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The subject position in a film is with whom the audience member most closely identifies with throughout the film. The subject position is created both by the filmmaker and by the audience that views the film. In many films about the American intervention in Southeast Asia, the films create a spectator position that initially is different from American national identity but by the end of the movie the subject position usually comes in line with the views widely held by Americans. Examples of these types of Vietnam films are Platoon and China Gate. But some films in this sub-genre stray from this pattern. One example of a film about Vietnam in which the subject position does not change is Apocalypse Now. In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola creates an unstable subject position that is different from most other films about Vietnam. In Coppola s film the subject position remains fixed to something other than that of American national identity.
In Apocalypse Now, Coppola uses the figure of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to create a subject position. Coppola wants the audience to experience the film through the eyes and thoughts of Captain Willard. This is accomplished mainly through the use of voice over narration and point of view shots that occur throughout the film. The film uses voice over narration to reveal Willard s thoughts to the audience members and reveals his feelings. Point of view shots abound throughout the film, allowing the spectator to see what Willard sees. The combination of the two elements almost forces the viewer to identify with Willard. The audience member knows whom the story is about. They experience the film through Willard s thoughts and gaze.
The subject position is also created by oppositions to Willard s character, in other words, Willard s other . In Apocalypse Now there are many others . One such other that helps to create the subject position is Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Kilgore is portrayed as a fearless commander who cares for his men. In the helicopter assault scene, Kilgore chooses the insertion point of the PBR (patrol boat, river) that Willard is traveling on, by which location has the best surfing. During the scene, while everyone else is diving for cover, Kilgore walks around the battlefield with his shirt off ignoring the mortar shells that are exploding all around him. Kilgore is ignoring what is going on around him in order to accomplish his two missions, to insert the PBR and to surf. This is in opposition to Willard s excessive thinking about his mission to assassinate a renegade officer.
Another other that helps define the subject position is the commander of the PBR, Chief. Chief is a by the book sailor who, for the most part, follows his orders and cares for his men. Through Willard s voice over narration, it is revealed that it is Willard s mission, but the Chief s boat. When the Chief stops a Vietnamese sampan and searches it, Chief does it by the book. The crew of the PBR open fire on the sampan, killing all the people on board except for one girl that is severely wounded. Chief tries to get the girl to a friendly unit but Chief s the book says line is cut off by Willard s gunshot that kills the girl. Willard is not a by the book soldier, he fights the war, accomplishes his mission by whatever means necessary. This strays from conventional notions of national identity that Americans are compassionate and should always help the wounded.
Along with Kilgore and Chief, there are many more others in the film but the most significant other in Apocalypse Now is Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard is sent on a mission to assassinate Kurtz, who has broken away from United States military authority to attempt to win the war by his own methods. Kurtz is seen as a threat to national identity because of his unorthodox methods. The character of Kurtz is morally questionable. At what price should we win the war? is the question that Kurtz asks. Through Willard s voice over narration, it is revealed that Kurtz s patrols were becoming ambushed more frequently. Kurtz investigated the matter and killed three Vietnamese men and one woman. The ambushes stopped. Kurtz is the antithesis of American policy in Vietnam. Kurtz thought that he was being purposefully held back and would not be able to win the war under these conditions, so he broke away.
What is more troubling to national identity that Kurtz is Willard s growing admiration of Kurtz. Through voice over it is revealed that Willard is beginning to admire Kurtz and his attempt at winning the war through any means necessary. It is through his reading of Kurtz s file that Willard begins to identify with Kurtz. In one sense, Kurtz is not really Willard s other , they are one in the same. They are both unstable positions that deviate from national identity from the beginning of the film. The spectator is told by the general that Kurtz has gone insane through Willard s mission briefing and Coppola tells the spectator that Willard is insane in the opening sequence of the film. Coppola achieves this through the film s soundtrack when The Doors song, The End, fades out on and all the children are insane while showing the visual of Willard on his hotel room bed.
As Frank P. Tomasulo points out in his essay, The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as Prowar and Antiwar Film, other elements tie the two characters together. The characters are introduced to the audience, visually, under the same lighting, heavily shadowed but lit with an odd orange light . The two characters are both in a reclined position when they are being introduced. And through Willard s voice over stating that there is no way to tell his (Kurtz s) story without telling my own . These elements tie the two characters together, linking them throughout the film (150-1).
As the narrative of Apocalypse Now progresses the two characters become more closely identified with each other. Willard and Kurtz are both Special Forces officers who think that the government policy about Vietnam is wrong. Not wrong in that America should not be involved in fighting the Viet Cong, but wrong in the policies that force the Americans to fight with one hand tied behind their backs . Kurtz, while still under United States control , had launched a successful operation without approval from higher up the chain of command. Willard is impressed with this and says so through his voice over narration. Willard and Kurtz are also linked through killing. Kurtz is being charged for the murder of Vietnamese double agents and Willard is the instrument for the generals to carry out their policy. Kurtz murders the double agents and Willard murders the Vietnamese girl on the sampan that the boat crew opened fire upon. Willard also reveals that he has killed six people that he knows of, in his voice over narration. The two characters, both murderers, are morally the same. The only difference between the two men is that the United States government sanctions one.
Tomasulo argues that the film can be seen as both a prowar film and an anti war film at the same time. The film can be seen as prowar in that the battle scenes are glorified and presented with a gung-ho attitude, like the helicopter assault scene. Coppola shows that the war is being mishandled but is not immoral by allowing Kurtz s methods to be successful. The film can also be viewed as antiwar as well. When authority figures are shown they are seen as unbalanced. This is exemplified in the helicopter assault scene where Kilgore picks the site in which to insert the PBR by the location that has better surfing. Unbalanced officers are also shown through Kurtz s camp. Kurtz is a Colonel, but when the audience sees all the dead bodies scattered around his camp, it is clear that he is insane. The film is also antiwar in the lunacy of the policy that is seen in the film. Kilgore destroys a village because he wants to surf. A bridge along the river is rebuilt every day and blown up every night, just so the Generals can say that the road is open. (Tomasulo, p153)
Apocalypse Now offers no stable subject position from which to make moral and political judgments. The film creates a subject position that is troubling to national identity. The spectator can see that both Kurtz and Willard are flawed. As the film progresses, Willard becomes more like Kurtz. In the final scene Willard becomes Kurtz upon the assassination. The film presents Willard as an ambiguous character, carrying out government policy but in his heart, Willard knows that if the war was to be won by the Americans, the Americans must abandon their moral superiority and fight the war as Kurtz had. The film differs from other Vietnam war films, like Platoon, that begins with an unstable character and stabilize the subject position throughout the course of the narrative.
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