Vietnam War Movies Essay, Research Paper
Vietnam War MoviesApocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are both films about American soldiers in Vietnam. This genre of films broke with previous tradition in that they offer a realistic and negative view of war. Most popular movies about WWII for example were almost propagandist in their assessment of the character of Allied fighting men and the rightness of U.S. involvement. Most films about the Vietnam conflict (one notable exception being The Green Beret s starring John Wayne), were remarkably negative. Since films shape our perception of history, and any fictionalized account of history is bound to subjective interpretation we cannot take them as fact, rather they serve as icons of public perception and sentiment (which in turn exert an influence on how the event is perceived). Captain Willard is as much a product of the war he fights as he is a part of it. An assassin with a distinctly self-destructive streak, one gets the sense that his war is mostly fought within himself. Upon returning home after his first tour, he finds himself a different man and so goes back to Vietnam. We first encounter him in a hotel room labile and destructively introspective, he wants a mission and for his sins they give him one. Joker, the protagonist of Full Metal Jacket, is more ambivalent. Apparently fresh out of high-school, he joins the Marine Corps, possibly in the face of a draft. His choice of specialties–Combat Correspondent, elucidates some of his motivation. He wants adventure and primary experience and he actively seeks out a dangerous assignment. He wears a peace symbol on his body armor yet writes born to kill on his helmet. In Joker we see a young man wanting to prove himself in the arena of combat, he does kill directly in an act of mercy!, yet he lacks the coldness and conviction of a real killer. He is repulsed by the cruelty shown Private Pyle, and yet he participates in it. Apocalypse Now is a tale steeped in metaphor. Traveling up the river is a symbolic regression to the dark, malevolent inner selves of Kurtz and Willard. At the base of the river there is a sense of American military might and purpose. Capturing a point because the surfing is good at the end of the river and beginning of the journey, the bedlam of the bridge at the Cambodian border and the final savagery of Kurtz s compound we see how reason is supplanted with something dark and primordial. What these people are expected to do–kill without hesitation and risk their own lives–in the pursuit of a fuzzy political goal that was at best controversial–is asking alot. Men like Willard, Kurtz and Animal (the machine gunner from Full Metal Jacket) seem to have found their place in the war and it makes them useful. Half of Full Metal Jacket takes place in Boot Camp. The transformation from civilians to killing machines provides an intriguing history for judging their later actions against the chaotic backdrop of Vietnam. The first thing we see in the film is the raw recruits being shorn of their hair: being stripped of their identity and outfitted with a new, uniform one. Their idiosyncrasies are hammered into oblivion and the weak link (Pyle) is broken. In the form of nicknames and personalities the characters retain enough that is familiar and human to make the viewer aware of them as people as well as the machines they are made into. As in Apocalypse Now, the use of popular music and culture is a striking juxtaposition to the military they are a part of and the foreign land where they fight and die. 1960 s rock and Roll is decidedly anti-establishment, and so helps bring the climate of Vietnam-War era America into focus.
The bureaucratic mechanism is a target for both Kubrick and Coppola. In Apocalypse Now from his mobile home, replete with chandelier, the flaccid General assigns Willard the task of assassination. The General is of a school which Kurtz had little use and even less respect for. He speaks of conflict within the human heart, of low morale out there in the bush , but these are just words and he is as insulated from the realities of the war as he can be. On his first visit to Vietnam, Kurtz saw something which led him to abandon a brilliant military career, where he was being groomed for a top slot in the Corporation , in favor of pure soldiery. Joining an elite fighting outfit he goes against the grain of the military institution. The native Vietnamese are not really developed as characters in either film. The shot of the peasants pressed up against the fence at the USO show in Apocalypse Now or the hookers, corpses and thieves of Full Metal Jacket do more to mystify than humanize them. One memorable scene in Apocalypse Now is of the school children running for cover as the strains of Wagner break the silence of their morning. The long shots from on high of the villagers firing their pathetic, antiquated weapons as the helicopters circle and easily subjugate them, does much to show the material disparity between the two sides. Joker is in Vietnam, but Kurtz and Willard are of Vietnam, there really is no going back for them–this is summarized beautifully in metaphor by Kurtz when first he meets with Willard. From the shadows of the compound on his river, his wrinkled brow, bent, speaking of traveling on another, very different river in Ohio when he was a child: there was a gardenia plantation and it seemed as if heaven had come down to earth in the form of gardenias…of course it s all overgrown now. There is no going back for either of these men after having confronted the horror and irrationality in the depths of their souls, in this way Vietnam has already killed them.