Why Hollywood Sucks: ‘My film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam!’: Francis Ford Coppola Goes Insane and Makes a Masterpiece


This is part ten of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.



In 1969, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg told their friend John Milius, one of the finer wordsmiths of his generation (and a deep lover of Smith & Wesson), to write a script for a film about the Vietnam War. Following the 1968 Tet offensive, public opinion had pretty decisively concluded that the war was a quagmire and hopeless debacle. Milius, thinking back to his days in film school, recalled the persistent failure of Hollywood to make a decent adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, perhaps most notably including an effort by Orson Welles.

Three years earlier, Edward Said had published Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Over the course of a career wherein Said helped forge whole new disciplines in the humanities thanks to his book Orientalism, the Palestinian professor returned again and again to Conrad and his works. Jacek Gutorow of Opole University noted in a 2004 paper: “Said’s biography…resembles the tormented biography of Józef Konrad Korzeniowski/Conrad. Both writers left their homelands, both became writers in exile, and both devoted their lives to explaining – to themselves and to their readers – what it means to be uprooted, detached from one’s past, witnessing the waning of one’s identity. Both decided to write in English and quickly learned that one’s sense of identity has much to do with language (for example, when you write about your childhood in a foreign language). Last but not least, both recognised and described links between culture and violence, language and power, narrative and domination.”

By now the mythology of Coppola’s film is so well-known that reiteration verges on accidental plagiarism by default. Monsoons ravaged the sets. Martin Sheen, playing the dour Captain Willard, who has been ordered to lead a mission to hunt down a rogue and perhaps insane colonel deep in the jungle, had a breakdown and then a heart attack. Marlon Brando, who was signed to play the mad Colonel Kurtz and had previously refused to accept the Best Actor Oscar that Hollywood had awarded him for The Godfather, showed up in Manila drunk, overweight and shameless about having never read either the screenplay or Conrad’s novel. Coppola himself, who was watching absolutely everything that could go wrong do so in glorious fashion, went a bit loony. All this and more was previously rendered in the brilliant 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola, his wife. My only original insight to add to those by-now familiar discussions is that, per my previous arguments regarding this entire generation of films, the production of Apocalypse Now bears evident traces of Popular Front-era World War II films, such as 1945’s Back to Bataan.

What I want to explore here is that perhaps Edward Said’s writings on the Conrad novel are relevant to our analysis of Coppola’s film. What can be understood about Heart of Darkness can also be understood about not just Apocalypse Now but also the underlying message of the film. If there is one facet of the film that is rarely highlighted, it is the fact that the picture is not so much a coherent narrative set on the Indochinese peninsula as an incoherent, dreamlike presence that America remains haunted by to this day, the imperial disaster of the Vietnam experience. Coppola’s work is not so much a straightforward presentation of a moment in history as it is a kind of Transcendentalist nightmare, reminiscent of Whitman’s poems from another Civil War.

Said writes in his 1993 Culture and Imperialism: “Let us return to Conrad and to what I have been referring to as the second, less imperialistically assertive possibility offered by Heart of Darkness. Recall once again that Conrad sets the story on the deck of a boat anchored in the Thames; as Marlow [the Sheen character] tells his story the sun sets, and by the end of the narrative the heart of darkness has reappeared in England; outside the group of Marlow’s listeners lies an undefined and unclear world. Conrad sometimes seems to want to fold that world into the imperial metropolitan discourse represented by Marlow, but by virtue of his own dislocated subjectivity he resists the effort and succeeds in so doing, I have always believed, largely through formal devices. Conrad’s self-consciously circular narrative forms draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential of a reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control, and that only well after Conrad’s death in 1924 acquired a substantial presence…”

“Conrad’s genius allowed him to realize that the ever-present darkness could be colonized or illuminated – Heart of Darkness is full of references to the mission civilisatrice, to benevolent as well as cruel schemes to bring light to the dark places and peoples of this world by acts of will and deployments of power – but that it also had to be acknowledged as independent. Kurtz and Marlow acknowledge the darkness, the former as he is dying, the latter as he reflects retrospectively on the meaning of Kurtz’s final words.”

Throughout the film, the story features narration by the Sheen character, delivered in such a fashion that eludes description or comparison to other war films. Is Willard writing this in a journal? Recounting it in fragmentary sentences to a debriefing officer? Are these sentences going on in his head in medias res or in the aftermath? Perhaps even from beyond the grave? Such a lack of grounding for his narration hearkens back to the method of Marlow’s delivery.

Here is Said speaking in an interview almost exactly 25 years ago about Conrad and his views about imperialism.

Again, in Culture and Imperialism, Said writes: “Much of the rhetoric of the ‘New World Order’ promulgated by the American government since the end of the Cold War – with its redolent self-congratulation, its unconcealed triumphalism, its grave proclamations of responsibility – might have been scripted by Conrad’s Holroyd [in the novel Nostromo]: we are number one, we are bound to lead, we stand for freedom and order, and so on. No American has been immune from this structure of feeling, and yet the implicit warning contained in Conrad’s portraits of Holroyd and Gould is rarely reflected on, since the rhetoric of power all too easily produces an illusion of benevolence when deployed in an imperial setting. Yet it is a rhetoric whose most damning characteristic is that it has been used before, not just once (by Spain and Portugal) but with deafeningly repetitive frequency in the modern period, by the British, the French, the Belgians, the Japanese, the Russians and now the Americans.”

“… It is no paradox…that Conrad was both anti-imperialist and imperialist, progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South America could ever have had an independent history or culture, which the imperialists violently disturbed but by which they were ultimately defeated.

“Yet lest we think patronizingly of Conrad as the creature of his own time, we had better note that recent attitudes in Washington and among most Western policymakers and intellectuals show little advance over his views. What Conrad discerned as the futility latent in imperialist philanthropy – whose intentions include such ideas as ‘making the world safe for democracy’ – the United States government is still unable to perceive, as it tries to implement its wishes all over the globe, especially in the Middle East. At least Conrad had the courage to see that no such schemes ever succeed – because they trap the planners in more illusions of omnipotence and misleading self-satisfaction (as in Vietnam), and because by their very nature they falsify the evidence.”

Such is the conundrum, likewise, of this film. On the one hand, Milius is a shameless right-wing reactionary whose detestable racial politics were on grotesque display in Dirty Harry. Simultaneously, Coppola, George Lucas and Spielberg are longtime liberal-progressive Hollywood political donors. Is the point of this film that America lost Vietnam and so should think twice about ever going to war again? Or, since there are no Vietnamese characters of any status in the original version of the picture, is the moral instead that America should think twice about losing a war again? Finally, given that Said sees no paradox in Conrad’s contradictions, might it be something else?

Said tells us in The Fiction of Autobiography: “The breathtaking richness of Heart of Darkness comes from the fact that Kurtz is an arch-European (‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’) who undertakes the immensely egoistic, heroic, and rudimentary task of joining his action to his thought (‘everything belonged to him’), succeeds (‘exterminate all the brutes’), and then dies, courageously professing his success (‘the horror’ [XVI.117, 116, 118, 149]). Marlow, a more insular European, perceives all of this but, like Hervey, is overwhelmed by the enduring darkness. First, though, he tells a lie that simplifies the dark truth but safeguards the power of Kurtz’s heroic eloquence. And that eloquence – what is it really? It is quite impossible to say. There can be no more accurate representation in fiction of the historic predicament of mind-tortured modern Europe, except perhaps Mann’s Doctor Faustus.”

There lie the deeper paradoxes beyond the superficial existential question about American imperial adventures on film. One is forced to ask if the war film itself, the very genre that Coppola utilized here, is by default and irreparably inscribed with a pro-war logic even when the filmmakers are trying to make an antiwar picture. If such be the case, what emerges are parallel tracks of narrative and discourse that contain similar contradictions. Returning to Culture and Imperialism, Said writes: “Conrad’s realization is that if, like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation – which in the case of Heart of Darkness allowed it to speak for Africans as well as for Kurtz and the other adventurers, including Marlow and his audience – your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you actively to comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence. Never the wholly incorporated and fully acculturated Englishman, Conrad therefore preserved an ironic distance in each of his works.”

In revisiting the film, such irony can be discerned from the very outset. Everything about Apocalypse Now quite obviously strives to demonstrate the picture is the antithesis of a traditional war film. There are no opening credits, the protagonist is introduced as though he were a psychotic madman, the actual title is not displayed until it is espied in some graffiti in the last act of the film, the editing is reminiscent of a music video, and the major supporting characters are in some ways satires of the archetypes one sees in traditional war films.

“However it is read,” Said continues, “Nostromo offers a profoundly unforgiving view, and it has quite literally enabled the equally severe view of Western imperialist illusions in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, novels with very different agendas. Few readers today, after Vietnam, Iran, the Philippines, Algeria, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iraq, would disagree that it is precisely the fervent innocence of Greene’s Pyle or Naipaul’s Father Huismans, men for whom the native can be educated into ‘our’ civilization, that turns out to produce the murder, subversion, and endless instability of ‘primitive’ societies. A similar anger pervades films like Oliver Stone’s Salvador, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Missing, in which unscrupulous CIA operatives and power-mad officers manipulate natives and well-intentioned Americans alike.”

That passage might suggest a definite closure to this essay, but there is more to discuss. In 2001, Coppola recut the film substantially and released Apocalypse Now Redux, an almost totally different picture, which seems to take on a certain post-colonial edge that was previously absent.

The original cut of the film followed a boat up a river from Vietnam into Cambodia, as it seemed to journey backward in time to a primitive and altogether premodern stronghold of native barbarism, something quite in line with the less savory authorial aspects of both Conrad and Milius. The 2001 version added a key set of sequences that reshaped things. Now the boat goes on a journey back in time to key way stations that demonstrate major epochs of Indochinese history.

The major addition is a stop the boat makes at a French plantation populated by a family that carries on as if its members were still living in an operable colony. At a dinner scene which is as awkward as it is eerie, these nostalgics wax romantic for the past. “You don’t understand our mentality – the French officer mentality. At first, we lose in Second World War. I don’t say that you Americans win, but we lose. In Dien Bien Phu, we lose. In Algeria, we lose. In Indochina, we lose! But here, we don’t lose! This piece of earth, we keep it. We will never lose it, never!” Grasping onto a land they claim as their own, the dinner hosts then begin a brief history lesson of how the Americans created the very enemy they now fight. “In 1945, yeah, after the Japanese war, your president Roosevelt didn’t want the French people to stay in Indochina. So, you Americans implant the Vietnam…. The Vietcong were invented by the Americans, sir…. And now you take the French place. And the Vietnam fight you. And what can you do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing!”

It is here that the film overtly becomes a poetic critique of Cold War imperialism as an extension of European colonialism, and the war itself becomes something more than a mistake. Those relics of a bygone epoch are temporal and spiritual antiques reflecting a morality that has lost even the pretense of virtue, and a refinement that instead seems barbaric.

And yet here still Coppola falters, in the same way Conrad did. He shows us no Vietnamese or Cambodian character of any significance. The film therefore fails to grant respect or even humanity to the colonized people, the very agents of American defeat in Vietnam. The American cinematic conventions upon which the film does depend, a narrative mold called Classical Hollywood Cinema, is the lingua franca of commercial film and has been for 120 years. It is built upon the Romantic staging of good versus evil, light and dark.

Coppola offers only one set of characters to root for, the Americans; and their doubts about their mission center entirely on concern for one another and their own survival against a faceless, voiceless, ambiguous enemy whose singular trait is his ability to kill them. When the soldiers finally reach Kurtz and his compound, they find a scene of stark brutalism, teeming with indigenous and rogue soldiers whose sole mouthpiece is the whacked-out photographer played by Dennis Hopper. Furthermore, by the end, even in its antiwar garb, the picture promotes a subtly triumphalist message. Kurtz and his followers are killed, bombed into a hellish conflagration, while Willard returns to civilization, damaged but ultimately the victor on behalf of imperialism.

How is that possible? Said writes: “Conrad could probably never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-European at the time. Independence was for whites and Europeans; the lesser or subject peoples were to be ruled; science, learning, history, emanated from the West…. But because Conrad also had an extraordinarily persistent residual sense of his own exilic marginality, he quite carefully (some would say maddeningly) qualified Marlow’s narrative with the provisionality that came from standing at the very juncture of this world with another, unspecified but different.”

As an American coming of age in 1960, Coppola doesn’t have the same excuse. Or does he? His Captain Willard could not believably be a renegade from imperialist logic any more than Marlow could – any more than, perhaps, Coppola could, working within the conventions of Hollywood and the war movie even while challenging them and grasping, in the Redux, for a post-colonial perspective. My own view is that as he aged and became a much more relaxed, background player in Hollywood during the later 1980s and 1990s, Coppola would have developed a better sense of insight about such matters because he was no longer beholden to the exhausting production schedules of the industry. He also began to publish a literary journal with American Zoetrope, his production company, that would traffic in ideas.

Is it possible that Said influenced Coppola and editor Walter Murch when they entered the editorial booth in 2001? Notably, Murch did not tack on sequences to a pre-existing film, as many might expect. Instead, he rebuilt the film from the foundational film elements upwards, piece by piece, in the same way that the renovation of a recipe or a building can start from scratch.

Now is where things become truly superficial.

Since 1972, Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios has been based out of the Columbus Tower in San Francisco, a few blocks from the legendary City Lights Bookstore. In the time between 1979 and 2001, is it likely that Coppola might have spotted Edward Said’s books there and might have even followed the great thinker’s career as a public intellectual and advocate for Palestinian rights? Is it possible that Said’s essays on Conrad might have shaped the thinking of Coppola and Murch?

The characters of Conrad’s novel, Said writes, “(and of course Conrad) are ahead of their time in understanding that what they call ‘the darkness’ has an autonomy of its own, and can reinvade and reclaim what imperialism had taken for its own.”

“But Marlow and Kurtz,” he continues, “are also creatures of their time and cannot take the next step, which would be to recognize that what they saw, disablingly and disparagingly, as a non-European ‘darkness’ was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain sovereignty and independence, and not, as Conrad reductively says, to reestablish the darkness. Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that ‘natives’ could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them.”

It is rare that such a substantial change of a film like the Redux takes place. Furthermore, it is rare to see within the coordinates of that change a possible reorientation of the picture based around an intellectual development such as those wrought by the works of Edward Said. Whether the Redux succeeds or fails at such an effort is worthy of debate, not least because as a people we have yet to escape illusions about America’s role in the world. And nearly four decades after the original film’s release, the country is again waging a land war in Asia with no end in sight.

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