Years ago when I first saw Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather I found myself caught up in the destiny of Don Corleone’s youngest son, Michael, a soft-spoken and modest fellow who suddenly decides, after the murder of his brother by a rival Mafia gang, to avenge his family’s honor. He does this in typical Corleone fashion by murdering a number of people. The killings, which take place in an Italian restaurant, are superbly done. Until Michael shot the three men at their dinner table, I was on the edge of my seat. I prayed that he wouldn’t make any last minute mistakes, that his gun wouldn’t jam, and that his courage wouldn’t fail. When the killings were accomplished, I applauded with the rest of the audience. It was the first time I ever cheered a cold-blooded murderer.
After the film was over I realized that Coppola had managed to enlist our sympathy for the Corleone family because, among other things, we saw them eating spaghetti together. As far as we, the audience, were concerned, the people they killed didn’t have family dinners. This sort of manipulative filmmaking depends upon the director’s ability to distract our intelligence away from any perspective of the actual criminality of the Corleones long enough for him to slip into our uncritical American hearts a balancing image of family love. In America most people will excuse almost anything if someone is a family man. All propagandists know this. When the movie was over I said to myself, this Coppola surely knows how to make movies, but he has the soul of an ad-man.
Recently I read an interview with Coppola in which he congratulated himself for his bravery and stamina in filming Apocalypse Now, and then went on to imply that had he less courage he wouldn’t be such a physical wreck: “I could be the head of KQED (San Francisco’s public-television station) and do interesting little experimental things.” I suppose we should be grateful that Coppola has so much courage because otherwise we might not have Apocalypse Now, a thirty-million dollar war extravaganza that manages not only to turn the Vietnam war into a cartoon but also suggests in its manner of filming that war is beautiful.
I don’t know where the notion came from that war is beautiful. I’m aware that anyone ripped on drugs can look at an explosion and say “wow,” but I can’t see why an artist would want to translate that experience into a valid perception. The actual physical event of war is not beautiful except to the truly disengaged or to those stoned enough to separate the meaning of an event from its shape. But in Apocalypse Now the primary intent of the director is to offer us aesthetic thrills as we view the Vietnam war, the visually brilliant spectacles of helicopter massacres, napalm explosions, a kind of wild, Wagnerian opera of color, sound, and event. We are pinned to our seats by Coppola’s filmic skills. During the helicopter raid I practically wept with the art of it all, the iron-like control over the seemingly random, the breath-taking balance of steel and vegetation, the pause, the wait, the whine, the scream, the mayhem. Art! I wanted to cry out. Coppola is a magician! He has made war beautiful!
Hucksters with talent exhaust me. Why, I want to ask, did you make war beautiful? Was that your only choice? I don’t mean the courage or the stamina or the manhood that can be a part of going to war — artists have always been able to find the human spirit in war, or in love, or in anything. But since when, except through the eyes of the overdrugged, do we revel in the artistic possibilities of massacre? I think of Sartre’s prescription for evil in the modern world: to make the concrete abstract. Here Coppola has managed to find beauty in the physical horror of Vietnam, not unlike the Vietnam pilots who marveled at the color of their exploding cluster bombs.
This makes me wonder, finally, at the inflexibility of Coppola’s art which had to stick with mere pictorialism; such a stale proposition to deal with consciousness of that war, as if Faulkner had chosen to write the idiot section of The Sound and the Fury in stately Victorian prose. In Apocalypse Now Coppola does most of the work necessary to make a movie except to discover how he is going to see the war. Surely all that beautiful filming — an A plus in any graduate film course in the country — doesn’t represent the way anybody perceives the Vietnam war or really any war? Could they?
My guess is that Coppola is bankrollable in The Biz and ended up with more money than he knew what to do with. In the movie business, too much money is just as bad as too little. With too little, films can have an uneasy look about them, ugly and ill-formed, but with too much money a film tends to look too easy, too slick, and in that useless perfection one can sense a million-dollar technology calling the punches — that surface glibness of the American film in which no connection exists between what we are seeing and how it is being seen.
In Apocalypse Now nothing is seen intimately or simply. What is the result? When Willard finally reaches Kurtz we are treated to a stageset (in the middle of the jungle) whose ghoulishness makes Conrad’s version of Kurtz’s domain look like a country cemetery. Instead of Marlowe’s description of the six skulls stuck on poles, five of which are turned toward Kurtz’ house, we now have the million-dollar movie version in which skulls are piled everywhere, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, and bodies are hanging everywhere out of the trees in the smoky gloom, and over it all there is a kind of Hollywood beauty, the perfectly conceived stageset, so glamorous in its own way that one wants to applaud as one applauds the set of a Broadway musical. This set is not unlike the concentration-camp set in Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, huge, romantic, smoky-green rooms, cavernous and perfectly dank, precisely the sort of place one would like to tip-toe through with a lover, but not at all like the grim and blank rooms in which the killings took place. In Apocalypse Now we are back in bawana-land where Tarzan has found the temple of the golden elephant, and we hold our breaths as he glides past the decorative skulls, a knife between his teeth. Gone are Conrad’s supremely intimate observations concerning the heart of darkness, how this darkness waits for those who lack, beneath their eloquence and their illusions of principle, some small restraining “matter.” Kurtz as played by Marlon Brando has become super-Kurtz — someone beyond our common understanding; in place of the ridiculous but dazzling “voice” of Conrad’s Kurtz we are given the super-babble of a murky metaphysician who apparently doesn’t just murder people, he wipes out cities. The whole Kurtz affair is ridiculous and pretentious. Not unlike Kurtz, Coppola apparently believes that since he has thirty-million dollars he might as well abandon the restraints of art with its delicate balance of reality and metaphor and give us instead the whole slambang Vietnam war itself, with a thousand skulls in place of one clean, astonishing insight. Ultimately we are in DeMille country where the illusion of the thing is replaced by the overly-affluent, anti-imaginative notion that if we can have the thing itself (or almost the thing itself) then why should we bother with metaphor and suggestion?
Hucksters with talent exhaust me. Why, I want to ask, did you make the war beautiful? Was that your only choice?
Years ago I read an essay by Hannah Arendt in which she said that the Nuremburg trials were necessary because they assigned responsibility for crimes to people who, in fact, had the responsibility not to commit them. Her concept was that if one declared everybody in Germany guilty, then no one was guilty — guilt became a condition of being, or something connected to the stars, a notion antipathetic to anyone interested in establishing a little decency on earth. Time after time Arendt’s insight has proved fertile for me, illuminating difficult situations in which somebody was trying to extend the fact of guilt to so many places that no one finally would be touched by it. According to this relativizing impulse, one did certain things because one lived in the “sixties,” or one went into advertising because the “seventies” were different than the “sixties” or, more prosaically, one would hear that “it” takes two people to ruin a marriage, one of those sellable items of the counselling industry which allows everybody off the hook, and besides, is hardly ever true. The point is always to spread the responsibility around so nobody ends up with any of it.
The courageous act of assigning responsibility and guilt (as Kubrick does so brilliantly in Paths of Glory) or even merely to acknowledge that such things exist, is reduced in Apocalypse Now to the modernist dream of absurdity. It’s like a pot-head’s view of life in which everything is incredible and very far out. Surely war-as-cartoon has never been done as well. Helicopters destroy a village and everybody in it because the battalion commander wants to surf on its beach; show-biz hot-shots hop off helicopters with vacant-eyed bimbos to give the boys in the jungle a quick glimpse; while upriver troops under no one’s command fire mortar shells across a bridge lit up like a ferris wheel in the middle of the night. No one is in charge and yet at the same time only the worst people are in charge. It is the hidden flaw in the argument of the absurdists.
In Coppola’s case the idea is to relativize any notion of responsibilities so that he can get on with a purely cinematic exploitation of the war — without having to deal with the less cinematic venture of figuring out the parameters of responsibility. The idea that the war was organized by men is given over to the cinematic notion that the war is a pure nightmare. Everybody in the movie, for instance, is some form of punk or jerk or killer. The closest we get to an actual person, that is, who is given a chance to be less than a nightmare version of himself, is Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, a three-quarter psychotic assassin who casts sullen inward looks at the senselessness around him, and goes about his business of killing Kurtz.
The problem is that the war wasn’t a cartoon, no matter how much dope most of the soldiers smoked. At least a serious artist can’t afford to think so. Once Coppola made the fatal mistake of transforming Conrad’s Marlowe into the character of Willard, he cut himself off from any critical perspective of the war and had to settle for the cartoon version. For in Heart of Darkness Marlowe travels down the river where he comes to know “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a . . . pitiless folly.” In himself, however, he possesses some notion of restraint, which in his own view is the only thing that can protect a person when the forces of darkness begin to take over. Marlowe knows how to keep working, for instance, when everybody around him is going crazy. (And what does this restraint bring you . . . some knowledge of yourself which comes too late anyway.) To exchange Marlowe’s simple lessons of good sense for an absurdist’s view of reality is to deprive oneself of any measure by which to judge the real insanity of the Vietnam war. Everybody is crazy and so nobody is crazy. Ultimately one plays into the hands of the people responsible for the war who would like nothing more than for intellectuals across the land to regard Vietnam as absurd so they can escape any responsibility for escalating it. The stoned soldier may feel that he is trapped in a cartoon, but that’s because he’s stoned, and anyway, what could he do with the insight that the war wasn’t a cartoon? For Coppola, however, or for anyone else not trapped in the exigencies of the actual war, it is a terrible cop-out designed for a purely exploitative end, namely, to give us a rock-and-roll war because the other kind of war, the kind that really is war, has been done before and has proved to be bad box-office.
For all his claims about the new film technology and apocalypse and doing what never has been done, Coppola has ended up with a film which advances the film medium about as far as a classy commercial. Whenever the spirit of manipulation replaces the truthful, defining intelligence which is at the center of all art, one ends up with a commercial for something or other. What this film advertises, quite simply, is a big, star-studded, octophonic, wrap-around and beautiful Vietnam war.