(Click on picture for scene)
I have to preface my comment about Apocalypse Now. I don’t think the film is great. Overall, I think there are many great moments in the film, but the story lacks a roundness to it. The search by Martin Sheen into his heart of darkness to find Kurtz is an entanglement and takes the viewer to many unexpected corners of war imagination, but the film cheapens itself by continuously using cheap symbolism along the way. When Sheen meets new sights, he finds new contradictions about the war: from a surfing loving colonel to a Playboy festival in a war zone or film crews filming actual battles like they were producing a movie, his psyche begins to turn itself into knots to make sense of these abstractions. Contradictions and discouragements are expected to happen throughout the story, but I thought some of the symbolism were cheap ploys that hovered above huge scenes in the films to get you to understand larger points about the war. In an odyssey film like this, symbolism should take a backseat so the story can be felt.
But, I do want to point out one scene. It’s the famous helicopter attack scene in the middle of the film. After journeying through the thick of war, Sheen and his cohorts find an unexpected kind of colonel played by Robert Duvall. He gives orders along the lines of what interest his basic personality. Constantly trying to recreate home life, he talks about surfing and other leisure elements of life. Not only when things are cool and collective amongst soldiers, but also during the frenzy of combat. Acting as narrator, Sheen picks up on this element right away and diagnoses the psyche’s thinking in a bigger element of a war zone like Vietnam. The prognosis makes the temperment understandable to the everyday viewer of the film, but it also dilutes the energy and tone of the story. Getting back on target, the main attack during this correspondence with this unlikely colonel happens during a helicopter attack. It’s a multiple vehicle oriented attack meant to establish permanence in a new location.
The element of change for the invasion is how it plays counter to traditional invasions. The D-Day Invasion was one amongst many during World War II, but it was the grandest and met an expectation of two large forces taking battle against each other. In Apocalypse Now, the helicopter attack is more understated and seems unlikely since it is attuned to an attack on civilians amongst some soldiers. The change of focus is elemental to what guerrilla warfare means, but the film shows the intended scope of what America wanted with the classical music blasting over the loudspeaker in the helicopter. The electricity of the grandness is amazing. Of course, what they are attacking makes it feel different, but the disorderly manner of how the fighting is going about is what makes for chaos in the story. One adjustment for the viewer in seeing bullets sprinkle a small town is that they are already adjusted to the devastation level in the film when it comes to innocents and civilians being killed. In fact, the Vietnam War is what made this common understanding for modern warfare.
Continuing on with the D-Day invasion comparison, by 1979, no attempt on film really rendered the gravity of its devastation. The Longest Day is a whitewash and Sam Peckinpah’s autobiographical treatment (The Big Red One) was still three years away, but even his film did not have the production to be as loud as what was warranted. Steven Spielberg found the amount of destruction necessary to fulfill obligations in Saving Private Ryan, but his action orient-ism also allowed the film to be marked down by effects. Either way, at the time Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now, he was aligning the film with other more realistic war films. Since the mass movie audience still had a memory for a time when movies were stale and an Alfred Hitchcock thriller was pushing buttons, the level of realism in a war film aligned itself with an anti war mentality. Throughout the film, there are better moments which objecitify brutality and show the measure of suffering in ending a human life, but the point of this attack is how both the personal merges with the impersonal.
In 1968, when escalation of the Vietnam War happened and Napalm bombings became more frequent, the United States found a cost effective manner to take out large areas of terrain since fighting hidden soldiers became troublesome. Filming a napalm attack on film would be effective, but it would also be short and to the point. The walls of flame would only do so much to enliven the imagination of destruction since the flames would mostly block out visual radar of what was happening. A few scenes in the film show that (even in this sequence), but what this attack does is adaquately dramaticize the idea of a napalm attack. As many soldiers attest today, a comfort level grew with violence during the war. These feelings are spilling out as the soldiers in the helicopter take wind of all the action and swirl the energy of the situation through their nostrils. The moment is thrilling for the audience. It’s harder for us to align the intended senses of the scene today since we all have seen every kind of level of violence in a war film, but I imagine a contradiction and bungle of emotions filled the first viewers of this film as they saw an exciting moment but were able to register the deaths of civilians on the ground. Further complication ensued when some were taking up arms and the colonel played by Robert Duvall was giving instructions to a young soldier about possibility of waves on the coast for surfing sake.
There is another commentary. As technology developed, the rise of attacks by machines like planes became more common. As a soldier, John McCain suffered in capture during the Vietnam War, but he has said his role of an air fighter made him feel not like a real soldier. Apocalypse Now began the idea of enjoyment by soldiers for mechanisms of death and every modern war film since has continued the tradition, especially films about the first two Gulf wars with Iraq. Three Kings and Jarhead are commentaries on the everyday soldier. The former has more of a basic plot aligned with it, but the predicaments of their situations started in scenarios of mass contradiction like the ones highlighted in Apocalypse Now. I don’t even feel the need to expel on the style since the mode is realism but the method of insight is to make the elements in the scene more exciting. It’s the perfect marker highlight on where we are now with war films.