Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976
Our recently departed friend Tim Page was the central character in the 1992 ABC miniseries Frankie’s House, the story of the celebrated, inebriated Vietnamese home-away-from home and party house in Saigon for transiting newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. Tim was portrayed by Scottish actor Iain Glen, famous nowadays for his role as Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones. This was not Tim’s first first portrayal in film. Denis Hopper’s strung-out photojournalist in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now was said to have been inspired by Tim’s Vietnam adventures. This was referred to many times in the many media tributes that followed his passing and at his farewell in August last year.
Rewatching the film recently, for the first time in decades, I thought Hopper’s over the top, incongruous and unexplained character bears little resemblance to the Tim Page we knew. And yet, as Tim and his partner Mau were later to point out to me, Hopper’s cracked and crazed camera cowboy illustrated exactly what the soldiers at ground zero experienced in America’s war, a war that has since been defined as chaos without compass.
The film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, set in a dark and deadly Belgium-ravaged Congo. A special forces officer is sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue officer who has established a quasi-kingdom in the heart of the Jungle. With poetic and creative license Francis Ford Coppola created a psychedelic fever dream somewhere up the crazy river on a journey through a war that had already been lost while the powers that be had concealed the fact to the American public and to the world at large.
The Vietnam War’s echoes reverberate to this day. In the United States, it has taken more than 50 years for such a traumatic defeat to fade. The deepest scars, inevitably, belong to those who suffered most. Author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo in the preface to his memoir A Rumor of War wrote:
“I came home from the war with the curious feeling that I had grown older than my father, who was then 51,” writes. “A man saw the heights and depths of human behaviour in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses – a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.”
The scars on Vietnam itself were much much deeper and long lasting – on its politics, still a authoritarian communist regime; its people – millions died, were wounded or suffered long term psychological and genetic damage; and its environment – the effects of broad-acre defoliants and the damage and debris of war.
Two seminal scenes in the film encapsulate the carnage wrought in a country the US government wanted to “bomb back into the stone-age”.
Ou first introduction is where “little spots on the horizon, into gunships grow”, to borrow from Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, as a squadron of US helicopters approach a tropical shore and attack a Vietcong camp in an idyllic seaside village to the exhilarating accompaniment of Richard Wagner’s rollicking The Ride of the Valkyries. Amidst the rattle of machine guns, the explosions and the flames, the American crews are portrayed as gung-ho and dispassionate participants in a real-time video game. The Vietnamese men, women and children are tiny black-garbed figures running around in panic like a disturbed ant’s nest, falling, flailing and flying through the air. Yet you know that this is no computer game. These helpless and doomed people are merely targets with nowhere to run to.
The second scene is set towards the end of the film, up that crazy river. The assassin, Willard, is about to slay his target, Colonel Kurtz – but not before Kurtz, filmed in a flame-lit semi-darkness, declares that he wants to die as a soldier and “not like some poor, crazed rag-assed renegade”. He then delivers his final testament on a war that has been all for nothing, and on why it has been lost:
“I’ve seen horrors … horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that … but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face … and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember … I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized … like I was shot … like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God … the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men … trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love … but they had the strength … the strength … to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral … and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling … without passion … without judgment … without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us”.
The film itself is much better than I recall it first time around. Perhaps it is because I now know substantially more about the Vietnam War than I did then. But also, because the 2001 directors cut, Apocalypse Now Redux has nearly an hour of footage that never reached the original cinema release, much of it quite crucial to an understanding of how pointless and crazy the war became.
The film contains several changes, mostly subtle, and two entirely new scenes, both of which enhance and serve to illustrate just how inchoate and crazy the war had become by the end of the sixties. By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968 with a promise to end the war and “bring the boys home”, it had almost seven years still to run.
One of the new scenes is set on the tiny US Navy river boat taking Willard up-country, Earlier in the story, the famous Penthouse Playmates arrive at a rear-base to entertain the troops. We now meet them again at a neglected and run-down forward fire base further up the river. It is a bizarre scene with an equally bizarre script in which two stranded and befuddled beauties struggle with the surreal setting and its drug and combat addled garrison. The other has Captain Willard and the team encounter a family of well-armed holdout French colonists on their remote rubber plantation. Here we have the film’s the only solid explication of the origins and inevitable outcome of the Indochina conflict. Having denounced his country’s folly in being surrounded and defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which precipitated the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of US involvement in Indochina, patriarch Hubert de Marais declares: “You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history”.
© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved
Read more about the Vietnam War in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy; Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey; Journey’s end – photographer Tim Page’s wild ride; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited
Colonel Kurtz’s “Horror” monologue from Apocalypse Now, performed by Marlon Brando