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.
The crew of the PBR is already on edge. They’re in a place where they’re not supposed to be, in an alien land, surrounded by unknown forces. So the interaction with the Vietnamese aboard the sampan is tense to begin with, and the tension gets ratcheted up with every second until it’s finally unbearable; one of the Vietnamese makes a sudden move, and all that tension gets released in a hail of gunfire.
Horrifying as it is, there is something simultaneously comical about this scene. It always makes me think of the character of Francis (a.k.a. Psycho) in Stripes, who says “All I know is I finally get to kill somebody.” (And let me take this opportunity to tip my cap to the late, great Harold Ramis, who left us last week. Someday I will sit down to write the extensive tribute he deserves.) There is a certain glee in the way Clean just lets it all go and starts blasting everything in sight.
Chef’s reaction to the massacre is horror played with comic timing, not much different from his reaction to the tiger, just a little more hysterical. His line “Let’s kill all the assholes, shoot the shit out of them, why not?” is a direct echo of Heart of Darkness (the book), where Kurtz scribbles “Exterminate all the brutes!” in the margins of his report.
And there is something exquisitely absurd about the way Clean raises his sunglasses to survey the carnage with a “Wow, far out” expression on his face, then flips them down with an understated “I’m good.” He seems to have become completely detached from the reality of the situation, even calmed down a little by the catharsis of mass murder. If this movie were made today, we would probably say that Clean had played too many violent video games growing up. As it is, there is only human nature to blame.
Equally absurd is the fact that the whole thing turns out to have been caused by a puppy. This gives the puppy important symbolic weight, especially for Lance, who in his quiet way may be more affected by the horror of this situation than anyone. He was probably sky-high at the time; talk about a buzzkill….
But of all the twists and turns of this nightmarish chain of events, the most chilling comes when Willard puts down the last survivor in cold blood. All the killing up to this point, however dreadful, has been an accident, or at least an impulse; this last murder is intentional and calculated. Dealing with this wounded person is going to interfere with the mission; therefore she has to go. Remember Kurtz’s words from the previous scene:
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.
In voiceover, Willard recognizes the connection:
Those boys were never going to look at me the same way again. But I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier.
We, the viewers, will never look at him the same way again either; this is the first time we’ve seen Willard the killer and gotten a sense of why he was chosen for this mission. The sampan scene is a key turning point in this sense, and also in the sense that we are now halfway through Apocalypse Now. If you’ve made it this far with me, give yourself a pat on the back and take a little R&R, but stay sharp; Do Lung Bridge is up next, and Do Lung Bridge is a bitch.