Film & The Vietnam War

The events of the Vietnam War wielded life-changing results for the United States as well as Vietnam. While the United States government claims 30.9 % of male soldiers that fought in Vietnam suffer from PTSD other reports claim 1.3 million Vietnamese died because of the war. Years after the war in response to the events that occurred, several films were made criticizing the war. Two films in particular, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket comment on how the Vietnam war affected U.S. military personnel and how the U.S. involvement affected the Vietnamese, yet Full Metal Jacket is more effective in imposing on the audience an answer to whether the war was good or bad because they are presented in a straightforward style that closes the door for any interpretation leaving the viewer feeling disturbed by the actions that occurred as a result of the Vietnam War. The reason that Full Metal Jacket’s morals cannot be interpreted in different ways is because the story provides concrete examples that only strengthen one side of the argument about how the effects of war. In contrast Apocalypse Now works in grey areas by mixing examples of why the war was good and bad allowing the audience to leave the film still with more information on the subject but no concrete viewpoint.

30.9% of male soldiers from Vietnam suffer from PTSD

30.9% of male soldiers from Vietnam suffer from PTSD

In order to better understand the messages that are projected from both of the films a base knowledge of the Vietnam conflict must be understood. Before soldiers were even sent to Vietnam the conflict was controversial, many Americans believed that the United States government had no right to intervene in conflicts that did not directly affect the United States. However, after numerous attacks on US Naval boats by the Vietnamese, President Johnson had no choice but to send American troops to Vietnam. For the next seven years America would be involved in a war driven by a particular type of warfare that increased the odds of soldiers experiencing PTSD. Due to the guerilla warfare strategy of the Vietnamese, U.S. soldiers were constantly on the lookout for surprise attacks, mines, and other dangers hidden in the jungle. While the war was damaging and controversial to many Americans, the Vietnamese were also greatly affected by it as well. In fact, the war started for them about ten years before U.S. involvement when the communist party in the North launched a rebellion against the current government at the time. During the rebellion many Vietnamese were displaced by their own people and most of their villages and cities were in ruin as a result. Because of all these tragedies that occurred during the war, criticism of U.S. involvement never went away allowing for it to become a talking point in popular culture for years to come.

The guerrilla warfare of the Northern Vietnamese crippled soldiers

The guerrilla warfare of the Northern Vietnamese crippled soldiers

Apocalypse Now chronicles several fictional U.S. soldiers and depicts how the environment of the Vietnam War has affected them, although the film provides positive and negative examples instead of offering a concrete viewpoint. The story of the film takes place on a patrol boat guided by Captain Willard who is going up a river to terminate a rouge Colonel. The film implies throughout the course of the story that war slowly eats away at the qualities that make individuals civil until they enter a state of madness. This idea is illustrated through the character Clean. In the opening act of the film we learn that Clean is a seventeen-year-old boy that enlisted in the army in order to go fight in war because it would be “cool.” During the first half of the film Clean acts like a child implying the idea that he is not at war and is instead back home in America enjoying his youth. This is shown when Clean puts on music through the speakers of the boat he is on in order to dance around with a can spewing purple smoke in reference to Jimi Hendrix. The idea of Clean being innocent and free of corruption is even reflected in his name. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, put so much emphasis into making the audience understand this in order to show the magnitude of the shift that occurs in the latter parts of the film. After being exposed to war Clean begins to lose his innocence and begins to lose empathy towards humans. In one scene Clean guns down an unarmed couple with a machine gun for no reason at point blank range without considering the consequences of taking a life. The idea that is projected to the audience is that even the cleanest people will lose their moral ground and descend into madness if they experience the horrors of war. While in this scenario the film shows how the war stripped away at a person, Apocalypse Now also provides situations where war benefitted an individual because it gave them a purpose in life. This is observed through the central character of the film Captain Willard. The film opens with Willard giving a monologue about how when he is on leave from battle he is constantly thinking about being back in the jungle fighting the Vietnamese and that by going back home he loses his edge and becomes weaker. In conjunction with the monologue, the audience witnesses Willard having a breakdown in his hotel room that concludes with him splitting his hand open by punching a mirror. Once Willard receives his mission to go up the river and assassinate the Colonel we never see Willard return to a state of distress again. This is because the filmmaker wants to make apparent to the audience that Willard finds solace when he is in combat and he would not be a functional person without it. This idea offers a contradicting morale to that of Clean’s story, leaving the audience unsure about whether the film is suggesting that war is good or bad for the human soul.

Clean's innocence of the course of the film is stripped from him

Clean's innocence of the course of the film is stripped from him

The film Full Metal Jacket negatively comments on how the Vietnam War affected its soldiers by following several soldiers as they move from boot camp all the way up until they are fighting in battles in Vietnam. While Apocalypse Now presented how the war could positively and negatively affect individuals, Full Metal Jacket only focuses on war dehumanizing soldiers. The first instance in which war begins to unravel a character occurs at boot camp before any characters in the film even enter combat. The character referenced here is Leonard Lawrence, who is referred to in the film by his fellow soldiers mockingly as Gomer Pyle, a television show character known for being an unintelligent solider. In the opening act of the film Pyle constantly makes his drill Sargent angry because he consistently messes up exercises in one-way or another. As punishment the drill Sargent punishes not only Pyle but the rest of his unit as well. Over time everyone in the unit begins to resent Pyle with a passion leading to the entire unit beating him with soap while he is asleep. After this incident occurs Pyle’s mentality changes completely and the dumb founded expression that was on his face prior is replaced by a menacing look of hatred. Shortly after the incident Pyle brutally shoots his drill Sargent before shooting himself in the face. This sequence is meant to show the audience that not only the horrors of the battlefield can drive an individual to insanity, but also the events that take place en route to war. Yet the director, Stanley Kubrick, does not stop there and continues to show the audience the ways war can damage individuals. The second half of the film is riddled with several instances that continually provide evidence for Kubrick’s thesis about war. The most notable of these incidents is not an intense battle sequence like many would expect but actually is a simple discussion among soldiers about the concept of the thousand-yard stare. In this sequence a character tells the central character of the film, Joker, that he knows Joker has not experienced any real combat because he does not have a thousand yard stare. When Joker asks for an explanation to what this means the other solider explains that you can tell someone has truly experienced war if you look into their eyes and see an emptiness inside of them that is deprived of any human characteristics causing them to stare forward blankly with no regard of life.  This idea of the stare is meant to be a physical representation of how war pulls apart the inner thinking of humans until they no longer are able to identify with one another.

The loss of humanity because of war is apparent even in boot camp

The loss of humanity because of war is apparent even in boot camp

While both films clearly discuss the psychological effects that the Vietnam War had on its soldiers, Full Metal Jacket more effectively imposes an answer as to whether or not these effects are beneficial than Apocalypse Now does. The reason being that Full Metal Jacket devotes the entire story of the film to proving that war is destructive to the human soul. In doing this it is able to consistently bombard the viewer with evidence of how this can occur. While in contrast, Apocalypse Now examines both sides of the question by providing instances where humans are mentally deconstructed by war and instances where war provides stability for soldiers. Since the film offers evidence for both sides of the debate it allows the audience to determine which examples were stronger instead of telling the audience which side is stronger. This results in the audience leaving the film with even more questions about the topic than they started with. Therefore since Apocalypse Now is unable to fully implant an idea in the mind of its audience it is not as effective as Full Metal Jacket. However, this only takes into account the ideas about U.S. soldiers that the films project, in order to fully determine which piece is more effective the way in which they discuss the treatment of the Vietnamese during the war by the U.S. must also be analyzed.

Coppola entertains the idea that individuals need war to escape from their demons

Coppola entertains the idea that individuals need war to escape from their demons

Apocalypse Now handles the explanation of the effects the war has on the Vietnamese the same way that they handle the U.S. troops, instead of taking a stance on one idea about them the film offers examples for both sides of the argument. The first time the film addresses the Vietnamese natives is during a scene in which an U.S. Air Calvary unit raids a small village. In the scene the commander of the unit, Lieutenant Kilgore, decides to attack a small village with his entire fleet of helicopters in order to take over the beaches nearby since it provides perfect waves for surfing. As the unit approaches the village the helicopters play from their speakers the song “Flight of the Valkyries” in order to scare the locals. Once the unit approaches the village they lay waste to everyone in the town including a school while it is in session. Just as the massacre starts to end and the soldiers show remorse by aiding the wounded a helicopter is blown up by a Vietnamese suicide bomber. This scene is meant to show the audience that large quantities of Vietnamese are losing their homes due to the insignificant wants of American generals; this is demonstrated through Kilgore wanting a good place to surf. While most of the scene is meant to show the audience that U.S. soldiers are evil because they destroy people’s homes for their own leisure making the Vietnamese victims, the audience is also given a conflicting view of the Vietnamese to interpret as well when a Vietnamese women blows up a U.S. medical helicopter in the same scene. As the film reaches its final act it uses an example to portray the idea that while the U.S. may seem like a disruption to the Vietnamese, they actually are acting as a leader for the Vietnamese so that they can prosper. The audience becomes aware of this when they see how Colonel Kurtz has trained the native people of the land on how to protect themselves against the attacking U.S. army. By including this situation in the film all of the evidence that the film has shown as to why the U.S. could only damage the lives of the Vietnamese is contradicted. This results in a similar situation as before where the film does not offer any concrete answers but provides reasons for each answer.

Killgore embodies the leadership of the U.S. military during Vietnam

Killgore embodies the leadership of the U.S. military during Vietnam

On the contrary, Full Metal Jacket only provides evidence that shows how the U.S. disrupted the lives of the Vietnamese therefore asserting to the audience that the U.S. involvement was more harmful than anything else. In the second half of the film when Joker serves as a journalist he comes into contact with a helicopter machine gunner. This solider easily shares with him the brutal feelings that he has about Vietnamese women and children. These feeling are revealed when Joker asks him how he is able to kill innocent women and children that are just working in the rice fields and obviously not posing a threat like the Vietnamese soldiers. The gunner does not reply with a moral reason, instead he explains, “You Just don’t lead them as much.” This quote is followed by a menacing laugh that reveals to the audience many of the U.S. soldiers that are fighting do not really care about the wellbeing of the Vietnamese and that this all one big joke to them. At this point the audience has been given adequate evidence that shows the lack of care U.S. troops have for the Vietnamese yet, during the final battle scene in the film the audience is able to understand the scope that this lack of care for the Vietnamese has been responsible for. The last sequence in the film shows Jokers group moving through an absolutely war torn city where most of the pavement in the streets cannot be seen due to the ruble that has overcome them from the decaying buildings all around. Any sign of life within the city has absolutely vanished and many fires can be seen still raging throughout the city, as no one is there to tend to them anymore. This setting serves to show the audience how the Vietnam War was like a holocaust to its people. All of the civilization that the Vietnamese had built up through generations was completely wiped out in matter of a few years making it look like the Vietnamese population was completely eradicated. The combination of seeing the way the U.S. soldiers regard the life’s of the Vietnamese as well as the way they went about destroying every bit of their infrastructure makes it impossible for the audience to justify the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as being beneficial in anyway.

You just don't lead them as much!

You just don't lead them as much!

Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket both discuss the effects that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam had on the Vietnamese people although Full Metal Jacket is more effective because it does not attempt to justify why the U.S. should and why the U.S. should not be there. Throughout the course of the film Apocalypse Now displayed instances where U.S. soldiers completely annihilated the Vietnamese for their own selfish gains such as finding good areas to surf. However, in the final sequence in the film the audience is shown Kurtz’s compound where he has trained the Vietnamese on how to protect themselves. Since the film provides evidence that is favorable to both sides of the argument the audience walks away feeling divided and unsure of whether or not it was a good thing for the Vietnamese people that the U.S. stepped into the war. This divide makes it hard for anyone in the audience to clearly adopt one side in the argument therefore making them film not as effective in imposing a concrete view onto the audience as Full Metal Jacket is able to do. This is because Full Metal Jacket shows the audience that the U.S. soldiers do not only not want to actually better the life’s of the Vietnamese, in fact a lot of the time they do not even view them as people and gun them down without feeling any sadness for the loss of life. In the final sequences of the film instead of showing the audience the growth of Vietnamese civilization like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket displays to the audience the devastation that the US has brought to their cities. As Full Metal Jacket concludes the audience is not left with evidence that they must piece together in order to decipher whether or not the U.S. involvement in the war was a good thing for the Vietnamese. Instead all they have is a complete argument as to why the U.S. coming to Vietnam was bad for the Vietnamese. Therefore proving that Full Metal Jacket was more effective in delivering its message to the audience because it provides a clear view on the issue instead of allowing the audience to argue further.

The Vietnam war crippled both the American solider and the Vietnamese way of life according to Kubrick 

The Vietnam war crippled both the American solider and the Vietnamese way of life according to Kubrick 

In conclusion, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket definitely have many comments to make about the events that surround the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now is not as effective in terms of imposing a view on the audience because it looks to justify each side of the argument in the points it discusses. Since the film is set up this way the audience is able to walk away with conflicting viewpoints that does not really solve any argument allowing for people to continue debating the war. However, Full Metal Jacket is effective in imposing a view on the audience because it only focuses on giving clear cut points about why the war was bad for everyone involved leading to the audience to all leave the film with the same interpretation. Therefore the film is able to end the debate surrounding the war since the beginning of the U.S’s involvement. 

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