Film Studies: Colonel Kurtz for President? Not if I see him first!

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The Independent Culture

As American voters acquire a rare sniff of history - in reliving John Kerry's moment-by-moment behaviour under fire more than 30 years ago - the fantasy suddenly leapt to mind that the nation as a whole had neglected that select but rich field of potential candidates for our highest office: movie characters who had done Vietnam.

As American voters acquire a rare sniff of history - in reliving John Kerry's moment-by-moment behaviour under fire more than 30 years ago - the fantasy suddenly leapt to mind that the nation as a whole had neglected that select but rich field of potential candidates for our highest office: movie characters who had done Vietnam.

Of course, this impulse quickly prompts a moment (or more) of solemn reflection - think of those we have lost. At the time of Apocalypse Now, we had one of our brightest - Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), if you remember. He was not just the best soldier of his time, not simply a man in whom action and intellect were as fused as in Caesar, but a man who, while still young, had governed with exemplary firmness. Colonel Kurtz's compound up the river would have brought a smile of approval to the face of John Ashcroft.

Naturally, the gaze might then fall on Lieutenant Willard (Martin Sheen) who felled Kurtz with a mighty parang and maximum prejudice.

As recent events in the Republic have demonstrated, a command of butchery and expeditious elimination of enemies is not unwelcome. By virtue of age, uncommon malicious valour as a junior officer, and a kind of vacant killer mentality that can be advised and guided, Willard would have seemed an ideal candidate. Alas, playing Josiah Bartlett, the actor in question - Mr Sheen - is already in his second term in The West Wing. And even if fantasy can let us play this hopscotch, it will require a sustained national emergency (not out of the question) to do away with the two-term limitation.

Mr Sheen has suggested to us the merits of his son, Charlie, who was the central grunt in Oliver Stone's Platoon. Let's face it, there is something likeable about the cross between a fool and an innocent caught up in an impossible situation, challenged by the opposing strategies of Sergeants Barnes and Elias (Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe), and reduced to a kind of stumbling, shambling performance under fire. The only trouble is that Sheen's GI was dumb enough to get enlisted in the draft and the straightforward thinking of President George W Bush has suitably raised the doubt... Would you trust this man to be President if he were unable to prevent himself getting drafted?

We did consider the Jon Voight character from Coming Home. Mr Voight, after all, has a distinguished record, and a hard-earned veteran status - he has played Presidents and played them well. Moreover, the man from Coming Home has been for many years now the national spokesman for the campaign, Paraplegics Have the Best Sex, a minority cause but one that attracts high female support. The only difficulty with this man is that Jane Fonda remains his number one sexual partner, and as we have observed before there are still too many parts of the US where "Hanoi Jane" is not just remembered, but loathed.

A recent dark horse in the race is Michael (Robert De Niro), the only one of the Pennsylvania steel-workers who returned intact from Vietnam in The Deer Hunter. At first sight, this Michael was regarded as unpromising. He was a loner, not talkative, and someone who still put great stock in one-shot kills on hunting expeditions. But the presidential strategist, Karl Rove, has cunningly reworked these attributes as "Your Psychotic Candidate", with a scenario that argues why should a President wait to be stalked by a lone assassin? Let's elect the lone assassin type, knowing no one is going to guard his own back better. Yes, there's something a little unnerving about such a figure, but as Donald Rumsfeld put it the other day: "I don't know, guys, but sometimes I get the feeling that there's a lot to be said for a President the country is just simply flat-out scared shitless by."

In the same impulse, it did occur to one group of pols that Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver had been with the Marines in Vietnam. But then the stories came in from New York that Mr Bickle was now sometimes driving days at a time without securing a passenger. Even the most heavily armed New Yorkers, the ones most desperate to get across town, were flinching when they saw that he was driving the cab that stopped. At Defense, said Dick Cheney, I can see this man chilling the blood, and Defense needs to spread the fear of God around...

"The enemy?" asked W.

"No, sir," said the VP, "our own people."

Thorough surveys have been done of other films, and many have regretted the unavailability of officers played by Burt Lancaster in Go Tell the Spartans and John Wayne in The Green Berets. There was some support for the one notable survivor in Full Metal Jacket - the soldier played by Matthew Modine - but then it was realised that his name was Joker, something that could take away from the dignity of the office. Oddly enough, it was for the same reason that some support gathered for John Converse, the character played by Michael Moriarty in Who'll Stop the Rain. In truth, this Converse was an inept drug-dealer, a coward and a jerk. Still, as focus groups suggested, inept thievery is a whole lot more human than the accomplished kind, and John Converse was a name with presidential resonance.

No, none of this stuff has happened! The above is mere raillery meant to divert you as you wait for the next Olympiad. How could any of you think so poorly of the good old USA to give credence to this nonsense? The next thing, you'll be supposing that a President who ducked any real service, took a privileged pass into the "National Guard" and still didn't turn up for some of his service, has been able to turn the dawn's early light of suspicion on a man who volunteered to serve in Vietnam, who was plainly wounded in action as well as cited for valour in saving others, and who returned home with enough wit to be critical of the military. Pull the other one!

Or begin to consider that even a hero and even a man who went out of his way to put himself in danger and harm's way rather than let his place be filled by one more poor black kid too dumb or poor to get a lawyer, if he can let reality be so manipulated and tricked against him hardly deserves to be President of the United States of America. These days, apparently, we put more trust in the cute scoundrel, the glib liar and the kind of leader who knows enough about show business and American stories to know that you never want to act as if you're in doubt. John Kerry - actual hero and nearly simultaneous critic of the Vietnam war - has his messages fatally mixed. Or is it that he just made the mistake of thinking he was campaigning in a country where history, consequence, responsibility and truth were part of the game?