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  • Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now
  • Margot Norris (bio)

Among its many surprises, Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, shows the images of two key intertexts of high modernism “prominently displayed” (Zuker 77–78) in Kurtz’s compound: Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. 1 These two texts on comparative mythology and religion—associated with the agnostic work of the Cambridge anthropologists of the early twentieth century—undergird the mythological framework of the premier poem of high modernism, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, that is also considered the most significant poetic expression of World War I. Why did Coppola make a film about the Vietnam War that eschews historical verisimilitude and reference in favor of what T. S. Eliot called “the mythical method” (Eliot, Selected Prose 178)? Coppola’s choice—to construct his film upon Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, Eliot’s The Waste Land and other poetry, and the mythic quests and poetic pilgrimages they embody—seems especially eccentric for the treatment of the Vietnam War, which was not, like World War I, a “literary war” (Fussell 155). Culturally, the Vietnam War was a video war and, aesthetically, a psychedelic war. Indeed, Coppola called Apocalypse Now “the first $30 million [End Page 730] surrealist movie” (qtd. in Goodwin and Wise 262) ever made. His comment recalls another strange anachronism in the recrudescence of early-twentieth-century art forms to address mid- and late-twentieth-century wars. However effectively modernism may have articulated World War I, it failed to serve as an expressive medium for representing World War II. Yet Surrealism, its avant-garde contemporary, did belatedly serve to depict World War II in Volker Schlöndorff’s cinematic translation of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum—which shared the Palme d’Or award for best film with Apocalypse Now at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. The clue to the conundrum of Coppola’s choice of modernism’s mythical method may lie precisely in the problematic power of the surreal to express irrationality, absurdity, incoherence, fragmentation, and futility. Apocalypse Now’s many surrealistic scenes and moments forcefully convey the war’s incomprehensibility. But by themselves they do not produce an insight or recognition of Vietnam’s significance for the American public, or a calculus for its damage to America’s moral life. Like Eliot facing the modern world after World War I, Coppola in the aftermath of Vietnam required “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, Selected Prose 177). The “mythical method” served them both.

But the “mythical method” incurs the risk and cost of dehistoricizing—and thereby depoliticizing—its historical subject. An even greater danger lies in its use (or abuse) to idealize, apotheosize, occlude, or occult problematic ideologies embedded in the art. However subversive of Victorian pieties and hypocrisies, the work of Conrad, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Wyndham Lewis (among others) may be suspected of harboring its own moral darkness in compromised and sometimes incriminating relationships to colonialism, nationalism, class hatred, misogyny, and racism. We may ask, then, what ideological freight the experimentalism of modernism carried into its afterlife in late-twentieth-century art. In the case of Coppola’s use of Conrad and Eliot, there would seem to be cause for worry. Although the impetus for framing a story incorporating the tales of returning Vietnam veterans with Conrad’s novella came from Coppola (“he made the crucial suggestion that [John] Milius and [George] Lucas write up the stories with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the underlying structural agent” [Chown 123]), the screenwriter John Milius initially interpreted Conrad [End Page 731] through his own warmongering filter. 2 According to Jeffrey Chown’s detailed analysis of Milius’s original screenplay, the writer at first cast Conrad’s Kurtz as the war’s hypothetical savior—the man who “embraces the horror, and more specifically advocates it as the final solution for winning the Vietnam War” (Chown 130). Milius’s Kurtz served as model and hero, rather than as nemesis or dark double...

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