If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now a few times, you start to tense up when you hear Chief say “Sampan off the port bow” at 1:15:35. You know that what’s about to happen is going to be deeply unpleasant.
In Hearts of Darkness, Sam Bottoms says:
Francis had us write up lists of things that we wanted our characters to do. And I remember that we all decided that we wanted to do a sort of a My Lai massacre … an interrogation of a boat that ended in a firefight and the loss of many lives. We wanted to experience something like that.
Which is sort of a strange way to put it, but I take his point; they thought it would be illuminating to imagine the circumstances under which such an incident might take place. Coppola liked the idea, so they put together this scene, which is not in the original script.
According to The Wikipedia, “The My Lai Massacre was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by the U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.” My Lai became a turning point in the Vietnam war, not in a military sense, but in terms of public opinion; for many Americans, it crystallized their unease about the war.
Likewise, the sampan incident is a turning point in Apocalypse Now. It is a tragedy that could easily have been avoided; Willard asks the Chief to ignore protocol and keep moving, but Chief insists on searching the boat in case it is carrying supplies for the Vietcong. This seems to be part of a pattern of Chief making perfectly reasonable decisions that have disastrous results, not unlike Captain Dallas in Alien.
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