Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
“The Colonel is not crazy. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad.”
– Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now
This past weekend, I attended one of our Apocalypse Now screenings playing as part of GutiFest. Apocalypse Now is a 1979 war drama directed by Francis Ford Coppola and focusing on the cruel reality of the Vietnam War. GutiFest was a collection of films that our first guest programmer, Gustavo Arellano, selected for the month of July. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and was a former editor for OC Weekly. Arellano selected other classic movies like Aliens and The Karate Kid to play here at The Frida. He also conducted a pre-screening Q&A with Private Vasquez herself, Jeanette Goldstein, for the opening screening of Aliens.
After quickly getting my concessions I made it in time for the movie trailers. There were about 40 people that attended the showing and we were all enjoying the cartoon short King-Size Canary. It displayed on the screen and was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and directed by Tex Avery in 1947. The audience and I laughed at the simple humor of the cat, dog and canary chasing each other as they all drank a potion to grow in strength and size.
The movie started with Captain Benjamin L. Willard’s (Martin Sheen) inner monologue and talking about his post-war PTSD from fighting twice in Vietnam. Captain Willard is summoned to serve a third tour in Vietnam and lead a secret operation. It is 1969 and the captain’s superiors debrief him on the mission involving the termination of U.S. Army Special Forces officer Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Kurtz was waging guerrilla warfare in Cambodia that went against the protocols of his commanders.
There were many graphic scenes that involved American soldiers, Vietnamese civilians, and Viet Cong militants becoming casualties of the war. Gore, explosions and tragedy showed on the screen as Captain Willard made the trek to Cambodia with his men on a U.S. Navy river patrol boat. Chief Officer Petty Phillips navigated the journey upriver to Cambodia with fellow crewmen “Chef”, “Mr. Clean” and Lance. The group accompanied the captain as they fought off the dangers of the Vietnam jungle.
Despite the grisly scenes of war the film definitely provided some comic relief to the crowd. My favorite part was when the soldiers were surfing while a full on war was going on. Willard and Lance both steal Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore’s surfboard as a prank. Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore becomes enraged as he flies around in his helicopter with his voice on the intercom demanding that Willard and his crew return the board.
Once the captain and the surviving crewmen arrived in Cambodia, they finally found the kingdom that Kurtz created for himself. The abandoned Angkor temple is filled with an indigenous tribe of Montegnards and the bloody dismembered corpses of many victims that reminded me of Vlad the Impaler. The poetry that Willard heard Kurtz recite to him after getting captured definitely added a layer of darkness and depth. Kurtz read poems because he used to consider the war as a great cause but since he spent time alone he realized that everyone is a pawn. Kurtz read “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot and implied that American men have become hollow by their lack of leadership in a useless war. My interpretation is that poetry itself is supposed to represent beauty, symbolism and creativity.
Poetry is also an organized set of words that are written, however nothing is ever really organized or beautiful in war. A fleet can try to carry out an organized set of orders but unorganized sets of napalm will make that same fleet fall like a deck of cards. Regardless of what hand of cards you are given, war has no true victor. There is only loss and everyone’s perception of victory is different. This film is a unique experience in itself and I definitely recommend this classic. I left the theater realizing that there was never any glory in the Vietnam War but to never forget those that served.