Another interstitial section, but this one has a slightly different tone. The boat has gone farther up the river and deeper into no-man’s-land, and the sense of menace is palpable. Everyone seems a little jumpy when they encounter another boat, but it turns out to contain friendlies, one of whom shoots the moon at our boys. It is followed by another boat that ups the ante prankwise, tossing a burning flare onto the PBR’s canopy.
This is a little over the top as pranks go; the flare starts a fire, there are a few panicky moments, and soon Lance is covering the roof of the boat with palm fronds like it was Sukkot or something. But the real importance of this event is not the damage it causes; rather it sets the stage for what is to come the next time the PBR encounters another boat. Back in high school we used to call this foreshadowing, if I remember correctly.
There’s an important piece of business here where Willard tells the Chief where they’re headed: “Upriver about 75 klicks above the Do Lung bridge.” When Chief protests, saying “That’s Cambodia, Captain,” Willard responds:
That’s classified. We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia but that’s where I’m going.
We were in Cambodia, of course, conducting secret bombing raids there and in Laos (not so secret, as the old joke goes, to the people who were being bombed). Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger generally take the rap for this, but the U.S. started bombing Cambodia way back in 1965, during the Johnson administration; Dick and Hank just escalated it, while of course denying they were doing anything of the kind.
This makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the letter from Kurtz to his son, read in voiceover later in this scene:
I’ve been officially accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted, we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, under the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane.
In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware… looking at it.
The letter in turn is juxtaposed with images of the aftermath of a battle, apparently very recent: corpses strewn hither and yon, a flaming helicopter in the trees. Though clearly this is the result of human action, the way it is presented, it is almost as though nature itself were fighting back against the foreign incursion.
And here we start to get into Heart of Darkness territory; the suggestion is that some primordial force lurks out there in the jungle, waiting to swallow up anyone foolish enough to probe too deeply into its mysteries. No wonder Chief is unhappy. Any sane person would turn back now; but then we would have a very short movie on our hands, and Francis Coppola would have given Marlon Brando three million dollars for nothing.