I”m beginning to wonder about the odor of napalm, and just how exhilarating it is to fill ones nostrils with the stuff before breakfast. War is terrifying hell-on earth, where you can watch your friends perish into statistics in front of your eyes. I”m not a coward, I”m not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the entire Sigma Phi Epsilon house if need be, but the idea of being dropped off in a strange place with a fire-arm and being told “Go get “em” just doesn”t sound like anything I could do with great luster. Yet I can”t shake the feeling that I”m just being a weenie, I mean, my Grandpa was my age when he went to WWII, and that guy down the hall sophomore year was training to be a Marine. What do they have that I don”t? Who, what could get me to not only agree, but happily agree to, in the immortal words of George C. Scott, “Make some poor bastard die for their country.”
Something has changed. Like every other red-blooded film buff, I”ve seen “Apocalypse Now” a handful of times. Last week, upon the 14th or so viewing, I began to have admiration for Lt. Col. Kilgore. I had always loved the lunatic-fringe airman with his pristine ranger hat and instant catch phrases. He was more comical than heroic, though, surly that was the intention. A super-powered tool of the American Defense Machine who was incapable of functioning in normal society. The kind of guy that got a job coaching high school football and lived in a one-bedroom apartment over a dry-cleaner after the war.
Yet something really clicked this time. Serving under the likes of Kilgore meant that if you were hurt, you would be taken care of. The person who hurt you would be killed. We”re meant to look at Kilgore as a horrific, sickly comic parody of the gung-ho military. As his unit attacks an encampment of mostly civilians, a woman throws a grenade onto an American helicopter. Enraged, Kilgore chases the woman down with his own helicopter, tearing her body to shreds with machine-gun fire and calling her a filthy savage.
Extreme, ignorant and intended to leave a bad taste in your mouth. But how would it effect you or I as your friend”s bodies shatter into confetti because some “Charlie” threw a grenade at them? I don”t know. To win a war you have to fight, and to fight and kill people you don”t know, you need a reason. “To win the war” is a far cry away from killing that guy, or girl or whomever. Someone like Kilgore allows you to feel an important part of something bigger, something you can really contribute to.
That entire set of ideas and images flashed into my mind, all by the time the Lt. Col. suggested that his men should surf, even while shells exploded around them. I felt sick, I actually wanted to be a part of the unit, a part of the game that allowed you to be macho and surf and save your country from those evil things, whatever they are. A real Kilgore, not played for sick laughs, would have no trouble leading people just like me into combat.
I look to film for leadership because every real leader has always been broadcast to me over some form of media or another. President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War made me feel better about life in America, as did President Thomas J. Whitmore when those “visitors” blew up the White House. War movies are documentaries to those of us who have never fired a BB gun. “Saving Private Ryan” simply made war scary, it was anti-war. The battle was so real, so believeable, yet the characters did not exist. I”ve never known “The Guy From New York,” or “Their Leader.” I wouldn”t care enough about these people to cover them in the trench. On the other hand, Private Joker and Private Gomer Pyle from “Full Metal Jacket” are people I know, or people I could know.
Wow, movies effect how we think and act? Am I just repeating something that everyone who”s ever uttered “Yeah, baby, yeah,” or “Schwing” or “I”ll be back” has known their whole lives? Films are a part of culture, they effect the way we think, period.
I don”t buy it. I”ve never killed anyone after watching countless horror movies, or even maimed them. I never lit anything on fire after watching “Beavis and Butthead Do America.” Yet what it means to be an American, to have pride, to fight, to question, to sometimes hate what America has done, has been more influenced by film then by parents and school.
At the end of “Apocalypse Now,” Col. Kurtz deserves to be killed. He”s a monster who cannot be controlled. Seconds before his demise, he wonders aloud about Air Force pilots (Kilgore?) who are trained to erase cities with bombs, yet are not permited to write “fuck” on the outside of their airplanes because it”s obscene. I always think how stupid this is, and then I watch the protagonist hack Kurtz to pieces with a machete.
The Confusion. The Confusion.
Lyle Henretty can be reached at