Cameras, Truth, and War Stories: Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now

35 years after the fact, the Vietnam War remains a divisive event in American history. Anti-communist sentiment stemming from the Cold War was tempered by an increasing desire for isolationism within the American populace, and both of these viewpoints were complicated by the introduction of a media presence in Vietnam which allowed news to be transported from the front faster than ever before. This new influx of media painted an often-contradictory portrait of the war effort, reflective of the difficulties of fighting a guerrilla war in foreign territory. As a result, public sentiment regarding the Vietnam War became polarized, and consensus regarding the United States' actions and eventual withdrawal remains fractured to this day, with many analysts declaring the war un-winnable, and American withdrawal an inevitability, while others insist that the Americans could have triumphed had they remained in Vietnam longer. Both Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) attempt to analyze this disparity by focusing on the first-person experiences of individual soldiers in Vietnam rather than providing an objective view of the war as a whole. Furthermore, both movies emphasize the importance of this subjective viewpoint over objectivity by questioning whether an objective narrative of an event as complicated as the Vietnam War is possible. These movies do so through the inclusion of cameras within their narratives, cameras which are ostensibly attempting to locate and objectively report on the conflicts occurring within the film. The cameras' presence, and the nature of the events they capture in relation to the events which transpire throughout the rest of the films, allows the filmmakers to interrogate the nature of objectivity, and of film as an objective record, in a number of ways.

Before analyzing each film's critique of the camera as an objective observer, the historical significance of the cameras within the narratives should be examined. Advancements in recording and broadcast technology, as well as the increasing prevalence of televisions within American homes, made a day-by-day account of a war possible for the first time during Vietnam. In addition, new developments in military technology (the product of the Cold War arms race between the US and the USSR), meant the war was fought with radically different equipment, the most sophisticated ever seen on a battlefield. The addition of the helicopter to the American arsenal not only granted the troops an unprecedented degree of mobility, it also allowed war correspondents to travel deep into contested territory to find stories. As a result, images of the ongoing war effort were transmitted to the populace more rapidly and in greater volume than ever before. But the realities of day-to-day combat in Vietnam meant these technologies also carried drawbacks. First of all, while the US armed forces had the men and materiel for a large scale conflict, it was markedly unsuited to fighting a guerrilla war. Because of the thick jungle climate of Vietnam and the highly mobile nature of the Viet Cong, soldiers had great difficulty locating enemies to engage in the first place. This meant that Americans had to constantly patrol an area if they hoped to find their enemy, making them vulnerable to sniper fire and traps, and rendering the majority of their technology useless, while the infrastructure necessary to maintain that technology made the entire endeavor unwieldy and expensive. The resulting war of attrition was not only gruesome, it also proved difficult to film.

While combat makes for compelling footage, the boredom and tension (or terror) of a jungle patrol does not. In his essay, "The Turning Point That Wasn't," Daniel Hallin states of contemporary journalistic efforts: "Most of the reporting was highly sanitized. The typical film report showed what the soldiers called 'a long hot walk in the sun,' with little combat beyond distant puffs of smoke when artillery or air strikes were called in. When bloody film was obtained, television producers were often reluctant to offend viewers by using the worst of it" (4-5). As a result, while American forces suffered continuing casualties from the Viet Cong's guerrilla campaign to little benefit, journalists focused on the handful of events which made good news. Because of this sanitization, optimism about the outcome of Vietnam initially remained high among the American populace, even as casualties mounted and the conflict continued. Hallin adds, "Before Tet, most journalists assumed that American victory was inevitable—though doubts were beginning to grow by 1967—and the typical report would be introduced with a comment like "the Americans scored another dramatic victory today" (5).

But the discrepancy between the optimism of the news reports and the continued losses resulting from American occupation began to create a contradictory image of the conflict—the image that America was winning every battle it fought, while somehow failing to win the war. This contradiction became most evident during the Tet Offensive. While the American forces triumphed over the North Vietnamese during Tet, and images of urban combat like the fighting in Hue made for compelling footage, the battle raised numerous questions as to the likelihood of American victory, and the practicality of continued occupation. Cronkite best summarized this contradiction in his coverage of the Tet Offensive and his editorial report regarding it shortly afterward. Cronkite said of the battle, "First and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat," but in his editorial he stated his belief that the Vietnam War was stalemated, and that the Americans should begin looking to negotiate with the Vietnamese. In doing so, Cronkite not only began to sway public opinion against the war, but also tacitly acknowledged that his news organization, as well as others, had provided the public with an inaccurate view of the state of affairs in Vietnam to that point.

In light of the complex role cameras played in establishing the history of Vietnam, their presence within Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket warrants increased scrutiny. But more important than the cameras themselves are the events which they capture, and the disparity between these events and the ones for which the camera is not present—the events which motivate the primary story arcs of the films. In Apocalypse Now, the camera is only present during the helicopter attack on the village, and in Full Metal Jacket, the camera follows the city fighting during the Tet Offensive, interviewing soldiers in the process. In both cases the cameras capture large-scale military actions involving extensive use of sophisticated American technology—helicopters in the case of Apocalypse Now and tanks in Full Metal Jacket. Both instances depict American G.I.'s fighting a clearly defined enemy, and scoring a military victory. These details are important because they fit the typical profile of compelling war journalism, in large part because they conform to the conventional model of what war is supposed to look like. But these scenes are the exception rather than the rule in the overall course of the war as experienced by protagonists Willard (Martin Sheen) and Joker (Matthew Modine), and the climactic events which resolve each character's story arc—Willard's assassination of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and Joker's execution of a wounded female Viet Cong—bear little resemblance to those captured by the cameras.

This disparity between the images of the war as captured by the cameras, and the experiences of the soldiers present is more closely examined in Full Metal Jacket during a conversation between Joker and his commanding officer, Lt. Lockhart (John Terry), regarding an article Joker has written for Stars and Stripes. In the article, Joker describes the repeated bombardment of an area of jungle by American forces, and the failure of those forces to locate any enemy combatants killed or wounded as a result. Lockhart takes issue with the article, stating that reporting on unsuccessful military actions is bad for morale and that Joker should rewrite the article to state that an enemy officer was killed. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) describes a remarkably similar situation in Apocalypse Now after taking the Vietnamese village in dramatic fashion, relating an occasion during which he ordered the napalm bombing of a hill for twelve consecutive hours, and then failing to find a single enemy casualty in the remains. Both accounts hint at the frustrations of fighting a guerrilla war with brute force, but in the former case the story is suppressed, and in the latter the violent and wasteful implications of such an event are overshadowed by the visually-dazzling battle which has just taken place, and in the end the story exists only as a means for Kilgore to relate his love of the smell of napalm.

A large part of the camera's inability to capture an objective truth in Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket stems from it's tendency to distort whatever it views. This is demonstrated in Apocalypse Now in the moments leading up to the helicopter attack on the Vietnamese village. While the American forces blast music from their helicopters and prepare for a pitched battle, the village is shown to be peaceful and apparently nonthreatening, with laborers working in he fields and children attending school. But once the helicopters (and camera crew) have arrived, NVA soldiers appear out of nowhere to do battle with the Americans, and the scene transforms instantly from a calm fishing village into an enemy encampment bristling with gun emplacements and munitions depots, the perfect locale in which to record a battle. The idea that images of civilian casualties are being suppressed is further reinforced when Kilgore guns down a woman who threw a grenade into an American helicopter, exclaiming "fucking savages" as he does so. The concept of the camera as a distorter, rather than recorder, of truth is also examined in Full Metal Jacket when Joker and Rafterman (Kevyn Howard) travel to cover a massacre of Vietnamese civilians at the hands of NVA troops. While bodies lay tangled in a shallow ditch, covered in lye, Joker and Rafterman interview a soldier in order to learn more about the massacre. In spite of the grisly scene immediately behind him, the soldier repeatedly turns to stare and smile at the camera whenever Rafterman takes a picture. The absurdity of this encounter is heightened when a Colonel at the scene takes issue with Joker's peace button, stating "It's a hardball world, son. We've gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over." By presenting situations which conform to the traditional idea of war and war journalism, and then undermining the premises surrounding these situations, both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket question the ability to war journalists to provide an accurate viewpoint of the conflict they are reporting.

The presence of cameras within the narratives of Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now gains importance in light of the events they witness. These events are in keeping with those typically captured by journalists covering a war, but they are also very similar to the action scenes which are the staple of traditional war movies. The coincidence of the cameras' presence during the brief scenes in which each film resembles a traditional war movie is further elevated by the manner in which the two films reference the war genre and its conventions. In Full Metal Jacket, as marines take cover behind debris, a camera crew pans over them, and Joker uses the opportunity to do a John Wayne impression, referencing the actor's large body of patriotic war films. Cowboy (Arliss Howard) furthers the film reference by turning to the camera and saying "This is Vietnam: The Movie." Apocalypse Now also references its own fictional nature during the village attack scene, as when Willard runs from the chopper and stops in front of the television crew, the director is none other than Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola's demands to "act like you're fighting" take on additional meaning due to his role as the director, and Willard's look of shock expresses the soldier's surprise at the journalist's attempt to create news, but it also functions as an acknowledgment that the director's presence within his own film has not gone unnoticed, and that Willard is as surprised to see Coppola standing there as the audience is. As a result, these films reference not only the depiction of war by television cameras, but also the history of war as depicted in film.

Full Metal Jacket makes use of repeated references to John Wayne in its commentary on war film conventions. In spite of being a marine, Joker has seen little combat as a result of his role as a journalist, and so once he has been assigned to the Lust Hog squad, his competence as a soldier is immediately questioned by Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin). In defense, Joker assumes the persona of Wayne, taking on a slow drawl and nonchalantly rebuffing Animal Mother's taunts. In response to this verbal gag, Animal Mother says "You can talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?" Joker "walks the walk" near the end of the film, executing the sniper who pinned the squad down in the climax. This action leads one of the other soldiers to remark "hardcore," in reference to Joker's detachment, and as a result Joker establishes his identity as someone who is willing to take life, to "walk the walk." But the actual action he performs—killing a wounded woman—is far removed from the heroics of a John Wayne war film.

Apocalypse Now also calls the conventions of war films into question, but does so in a different fashion. Rather than referencing particular elements of other films, Coppola introduces staples of the war film genre and then distorts them. The most obvious example of this distortion comes in the inclusion of a typical war hero—the maniacal Colonel Kilgore. Kilgore shares many traits with the characters typically portrayed by John Wayne—he is fervently patriotic and eager for battle, a firm believer in the infallibility of the US Army. He is a skilled fighter and an adept leader of men, and he is absolutely fearless, protected from harm by the righteousness of his cause. Willard says of Kilgore "He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here." But Kilgore is also brutal, bloodthirsty and one-dimensional, willing to destroy an entire village in order to take advantage of some good surfing. In previous wars and war films, a fighter like Kilgore or John Wayne is all that is necessary for good to triumph over evil; in the complex setting of Vietnam such a character simply becomes a vehicle for further atrocity. By referencing and then discarding existing war film traditions, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket make it clear that because the Vietnam War was a drastically different war than Americans had previously fought, it necessitated a different type of war film.

Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now discard an attempt to objectively relate the events of the Vietnam War in favor of a subjective approach which favors personal experience. In order to establish the validity of this subjective experience over an objective account, both films include cameras within their narratives, and then question the abilities of these cameras to accurately capture the events occurring around them. This questioning recalls the difficulties on the behalf of war journalists in Vietnam in accurately describing the war effort. Additionally, these films then use their in-narrative cameras to acknowledge that they are works of fiction, war films, and to highlight the inability of the traditional war film to provide a coherent narrative of the Vietnam War.

Works Cited:

  1. Hallin, Daniel. "The Turning Point That Wasn't." 1968: Year of Media Decision. Ed. Robert H. Giles and Robert W. Snyder. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1998. 3-8. Print.


By Liam Joyce on April 17, 2014 at 11:14 AM

Very very good raised some very valid points. Got me thinking for my essay

By Dec Jones on March 19, 2015 at 1:09 PM

I'm currently writing a dissertation on the influence of photojournalism on FMJ and this was very interesting and helpful....cheers mate!

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