“It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror.” That line, sampled at the beginning of a remix of Shriekback’s “Nemesis”, was much of all I knew of Apocalypse Now. (Well, that and “the smell of napalm in the morning”.) I’d been curious about it but never seen it. I’m not interested in war or war movies, even ones that purport to show the brutality and absurdity of war. The ones I’ve seen, such as Platoon, The Big Red One, and The Hurt Locker, all seem to echo that saying of Truffaut’s, that you can’t really make an anti-war movie because you still end up ennobling war. Even if you’re presenting the participants as hapless innocents slaughtering and being slaughtered for no valid purpose, there’s still a hint of dulce et decorum involved. And that’s even before you add in the current climate’s beatification of soldiers. Generally I felt that no matter how good Apocalypse Now may be, I’m on board. I don’t need to be shown the horrors of war. American teenagers killing Vietnamese rice farmers because the US and USSR are swinging their dicks and you think you’re going to enlighten me on the banality of it?
The other issue I had with seeing it was that I came of movie-going age in the 80s, under Reagan. And I was too young and dumb to remember Vietnam or understand much of the 70s, but I understood that Platoon and Rambo were basically ball-grabbing attempts to declare that America was still the best country on Earth an no, we didn’t lose in Vietnam, Vietnam gave up on us, man! It was the fault of sergeants gone wrong or inept politicians or liberal faggots or whatever. I lumped Apocalypse Now in with that group, thinking it was yet more hand-wringing over how Vietnam was a problem simply because it caused people to doubt the strength and spirit of America, not because we learned nothing from it and would happily do it again.
But as time went on and the other 80s-era Vietnam memorials faded and seemed quaint, Apocalypse Now stayed, still looming. It became clear to me that this went beyond that conflict, or armed conflict in general, and I steeled myself for it.
And now I’m sorry I waited so long.
It’s an incredible movie. It’s not perfect, but even its imperfections are amazing. It starts out with the protagonist essentially in Purgatory and then pushes him deeper and deeper into Hell, with each episodic circle presenting a whole new batch of sinners. When I mentioned to someone that we’d started it late and stopped right past the last bridge, he remarked that that was a good stopping point, because it all goes to hell after that. Considering the scene we’d just been through, I couldn’t imagine, but he wasn’t wrong.
Impossible for words to describe, yes. I can’t articulate the feelings this dredged up. The movie is paternalistic — the natives are only barely human and that its their actions which trigger Kurtz’ break is telling — and it’s not subtle — “Colonel Kilgore”, indeed — but every instrument in it is used with precision. It does indeed glorify war and honor the dumb dead soldier, despite the attempt to condemn the purpose and execution of the conflict. But it gets under your skin. There’s more here than just “war is bad”, and despite the onslaught of horrific images it’s almost subliminal in its effect.
There’s a reason the jingoistic foolishness of the 80s is forgotten but this one stays on. Apocalypse Now, with its references to T.S. Eliot (and of course, Heart of Darkness) attempts to move beyond “the tragedy of the Vietnam War with regard to American feelings” and go further, much further down the river.