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.
And at first the scene at Do Lung Bridge does somewhat resemble a Pink Floyd show viewed from the nosebleeds: lights in the sky, fire, smoke, distant rumbling. But it very quickly takes a turn for the horrific as the boat is accosted by desperate soldiers, lost souls looking for any way out of this awful place. They come across like zombies, moving slowly forward, easy enough to avoid but not without feeling a little sick.
Out of the shadows, with sudden, dreamlike clarity, emerges one poor bastard who’s been sent there with a message for Captain Willard. With admirable attention to detail, he’s also carrying mail for the boat, which will play a part in the next scene. Then he’s gone again, most likely to his death, with these parting words: “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” (I always thought that was New Jersey. But to be fair, this place looks a damn sight worse than Jersey, even on its worst day.)
The tragicomic odyssey that follows, where Willard and Lance try fruitlessly to locate the post’s commanding officer, is a sort of microcosm of the American misadventure in Vietnam. Everyone is stumbling around in the dark with no clear objective other than to stay alive for the next 10 minutes, and maybe kill anyone who gets on their nerves in the meantime.
It’s worth noting that almost everyone they meet at Do Lung Bridge is black. And of course that’s who would get stuck with this shit detail. In contrast to World War II — where they had to fight to get into the armed forces — in this less popular war, African-Americans were disproportionately well-represented, making up 12.6% of the soldiers and 14.9% of the casualties. And while almost everyone involved in the Vietnam war got a raw deal, you could argue that they got the rawest deal of all. Here were the descendants of people who had been hauled from Africa to America in chains being dragged halfway around the world again to kill and be killed by Asian people who, for the most part, they had nothing against. (Or as Muhammad Ali put it so succinctly: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”)
After encountering four guys sitting in the dark looking for all the world like they’ve always been there and always will, Willard and Lance find two African-American soldiers listening to Hendrixian guitar music while trying to silence the last survivor of a wave of attackers. A minute later they bring over a third guy who they call the Roach, a specialist — nay, an artist — with a grenade launcher, who takes care of business.
I just now realized that I’ve never known the names of any of these actors. So let me here in semi-public commend Damien Leake (“Machine Gunner”), William Upton (“Spotter”), and Herb Rice (Roach) for a job well done. Their roles are small but they contribute to making this a very memorable scene. I especially love the moment when Willard asks who the commanding officer is and Leake looks back at him incredulously: “Ain’t you?”
As with the Sampan incident, there are strong elements of humor laced into the horror here; there’s the not-quite-dead body whose face Willard steps on, as well as the running joke of the medicated Lance walking around grooving on everything and constantly forgetting to take cover, that people are shooting at him. In fact there’s something Samuel Beckett about this whole scene — or maybe it’s Groundhog Day — the sense that these people have been living this same scenario over and over again. (Hello, second unlikely Harold Ramis reference in a week!) “Like this bridge,” says Chief. “We build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the generals can say the road’s open.”
And right there we get the futility and absurdity of Vietnam, where the opposing forces would take and retake the same hill over and over again, gaining nothing but increased body counts. Chief knows it, and he knows Willard knows it, so he tries one last time to talk the Captain out of continuing the mission. But that’s not going to happen; this river only flows one way, and so it goes.