Fiction Makes History in Apocalypse Now

All stories may be fiction, but all of history is open to interpretation. Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now took fictional representation of a factual subject to a new level in the film's depiction of the Vietnam War. Coppola's blurred lines between narrative fiction and historical fact have caused debate over crediting the film as an historical film or as one of mere entertainment. When considering the concept of spectacle, Coppola's manipulation of viewpoints and the aesthetics of an historical illustration, Apocalypse Now can be considered an accurate representation of the Vietnam War.

In many ways, the Vietnam War was a media spectacle. From broadcast protests on the Capitol to scathing images of the dead and injured, Vietnam was heavily reported in the media. Coppola chose to portray Vietnam through the angle of spectacle in Apocalypse Now. This is shown early in the film, during a scene when Coppola himself plays a filmmaker who tells the soldiers to keep moving and not look at the camera.

The cinematography of Apocalypse Now is permeated by spectacle; it hovers with the persistent sounds of helicopters, lurks in the increasingly shadowy mise-en-scene and resides in the absurd characterizations of the officers. In "Apocalypse Now: The Absence of History" Michael Klein argues, "History is displaced by the spectacle, by the ideology and rhetoric of Coppola's mise-en-scene" (Klein 3). Coppola's mise-en-scene spectacularly brings the film to near post-traumatic-stress-disorder feel, with fan blades turning into helicopter blades and faces blending through napalmed scenes of the jungle. The fantastical images of grenades and helicopters, shadowed faces and explosive sounds do not displace the history of Vietnam. They create a spectacle that audience can relate to the media spectacle of Vietnam. The cinematography and mise-en-scene of Apocalypse Now actually contribute to Coppola's expression of what a spectacle war can become.

Coppola understood while making Apocalypse Now that spectacle as entertainment may displace this history. In Fox Bahr and George Hickenlooper's documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, Coppola says, "My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject…" Coppola was very aware of his spectacle and how his film might eventually be viewed in conjunction with history. Kim Worthy says in the article "Hearts of Darkness: Making art, making history, making money, making ‘Vietnam'" that although Coppola attempts to portray what he saw as the "important subject" of the Vietnam War, his film is a "mystification of the war which perpetuates the idea that it was part of the human condition" (Worthy 2). It can be said that all films, and all histories, are mystifications. Coppola did not intend to displace history through mystification in his film. He aimed to enhance the understanding of Vietnam – and war in general – as a spectacle. Through this, he succeeded in portraying Vietnam to an audience, and continued audiences, as exactly what he intended it to be.

Although Apocalypse Now does not represent the viewpoints of people at home in America or the Vietcong, it is a fair representation of what the writers and directors believed to be Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is Vietnam through the lens of a tactical viewpoint: Coppola is not intending to give viewers an interpretation of wives left behind or families torn apart. His view is narrowly focused on the war in Vietnam. Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness, "My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie is Vietnam." This quote is not meant to claim that the film is the entire Vietnam War, but it can be interpreted as being one specific view of Vietnam. All films, historical or not, are subject to the director's and producer's interpretations. Braveheart is Mel Gibson's War of Scottish Independence. Marie Antoinette is Sofia Coppola's French Revolution. It cannot be argued that a director, whose film is fictional in nature, is misconstruing a historical viewpoint. History is subject to interpretation, and filmmakers – who are not necessarily documentarians – recreate as seen fit for entertainment.

Coppola's Vietnam provides the entertainment necessary to garner a large audience. It is full of irony, insanity, and mania. Repeated scenes of yellow smoke grenade filled battlegrounds, the shadowed face of Kurtz and an eerie soundtrack combine into a chilling viewpoint of what Vietnam is through the lens of Coppola. The utterly insane character of Kilgore profoundly claims that "someday, this war is gonna end." This line occurs during the napalming a village for the sake of surfing. It defines a specific view in the Vietnam War. The War, as represented by Kilgore and hence Coppola, is an insane venture. Vietnam is absurd; it is a war of boy soldiers like Lance and Mr. Clean, led by crazies like Kilgore. This absurdist viewpoint, along with the entertaining presentation, separates films like Apocalypse Now from factual events into a historical fiction.

Documentaries are factually based projects, but films are an aesthetic project. When an aesthetic film documents historical events, such as the Vietnam War, critics like Worthy and Klein may cry foul. The riveting scenes in Apocalypse Now, including the infamous helicopter attack, thrust the film into the genre of fantasy rather than fact. Worthy states that the helicopter scene "is one of the most exciting ever made. In its sex appeal of God's country and American knowhow along with its pace, its violence, its spectacular explosions, snappy dialogue, and intense volume" (Worthy 3). This combination of violence, explosions and witty screenplay, is not necessarily of historical relevance to Worthy; but to Coppola, this is Vietnam. This is Vietnam aesthetically. It is an interpretation of violence purposely presented in a near orgasmic manner to capture and contain an audience. Coppola creates historical illustration through aesthetics, once again to convey his viewpoint of Vietnam, however vulgar, loud and explosive it may be.

Klein accuses Apocalypse Now of giving a hopeless representation of the Vietnam War. He says that Apocalypse Now "exorcises history and offers a message of cynicism and despair" (Klein 4). Apocalypse Now is not a historical representation of cynicism and despair, although the film does have a fair share of both. What Klein does not consider is that Coppola understands how to present his irony and cynicism alongside of some compassion, showing a historical respect for the Vietnam War. Scenes involving Lance and the puppy are derived from actual footage of Vietnam, as shown in the Hearts of Darkness documentary. Through these scenes, Apocalypse Now shows compassion. When Lance gives the body of the Chief a send off into the sunset and gently, intimately, holds Chief's head before letting go, Apocalypse Now shows respect for soldiers. These scenes provide a juxtaposition to Coppola's seemingly hopeless history of Vietnam. Through Coppola providing an alternate to the explosive energy of his action scenes, the film is given ground in being a portrayal of history, rather than merely an explosive, aesthetic endeavor.

Apocalypse Now cannot be viewed as a historical documentary about Vietnam, but it can be viewed as an historical film. Coppola successfully creates an interaction of spectacle and the aesthetic to give his viewpoint of Vietnam, a view that audience's worldwide still embrace. The absurdity of Kilgore, the insanity of Kurtz and the traumatized soldier in Willard, open a fictional world that treads deep into Coppola's historical understanding of the Vietnam War.

Works Cited:

  1. Klein, Michael. "Apocalypse Now, The Absence of History." Jump Cut 23 (Oct. 1980): 20.
  2. Worthy, Kim. "Hearts of Darkness: Making Art, Making History, Making Money, Making 'Vietnam'." Cineaste 19.2/3 (1992): 24.


By Olivia Kahlo on January 5, 2011 at 5:17 PM

Kait, this is a remarkable paper on Apocalypse Now, and I share your view that it does not "eschew history in favor of aesthetic", but uses its particular aesthetics to underscores history's madness!

By Libby Mann on March 30, 2011 at 5:24 PM

Kait, I really enjoyed this posting. I think it is relevant and reflective not only to the media spectacle aspect of Vietnam, but also to the role of spectacle in modernity. Specifically by way of media participation in post-9/11 America and the so-called "War on Terror". You write "The cinematography and mise-en-scene of Apocalypse Now actually contribute to Coppola's expression of what a spectacle war can become." I could not agree more and believe this has manifested in a much larger way though both cinema and television. As a viewer with my critical lens turned off, I really love this film! It's aesthetically beautiful and a genre I enjoy. In reading your post, however, I began to think about spectacle and U.S film and media and the way spectacle manifests itself in co-opting experiences into the agenda of spectacle theory. What really brought this up for me this week were the pictures published in last weeks Rolling Stone of the U.S. soldiers dubbed "The Afghan Kill Team". It really brought up more questions than answers for me, which is something I also love in terms of learning not just in the academic sense, but also in the sense of reality, objective reality, and relative truth.

In 2011, it is arguably more difficult to establish the line between reality and constructed realities, and thus between relative objectivity and spectacle, than in 1979 when this film was released. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved a ripe breeding ground for the idea of spectacle you smartly demonstrate. You quote Klein in your article noting, "History is displaced by the spectacle, by the ideology and rhetoric of Coppola's mise-en-scene" (Klein 3). I think this is a solid argument and one that should be considered in the current situation of wars stemming (supposedly, or at least purportedly) from the 9/11 attacks. Guy Debord's theory of spectacle is broadly centered on the idea that society is mediated by imagery and that imagery wholly represents the practice of one agenda. In Apocalypse Now that agenda is Coppola's. It is easy to see Coppola's view of this cataclysmic war through the film. It is not necessarily a true depiction of the war in Vietnam, or maybe it is. Who is to say? When fiction, or the agenda of spectacle is intermingled with relative truth, and thus the aesthetics become mixed with the facts, history becomes less objective-if it is ever really objective, but that's a paper for another time! What people remember and pass on is more a reflection of an experience than a whole truth. It's easier to digest and compartmentalize the feelings of an experience rather than a whole truth. We can also turn to the wars currently being fought by the country we live in. The imagery of Muslims, Islam, and the Middle East overall are mediated by the spectacle that is U.S. mainstream media and cinema. The relation of that experience through the images of spectacle is also easier to digest and compartmentalize than that of a whole, rounded truth. It is interesting the parallels one can find with the war in Vietnam and the War on Terror. It is also interesting when looking at the role of spectacle, whether it is through film or television. Going back to the Rolling Stone photos, these images were horribly disturbing, much like some of the imagery seen in Heart of Darkness and in Apocalypse Now. These examples are, of course, different. One is a film and one is a set of photos, but I think they serve the same purpose in terms of aesthetics and the public. A mainstream magazine, arguably one that creates and sustains images of spectacle in contemporary culture, published the photos. These photos are not fiction, but they are a version of reality mediated by a maker of spectacle. Thus, they are somewhat fact and somewhat distorted. We do not know the circumstances under which they were taken I am by no means condoning this horrific behavior, but I am wondering who and how they serve. I wonder what impact they will have on these gruesome, and in my opinion, illegal wars happening in the name of "freedom". I would not label myself as one but in the general context of American political framework, one could call me a die-hard, bleeding heart, tree-hugging liberal. To an extent, I hope these photos will put an end to this systemic violence and unjust killing, but in critical terms, I relate this back to your post. What are the modes of spectacle and how do they exist in an ever more digital world? How do aesthetics work against truths? Experiential memory against being there? How do images of spectacle like the unforgettable image of a jetliner smashing into the World Trade Center that sunny day in September justify these kinds of images in a public discourse, or in a soldiers private camera? Does the image of the evil, terror hungry Jihadist justify the equally stereotypical photograph of a young, arrogant U.S. soldier holding the severed head of an Afghani? I don't know. What I do know is that in a world where the lines of reality and "reality" are becoming more and more blurry one cannot help but remember Apocalypse Now in the conversation of spectacle and objectivity, and I appreciate your post for sparking my experience of the Rolling Stone photos into a critical realm and reminding me of this correlation. Thank you.

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