Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Under an Azure Sky, Death Awaited

Peering over the side of a landing craft, young Marines about to go into battle in the South Pacific must have experienced a momentary disconnect. There ahead lay a beautiful tropical beach fringed with palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, all framed under a bright, cloudless sky. Yet all their training had taught them that in minutes when the front hatch went down, they’d be hitting that beach, and just beyond, hidden in the dense jungle, Japanese defenders awaited.

Two decades later in the ‘60s many American troops arriving in South Vietnam experienced the same initial sensation. My brother Jeff Sharlet, who was in-country 1963-64, extolled the natural beauty of the country in letters home – the white sand beaches sparkling on the South China Sea and the dense green jungle undulating across the Central Highlands were especially stunning from the air.


Along the South China Sea

America’s Vietnam War was then still young and casualties light, but subsequent waves of troops would soon learn there was a price to be paid for the eye’s pleasure in such a striking landscape. Beneath the azure sky under the jungle canopy death awaited tens of thousands of Americans as well as countless Vietnamese on both sides.

Hollywood set out to capture the perverse dichotomy of stark beauty and hidden terror in a second wave of Vietnam War films. Having successfully tested the public’s tolerance for revisiting the war with three releases during 1978†, the film industry was ready for more ambitious projects, none more so than Apocalypse Now (1979).

With Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame directing; Brando, Duvall, and Martin Sheen co-starring; and Michael Herr of Dispatches as voice-over, Apocalypse garnered numerous nominations and awards from Cannes to tinseltown. The story line is simple – Kurtz, a maverick Special Forces colonel (Brando) goes rogue and out of control.  Captain Willard (Sheen), a special ops assassin, is dispatched upriver to “terminate with extreme prejudice.”

Before the two men come face to face in the wilderness, Willard travels by Navy gunboat up the fictional Nung River deep into Cambodia, a picaresque journey in the company of a bizarre crew. The setting is one of great heat and humidity, tropical jungle to water’s edge, and exotic birdsong – all creating an atmosphere of anticipatory anxiety for the well-armed and trigger-happy young boat crew. Occasionally fired upon from the riverbank by the enemy or natives with spears and arrows, the gunners respond with fusillades of heavy machine gun fire, but never see their adversaries.

The riparian vistas are scenic enough for a tourist excursion, but death lurks along those riverbanks. Still, during quiet passage the journey resembles a lark – one crew member sports a peace symbol, another gets high on drugs. At those moments the war appears as just another ‘trip’ with surreal sights of a GI surfboarding as enemy mortar rounds fall around him and even a light show as the gunboat glides beneath a bridge brightly lit up like a Christmas tree in the dark night.

When the real war does interrupt the crew’s reveries, the action sometimes anticipates a contemporary video game – an enemy soldier pops up, gets off a few rounds, and the high strung bow gunner answers with a curtain of fire temporarily silencing the cries and calls of jungle creatures.

Adventures occur en route, most memorably when Willard’s crew encounters a swashbuckling air cavalry commander, Lt Colonel Kilgore (Duvall). 

The colonel takes a sailor along on a helicopter assault on a Viet Cong village – complete with the whoosh of outgoing rockets accompanied by psyops loudspeakers on the command chopper blasting Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'. Then, on the ground and while watching a bombing run along the tree line, Kilgore utters the movie’s signature line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”


 

Kilgore and ‘napalm in the morning’

Overshadowing Willard’s mission and adding measurably to the tension is the sense of the crew having left civilization behind as they close on Kurtz’s camp, heading into a Conradian ‘heart of darkness’. And the great Brando does not disappoint in his essentially cameo role, stealing the show as he did in Godfather. The viewer comes away from seeing Apocalypse as if, in GI argot, returning from Southeast Asia’s cauldron of death and destruction back to ‘the world’.

Fast forwarding a decade past some better known Vietnam War flicks, we come to 84 Charlie MoPic, a small gem of a film which couldn’t have depicted the war more differently than Apocalypse Now. It is a relatively short (95 mins), low-budget film shot by a director better known for television work compared to the very long (2.5+ hrs in the original version), big budget film directed by a seasoned Academy Award winner.

While Coppola assembled a large distinguished cast of stars as well as upcoming lesser knowns, 84 Charlie was made with just seven actors, of whom a prominent reviewer wrote. “commanding performances by cast of unknowns.”* Predictably, while Apocalypse made tens of millions at the box office and has become a classic on the war, 84 Charlie, despite winning the coveted Sundance Festival Grand Prize, earned just over $150,000 and regrettably has slipped into filmic oblivion.

I say ‘regrettably’ because what the director may have lacked at that point in big screen experience, he more than made up for as an ex-Vietnam GI who knew the war from the inside. The structure of the film is highly unusual – a two-man 82nd Airborne film crew making a training film on a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, known by its acronym LRRP, while accompanying an actual patrol.

Six klicks is a mighty short walk
When you march behind the band
But six klicks can seem like a hundred miles
When you’re walking in Charlie’s land†† 

The enforced silences of patrol in hostile terrain as well as the sharp disjunctions between boredom and terror in the combat zone are masterfully handled. The overall effect is of a documentary film, one that could be used in an Advanced Infantry Training course. The result is probably one of the most ‘realistic’ films made about the Vietnam War.

In effect, it takes one down trail in the Central Highlands on a familiar wartime tactical maneuver – to search out and gather intelligence on enemy positions without engaging unless necessary, the idea being to get back with the information. With little or no music compared to the soaring soundtrack of Apocalypse Now, the viewer accompanies the patrol and its embedded film crew step by cautious step, the point man several well out front looking to his left, looking to his right.


Every step you take
Death is holding your hand
     Walking in Charlie’s land†† 

As OD, Cracker, Pretty Boy, Hammer, and Pvt Easy penetrate deeper and deeper into what they dub ‘Indian country’, what began as a routine patrol goes awry. For the most part, their elusive adversary is unseen – mostly a potential threat, rarely a presence – until the patrol spots a large enemy encampment and beats a hasty retreat in the face of a superior pursuing force. Men are hit, people die. In general, although 84 Charlie is also a ‘journey’ film, it takes place within a small cinematic universe, a slice of jungle and underbrush that the GIs traverse at greater and greater risk. 

Some of our boys learned too late 
Just who owns this real estate  
This is Charlie's land†† 

84 Charlie represents the war as an unglamorous affair – methodical, wearying, and largely bereft of the vivid scenes of Apocalypse Now. Instead, the film has a plausible experiential dimension with which an average person could empathize, if not identify. Like Go Tell the Spartans (1978) starring Burt Lancaster, which came out in the same year with two other major Vietnam War films, 84 Charlie MoPic never found a significant audience.

America is a long, long way from closure on its catastrophic involvement in Vietnam, but one film offered a view of the finality of the war for at least a select group of those who fell: Gardens of Stone, Coppola’s elegy to Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most hallowed burial ground, where the precisely choreographed ceremony of death was performed with ever greater frequency during the Vietnam War.

Coppola's film goes neither upriver nor down trail, but is largely confined to the sacred acreage on a hillside across the river from Washington; it takes place in the thick of the Vietnam War. Many Americans probably know the ceremony, having seen either film or photos of the funeral of JFK in ’63 with the President’s body borne on a horse-drawn caisson followed by a riderless horse.

Not quite a decade earlier on a hot summer day, a writer, as he stood at the Arlington burial of his grandfather, who had served with the cavalry on the Montana and Wyoming frontier in the 1880s, looked out across the rows of markers and described the view from Arlington, “heat currents rise from the Potomac River to distort the classic lines of the Lincoln Memorial. The geometric panorama of Washington wavers like a quilt on a laundry line.”**

In Gardens, the non-coms, senior sergeants who’ve served and survived Vietnam (James Earl Jones, James Caan), are in a safe billet. A young private is assigned to the ceremonial platoon. In the Korean War, his father had been the non-coms’ comrade in arms. They take his son under their wing. The boy proves to be a model soldier in a unit distinguished by high standards. The war rages on as the Arlington Honor Guard performs the daily ritual of interring the dead from the battlefields of Ia Drang, Dak To, Khe Sanh, and other less well-known combat sites hallowed in Vietnam War memory. 

However, the young man is not satisfied to sit the war out in his spotless dress uniform. The legacy of a soldier-father, admiration for his Arlington mentors, and youth’s eternal attraction to adventure, to challenge, draws him to Officer Candidate School and then to volunteer for combat.††† The older men, knowing the war as a killing field, try to dissuade him, but to no avail.

The age-old quest to prove manhood proves too strong; the new lieutenant is determined to serve in battle. The young officer inevitably returns to Arlington for his final journey on a horse-drawn caisson and is laid to rest to the mournful sounds of Taps under an azure sky.


 

Burial procession, Arlington National Cemetery©

What have we learned from these three fine films – that misbegotten war becomes madness, that the deadly trail must be traversed to the end, and that the only certitude about war is the finality of death.

*L Maltin, Movie and Video Guide: 2000 Edition (1999), 399.
**H Masters, Last Stands: Notes from Memory (2004), 3.

©Leo Touchet, 1999. Photo is of the 1998 funeral procession for Lucien Conein, WWII hero and the legendary ‘Lawrence of Vietnam’. See http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2011/06/conein-lawrence-of-vietnam.html



           

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