Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Apocalypse Now: A Ladybrain Review

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.


  1. Sorry but this was dreadful. Not only are you criticizing a film for maintaining context, but while noting the lack of female lines, you're actively ignoring those that there are. I would suggest you return to the scene where the 'bunny' a term you yourself continue to use in this piece, is talking about her own situation, it's hardly a fanfare for misogyny. Also, you take the already hypothetical idea that the Cambodian woman at the end is Kurz's lover, and then push it further into absurdity by postulating their relationship, without even beginning to consider the context of traditional Cambodian gender roles that have nothing to do with the active male characters. Honestly a horribly self-serving and unrepresentative piece of writing.

  2. My good thing you did not screen the Redux version, your head would have exploded. A scene which was cut out of the original movie is the Playboy bunnies, somehow have their helicopter run out of fuel at a M*A*S*H unit which has clearly descended into primal depravity. The scene cuts in as the protagonists land their boat and not to shock but the Bunnies offer their bodies to allow escape from what Coppola clearly wants to assume was a continuous gang rape after the poor girls land at the outpost. When the protagonist meet up in the prositution scene the girls are clearly so traumatized they are delirious and beyond sanity after their trauma. Very disturbing scene

  3. This was a truly awful review. You are supposed to be a feminist and dont even recognise the feminist leanings of the film. You really lack the intellectual sophistication to analyse this film on any level.Its rabid feminazis like you who give all of feminism a bad name. You took anything involving women in the film as necessarily an intended slight towards them without any real reason. The playboy bunny scene was supposed to highlight the conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality present in American culture as a whole. And btw lets not forget that the vast, vast majority of people who die in wars are MEN, end of story you clown.

  4. Anon- Do you think you could possibly enlighten the rest of us with the "feminist leanings" you so clearly observed within the film?

    That would be an appropriate and welcome response, instead of say, name calling.

  5. I am not the above 'Anonymous' but I felt obliged to post here in order to elucidate. The 'feminist leanings' of the film are everything you described in the piece and subsequently cited as woman-bashing. The part when the 'bunnies' are on stage is supposed to exemplify the attitude to women in American society; when it gets down to it men want to a. demean women b. have sex with them c. do these two things at the same time. Also there's the tremendously obvious symbolism of the mass crowd vs. the single individuals on stage (patriarchal system sustained by backbone of mass participation).

    Sorry but the whole point of representing the women in such a way is to HIGHLIGHT their plight, not sustain it. I really really hope you can see this. I don't know whether you understood the film at all... your analysis of Willard shooting the woman is telling. His shooting of her is not supposed to present him as some American Übermensch, but rather as a mentally off-kilter individual whose experiences of war have numbed him both to the society he came from (which is itself patriarchal in nature) and the war he is currently engaged him. Eventually the system created by Kurtz is likened to these and arguably it is here in this deranged society that Willard finds he is most comfortable. The whole idea of this film being some typical-capitalist-warmongering-patriarchal-action 'movie' is frankly absurd and a reading of it as so is deeply deeply flawed.

  6. This film is shot from a male soldiers perspective. I was a soldier for 20 years and served in three major world conflicts ... fact is I didn't come across too many women during that time. Sure the're there, suffering with the rest, but as a soldier there's not much interaction. Mostly it's guys trying to kill each other. Maybe Copolla got this aspect right.

  7. So, the actresses are representing Playboy models who were SENT (how exploitative?!) to Vietnam by their male boss to increase morale of the troops? Maybe in reality this was the case. This serves to demonstrate just how some females are exploited in patriarchal society until their bodies age. Any female with a degree of sense would find something better to do and use their intelligence to achieve as a human being. Anyway, this film goes beyond portraying the boosting morale of Vietnam soldiers. These females are objectified and appear in this film purely to serve as sex objects for male viewers, and this is degrading to all females. It is basically letting us females know how vulnerable we are to rape. I digress, we see lingering shots of the actresses near naked ... surely if this were to reflect 'reality' the males would be naked too? I rest my case.

  8. "I digress, we see lingering shots of the actresses near naked ... surely if this were to reflect 'reality' the males would be naked too? I rest my case."

    Sorry but that makes no sense. You know the male gaze is more than ogling women in skimpy outfits, right?

    In reply to the articule, you do know that a Film can show misogyny and the exploitation of women without condoning it? In Redux there is a scene were the Bunnies are prostituted, in return for fuel for their downed helicopter, the scene which showed the paralells between the young soldiers, and the glamour models, whose lives are both exploited. The scene were the Bunnies are dancing for the troops shows how disconted American society is from the situation in vietnam and how alienated the young soldiers feel.

    As for Willard, as someone else has pointed out his shooting the vietnamese women is to show how unhinged he is, how his obsession with his mission has dehumanised him and, in parallel to Kurtz, how he is descending into madness. "the horror, the horror!"