The Demise of Heroism in Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now

Two emblematic films of the twentieth century--Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Apocalypse Now--call the traditional views of heroism into question. These films can be seen as demonstrations of how archetypal American patriotic heroism is no longer relevant in modern warfare and post-modern times. While Apocalypse Now is introspective and serious and Dr. Strangelove detached and satirical, both films subvert the image of the traditional war hero: the single-mindedly patriotic and rigidly dutiful military man who sacrifices everything and never thinks to question his country's actions. Apocalypse Now accomplishes this with the character Walter E. Kurtz and Dr. Strangelove with Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. The two films respond to the same clichéd idea of heroism with different takes on wartime America: Dr. Strangelove satirizes Ripper relentlessly because it maintains moral distance from its subject; Apocalypse Now suffers with Kurtz because it believes such a distance does not exist in society.

While both films deconstruct the myth of the patriotic hero, Apocalypse Now does so by working with an already destroyed reputation and gradually obtaining an understanding of Kurtz, and Dr. Strangelove does so by showing Colonel Jack Ripper's disintegration from competent commander to delusional maniac. The two subjects of criticism--Kurtz and Ripper--are both caricatures of the heroic wartime leader. Kurtz has an enviable career decorated with all the accolades and citations that can possibly be awarded to a military man. His "results" in Vietnam are head and shoulders above his colleagues'; he has penetrated farther into Vietnam than anyone else. Ripper, too, enters his film with all the appearances of a confident, authoritative military figure. When he barks out his orders to Mandrake on the telephone, his figure dominants the frame and his gestures with his cigar are unmistakably that of a man comfortable in his position as a dominating leader. Before his paranoid motives are revealed to the audience, Ripper's commands actually seem reasonable. In Apocalypse Now, Willard's dossier reveals a Kurtz who seems every bit the model military leader; in Dr. Strangelove, the film visually impresses evidence of Ripper's military competence upon the audience.

After the films set up Kurtz and Ripper as these officers who embody the stereotype of the heroic military man, they set about demonstrating how out of touch with reality these men are and why their methods and beliefs are no longer relevant or even accepted by society. Both Kurtz and Ripper are isolated from the rest of society: Kurtz because he has surrounded himself with a primitive tribe within the recesses of Vietnam, Ripper because he has locked himself into his office with Mandrake. In both cases, those who need to contact the officers cannot; the two officers have voluntarily put themselves in positions where they do not have to answer to society. Both men eventually go mad because they find themselves so alienated from the world.

In Dr. Strangelove, Ripper's behavior is ridiculed almost from the outset. His name, for example, immediately leads the audience to associate him with murderous ways. Once Ripper's delusion becomes obvious, the film intensifies the satire relentlessly. Ripper's theories concerning the "fluoridation plot" of the Russians might hold an ounce of illegitimacy had he not admitted to Mandrake that he came up with the theory after feeling immensely fatigued after sex. The audience reacts to Ripper's straight-faced dedication to his "natural bodily fluids" the same way Mandrake does, with a mixture of perplexed incredulity and disdainful ridicule. What makes Ripper's behavior all the more laughable is the character's ability to maintain the dignified demeanor and pompous speech of a commanding officer while spouting off such absurd theories. Even as Ripper commits suicide at the height of his delusion, he apparently believes he is doing so because he is valiantly preventing himself from succumbing to torture. He truly believes he is killing himself for the sake of national security.

With a more serious tone, Apocalypse Now creates a similar dichotomy in its portrayal of Kurtz. When Willard is examining Kurtz's glorious military history, Kurtz's detached, pained voice on the radio emerges from the audience's memories--"We must incinerate them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village"--and provides a startling contrast to the long list of accomplishments detailed in the dossier. Once Willard finally finds Kurtz, the war hero's degenerate state becomes painfully clear to the audience: he is drunken or drugged most of the time, living with a primitive tribe, not really fighting the war at all but slowly descending further into madness. His savage decapitation of Chef underscores how far he has gone. In both Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove, the film begins with the stereotypical image of the military hero but subverts that image and confronts the audience with someone who has become decidedly unheroic.

After viewing the two films in their entirety, it becomes clear that this disillusionment with and rejection of heroism is not limited to Kurtz and Ripper, and that the two films harbor different attitudes toward the same concept of the inverted hero. In Dr. Strangelove, Ripper is not the only one subject to ridicule. The characteristics the film so loves to criticize--xenophobia, racism, paranoia, pomposity, incompetence and so on--are present in most of the characters of the film. Peter Sellers's Dr. Strangelove is a German scientist who suggests preservation of only "superior" human beings. General Turgidson cannot abandon his suspicion about a "Russian conspiracy" even as the crisis at hand demands international cooperation. Even when the fate of mankind becomes obvious, Turgidson insists adamantly--and quite seriously--to the president: "We must not have a mine shaft gap!" He becomes so excited over the United States' superior pilots that he forgets they are the ones propelling Earth toward its doom. Major Kong considers himself a patriotic cowboy--he dons the hat as the command for attack is issued--and is single-minded in his pursuit of military glory and promotion. Most importantly, the film criticizes the entire military establishment--American or Russian--for their supposed "nuclear deterrents" that do not really deter anything at all. The point the film drives home is that the traditional heroic values--as embodied by the likes of Ripper and Turgidson--of competition for greater strength, more weaponry, and ultimate victory are irrelevant and inappropriate in twentieth century America. However, Dr. Strangelove distances itself from its most ridiculous caricatures by maintaining a voice of reason in the character of President Merkin Muffley. Though he is weak and ineffectual, he is the one character in the film who seems to care about maintaining some semblance of order and who focuses on the matter at hand without growing hysterical.

On the other hand, Apocalypse Now sees Kurtz as a representation of, not a deviant from, the condition of the Vietnam War. It does not distant itself from its fallen hero like Dr. Strangelove does; its portrayal of Kurtz is never as condescending as Dr. Strangelove's portrayal of Ripper. After all, Willard himself is also in a semi-crazed state during his waking hours because Vietnam has completely overtaken his consciousness. As the audience journey towards Kurtz, it witnesses overwhelming evidence of how generally chaotic and senseless the campaign in Vietnam has become. There is an absurd building and destroying of the same bridge over and over again, there are abandoned soldiers who do not even know whom they are shooting at or whom their leader is. Most of the characters and situations that Willard encounters on the way are all, in their own ways, echoes of Kurtz as the fallen hero. For example, Kilgore has the appearance and bravado of a John Wayne--his soundtrack is "The Ride of the Valkyries" instead of Kong's patriotic marching tune--but his way of fighting the war is completely senseless as he attacks a random village because the waves there might be ideal for surfing. The mere idea of someone providing a heroic soundtrack for himself proves that Kilgore's heroism is specious, not real. However, the film--and Willard--holds a certain amount of sympathy for Kurtz because it realizes the society it portrays turns against Kurtz not because he acts "beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct," but because he turns society's hero-worship against itself. Society has rejected Kurtz because he has carried their own fantasies too far. That is why Kurtz--representative of society's inner monsters--must be dismembered and killed. Kurtz sums up this hypocrisy when he asks: "What do you call assassins who accuses assassins? . . . We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'f-ck' on their airplanes because it's obscene." As in Dr. Strangelove, the society depicted by Apocalypse Now rejects its primary hero figure because his moral absolutism and bullheaded pursuit of victory are no longer acceptable in a world where civilians are massacred in their own fishing boats and an arms race seems ready to trigger nuclear holocaust at any moment. However, here there is no redeeming figure like President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove; the Vietnam War takes the same toll on all the soldiers and commanders. While Dr. Strangelove remains distant from its targets of satire, Apocalypse Now recognizes that everyone is potentially a target.

Viewed in conjunction, Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now represent two sides of the same coin. They both depict a society that needs to distant itself or turn against its heroes in some way. Dr. Strangelove's cruel satire and Apocalypse Now's pensive examination reveal essentially the same thing: heroic attributes that seem monstrous when placed in the context of such senseless campaigns as the Vietnam War and the Cold War arms race. Although Dr. Strangelove's satiricism is much more palpable, Apocalypse Now conveys a greater sense of hopelessness because it reveals that Kurtz is the monstrous creation of American society's imperialistic longing for conquering heroics.