“Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain the troops is like teasing a caged lion with a piece of raw meat.”
— Raquel Welch
This is one of the most unsettling scenes in Apocalypse Now; it is the proverbial dream that turns into a nightmare. At first the boat seems to have drifted into some sort of shangri-la; we see lighted domes and giant glowing columns that look like lipstick tubes. “This sho nuff is a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit,” says Mr. Clean with his usual understated eloquence.
At ground level, the place looks like a Vietnam War Costco, stocked with everything a soldier might dream of, from motorcycles to centerfolds to liquor. Chef asks the supply sergeant for Panama Red — not just weed, specifically Panama Red — and the guy says sure, no problem. The one thing they do have a little trouble getting is what they’re actually there for, fuel for the boat. Willard has to grab the sergeant by the collar and throw him around a little bit to get his attention; oddly, he seems to enjoy it, and responds with free booze and press box tickets to the upcoming show.
Ah, yes, the show; a very loud bar band cranks out a tasty version of “Suzie Q” as a copter lands and out steps Bill Graham himself, ideally cast in the role of MC/pimp. He tries to whip up some excitement, but the response is lukewarm until the crowd sees what he has brought them: girls.
They are a rare commodity in these parts; in fact, the three Bunnies who dance in this scene are the only named female characters in the whole movie. (Kurtz has a “wife” who stays completely in the background; there was a larger female role, that of Roxanne, played by Aurore Clement, in the French Plantation scene that got cut. You can watch it in Redux, complete with a romantic interlude that seems to belong in a different movie altogether.) Apocalypse Now would definitely not pass the Bechdel Test.
Meanwhile, just outside the perimeter, perplexed Vietnamese are pressed against the fence watching a scene that must look like it’s being broadcast from another planet. As Willard observes,
Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: Death, or victory.
But the American soldiers don’t end up getting much USO either. There’s an invisible wall that separates the performers from the audience in this type of situation, and we call that wall “civilization.” It’s thinner and less sturdy than we’d like to believe. In this case it holds for less than the length of a song; in three shakes of a Bunny’s tail the atmosphere turns from risqué entertainment to incipient gang rape.
Bill Graham, who had pretty much seen it all in his time (read the biography Bill Graham Presents sometime, it is tremendous), is very convincing here as a guy who can tell which way the wind is blowing. He wastes no time laying down a cover of smoke and skedaddling the heck out of there with his meal tickets, pausing only to throw up a pair of deeply cynical peace signs.
I wonder who among the stuntmen got the job of hanging onto the helicopter skids and dropping into the water at the last feasible second. Looks like fun.
Redux also includes a follow-up to this scene where the crew comes across the Bunnies’ wrecked helicopter and trades some of their fuel for sexual favors. This is even more disturbing than the other scene, more intimate, more twisted. It makes you like the guys on the boat much less and for that reason I think it was a good cut, though it did reduce the number of naked breasts in the movie significantly. Some trades are worth making.