The Anti-Experience as Cultural Memory: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War

Abstract: Drawing on the theoretical frameworks of trauma studies and of memory studies as well as on prominent postwar discourses, this paper investigates the position and function of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now with regard to a materializing collective memory of this war. The paper starts out by establishing the theoretical framework of memory studies as well as those intratextual and intertextual criteria through which a respective cultural product may enter the realm of cultural memory. It contextualizes the film within the interrelated history of Hollywood war cinema, the reintegration of Vietnam veterans into US society, and the political and medical discourses surrounding the conceptualization of PTSD. The close reading of the film reveals that the functional unity of an intratextually generated “experiential mode” (Erll 390), which enables a mass audience’s experience of Benjamin Willard’s ‘anti-experience,’ actualizes Apocalypse Now’s potential through the use of intertextual generic and contextual references to become part of an active cultural memory of the Vietnam War.

“It is impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means.” Apocalypse Now 2:04:45

Walter E. Kurtz’s above comment from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War film this paper focuses on, establishes issues that are of central interest to my reading of the film: the commonly recognized incapacity of language to entirely encode individual experiences and, moreover, to convey the prolonged impact that horrific—at times even traumatizing—experiences have on the individual. Implicitly, Kurtz’s comment also registers the problem of making these experiences available within a larger context in order to generate a memory of the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam.

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