Apocalypse Now could certainly be called an anti-war film, and ending the Vietnam War was a goal of American counterculture activists, but that is not to say that the film is pro-counterculture. As I hope to show in this post, Apocalypse Now is quite critical of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the film depicts the moral exhaustion – and to some extent the moral bankruptcy – of the counterculture at the end of the 1970s, which was a key factor in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, and the conservative tide that followed.
I should first describe the counterculture. In some of the things I posted last week, I used the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” to describe the American counterculture of the 60s and 70s. Those are certainly three important elements of the counterculture. You can add to those elements experiments in communal living, and anti-war activism. (If you want to see the counterculture in action, look at early Doonesbury cartoons, or see the play or film Hair). The main demographic for the counterculture was the nation’s youth, particularly university students. The counterculture was quite critical of people who weren’t young and willing to engage in radical lifestyles. “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” was a slogan of the counterculture, which also means don’t trust anyone who is “bourgeois,” a professional, or in the military.
The high-point of the counterculture was the Woodstock music festival, in 1969, in which half a million young folks came out to listen to the latest rock acts and to dance naked in the rain. It was all peace and love, and plenty of sex. drugs, and rock-n-roll. However, the optimism of this moment of tribal togetherness was not to last. The Vietnam War would drag on for six more years, the destruction spreading to other countries in Southeast Asia such as Laos and Cambodia, despite the efforts of thousands of young activists to end the war. This includes the college student protesters who were shot down by National Guard soldiers (themselves college students) at Kent State and Jackson State, in 1970.
After these student massacres, the counterculture became quite antagonistic towards the war establishment. People now tend to be quite critical of the way young people treated soldiers during the Vietnam War (see Coming Home [1978, Hal Ashby]) – and rightly so, since the soldiers were merely doing what the generals told them to do. There were incidents in which protesters screamed and spit at soldiers coming back from Vietnam. This, despite the fact that many soldiers (as should have been clear in Apocalypse Now) were themselves against the war; many of these ex-soldiers became radical anti-war protesters (see Born on the Fourth of July [1989, Oliver Stone]).
The protests against returning soldiers were part of the radicalization of the counterculture in the 1970s, in the wake of the massacres at Kent State and Jackson State. This led to a militarization of the peace movement, such that many activists who opposed the Vietnam War “took it to the next level,” and became advocates of the North Vietnamese communists, and combatants against the “imperialist” and capitalist United States. These radicals did not seem to see the contradiction, and twisted logic, of waging war to end war. The Weathermen (later called the Weather Underground) were the most famous (or infamous) of radical student groups who advocated violent revolution.
The militarization of the peace movement in the 1970s showed the dark side of the counterculture. Religious cults similarly showed the shadow side of the counterculture. For example, there was Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. Jones came out of the counterculture of the Bay area of northern California, and initially was quite progressive in his politics. However, Jones and his hardcore disciples later became paranoid and violent. In 1978, in a fit of insanity, Jones commanded all his followers at the People’s Temple – relocated to the jungles of Guyana (in South America) – to kill themselves, by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. 909 people died at Jones’s command, at Jonestown.
A third way the counterculture turned dark was in its excess. The experimentation in sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll of the 1960s turned into the rampant sexual promiscuity, drug abuse and addiction, and increasingly angry music of the 1970s. What was once a movement of lifestyle liberation became an orgy of overindulgence.
It is the violent radicalization of the once-peaceful peace movement, the corruption of once-progressive cults, and the culture of excess, that I want to focus on in this post, particularly in regards to Apocalypse Now. I will present Francis Ford Coppola’s critique of counterculture, circa 1979, (when the film was originally released).
I will begin with excess, because the film begins with that. We see it in the very first scene of the film, with Captain Willard in the hotel room in Saigon. Willard is wasted on drugs – in this case booze – and in obvious torment, as he recalls his traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War, and smashes his reflection in the mirror. He has had an excess of war, and his answer is an excess of booze (I will go out on a limb and say that the spoon we see at 3:25 could be used by Willard to cook heroin. This is not that implausible, since we see Willard take opium, the pure form of heroin, in the French plantation scene).
The song from The Doors – “The End” – speaks to the idea of excess. JIm Morrison, the lead singer and song-writer for The Doors, was practically a poster child for excess. Hedonism was a constant theme in his songs (as was “the end,” or death), and he famously died of a drug overdose. He was also charged, at one point, with exposing his genitals while on stage during a concert. (At the end of the song you’ll hear Morrison repeatedly say the “f” word, and simulate the sound of someone having sex). “The End” sounds very much like what someone, exhausted by excess, would write.
The scene also represents this exhaustion visually, as WIllard trashes his hotel room and injures himself, all to escape the war playing out in his mind. This scene represents the counterculture in many ways, but only shows its dark side.
This presentation of excess continues in the first half of the film, as we see the personnel in the boat engage in various countercultural activities (taking LSD and smoking marijuana, having sex with Playboy Bunnies, listening to rock music on the radio), all to excess. You’ll remember that one of these songs on the soundtrack was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which describes pretty well the culture of excess, of taking and doing more and more to escape reality, but finding that reality can’t be avoided. The film suggests that the respective fates of the crew members (particularly Chef, and Clean) are linked to their excessive life-styles. Lance, the surfer, also engages in excess; he does not die in the film, but at the end of the film he certainly seems exhausted, if not mentally destroyed, by his overindulgence in drugs (LSD).
The Manson Family and Cults
I will say more about the end of the film in a moment, but first I need to mention a seemingly minor detail in the film that illustrates the dark side of the counterculture. This is the moment in the film when Chef, on the boat, reads (and reads aloud) a newspaper story sent to him in the mail (this is at the 1:51 mark in the film).
The article he reads is about the Manson murders, which were perpetrated by members of a cult centered around the charismatic rock musician Charles Manson (the Manson Family), after taking the psychedelic drug LSD. Chef reads that these insane, bloody murders – which took the life of three people, including the actress Sharon Tate, wife of the renowned film director Roman Polanski – were done as a “protest.”
The importance of this brief moment is to set up what will come later, when Willard and Lance become part of another murderous cult, based on the idea of murder as protest, centered around Colonel Kurtz.
Colonel Kurtz’s Cult
No one would argue that Kurtz and his followers are not murderous: we see dead, bloody corpses scattered all about Kurtz’s temple compound. But it should be equally clear that they are cult-like. It’s suggested in the film that many of Kurtz’s disciples had been brain-washed, a regular accusation against cults. In fact, Kurtz tries to brain-wash Willard, though it seems he failed in that attempt (unless Kurtz was brainwashing WIllard to kill him). But, besides that, there are plenty of indications that Kurtz’s soldiers, and everyone at the compound (including many children), worship Kurtz with a religious-like devotion.
I would like to look specifically at the moment when Willard and the remainder of the boat crew (Lance, Chef, and Willard) arrive at Kurtz’s temple compound. I mentioned in a previous post the awed silence of the people at the dock and on the shore (and in the water just off the shore). The first people we see at the compound are seemingly tribesmen, painted white, as if they were Cambodians (Kurtz’s compound is in Cambodia) playing at being Americans. If you look closely, however, you’ll notice that many of the tribesmen have Caucasian features. In that regard, they resemble westerners who joined the Hari Krishnas, a Hindu-based religious sect that had many American and European converts in the 1960s and 1970s, often accused of brainwashing and other cult-like practices.
What I’m suggesting is that Coppola represents Kurtz and his followers as members of a murderous cult. I won’t go so far as to say that Coppola was specifically associating Kurtz with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple massacre in 1978, but Coppola does associate Kurtz with a counterculture that had become violent and cult-like.
I’m not suggesting that Kurtz himself was a peacenik-turned-revolutionary, since his understanding and conduct of the Vietnam War was reactionary: he believed that the U.S. military establishment had been too weak, not violent enough, not willing to do what was necessary (such as cutting off the arms of immunized children) to win the war. In his mind, the soldiers and the war had been betrayed by a cowardly, pusillanimous military establishment, assisted by young, craven, student antiwar activists.
However, Kurtz clearly casts a spell on people like the Photojournalist, who dresses and speaks (and takes drugs) like a member of the counterculture. The Photojournalist stands for all those hippies and war protesters in the 1960s who came to embrace radical cults and revolutionary violence in the 1970s.
Coppola’s negative depiction of the American counterculture reflected the attitudes of many people in the United States in the 1970s, including those who had formerly been against the war and fervent participants in the counterculture. The sexual promiscuity, the abuse of drugs, and the disillusionment with government following the war and the Watergate scandal (1974), had turned much of the American populace against the counterculture. This influenced the presidential election of 1980 when, as mentioned above, Ronald Reagan defeated the dour, malaise-obsessed Jimmy Carter, and brought the conservative Reagan revolution to Washington, DC.
This conservative revolution continues today as Reagan’s Republican Party, particularly the “Tea Party” contingent, does its utmost to undo the liberal gains of the 1960s and 1970s. But the counterculture hasn’t been completely defeated or suppressed. Elements of it remain. The recent left-wing Occupy movement was built upon the legacy of the American counterculture. Anti-war protests today are “vaguely reminiscent of the 60s” in their re-evocation of the ideals of that era. We can expect to see the same cyclic patterns emerge in the future, as countercultural protest leads to radicalization, leading to a conservative backlash, leading to a liberal backlash against conservatism, leading to a new counterculture, etc.
We will have two other occasions to discuss the dark side of the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s in the second half of the semester, first in a European context (Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend) and the second in an American context (Chicago 10).
University of Maryland