Visions of Orientalism from Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is the movie to portray Vietnam War, but it is not really about Vietnam. And Vietnamese characters seems to be missing in the plot of the movie, which adopted from Conrad’s novel, the heart of the darkness. This interesting point reminds us of the vision of orientalism by Edward Said and I will clarify how this concept is closely related to this Hollywood film on Vietnam War.

To understand why this movie can represent the vision of orientalism and how it focus on western-centric perspective to generate its story, we shall first look at the concept of orientalism. Argued by Said (1978), ‘from the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.’ This means that westerners use their own perspective to understand the works from orients or even orients themselves instead of giving orients the chances to represent themselves.

In the film of Apocalypse now, this lack of representation is an important indicator to criticism the movie from the vision of orientalism.

  1. Where are the Vietnamese characters? In this film, the main characters are Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz. Besides, all other characters are mainly American soldiers. While the Vietnam War is about the confrontation between South and North sides of Vietnam, we cannot see any existence of Vietnamese soldiers on both sides to fight for their civil war. Instead, we can only see American people represent a way of post-imperialism and barbarism on invading the land of Vietnam and killing Vietnamese without any mercy. The Vietnamese in this movie has no voice and has to be totally surrendered to westerners because their opinions and way of thinking are not valued by the West.
  2. Misrepresentation of Viet Cong. Although the film has no role of portraying Vietnam soldiers, it is still important to notice the representation of Viet Cong from the dialogue of main character Colonel Kurtz. As he said, ”I remember when I was with Special Forces–it seems a thousand centuries ago–we went into a camp to inoculate it. The children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile–a pile of little arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized–like I was shot…like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, “My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that.”

So the overall representations of Viet Cong from this short video are ruthless,and more precisely North Vietnamese soldiers are being viewed as a symbol of the savage in the Apocalypse Now. However, this way of representation is prejudiced and oversimplified.North Vietnamese soldiers also want to have their voices to be heard and one explanation for the pile of little arms can be viewed as a rather cruel punishment in order to alarm Vietnamese to keep the distance from the American, who are seen as the biggest enemies escalating the tension between the South and North.

Looking at the film Apocalypse Now from the vision of orientalism, we can demonstrate that the filmmakers produce this movie from the perspective of western-centric and pay no attention to the Vietnamese even though the movie is under the category of Vietnam war.

3 thoughts on “Visions of Orientalism from Apocalypse Now

  1. This is a really interesting project! Why did you choose an Orientalist reading of the Vietnamese in American film, and have you found a Saidian reading of this history restrictive?
    Don’t worry if you don’t have time to answer this – I’m especially interested because I’m looking at the Vietnam war and race for my dissertation, and also initially considered Said’s arguments but decided to explore a different stance.
    Anyway – great work 🙂

  2. Li, there are some scenes of Vietnamese solider and people actually, such as Colonel Kilgore asks his canteen to give water to a wooden Viet Cong; and the Vietnamese family on the boat that were all killed by the crew. There a few more instances.

    These scenes adds complexity to your analysis I think. First, Colonel Kilgore seems to care about the wounded soldier, however when he knows Lance is the famous surfer, his attention entirely shifted away. Then, in the scene in which the Vietnamese family are killed, it is because the innocent girl choose to protect a puppy of a few days old. This scene shows the pointlessness of the violence, but combining Vietnamese people with animal… seems problematic.

  3. Thanks for this, Cilin. It’s fascinating to think about the ephemeral presence of Vietnamese characters in the film: most are killed, correct? In any case you are absolutely right – the film claims to be about Vietnam but in fact offers an insight into the American psyche and anxieties about Vietnam.

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