There are some quotes that are so iconic, so inescapable, so much a part of our everyday lexicon, that I feel almost an obligation to put them in the book. Even if I don’t like them very much.
Actually, I take that back. I never put a quote in the book that doesn’t speak to me in some way. But while I always like the quote, even if I don’t like like the quote, I often don’t like the source.
Enter Apocalypse Now.
It took me a weirdly long time to decide that I don’t like Apocalypse Now – like, three viewings and somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15 years. It was, in fact, kind of a weird movie for me to watch at all, as I’m not a fan of war movies in general. Vietnam war movies? Even less so.
But watch it I did, I think, primarily, because when I was a kid, a couple of my brothers were talking about something, and one of them said, “Charlie don’t surf,” and they both laughed.
It was clearly a reference to something, so I asked them what but, I assume because I was very young and it was hardly age-appropriate, they wouldn’t give me any details beyond, “It’s from a movie.” My number one childhood wish was to be like my big brothers, and I think it was a combination of that and my tendency to be overly curious that pushed me to tuck the name of the movie into my memory, with plans of watching it when I was ‘old enough.’
When I was a teenager, my parents got a VCR, and at some point in high school, I must have rented Apocalypse Now. It didn’t have much of an impact. I think I was too young to understand a lot of it. In fact, the only reason I know for sure that I watched it during those years is because I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in high school English and, not realizing Apocalypse Now was loosely based on the book, told my teacher how much it reminded of the film. (For the record, I like Conrad’s book even less than I do the movie.)
The second time I saw Apocalypse Now was in university. The Mayfair, an independent movie theatre that I pretty much lived in during my uni days, was doing a double bill of it and a documentary about the making of the film. As an English Literature major, I justified skipping class to go to the movies by positing it would be interesting to watch it again after having read Heart of Darkness, to see if that changed the way I experienced the film.
My experience was changed. But not because I read the book. Because the theatre ran the documentary first, and I learned just how messed up the production was. It went beyond the normal stories you hear about things like a temperamental and disorganized director, a bloated budget, and a filming schedule that kept falling further behind every day. For example, near the beginning of the film, Martin Sheen’s character has a mental breakdown in a hotel room.
Turns out, Sheen wasn’t acting. He did, in fact, have a breakdown, and director Francis Ford Coppola just kept right on filming. Even after Sheen punched a mirror and cut his hand, Coppola kept filming. The documentary included the footage with the real voicetrack, and as Sheen collapsed and sobbed and they kept rolling, I wanted to scream at Coppola to turn off the fucking camera and get him some help.
The documentary completely overshadowed the movie that night. I was so discomfited by what I’d learned, I found it difficult to watch, knowing what had gone on behind the scenes.
I did grin at the memory of my brothers at “Charlie don’t surf,” though.
It was around ten years before I saw Apocalypse Now again. Ron and I used to rent a lot of movies when we first met, and we came across it while digging around the shelves at Blockbuster. He’d never seen it, and I mentioned it was worth a watch.
Kind of odd, considering that I wasn’t much of a fan of the film. So it’s time to be honest. I’d recently started collecting quotes, and as soon as I saw the movie on the shelf, I knew I had to add the film’s most iconic line to my book:
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
What’s interesting is that, because I was so focused on getting the quote, I paid close attention to the actual scene it comes from, and realized that while it may be the movie’s best known quote, the most powerful one comes at the end of the very same scene.
Robert Duvall’s performance as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore is extraordinary. Kilgore is in his element amidst the explosions, calling in air strikes and throwing out racial slurs with equal ease. He throws away lives in order to take a beachhead because it’s got good waves for surfing. He’s really very hateful.
And yet, given Duvall’s deft performance, I don’t hate him. I don’t like him. But I don’t hate him.
Much like the movie in which he appears.
To see previous posts in my Quotes series, click here.