Perspectives in Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War: One War, Many Stories
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, shows American MACV-SOG Captain Benjamin Willard’s journey in terminating rogue U.S. colonel Walter Kurtz. Bao Ninh’s 1993 novel The Sorrow of War is a fictional account of the life of a North Vietnamese soldier named Kien, which details his life before, during and after the war. While Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War are both accounts of the Vietnam War, they are told from the perspectives of opposing sides of the conflict, thus differ drastically in their representations of the war, specifically in regards to their portrayal of the Vietnamese population and military, the experiences and successes of both country’s militaries, and how the two countries portray women.
The Sorrow of War, being about a North Vietnamese soldier, is told from the perspective of the the North Vietnamese side of the war, and because of this, it naturally portrays the people and military of this region differently than the United States typically does. The novel in no way suggests that the people of North Vietnam are in any way inferior, less advanced or less intellectual than those in the West, namely the United States, but rather does the opposite. The Vietnamese characters in The Sorrow of War are presented as complex, intellectual individuals living in an advanced society. Complicated relationships between characters such as Kien and Phuong, as well as descriptions of their educational experiences prove this. In addition, the North Vietnamese military is portrayed as powerful and successful in the novel, which references the “momentous day of total victory…” in which they captured Saigon and claimed victory in the Vietnam War (Ninh, 100). The American military is clearly represented as the defeated in the war, as mentions of them “running for their lives from Phuoc An…” illustrate their collapse and inferiority.
The same cannot be said for Apocalypse Now, which presents the people of Vietnam as a savage, barbaric, uncivilized population. The film is a blatant example of Edward Said’s description of Orientalism, with the United States misrepresenting Vietnam as an inferior and less advanced country both intellectually and technologically. When early in the movie, helicopters wipe out a Viet-Cong controlled village in a merciless airstrike and Lieutenant Kilgore mutters “bunch of savages” under his breath, the tone is set early that the people of Northern Vietnam are to be viewed as inferior and less advanced as the Americans. The helicopters themselves had “death from above” printed on the noses, propagating this ideology. Throughout the course of the movie, the Vietnamese people that are shown are spoken for and dominated by the Americans. Later in the film, when Captain Willard’s boat stops to investigate a small boat of Vietnamese travelers, the crew argue with each other over whether or not to search the Vietnamese, who remain silent and powerless. The parent-child relationship between the United States and the Orient that Western media has historically produced is most evident in this scene, which is representative of two parents arguing over disciplining their child.
Not only does Apocalypse Now present the Vietnamese people as inferior savages, but the film presents the Vietnam War and the American experience in it much differently than The Sorrow of War does. Unlike the novel’s narrative of a victorious North Vietnam and a dominant North Vietnamese military, the film barely shows Vietnamese soldiers, and in doing so portrays the war as easy for the Americans. Scenes of soldiers surfing in between fighting, singing and cooking at night, and GI Lance‘s remark that the war “is better than Disneyland” all attest to this, creating a narrative that the United States was not troubled by the Vietnamese forces, and that the real conflict was internal, with the United States fighting itself.
Another comparison that can be made between Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War is how the two portray women, with the film representing women in a starkly different light than the novel. The female role in Apocalypse Now is simply entertainment for men. The only women in the film are Playboy models, objectified and admired for their physical attributes by American male soldiers. Contrastly, women in The Sorrow of War are seen as strong, intellectual, independent and oftentimes dominant characters. Phuong, Kien’s lover from before the war, is the dominant partner in their relationship. Sexually, Phuong does not submit to Kien, but rather pressures him, and eventually, Phuong is the one who terminates their relationship, asserting that “We (her and Kien) won’t see each other ever again” (Ninh, 145). Later in the novel during a description of Kien’s experiences in the war, a female guide named Hoa proves again the strength that women in the novel embody. Her heroism in helping Kien escape from American soldiers by killing an attack dog is a “magnificent portrait of courage” consistent with Bao Ninh’s portrayal of the woman in The Sorrow of War (Ninh, 190).
While Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War are drastically different portrayals of the Vietnam War, there are similarities that can be drawn from the two texts. This was one war, and The United States and Vietnam shared many of the same experiences. The soldiers of both sides endured many of the same gruesome realities of war, as scenes of hanging bodies riddling the trees along Captain Willard’s route to Colonel Kurtz, and descriptions of Kien’s comrade Quang’s belly being torn open, “…his intestines pouring out…all his bones seeming to be smashed” illustrate the ghastliness of the Vietnam War (Ninh, 94). Captain Willard and Kien share similar post-war traumas: waking in the night to visions of war, dreaming of battle and waking up expecting to be in the midst of it, or imagining enemy helicopters above, but “the whump-whump-whump of their rotor blades continues without the attack, and the helicopter image dissolves, and in its place a ceiling fan…” (Ninh, 46). As the soldiers in both Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War fill the lull between fighting with card games, guitar playing and banter, it is evident that the lived experiences of both parties were, to a degree, analogous.
Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War, portrayals of one war, show this war from two different perspectives, each country writing the narrative they want to be remembered. The United States, who inevitably lost the Vietnam War, barely ever shows Vietnamese soldiers in Apocalypse Now, and does not ever address how the war ended. Excluding Northern Vietnam from the story and focusing on conflict among Americans, American media is attempting to re-write the history of the war. Bao Ninh, however, makes sure to illustrate the strength, power, and success of the Vietnamese against the United States. He simultaneously interweaves personal narratives of characters to show the capabilities and personalities of the people of Northern Vietnam, combatting Western discourse about the Orient. If to be used to gain knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War, these two texts should be observed with an understanding of the intent of not only Francis Ford Coppola and Bao Ninh, but of the nations from which both identify with.
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Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, shows American MACV-SOG Captain Benjamin Willard’s journey in terminating rogue U.S. […]