It is natural to think of war as being created by causes very often going to racism or cultural conflicts. Many wars are fought for political and commercial reasons because history supports that nations are eager to expand through conquest. At the same time, however, it often exists that even commercial interests are tied to racist hatred in war. More exactly, as the conflict begins, nations emphasize or invent other reasons to justify the war. This reality then goes to another, and one not as evident in the ways war is usually viewed. The conflict itself, underway and violent, often amplifies racial hatred. The enemy is attacked and when one side fights on foreign soil, there is an increase in racial hatred because the conditions of war motivate the greater need for it. This is clearly in place in a number of war films, and in particular in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. As the following will reveal, Apocalypse Now demonstrates how extreme racism or cultural bias not only goes to triggering war, but is in fact greatly increased during war.
This is a film that blatantly presents war as promoting deep bias and racism. When the film does not directly do this in terms of actual racist remarks or actions, it creates the same effect in the way that it deals with its major theme. There is a strong sense in the movie that the Vietnam War itself is insane, or cannot be understood in any rational way by the American men sent there. This in itself is realistic, certainly as the war created deep conflict within the U.S. itself. What this then translates to is the soldiers as being victims. They are placed in a strange and violent environment, to kill for reasons they do not understand. As this foundation is set up, then, the ways that war promotes racism are revealed. To begin with, the drunken rampage of Captain Willard reinforces how sane men are changed by such conditions. What is important here, however, is that all of this effect goes to a complete lack of regard for, or even disgust with, the arena of war: Vietnam.
Throughout the entire film, the lives of the Vietnamese are not seen by the American soldiers as valuable or even “real.” If this is a state of mind that is understandable under the circumstances, it also supports how cultural hatred is expanded. It is likely that Americans in this situation would be extremely frustrated and angered, as Willard and others are. That frustration is vented in a number of ways, as Apocalypse Now presents. What matters is that there is both deep resentment and fear within the Americans, so they are unable to view Vietnam and the Vietnamese as anything but the cause of their misery. Hating the reality of the war, the soldiers then hate all the more the enemy, and this hatred is expressed as a racist dismissal of the Vietnamese as human beings.
In plain terms, the violence and the insanity overtaking the white, American soldiers is identified with the land of the war. What is implied is that, as the Americans enter into the darkness of Vietnam, they must become as savage as the natives (Bibby 75). This transformation in itself show how war breeds racial hatred. The Americans see themselves as losing touch with their own humanity, but they also embrace it because savages deserve no better. This is powerfully reflected in the words of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Apocalypse Now). The sentence and the character became famous as a promotion for the film, but what is important here is just how outrageous the statement is. It means that mass murder through chemicals is a good thing, and this can only be true because the victims are not actually real people. Kilgore exemplifies the soldier who goes to the furthest extreme in translating the misery of war to disgust with the enemy, because his racial hatred strips them of humanity itself.
It could be argued that it is unreasonable to use a single film as evidence of how war promotes racism, because films are famously unrealistic. Apocalypse Now, first of all, is based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and has a specific message or theme to present. It is also not a documentary, so it is likely that characters and action are exaggerated to make effects for their own sakes. No movie can be trusted to accurately represent American thinking and behavior during the Vietnam War or any war because movies do not exist to be realistic. In fact, it could be argued that the movie twists the reality for the sake of entertainment purposes.
While it cannot be argued that films are unrealistic to some degree, the important reality here is that this movie is no ordinary war film. Even as Apocalypse Now generated a great deal of controversy, much of that controversy actually came from how accurate the film is in presenting the Vietnam War experience as lived by Americans. Even critics who had issues with the movie generally accepted it as an authentic presentation because it does not shy away from revealing the true horrors of war (Christensen, Haas 166). This being the case, a major part of those horrors was in how American thinking and feeling adapted to the Vietnam War. As the film relates, and perhaps as a sanity mechanism, the Vietnamese, Vietcong, and Cambodians were seen by the Americans as an evil, ugly, savage force. This was a view generated by the war itself, and consequently it may be seen that war is likely to increase racial hatred, if only because those involved hate the circumstances all the more.
Apocalypse Now presents itself as a story of courage and manliness under the worst circumstances, but it is really a film that glorifies the white man who has to adapt to the primitive country of Vietnam. This is a kind of myth that was desired by Hollywood following the war; it would reveal the war as immoral while making it clear that the American soldiers were victims (Kellner 118). In this process, Vietnam as a culture or people is completely lost. As the movie makes clear, the Vietnamese are perceived by the Americans as savages. They are also “cunning” and “crafty,” as Asians have often been presented in older films. It is reasonable to hold that this is a very accurate portrayal of how Americans felt at the time, just as it is probable that all international conflicts reflect this same process. War is horrific and, once men and women are within it, hating the enemy all the more is necessary to justify the actions, just as such hatred is most easily expressed and felt in racism. Apocalypse Now demonstrates how extreme racism or cultural bias not only sometimes goes to causing war, but is in fact greatly increased during war.
- Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, and Dennis Hopper. Zoetrope Studios, 1979. Film.
- Bibby, M. The Vietnam War and Postmodernity. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Print.
- Christensen, T., & Haas, P. J. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005. Print.
- Kellner, D. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Post-modern. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.