Wednesday, 15 June 2011

‘We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and then give them a band-aid’ - The Vietnam War in Film

The Vietnam War

Conventionally dated as beginning in 1964 and ending in 1973, the Vietnam War represents not only America’s longest war, but the only war that the country has ever lost. It is widely considered a key watershed moment in American culture and society, as it brought crashing down the sense of omnipotence and invincibility that America had cultivated for decades. Historian Gary Gerstle adds that the Vietnam War officially destroyed the ‘Civic nationalism’ fostered by Presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, meaning that war was no longer a way to bring the American people together through national pride, a belief that still rings true today. Whilst the conflict itself is infamous for numerous political and military blunders, atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre, and the strong domestic antiwar movement, the war is also renowned for the impact it had on culture, dramatically influencing the way war is reported on the news, music, and, films. This article will deal with three of possibly the most famous Vietnam War films, Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and will aim to review, compare, and rank the three against each other.

Apocalypse Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne
Year: 1979

Arguably the benchmark from which not only Vietnam, but all War films are compared to, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now has proved to be one of the most enduring motion pictures ever created, thanks to its glut of memorable characters, superb acting talent (including Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Duvall), unforgettable lines (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’), soundtrack, and mesmerising cinematography.

Loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and strongly influenced by war correspondent Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Apocalypse Now is the story of Captain Benjamin Willard. A well respected soldier, he is on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he is given a high priority, top secret mission to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a highly decorated American who has broken away from command and raised an army in Cambodia. The film deals with Willard and the crew of the boat he travels on as they travel deep into the insanity of the Vietnam War, and reveals why Willard would ‘never want another’ mission ‘when it was over’.

Arguably the most impressive thing about Apocalypse Now is that it both develops its characters to a relatable, understandable level, and also deals with the wider conflict as a whole. Many war films either do not attempt to do both, and simply focus on individual soldiers or use characters as metaphorical tools to examine the war, or try to do both and fail to do either satisfactorily, hence why Coppola’s achievement is so remarkable. No character in the film is a black-or-white caricature; all the main characters (Sheen as Willard, Brando as Kurtz, the boat crew, Duvall as Lt. Col. Kilgore) are multi-faceted, and Coppola continuously encourages the audience to make judgements about the characters, before deliberately confusing and inverting their representations. However, the film is also loaded with metaphors and allegory for the war, its hypocrisies, and the insanity it induced; the fact that Coppola shot three different endings and made the one he used up whilst shooting is extremely reminiscent of the ambiguous way in which the war ended, and the uncertainty of the American people about their first military defeat. Coppola once said, in regards to the production nightmare of Apocalypse Now (shooting alone took 16 months), ‘my film isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam’, and that certainly rings true in terms of the depth that it deals with the war itself as well as the individual characters.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography does a fantastic job at conveying both the beauty and the dark horror of Vietnam simultaneously, an oxymoron that many historians and writers, such as Herr, have alluded to in their work. The sound is also magnificent, with Coppola ingeniously blending pop culture (the film opens to ‘The End’ by The Doors) and classical music (famously using Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in a helicopter attack scene), as well as a foreboding, synthesiser-driven score created by Coppola’s father, Carmine. Willard narrates throughout the film (with the narration excellently written by Herr), allowing the audience to see deep into the psyche of a man slowly being driven insane. These numerous aspects come together to create a truly memorable, powerful film.


Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Year: 1986

Oliver Stone’s directorial breakthrough, Platoon is the story of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), an innocent, voluntary participant in the Vietnam conflict. Through four key episodic events (a night-time patrol, the platoon’s infiltration of a village, an ambush, and a return to the site of the ambush to set up defences), Stone explores the development of the previously unworldly, unseasoned Taylor into a hardened soldier, and the cost of this transformation.

Unlike Apocalypse Now, which shows very few conventional battles between the Americans and the Vietcong, Platoon is fixated on these conflicts, and does a fine job of conveying the sheer tension and horror resulting from the guerrilla warfare that the Vietcong engaged in. While Willard is safe in the knowledge that the enemy can only attack from the sides, the confusion and large group of soldiers that Stone’s camera follows means it is, at points, nigh on impossible to determine where the enemy is coming from or how close he is. Platoon also does an effective job of showing the tensions within a single American platoon, with half of the group, largely pacifists, engaging in recreational drug use and listening to rock, whilst the more bloodthirsty half choose to drink and play cards. Indeed, Platoon is as much about the ‘civil war’ (as Taylor terms it) within the platoon itself than the conflict with the Vietcong.

However, certain aspects of Platoon let down what would have been a more interesting premise had it been pulled off more successfully. Firstly, Stone cannot help but engage in the occasional stylistic flourish, which do little but to detract from the immersive realism which the rest of the film aims to cultivate. One particular scene has a character taking all of two minutes to die in slow motion after being peppered with gunfire, which, whilst poignant, also destroys the notion that these soldiers can die in a second, with no prior warning. In addition to the fact that Platoon stars Charlie Sheen, son of Apocalypse Now’s Martin Sheen, which brings about inevitable comparisons between the two films, Platoon also seeks to emulate the voiceover narration style, through the horribly clichéd method of having Taylor write letters to his grandmother, making such trite observations as ‘That’s what this place feels like. Hell’.

Another area in which Platoon falls short is the music. Whilst, like Apocalypse Now, it boasts some excellent, recognizable rock and Motown, the super, synth-driven score by Carmine Coppola is replaced by the repeated use of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, which is played so many times (seemingly at every dramatic point in the film) that by the end it loses all poignancy and verges on satire. This rigorous conformation to traditional generic war film conventions is part of a wider problem, in that Platoon could realistically be about several wars, not specifically Vietnam. Postmodernist critic Frederic Jameson believes that the story of the Vietnam War ‘cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie’, and one crucial failure of Platoon is its attempt to do exactly what Jameson says cannot be done.

Finally, there is the problem of characterization. Despite the huge number and diversity of the characters in Apocalypse Now, Coppola does a superb job giving each character depth and distinctiveness. Taylor’s story arc, whilst the classic one of sacrifice for attainment, is limited, as Platoon comes nowhere near Apocalypse Now in terms of the exploration of mental deterioration. The descent into madness of Apocalypse Now‘s secondary characters, such as Lance, is more elaborate and detailed than that of Taylor in Platoon, despite him being the main protagonist. As previously stated, many have seen Platoon as more about the inner war between the American soldiers than the war with the North Vietnamese. However, this ‘war’ is conveyed in a simplistic, unambiguous manner. Whilst Coppola explores the ambiguities and moral uncertainties that marked everything about the Vietnam conflict through his characters and the decisions that they make, Stone simply offers the audience two characters, Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Dafoe). Barnes is brutal, warmongering, and relishes the chance to kill as many people as possible. Elias is more peaceful, honest, and moral. At no stage do these two characters waver from their assigned ideological standpoints, and the only character seen to struggle between deciding which one is right is Taylor. Apocalypse Now, with its veritable whirlwind of ambiguity and its expertly created, inescapable ‘moral quicksand’ (Marsha Kinder), clearly does a far superior job of recreating the Vietnam War.

Full Metal Jacket

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D'Onofrio
Year: 1987

Full Metal Jacket (1987) is visionary director Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Vietnam conflict. Split into an unconventional two half structure, the first ‘story’ deals with the training of Marines in North Carolina in preparation for combat, and dominated by the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Ermey), the archetypal overbearing, demeaning drill instructor. The second follows Pvt. Joker (Modine) from his training into Vietnam in the crucial year of 1968.   

As with Platoon and Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket deals with the effects of war on the psyche of the soldiers. However, unlike Stone’s film, which deals with mental breakdown rather meekly through Taylor’s letters, Full Metal Jacket details the complete derailment and loss of humanity of one recruit, Pvt. Pyle (D’Onofrio), despite him never actually reaching Vietnam, thus laying the blame for the insanity and confusion of the conflict itself squarely at the feet of American command.

Of the three films examined in this article, Full Metal Jacket is the most grounded in the history of the war, with the second half of the film being set during the Tet Offensive in 1968, arguably the pivotal point of the war, as it was the first indication to the American public that they would not be victorious in Vietnam. This sense of hopelessness and despair is palpable in the Vietnam sequence, as one by one the men of the platoon that Joker joins are cut down. Kubrick directs the tone of the film masterfully, starting with a significant humorous slant, which gives way to brief hope as Joker tutors Pyle and helps him become a Marine, before imploding these tendencies; the second sequence is bleak, violent, and Joker’s wit is marked with bitterness and anger.

Full Metal Jacket also deals with tensions within the group itself. However, its characters are significantly more fleshed out and detailed than those found in Platoon. Kubrick opts for a more coherent, linear battle style, allowing the audience to keep track of where each soldier is, unlike Stone’s eclectic, deliberately disorientating style in the Platoon battle scenes. This allows for greater exploration and understanding on the audience’s part of the various motivations and internal conflicts of the soldiers. Whilst Platoon is dogged by the overly sentimental use of stylised techniques, Kubrick utilises them expertly, in one scene deliberately showing each Vietcong bullet hitting an American in slow motion in order to emphasis the effect it has on the soldiers watching and their motivation to run into what may well be an ambush.

Another issue with Platoon is its unambiguous, binary characterisations. Full Metal Jacket does a far better job at dealing with the psyches and motivations of its characters; Joker’s use of humour, Cowboy’s (Howard) struggle with authority when he becomes platoon leader, and Animal Mother’s (Baldwin) bloodlust are all examples of the stronger, more relatable characterisations in Kubrick’s film. Full Metal Jacket also represents a far more effective use of music than Platoon. Once again, contemporary 60s pop music is used to great effect, but the rest of the film, most notably the battle scenes, are left with no music, which is much more successful in creating tension and immersing the audience in the experience of a Vietnam soldier than the repeated use of ‘Adagio for Strings’ that Platoon resorts to.


Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket are three quite different films, despite dealing with the same war and many of the same themes as each other. Apocalypse Now is (in my opinion) by a distance the best of the three, a surreal, epic masterpiece which explores both the individual and the war as a whole. Full Metal Jacket is the next best, with Kubrick demonstrating throughout why he has come to be regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and one who is able to take any genre and make it his own. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, despite its various limitations, such as its over stylised approach and its basic characterisations, is still a good war film, although it is unable to compete with Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket in terms of scope, character development, direction, vision, and execution.

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