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The art of war

May 26, 2011

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. 1979.
Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1987.

I’ve recently watched both of the above, which are two of the most famous films made about Vietnam. I’d like to make a note of several of the similarities between them.

First, both are adaptations from written works, though this probably has more to do with how many great films are adaptations than with anything specific to Vietnam. Looking at the top 10 on the AFI’s list of 100 Greatest American Films, I count at least five adaptations: Casablanca, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Wizard of Oz. I wonder if the best way to make a great film is to have someone literarily minded write something intended to be read, and then later to have someone with a more visual imagination adapt it, so that it can work on both levels.

Second, both are anti-war, but do so without having any characters express strongly anti-war sentiments. Rather, they present the war in an extremely ironic light, showing characters acting absurdly and suggesting that this is considered normal in Vietnam, and thus that the war has created something immensely perverse. I found this at times overly heavy-handed, particularly with Sgt. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now and the soldier in the helicopter in Full Metal Jacket. Two things, I think, would have made this less bothersome. If they over-the-top warmongers had seemed more epic in their transgression, their unbelievability would have mattered less, but as it was they were petty. And if they had been shown to be based on historical figures, I would have no choice but to accept them, and my being bothered by them would be the entire point, but as it was I wasn’t convinced that anyone like Kilgore ever was.

Third, neither had much of a positive statement to make about humanity, and both seemed sometimes to be less artistic works than moralizing cautionary tales. Apocalypse Now suffered from this less than Full Metal Jacket, I thought, in that it provoked more thought, rather than just moral condemnation, particularly through its imagery. I was particularly struck by the use of fire and darkness and by the final image equating Kurtz with the sacrificed bull. Full Metal Jacket was a beautiful film, but just because each individual shot was well-framed doesn’t mean the work as a whole is artistic–though I did like the self-mocking line about wearing a peace button and having “born to kill” written on one’s helmet being an attempt to suggest the Jungian duality of man. This is not to say that neither film was a work of art–I think both were–but both suffered from being overly moralistic, and from suggesting an overly simplistic view in which if we cannot be pacifists morality cannot exist. This seems related to my second point.

In all of these I am reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I studied for my senior project last semester. It, too, is a war novel, and is as I write being adapted into a film; it, too, is often extremely ironic, though it both presents its over-the-top characters as of epic proportion and bases them in historical fact; and, while I would argue that it presents a positive vision of humanity discovered through the artistic imagination, such an understanding is difficult to construct, and easy to deconstruction, such that it is much of simpler to say that it simply says “war is hell, and man must war.” And it was published in 1985, the same decade as these two works, in the aftermath of Vietnam, at a time when artistic types tended towards absolute pacifism. I suppose this suggests an explanation for much of the nagging feeling of distaste I have for Blood Meridian, which, though I consider it a great work, I like less than some of McCarthy’s other novels, like The Crossing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. kevin ireton permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:58 am

    you previously mentioned your senior thesis Re: Blood Meridian.

    Do you have any plans to publish or post it??

    One of my friends would be greatly interested (as would I.)

    American media has a difficult time addressing moral ambiguity in any context. For a long time, movie studios were virtually required to produce plots with a “correct” message. Not by government edict, as in some other countries, but due to financial considerations.

  2. May 31, 2011 11:59 am

    Re: Thesis, yes, I have “plans” to publish it, in that I’ve vaguely considered it and will probably set about trying to do so, well, now-ish.

    The financial considerations aspect of movie-making is unfortunate, but difficult to escape. It’s particularly a problem with war movies–it’s hard to do an indie film about war, since it requires such a big budget to portray war accurately.

    But what I find interesting is that while they’re not allowed to be very morally ambiguous about Vietnam, they don’t make movies unqualifiedly in favor of it–rather, they make movies unqualifiedly against it. This is partially because the two movies I’m talking about here were made after the fact, but it also says something interesting about how financial considerations differ from government edicts.

  3. icarumba permalink
    June 1, 2011 10:40 pm

    The zeitgeist of the ’60’s & ’70’s provides a “built-in” audience for anti-Vietnam war stories. I can’t really imagine a driving-force for the creation of a pro-Vietnam war story. Perhaps in the realm of alternate-history fiction it could be successfully done.

    “Full Metal Jacket was a beautiful film…………..”

    Yes, I think Kubrick sometimes focused on the visual elements to the detriment of the overall story.

    Since the Vietnam war was an ever-present part of my childhood & due to a small study of history, I believe that the real telling/evaluation of the “conflict” probably can’t happen until after everyone alive at that time has died.

    I think it would be interesting for you to compare “Paths of Glory” with “Full Metal Jacket.” Two films by the same director 30 years apart. Both based on novels.

  4. June 3, 2011 5:40 pm

    I’ve never seen Paths of Glory. It looks interesting, though. It’s interesting to note that Kubrick was making anti-war films as early as ’57. I suppose WWI was probably the turning point for when the majority of artists and writers became straight-up pacifists.

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