Hollywood's Long March to War
If Sergeant York and Captain Willard ever run into each other on the battlefield -- or the backlot -- they'll have plenty to talk about. Army food. The firepower of the Springfield '03 versus the M-16 carbine. Mud and grime. The night sweats. Overwrought assistant directors. They might even discuss the morality of war and their roles in defining it for millions of moviegoers.
York, you'll recall, is the aw-shucks Tennessee farmer who starts out as a mild, God-fearing pacifist but once thrown into battle becomes the consummate American soldier. Credited with killing 25 of Kaiser Wilhelm's spike-helmeted Huns and personally capturing 132 others in a single day, this real-life figure was mythologized by director Howard Hawks in 1941. Sergeant York, in the person of Gary Cooper, became the quintessential Hollywood combat hero -- reluctant to take life, but fierce in his patriotic resolve, unassuming in all things but committed to the highest ideals of democracy.
Captain Willard is, of course, a different piece of work from a vastly different time, who undergoes a different sort of transformation. The haunted assassin of 1979's Apocalypse Now is played by a jittery Martin Sheen, who is sent on a secret mission upriver to "terminate the command" of a godlike renegade American colonel called Kurtz. He quickly finds himself enveloped in what Joseph Conrad famously called "the Horror," from which there is no escape. Kurtz's tormentor, his surrogate son and the bearer of his message about the endurance of evil, Willard embodies the violent ambiguities of the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam -- at least for those who admire Francis Ford Coppola's most difficult and troubled film.
Imagine the two of them, York and Willard, chatting over coffee and doughnuts in the Stage Door Canteen.
The release this week of an even longer, more overtly political re-edit of Coppola's star-crossed epic -- Apocalypse Now Redux -- gives new momentum to the old debate about American war movies. Having recently seen the "greatest generation" depicted as heroic (in Saving Private Ryan) and as inane (in Pearl Harbor), are we now to embrace anew the swaggering certainties of John Wayne, who never met a squad of World War II recruits he couldn't mold into a right-minded fighting force? Ten years after George I gleefully annihilated the disheartened, under-equipped Iraqis in Desert Storm and, some say, drove off the malignant ghosts of the war in Southeast Asia, are we to reassess the lessons we learned (or failed to learn) in Vietnam and the dark, disturbed films it eventually produced? Certainly, Redux is a lightning rod for such questions.
In its new configuration, overseen by Coppola and editor Walter Murch, the film contains 49 minutes of new footage. Dedicated Coppolites have been speculating for two decades about the excised French-plantation scene, and now here it is: a contentious dinner party at which a band of colonial holdouts hold forth on what's kept them in the jungle in the desolate years since the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu and, by extension, what the jungle's exacting from the Americans. Following that, there's an opium-scented seduction that provides stark contrast to the film's bloody horrors. Coppola has also restored a second encounter with the Playboy bunnies we first saw at the film's testosterone-crazed USO show. The girls are now stranded upriver in their helicopter, and, like their young male counterparts in battle, they are cruelly exploited -- reduced to exchanging dispirited sex for aviation fuel. The sequence vibrates with sadness as it comments on the commingled fantasies of war and lust.
Most interesting of all, Redux sheds a little more light, personal and political, on the enigmatic Kurtz, who derives from Heart of Darkness. In the added scenes, massive Marlon Brando expounds on the hypocrisy of the U.S. government en route to defining more clearly the evil around him and the evil inside him. Through him, those twin goliaths of twentieth-century darkness, Conrad and T.S. Eliot, now have a stronger and more eloquent hold on the film.
For those who know and love Apocalypse Now, and even for those who think it is preposterous nonsense, here's the chance to see a heightened and more focused version, unburdened of the notorious crises (Typhoon! Heart attack! Catastrophic budget overruns!) that plagued its production and initial release. Coppola believes he has finally untangled and sorted the 370 hours of raw film he originally shot and distilled it into the best 194 minutes he could conjure up. "The new version doesn't say anything differently from the old one," the filmmaker says. "It just says it better and with more complexity -- and the themes emerge more clearly." Just so.
While we're revisiting Coppola's work, it can't hurt to glimpse some of its forbears and descendants.
Almost half a century before Gary Cooper rounded up all those Germans, an anonymous silent moviemaker struck what was likely the first blow for U.S. war fever: 1898's bluntly named Tearing Down the Spanish Flag consisted of just one shot, in which a man's hand -- billed in the accompanying title as "the hand of righteous destiny"-- ripped a Spanish flag out of the camera's view. This dramatic gesture, enacted in a powerful new medium, rallied public support for President McKinley's conduct of the highly questionable Spanish-American War. Its significance as propaganda was not lost on future filmmakers -- or future governments. In the silent-movie era, a decades-long tug-of-war between pacifism and pugnaciousness got under way. On one battlement stood films like Thomas Ince's Civilization (1914), in which a reluctant submarine captain refuses to torpedo a civilian ocean liner, gets himself killed and is resurrected by Christ himself as a blessedly lit crusader for peace. On the other battlement we find such saber-rattling epics as The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin and To Hell With the Kaiser, both released in 1917. Once America entered Sergeant York's war, pacifist sentiment could prove dangerous: One movie producer was sentenced to ten years in jail for making an innocuous little feature called The Spirit of '76, which criticized America's British allies.
Exhausted and disenchanted by the Great War, Americans embraced Lewis Milestone's anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, and isolationism generally ruled the Depression -- in Hollywood and everywhere else. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they not only picked a fight with a very big dog and provided a fat payday in the distant future for Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, they provoked a quarter-century's worth of flag-waving John Wayne movies. The Duke, with that big, chiseled face and that rolling, tough-guy walk of his, had been impressive as the Ringo Kid in 1939's Stagecoach, but he was absolutely born to play a Marine sergeant. Or, a little later, a no-nonsense army colonel. In lockstep with the government's Office of War Information, which approved every foot of combat-movie film the studios shot, John Wayne (and a dozen lesser, merely mortal heroes) became the embodiment of the American fighting spirit -- certain of his mission, confident in his bravery, a source of constant inspiration to the wide assortment of surrogate sons under his command. You know the guys: the wisecracking cab driver from Brooklyn, the quiet Hispanic, the thoughtful Jew, the rawboned Southerner with the Bible in his pack, the scared teenager from Podunk.
From The Fighting Seabees to Flying Leathernecks (but most powerfully, perhaps, in Sands of Iwo Jima), Wayne became the spirit, soul and conscience of America's righteous battle for democracy -- the battle that Sergeant York initiated in 1941 (by way of 1917) but that didn't achieve its full ferocity until John Wayne gave it voice, pumped it up and determined to take no prisoners. In particular, Hollywood spared no Japanese, who were invariably portrayed as subhuman yellow demons. Never had Hollywood stood so firmly behind a crusade -- American war propaganda was even slicker than its German counterpart -- and never had the movie industry found such a perfect physical expression of its ideals as the Duke. War may be hell, but the box-office receipts were dynamite.
By 1945, American war movies had begun to evolve. John Wayne still fought the good fight, but in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), director William Wyler examined the psychological problems of returning veterans with unstinting force. In The Steel Helmet (1951), war-vet-turned-director Samuel Fuller confronted not only the murky specter of Korea, but racism in the armed forces and shifting notions of heroism. By the time America found itself mired in Vietnam, war movies had almost vanished from the screen, themselves the victims of war.
There were exceptions, however. In 1962, one of the old-time studio moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck, produced a star-studded epic about the Allied invasion at Normandy, The Longest Day. In 1967 Robert Aldrich directed a hit called The Dirty Dozen, a brazen comedy about a band of criminal misfits who lay siege to a Nazi-held castle. The following year, known for the infamous Tet Offensive, John Wayne himself undertook a bizarre rearguard action with The Green Berets, an old-fashioned war movie that tried to infuse the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war with Wayne's traditional blood-and-guts patriotism. The critics scoffed and moviegoers felt uneasy. In 1969, as if to seal off an entire era, crusty George C. Scott gave one of the great screen performances of all time in Patton, a surpassing biopic about the complex World War II general George C. Patton. The public has been arguing ever since whether it's a war movie...or an anti-war movie.
It wasn't until another decade had passed that the first wave of Vietnam-era films crested: During the hostilities, studios refused to finance them, and a war-weary public apparently didn't want to see them. When the films finally arrived, audiences beheld a new war-movie view -- skeptical if not cynical about America's ethical authority, psychologically divided, seemingly drugged. If the war in Vietnam had become a political and moral swamp, all the slime and scariness and surreal terror of the place made their way to the screen.
In Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), a film about a group of young Pennsylvania mill workers who land in the same doomed rifle squad, the most chilling and enduring image of the entire three hours is that of American soldiers willfully self-destructing: Psychologically trapped in Saigon, the spooky ex-grunt played by Christopher Walken makes his living and counts out his days playing Russian roulette. Taking it a step further, Vietnam vet Oliver Stone's overheated Platoon (1986) shows America even more literally at war with itself: A ruthless sergeant played by Tom Berenger squares off against a more rational one played by Willem Dafoe, and they both wind up dead. The battlefield realities of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) leave nothing to the imagination, and neither do Hamburger Hill (1987) or the underrated Casualties of War (1989), directed by Brian DePalma. Here, an Army private refuses to cover up the rape and murder of an innocent Vietnamese woman by the members of his own unit. Imagine the old Office of War Information getting a look at that.
One of the only possible responses to such bloody gloom is to conjure up some alternative, comic-book fantasy about Vietnam, some fairy tale drenched in blood. Witness Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies, in which an impossibly beefed-up, buffed-out Vietnam vet returns to the jungles after the war is over to set everything straight, to take revenge against enemies foreign and domestic and personally "win" the war that America lost. Compared to such stuff, the revival of World War II belief (albeit muted and reconsidered) in a film like Stephen Spielberg's harrowing Saving Private Ryan is a relief. So, in its way, is Apocalypse Now Redux. In its new form, it may be the most disturbing and most powerful Vietnam movie of them all; certainly, it demands that we ask ourselves about the actions of governments and men in war, about consequences, about purpose and morality and conviction.
In the end, though, no war film can tell the whole story. The late director Sam Fuller, whose own war movies (The Steel Helmet, The Big Red One) examined, close up, the drama of individual soldiers on the battleground, had his own ideas on what would make an absolutely authentic war film. For that, Fuller said, you'd have to put a couple of riflemen behind the screen and have them shoot into the audience.
Don't expect Sergeant York or Captain Willard to buy a ticket.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.