The Story in History: Examining Apocalypse Now by looking at The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien says, "A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die though, one of the dead guys says, 'The fuck you do that for?' and the jumper says, 'Story of my life, man,' and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead. That's a true war story that never happened" (83-4). O'Brien, a Vietnam author and Vietnam veteran, writes these sentences in and about his book The Things They Carried; however, this sentiment would be just as apt when applying it to Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now (1979), another true war story that never happened.

Criticized for its historical accuracy, Coppola's film, instead of depicting actual events that occurred during America's war in Vietnam, transforms the experience into narrative metaphors. However, this film is not just a retelling of the war, but is instead a recreation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War and shot in the Philippines during a war of its own. As film scholar Kate McNamee offers, "Apocalypse Now cannot be viewed as a historical documentary about Vietnam, but it can be viewed as [a] 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." In this essay, I am going to show that Apocalypse Now, regardless of its historical inaccuracy, embodies O'Brien's definition of a true war story.

Some criticize that Apocalypse Now is so liberal with events of the Vietnam War to be far more fiction than fact. Michael Klein sums up this perspective in the title of his article "Apocalypse Now: The Absence of History." In this piece he writes, "History is displaced by the spectacle, by the ideology and rhetoric of Coppola's mise-en-scéne" (Klein 23). For Klein, image and argument in Apocalypse Now trump any sort of authentic representation. Kim Worthy concurs with this observation and notes, "Of course, Apocalypse Now 'is' neither Vietnam nor the Vietnam War; the film's 'Coppola' represents only a Coppolistic America" (24). Worthy underscores that this film is not to be read as an unbiased depiction of Vietnam—either the country or the war, but is instead Coppola's vision of America at this time. Klein continues, "The reality of life in Vietnam and in the U.S. as it was affected by the war is significantly absent from the frame" (23). To Klein and other like him, Apocalypse Now is no more than Coppola's propaganda and lies.

Similarly, the protagonist of Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), detests the propaganda and lies that permeate the Vietnam War. After Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) orders his crew to bring aboard a wounded Vietnamese girl whom his crew gunned down, Willard shoots her dead. After this incidence, Willard offers this voiceover narration: "It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies" (Apocalypse Now). Although the incident of the-routine-check-of-the-junk-boat-turned-massacre is but one of the many episodes Willard encounters on his journey upriver, for Willard (and for Coppola) this event is the metaphor for the Vietnam War itself.

This event of the massacre of the sampan never actually happened. It is all made up in this movie. O'Brien writes about a true war story: "Without the grounding of reality, it's just a trite of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything's possible—even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant" (83). Therefore, it is meaningless to negate the authenticity of this moment solely because the event in this film never actually happened during the war. Historical theorist Hayden White explains, "The veracity of the representation hinges not on the question of the likelihood of this type of cause-and-effect sequence occurring at specific times and places and under certain conditions, namely, in the kind of war made possible by a certain kind of industrial-military technology and fought in a particular time and place" (1197-8). The actuality is not what matters, but the spirit of events akin to this one is what is paramount.

The sampan massacre embodies O'Brien's perspective that "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another may not happen and be truer than the truth" (83). Sam Bottoms, who plays Lance B. Johnson in Apocalypse Now, explains the origin of this scene: "Francis had us write up lists of things we wanted our characters to do. And I remember we all decided that we wanted to do sort of a My Lai massacre. We thought an interrogation of a boat that ended in a firefight and the loss of many lives; we wanted to experience something like that" (Hearts of Darkness). On a very literal level, the massacre of this particular sampan never happened. As O'Brien might say, "Here is the happening-truth" (180). On March 16, 1968, America's 11th brigade of Charlie Company massacred the Vietnam village of My Lai, killing 300 apparently unarmed women, children, and the elderly ("The My Lai Massacre"). Coppola and his cast and his crew concentrated this moment into an event on the river: "Here is the story-truth" (O'Brien 180). While transporting Captain Willard upriver, Chief and his crew detain a suspicious sampan. When Jay 'Chef' Hicks (Frederic Forrest) is ordered to look into a container a Vietnamese woman was sitting on, this woman rushes toward him and the entire American crew gun down all of the unarmed Vietnamese on the sampan (Apocalypse Now). While the event did not occur, the experience did.

Apocalypse Now is not a recreation of the Vietnam War, but rather a recreation of the Vietnam experience. Coppola explains, "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like" (Hearts of Darkness). Vietnam during the war was so chaotic, so insane that it would be a herculean task for a film to both convey this pandemonium and be historically exact. As such, Coppola wanted to convey the experience rather than the events. O'Brien writes, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth" (179). O'Brien echoes Coppola's sentiment, underscoring that a fictitious story can more authentically convey an event far more than a literal retelling. And Coppola inflicts his Vietnam experience upon his viewers from the very first moment of his film.

Coppola's criticism of the Vietnam War starts in the first 90 seconds of Apocalypse Now. The film begins peacefully enough, with the image of the lush jungle. Then a helicopter flies by. This helicopter kicks up smoke-like yellow dust, which makes it appear as if the forest is smoldering. The opening is a visual metaphor: Vietnam is a peaceful and lush country until the involvement of America and its helicopters. Professor Robert K. Brigham writes that on December 11th, 1961, "American helicopters arrive at docks in South Vietnam along with 400 U.S. personnel, who will fly and maintain the aircraft." Then, as another helicopter zooms by, the orange flame of napalm consumes the whole of this green jungle. This second helicopter represents one month and one day later when "In Operation Chopper, helicopters flown by U.S. Army pilots ferry 1,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to sweep a NLF stronghold near Saigon. It marks America's first combat missions against the Vietcong" (Brigham). After American involvement, embodied by these helicopters, the lovely country of Vietnam is laid to waste. However, the end of this country is just the beginning of the film.

Paralleling this ambivalent beginning of the end and/or end of the beginning is the song "The End" by The Doors that starts playing shortly after the first helicopter passes by. In this song Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, sings "This is the end / Beautiful friend / This is the end / My only friend, the end / Of our elaborate plans, the end / Of everything that stands, the end" (Apocalypse Now). On a literal level, this song highlights how once the United States became involved in Vietnam, everything seemed to end; however, on a metaphorical level, this song being about the end being at the beginning of the film depicts the never-ending timelessness of war. O'Brien says, "You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (76). The year 1979 saw the release of Apocalypse Now; six years after the last American combat soldier left South Vietnam (Brigham). Therefore, six year after the war was officially over for the United States, it was still haunting Coppola. (Similarly, O'Brien was still carrying it with him 17 years after the Vietnam War when he published The Things They Carried.) The Vietnam War never ends, lingering still nearly four decades later.

Why is it that so many years after it ended, the Vietnam experience still permeates Coppola, O'Brien, and so many other Americans? O'Brien writes, "But this too is true: stories can save us" (225). In many ways, the great thing about true war stories is there cathartic ability. Worthy explains, "In fact, the reverberation of present with past and fiction with fact through Hearts of Darkness helps communicate a self-criticism verging on contrition which has everything to do with the audience's pleasure in viewing the film" (24). Vietnam was such a tragic episode in the history of the United States. It was time when America was more at war with itself than the Vietnamese were. O'Brien offers, "A good war story, he thought, but [Vietnam] was not a war for war stories" (150). Despite this, Americans tried to come to terms with each other and themselves over this event, through film and literature.

However, these Americans are not simply wrestling with themselves over the Vietnam War, but they are trying to explain their actions to the their children. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) explains, "I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw, because there's nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me" (Apocalypse Now). Kurtz knows that his actions have separated him from his family forever, but he feels compelled to have his assassin go to this son and elucidate his part in Vietnam. Similarly, O'Brien is trying to make peace with his daughter: "When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I ever killed anyoneÖ Someday, I hope, she'll ask againÖ I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right" (131). Those involved in Vietnam long for the understanding of the next generation.

As the past grows further and further away from both those who experienced it and their descendents, the past loses more and more of its tangibility becoming far more a story than history. When a historical event like the Vietnam War is represented in either a written form like The Things They Carried or in a visual form like Apocalypse Now, this retelling gains a narrative quality. It becomes a closed system with a beginning and end, populated by dynamic and engaging characters—most of which are highly fictionalized. Historian Robert Rosenstone writes, "In such cases, certain 'facts' about individuals must be created. Clearly, this is an act of fictionalizing, yet surely no real violence is done to history by such an addition to the written record, at least not as long as the 'meaning' that the 'impersonators' create somehow carries forth the larger 'meaning' of the historical character whom they represent" (1181). This is not to say that Rosenstone would ever tolerate Apocalypse Now's very liberal interpretation of Vietnam; however, Coppola's impersonators do greatly further the soul of the Vietnam War. Despite its historical lacking, Apocalypse Now effectively conveys what it meant to be in Vietnam at this time. It is a war story that will outlive the actual memories of what happened. O'Brien echoes this idea: "That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future... Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story" (38).

Although Apocalypse Now is not a historically accurate depiction of the Vietnam War, those who think this film is supposed to be miss Coppola's point. Apocalypse Now is a true war story. O'Brien offers, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way" (71). Instead of being about the Vietnam War, Coppola created a film that inflicts the Vietnam experience on its viewers. Apocalypse Now favors the feeling of Vietnam over the events of Vietnam. As McNamee explains, "This is Vietnam aesthetically." Apocalypse Now transforms tragic historical events into filmic metaphors, whether these are massacres or helicopters. War stories, like Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carry, allow these authors to come to terms with themselves and with their children. Perhaps more importantly, true war stories—especially those that never happened—allow the dead of this war to come back to life: "But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world" (225).

Works Cited:

  1. Apocalypse Now - The Complete Dossier. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. 1979. United Artists. 2006. DVD.
  2. Brigham, Robert K. "Battlefield: Timeline." Battlefield: Vietnam. PBS, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
  3. Hearts of Darkness - A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Dir. Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Perf. Francis Ford Coppola. 1991. Showtime. 2007. DVD.
  4. Klein, Michael. "Apocalypse Now: The Absence of History." Jump Cut 23 (1980): 20. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
  5. "The My Lai Massacre." American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation, 29 Mar. 2005. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
  6. McNamee, Kate. "Fiction Makes History in Apocalypse Now." Movies in 203, 2 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
  7. O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990. Print.
  8. Rosenstone, Robert A. "History in Images/History in Words: Reflection on the Possability of Really Putting History onto Film." The American Historical Review 93.5 (1988): 1173-1185. JSTOR. Web 14 Dec. 2010.
  9. White, Hayden. "Historiography and Historiophoty." The American Historical Review 93.5 (1988): 1193-9. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.
  10. Worthy, Kim. "Hearts of Darkness: Making Art, Making History, Making Money, Making 'Vietnam.'" Cineaste 19.2/3 (1992): 24-7. PDF file.

One Comment

By John Stewart on March 26, 2013 at 7:13 AM

I also like the idea that My Lai is the type of "operation" that Col. Kurtz would have carried out. It would be an example of his philosophy of embracing "the horror." He said it was through the willingness to commit atrocities, while remaining moral men, trained cadres, with families, that the enemy would win. I suppose the inference to be drawn is that while Americans committed atrocities, that somehow they were not moral men in the way that Kurtz meant. He certainly had great disdain for all the other Americans, especially those in charge because they had no made friends with "the horror."

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