Apocalypse Now is not exactly loaded with sentimentality, and one of the rare moments of overt — you might even say cheap — sentiment comes when Clean is killed by a tracer round fired from the jungle. At the moment of his demise he is listening to an audio letter sent by his mother, whose voice can be heard waxing optimistic about future grandchildren as her son’s corpse lies sprawled on the deck. (Kudos, by the way, to Hattie James, who I’m told is Larry Fishburne’s actual mother. She does an amazing job of sounding just like somebody’s mom would on a tape like this — stilted cadence, self-conscious laughter, and all.)
Some might call this instant (or at least rapid) karma, since it was Clean’s itchy trigger finger that set off the sampan massacre. Others might just say, eh, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you. What you think probably says something about how you view the workings of this universe we live in. I prefer to leave it up in the air, which definitely says something about me.
Fresh from the nightmare of the sampan, the boys on the boat find themselves in a different kind of nightmare at Do Lung Bridge. This time it’s dark and has a psychedelic quality; we are invited to view the proceedings through the eyes of Lance, who has indulged in that last hit of acid he was saving for a special occasion.
Not everyone would consider passing through a remote army outpost that is a favorite and frequent North Vietnamese target a special occasion, but Lance and his ilk are a breed apart. They like to take hallucinogens under what most people would consider the worst possible circumstances. The idea, I guess, is that if you are going to endure a harrowing, life-threatening ordeal, you might as well make it seem as much like a dream as possible. It should be less frightening that way, in theory at least.
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.