Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Two Vietnam flicks

Last week I saw two almost diametrically opposite films about the Vietnam war: The Green Berets and Apocalypse Now Redux.

John Wayne's The Green Berets provided an interesting story and some fairly interesting characters, but the whole thing was very obviously a piece of propaganda.

Perhaps because it was made while the war was still in progress, the propaganda goes right over the top in some places, portraying the Viet Cong as ruthless, heartless evil people who just simply want to cause terror. They demonise the VC - Charlie - without respecting the viewer's ability to judge.

An interesting contrast between the two films was that Green Berets is completely the old style of storytelling - we, the viewers, are observing from without. Apocalypse Now, on the other hand, takes us directly into Captain Willard (Martin Sheen)'s experience, first hand.

It's interesting that there are some similarities between the two films - both portray the Viet Cong as ruthless; in Apocalypse the ruthlessness has a reason, in Berets it's senseless violence.

Apocalypse Now is quite an experience to watch - particularly the Redux version which is over three hours long. The sound especially, by the legendary Walter Murch, immerses you in what's happening on screen.

The acting, too, is fantastic. These guys just got completely involved in their roles, surroundings and so forth.

Actually, even the trivia page on IMDb makes fascinating reading... it sounds like this was particularly difficult to make! If you're too lazy to read the whole trivia page:
  • Marlon Brando didn't know the role at all, and was 40kg overweight. He asked to be filmed in the shadows (here was I thinking that was a directorial decision - well, it worked!)

  • Martin Sheen was actually drunk in the exceptionally well-acted drunk scene. He really did cut his hand on the mirror.

  • The actor playing Lance, the drugged out surfer, was actually high on drugs most of the film

So, a lot of the authenticity was in fact authentic. If that makes any sense!

Since Francis Ford Coppola threatened suicide three times during the making of this film, I don't think I'd adopt Apocalypse Now as a model for filmmaking. The ends rarely, if ever, justify the means.

Summing up both films ... what is it that makes a war film work? In both cases, it's having an ensemble very strong individual characters, who the audience begins to care for, and yet knows that they could die at any time.

That doesn't work so well for TV, because in a series you know the main cast will always survive (except for the odd surprise like Tasha Yar in Star Trek:The Next Generation or Gan in Blake's 7).

In a movie, though, all bets are off, except for the main character. And in an ensemble piece, you never know who's going to bite the big one.


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