Foreign Language as Subversive in Apocalypse Now Redux .pdf
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Comparative Studies in Empire
7 December 2017
Foreign Language as Subversive in Apocalypse Now Redux
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a film rendering of the enduring novella Heart
of Darkness, has become a favorite in American culture. It was ranked third at the Cannes Film
Festival, has grossed over eighty-three million dollars domestically in its lifetime,1 contains a
speech that is regarded as one of the best in cinema,2 received eight Academy Award
nominations, and won two.3 The basic premise is that the film is a modern retelling of Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness in the context of the Vietnam War. The film, though loosely based on the
novella, draws major inspiration from the controversial text. The main figures are both named
Kurtz, both narrators must travel via river into the heart of the jungle, and they both end with the
same famous last words: “the horror, the horror.” The original film had a mixed reception;
thought it was highly acclaimed, a New York Times review, upon the movie’s release, called it a
“profoundly anticlimactic intellectual muddle.”4 This opinion can be attributed to subversive
aspects of the film, which is what this paper will focus on. A director’s cut of the film was
“Apocalypse Now,” Box Office Mojo, accessed November 30, 2017,
“‘Napalm’ speech tops movie poll,” News.bbc.co.uk, Last modified January 2, 2004,
“Academy Awards: Apocalypse Now,” Box Office Mojo, accessed November 30, 2017,
Vincent Canby, “APOCALYPSE NOW,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Aug. 15, 1979.
released in 2001, titled Apocalypse Now Redux, including some scenes that were originally cut
from the film; one of these is a subversive scene on which I am focusing as well.
The scenes I am focusing on are the ones in which Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore bombs the
Vietnamese village, and when Captain Willard has dinner with the French Plantation family. In
her essay titled “Apocalypse Now Redux Returns to Heart of Darkness,” Pamela Demory
describes these scenes as subverting the narrative structure. They are subversive for different
reasons unique to each scene. The scene with Lt Col Kilgore is subversive mostly due to when it
happens in the film. It is violent, in which the US Army bombs a Vietnamese village so Captain
Willard can begin making his way up to the river. In this scene, many Vietnamese people are
depicted, running and cowering from the helicopters blasting Wagner as they rain down bombs
upon the small village. The scene is explosive in all aspects, in terms of soundtrack, visuals,
special effects, and quite literally, explosives. It includes the famous speech that was voted one
of the best in cinema, delivered by Lt Col Kilgore himself. Much of what is enjoyable and
entertaining about the film happens in this scene. This is the most complicated scene of
Coppola’s career, which his wife Eleanor discloses in the documentary on the production of the
film.5 Though it explicitly promotes American exceptionalism, the scene is subversive due to its
placement of the film, seeing as it happens within the first hour. Demory argues that the structure
of the narrative subverts the typical pro-war movie in that “the biggest, loudest firefight… occurs
early on (instead of providing a climactic finish).”6 This is echoed in the New York Times
review by Vincent Canby, which calls the movie anticlimactic, despite glowing reviews of the
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Eleanor Coppola (1991; United States: Triton
Pictures, 1991), online streaming. 20:00.
Pamela Demory, “Apocalypse Now Redux Returns to Heart of Darkness,” in Heart of Darkness, ed. Paul
Armstrong (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017), 467.
cinematography, casting, and direction.7 The review was of the original release, which does not
include the French Plantation scene, which may serve to exacerbate the anticlimactic feel of the
The other scene Demory describes as subversive is the French Plantation scene, though
for different reasons than the scene with Lt Col Kilgore. Cpt Willard joins a French family for
dinner, complete with warm lighting and a beautiful set straight out of the 1950s. The pace of the
scene is very slow; the audience gets to spend over twenty minutes at the table in real time,
listening in on a political discussion spoken mostly in French. This is what Demory asserts as
subversive about the scene: it slows down the narrative “to near stasis.”8 This scene subverts the
narrative structure because it takes the audience out of the plot and delays them from getting to
Kurtz. Quite interestingly, this sentiment is echoed in the New York Times review as well, as the
author Canby notes: “This plot, which seems to have been imposed on the film from above,
keeps interrupting the natural flow of Mr. Coppola's perfectly sound, sometimes incredibly
beautiful, meditation upon war.”9 The narrative structure is so subverted that the main plot of
Captain Willard going up the river to meet Kurtz and assassinate him, which is more explicitly
taken from Heart of Darkness, seems intrusive of what American audiences want to see: a war
film. Quite literally, the script is flipped in Canby’s opinion, so that instead of the Heart of
Darkness inspired plot points, the scenes depicting war become the focus of the film. Again, it is
important to note that the Times Review is of the original Apocalypse Now and not Redux, so the
French Plantation scene was not included in the movie and is not informing Canby’s opinion.
Perhaps the French Plantation scene’s delay of getting the audience to Kurtz serves to bring
Vincent Canby, “APOCALYPSE NOW.”
Pamela Denory, “Apocalypse Now Redux Returns to Heart of Darkness,” 465 – 466.
Vincent Canby, “APOCALYPSE NOW.”
some urgency to that aspect of the plot and emphasize its validity; if the audience gets frustrated
that we do not get to meet Kurtz right away, then meeting Kurtz becomes an important plot point
rather than feeling imposed “from above,” as Canby puts it.
The addition of the French Plantation scene serves to exacerbate the subversion of the
narrative structure. As Demory writes, “two-thirds of the way through this film, this scene
intrudes with a nearly static, 25 minute, marginally comprehensible political discussion.”10
Demory’s choice to include “marginally comprehensible” as an aspect of subversion fascinated
me, so I am going to look at what makes foreign language subversive. The two subversive scenes
that Demory describes, with Lt Col Kilgore and the French Plantation family, are interestingly
where foreign language is most prevalent in the film. In the scene of Kilgore bombing the
Vietnamese village, the Vietnamese villagers speak to each other while they hide and run away.
Later in the scene, a Vietnamese woman brings her wounded child to Kilgore; she speaks to him
in Vietnamese, but Kilgore doesn’t seem to listen, though he does send her and the child to a
hospital via helicopter. I watched the movie with subtitles, and they just say “[SPEAKING
VIETNAMESE]” rather than translating or even just transcribing what they are saying. 11 While
they are being bombed, the Vietnamese dialogue is somewhat drowned out by the explosives, so
they are not central to the plot. However, when the Vietnamese woman brings her wounded child
to Kilgore, her lines are also subtitled as “[SPEAKING VIETNAMESE].”12 This part of the
scene does have a function in the movie; it shows some hypocrisy of Kilgore, with his showing
compassion to the child after having bombed an entire village just moments before. However, the
Pamela Denory, “Apocalypse Now Redux Returns to Heart of Darkness” 467.
Apocalypse Now Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (2001; United States: Miramax Films, 2001), online
Apocalypse now Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Vietnamese language still functions as background noise to an American movie despite being set
The foreign language of the French plantation scene is, quite obviously, French. When
Captain Willard and his team stumble upon the plantation family while on the river, Chef, a
character from Louisiana, shouts out to them: “Nous sommes Américains! Nous sommes
Américains!”13 The subtitles transcribe the French, and do not translate them. When they have
dinner, the conversation becomes heated and several characters converse in French. Interestingly,
not all of their lines are transcribed in the subtitles. For those who do not speak French, the scene
becomes mostly inaccessible to them, excepting a few words that are cognates, namely in one
part of the scene where two characters are shouting “‘Communist!’ ‘Socialist!’” back and forth at
each other. As you can probably tell, my own understanding of French is limited. The choice not
to translate the dialogue to the audience is an interesting one, given the amount of work that
Coppola put into the scene. Demory notes Coppola’s efforts in her essay as well; we hear him
giving directions to the crew, and he says “White wine should be served ice cold. Red wine
should be served at about 58 degrees… I want the French to say, ‘My God, how did they do
that?’”14 Coppola cared about the small details of the scene. The set, the lighting, and even the
casting (“I’d like three or four French people, and I’ll spend money for it, but I don’t want to fly
them from France. If you can’t get them from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Okinawa, then I
will fly them from France.”15) are all very well done and lend themselves to great filmmaking –
the fact that Coppola cut it from the original movie will be discussed later. Coppola shows great
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Eleanor Coppola, 39:30.
care for authenticity in this scene, and it comes through. But why the choice to transcribe some
French lines in this scene, and not for the Vietnamese dialogue in the scene with Kilgore?
The initial answer is Orientalism. Orientalism can very generally be described as
Western-centric tendencies of culture. Edward Said writes of the phenomenon much more in
depth, and provides this succinct summary:
[Orientalism] is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly,
economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a
basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and
Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by … description, it not only
creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to
understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a
manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by
no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather
is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a
degree by the exchange with power political … power intellectual … power cultural …
What is Orientalist about the different functions of the French and Vietnamese languages is the
assumed closeness and remoteness of the cultures they represent. As part of the west, Americans
are closer to their fellow Occidentals, the French, and further away from Orientals, the
Vietnamese. We see French very closely and intimately, whereas Vietnamese, the language of
the country in which the movie is set, functions simply as background noise rather than carrying
Edward Said, “From Orientalism,” in Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent Leitch. (New
York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010), 1875.
any weight for the narrative as it actually would, and continues to do, in reality. The assumed
unimportance of the Vietnamese is because of its distance, which fits Said’s description of a
distribution of geopolitical awareness skewed towards the Occident, or the west.
The decisions to transcribe some French and none of the Vietnamese are conscious ones
that explicitly delegate more importance and closeness to the French rather than the Vietnamese.
The great care that Coppola takes with the French Plantation scene is indicative of that. The
transcription in itself is important, and even more so with of the lack of translation, because it
shapes the audience’s view of the film. To use an extreme example in order to illustrate this,
those who cannot hear and are unable to read lips depend on subtitles to know what is happening
in the movie, especially in complex scenes like the ones I am focusing on. Actually writing out
the French emphasizes the Frenchness to the audience in a way that “[SPEAKING FRENCH]”
does not. The Vietnamese do not get this emphasis on their existence, in turn invalidating it when
compared to the French. Examining the functions of the foreign languages alone may lead to the
conclusion that they are not subversive since they are both products and reinforcements of
Orientalism. However, examining the interaction between the subject matter of the scenes and
the foreign languages’ functions within them, all in terms of the larger narrative structure, reveals
the subversive aspects of the foreign languages though they do not appear so upon a first look.
Let us first look at the battle scene with Lt Col Kilgore. This scene contains arguably the
most explicit expression of American exceptionalism in the entire film. As I mentioned earlier,
it’s the biggest firefight of the film, the biggest show. The gore and explosions are entertaining to
American audiences, and the inclusion of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries gives the scene both a
sort of epic and humorous feel. The climax of the film is here. Kilgore’s renowned and
commended speech happens within this scene; he says:
I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for
12 hours, and when it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of them, not one
stinking dink body. But that smell, you know, that gasoline smell-- the whole hill, it
smelled like... victory. Someday this war's gonna end.17
The glorifying of war fits with the theme of American exceptionalism, and with the typical
subject matter of a pro-war film. The function of the Vietnamese language as background noise
follows along with the pro-American theme, barely existing on the edges of the American’s
experience watching the film. The critique of the war is there, but it is subtle, and may only be
noticed by the viewer if they have any compassion for those on the receiving end of the warfare;
for instance, in the part of the scene with the Vietnamese woman and her badly wounded child
being saved by Kilgore despite his bombing them. The average, pro-war, orientalist American is
most comfortable watching this scene. This is what they came to see, and the spectacle,
explosiveness, and fun of war is what they are most interested in. However, this is subverted due
to the narrative structure of the film, and is subverted even more so with the inclusion of the
French Plantation scene.
As I mentioned earlier, the placement of the extravagant battle scene in the beginning of
the film is subversive. Demory notes that the film “refuses to grant the viewer the expected grand
finale,” which is “particularly unsettling” for people who grew up watching typical war movies
with bang endings.18 This is in terms of the original Apocalypse Now, not the Redux. The
addition of the French Plantation scene in Redux serves to exacerbate the subversive feel because
it brings the narrative to near stasis. Spending over twenty minutes at a dinner table in real time
Apocalypse now Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Pamela Denory, “Apocalypse Now Redux Returns to Heart of Darkness,” 467.
is simply not entertaining, at least in the same way that the battle scene is. Also, the discussion
gets heated; as the scene goes on, more and more people leave the table until just Willard and
two others are left. Willard questions the French, and asks them when they will go back to
France; de Marais, a central French character, questions Willard right back; he critiques the
American role in the war, saying “You American, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in
history.”19 Now, the typical pro-war American is uncomfortable on an ideological level because
his beliefs are not only being questioned, but berated.
The French language contributes to that discomfort simply because it is not expected to
be understood by the typical American viewer. Americans are stereotypically known as only
speaking English, and the subversiveness of the French in this scene is built upon this conceit.
Everything about the scene tells the audience that they should be able to understand. The
intimacy of the set as a single dining table and recognizably Occidental in the heart of an
Oriental jungle, the use of cognate words in the political discussion during dinner, even the
transcription of the lines in the subtitles point the American towards the French, but the
American is ultimately unable to reach it unless some few audience members actually understand
the language. So, even though Orientalist logic tells the audience that they should feel closer to
the French, they feel even more alienated as a result of being invited into a discussion to which
they can barely understand and contribute. The more that the French is seen up close, the more
that a monolingual American is frustrated that they do not understand, or wonders what is
actually being said. The more intimately foreign the language is, the more it is subversive. The
Apocalypse now Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
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