaders. As the conservative politician Barry Goldwater famously said: “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.” But who defines Liberty and who defines Vice? Defending someone else’s definition of Liberty is not the moral equivalent of defending your city, your village or your home against foreign invaders.
There are dozens of films about what Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War. I’m only looking at two that have indelibly etched the American war experience in my mind, in microcosm and macrocosm.
A friend with a connection to Hollywood slipped me a copy of Oliver Stone’s original script, which Stone called “The Platoon” and MGM called simply Platoon.
Released in 1986, the film was then, and still is, hard to sit through without wincing. It’s not just the stress of joining a patrol in a jungle battle zone, uncertain as to whether the men of the platoon are about to kill or be killed. It’s not just the violence the men of the platoon commit against fellow human beings who happen to be Vietnamese. It’s not just the futility of their every action that taxes them mentally, physically and morally.
Why, Jesus and LBJ, were these men dispatched to a place they don’t want to be, doing a job they don’t want to do, fighting against an enemy they don’t know, for a cause they don’t believe in? They’re embroiled in multiple conflicts: against an enemy with a home-field advantage, against their brethren divided into warring factions in the platoon, and against military discipline and morality itself.
As the newest member of the platoon, the Charlie Sheen character Chris Taylor observes: “Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Even watching Platoon is hell. Kudos to a gritty story and stellar performances.
Filmed years earlier, Apocalypse Now is set in 1969, two years after the events of Platoon. It’s no wonder that every character in this bizarre 147-minute drama is demoralized and the whole worn-out war effort seems out of whack with reality. Thank Joseph Conrad and filmmakers John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola for giving us the mad U.S. Army Colonel Walter Kurtz. Like his namesake ivory trader in the darkest heart of the Congo, the latter-day Kurtz has set himself up as a demigod in a godforsaken corner of Cambodia.
When the Pentagon decides to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice,” which means assassinate him, the assignment falls to Marine Capt. Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen (Charlie’s dad). Having re-upped after failing to readjust to life back in the U.S.A. Willard is beset by his own devils, including alcohol abuse, divorce, drugs and self-loathing.
Tagging along with Willard on his Top Secret mission, we get a kaleidoscopic view of war in Vietnam. There are helicopters buzzing around ad nauseum. There’s a shocking scene where G.I.s interview a Vietnamese family on a sampan then execute them. There’s unforgettable, almost lyrical, footage of U.S. bombs and Napalm obliterating an enemy village along the mouth of the Nung River, so that G.I. surfers can catch some awesome waves. We also get an unflattering close-up of what goes on at a U.S.O. show starring a troupe of deflated Playboy bunnies. There’s an encounter with a tiger, a fearsome symbol of Nature in the wild. After all, it’s a jungle out there.
Film critics have viewed Capt. Willard’s quest to a kill as an Odyssey and a Descent into Hell. In the 2001 Redux version of the film (50 minutes longer than the original cut) we take refuge from war by dallying in the putrefying milieu of French planters. The plantation scene can be interpreted as Willard’s Purgatory, or a Conradian opportunity for an American to confront Colonialism in Indochina.
While Conrad’s Kurtz was a skeleton of a man, Coppola’s Kurtz is a bloated Marlon Brando. Once inside Kurtz’s compound, Capt, Willard is sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted. He becomes a prisoner and acolyte of Brando’s Kurtz, who rambles on in unscripted improvisations, and reads from TIME magazine.
The film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that Willard discovers more than a rogue American war hero. Ebert wrote,“The whole movie is a journey toward Willard’s understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army’s best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.”
Through Kurtz, Willard comes to understand that civilization is a veneer laid upon the natural inclinations of man. According to Ebert, Kurtz has found “that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.
Here’s how I view the dualism behind the film’s apocalyptic vision: Man is an intellectual ape who can put on a military uniform, surf a wave or dance to a disco beat, and yet, man is still an ape.