There comes a time in every feminist’s life when she (or he or zie) turns that critical feminist lens on her old favorite films, books and music: the classics. These are pieces of art that ushered us through our angsty teenage years, comforted us on rainy days and provided invaluable shared experiences with family and friends.
But at some point, one revisits those works as an adult person. It isn’t always pleasant. You suddenly see the rape apologia and racism in wholesome old comedies. Homophobia, classism, sexism, ableism—it’s all there. So before you wax poetic about how Full Metal Jacket is your favorite movie, take another look at what you’re promoting.
Thus began a series of Ladybrain Reviews: Smalls’ favorite films of all time.
By the time Apocalypse Now hit theatres in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola was already one of the most famous writers and directors in Hollywood. With hits like The Godfather (plus its sequel) and The Conversation under his belt, he hardly needed to prove himself with an artsy war epic. Written and developed over the course of a few years, Apocalypse Now seemed more and more like a pet project by the time Coppola took the helm as director. At that point, several directors (including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas) had declined to take on the project, even at Coppola’s behest. The production itself was fraught with major delays, set-destroying storms, excessive spending, a heart attack and an unexpectedly overweight Marlon Brando.
Since the press had a field day with the years-long disaster of a production process, Apocalypse Now already had a bad reputation when it started screening, in various unfinished iterations. The turning point was its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, where it won the Palm d’Or, setting the stage for critical praise and awards nominations later that year.
Thirty years later, Apocalypse Now is widely considered one of the best films ever made, certainly topping other Vietnam films and most war films in general. It is the story of special forces Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen)—an intense and focused soldier already too disturbed by war to function in civilization—and his mission to terminate the command of Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), for war crimes. Kurtz is camped upriver in Cambodia, installing himself as a sort of murderous, philosophizing demigod ruling over the local Cambodian highlanders. Willard’s orders are to terminate Kurtz’s command and, in one of the coolest lines in modern cinema—“terminate, with extreme prejudice” the colonel himself.
Apocalypse Now hits a nerve as a war film, and as a commentary on the barbaric and uncontrollable nature of war and of human cruelty. Kurtz philosophizes that strategically, to win wars, soldiers have to be capable of horrific, inhuman violence. And within that landscape, it’s impossible to really tell the good guys from the bad. Willard’s superiors send him on a mission to kill one of their own soldiers—a highly decorated war hero—for murder, in the middle of a war zone. As Willard points out, charging someone for murder in Vietnam was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.
The fact is, there are atrocities on all sides of war. Collateral damage is a given, and we’ve reduced all of those warriors and enemies and civilians to nameless, faceless statistics. At best, they’re rows and rows and rows of white gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery—and justification for more war hawking. Apocalypse Now should make us think about how senseless and chaotic and cruel war inevitably is.
And that’s exactly what this film does, to the tune of “The End” by The Doors and a truly creepy, evolving synth score. Coppola edited the over 1 million feet of film footage expertly—what remains are excellent overlays to bookend the film and foreshadow Willard’s dilemma. Scenes of Willard's escorts, the PBR crew, dancing to the Rolling Stones and water-skiing en route upriver and Robert Duvall’s character (Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, of “napalm in the morning” and “Ride of the Valkyries” fame) lend dark humor. Shots of Willard slowly rising up above the steaming, muddy river’s surface, and of a darkly shadowed Kurtz, along with expertly written and delivered dialogue and voice-over, set this film apart as a deliberate and disturbing work of art. Expertly crafted, fraught in most ways film production can go wrong, it was a struggle and a work in progress, but in the end it was a magnum opus.
From the feminist perspective, though, the first thing one might notice is that there are almost no women in this film.
Women, in this narrative, have no place in war. Although American women have served in the military in official and unofficial positions since the American Revolution, they’ve never been technically allowed in combat (though the conditions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are certainly blurring the lines). Women don’t serve alongside soldiers like Capt. Willard, or the crew of the PBR Street Gang. American women are spared that horror. Wives and mothers are safe in the states, left behind after their sons and husbands are killed or emotionally ruined from war. American women are spared the jungle horrors of Vietnam, except for the soldiers' sex objects.
Two Playboy Bunnies have the honor of the only speaking roles for women in the original Apocalypse Now release. Three bunnies helicopter in for a USO-sponsored entertainment tour deep in the warzone. Soon after they start the show, the hundreds of rowdy soldiers start rushing the stage after screaming things like, “take it off, you bitch.” The only lines the girls have are flirtatious and sexual, and in direct response to the men’s jeers. After the men bombard the stage, the women flee with their male escort in a helicopter, which several soldiers cling to even after it launches.
These three women came to the warzone to entertain their war-ravaged countrymen. Granted, it was as sexual objects, but nevertheless their mission was in line with usual USO tours, to liven soldiers’ spirits when they’re far from home. But the men that greet the bunnies in Vietnam aren’t the brothers, fathers and friends these women remember from home—they’re savage and hateful animals. And while war can’t be blamed for the association sexual objectification has with misogyny, it certainly seems to augment it in this narrative. The soldiers want the bunnies sexually, but also feel the need to insult and demean them. By rushing the stage, there’s a strong implication that the soldiers will start assaulting the bunnies. The women need to be suddenly evacuated, for protection from their own countrymen.
The Vietnamese and Cambodian characters get even less screen time and no dialogue. The first Vietnamese woman onscreen is a Viet Cong fighter, who throws her hat into an American helicopter when Lt. Col. Kilgore and his troops attack her village—to secure it for safe surfing, of all reasons. Another helicopter guns her down, while Kilgore calls her a savage.
Later, when the PBR crew stops to do a “routine check” of a random sampan, a crew member opens fire and kills everyone but a severely wounded Vietnamese woman, whose sudden movement prompted the gunfire. As it turns out, her sudden movement was an attempt to get to her puppy, which was hidden in a basket. After pumping her with bullets, the PBR crew chief wants to bring her to a hospital since she’s still breathing. Not wanting to delay his mission, Willard kills the woman. He likens the situation to splitting someone in half and then offering her a Band-Aid.
The last female character is a Cambodian mountain highlander, one of the dozens of people living under the part cult, part reign of terror that Kurtz leads in a Buddhist temple beyond most of the warfare. This woman has no lines. Though there’s a vague implication that she might be Kurtz’s lover—she’s often in the background for Kurtz’s harangues, and looks on with presumably lament during and before his murder. But considering Kurtz’s ruling style—dead bodies strewn and strung up everywhere, presumably as warning signs to dissenters—it’s hard to imagine that this woman has an equal partnership with Kurtz, if they’re involved. Therefore, the implication that she’s more a combination of slave and concubine seems reasonable.
The roles of the Playboy Bunnies and an offscreen French woman are expanded in the Redux, but since the original film is the version that is most widely recognized, that extra footage won't be addressed here. For the most part, the women of Apocalypse Now take a back seat for the film's entire 153 minutes. When they do appear, they're as collatoral damage, enemies, supposed sluts or uncomprehending wives left behind.
From what movies and history tell us, we should all be spared from war. But within war zones, let's not pretend that women don't fight bravely or get caught in the crossfire.
Bechdel Test: Fail
Feminist Grade: F
Overall Movie Grade: A
Ouch, these letters look so ugly next to each other.