Are You Talking to Napalm in the Morning?

James Eagan Holmes

There are a lot of really creepy lines from films that people like to quote, apparently not realizing quite what they mean.

I was thinking about the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” from Apocalypse Now. Most people only think of that line, and so the line indicates a bizarre insanity. But I always remember the line as this: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning; it smells like victory.” That means something rather different and more disturbing. Here is the scene:

As you can see, I remember the scene incorrectly. Here is the whole speech:

I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinking dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smells like victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…

The final line — “Someday this war’s gonna end” — makes it even more disturbing. This is not only an insane man; he equates torturing people to death with his own success; and this is not out of necessity — he is concerned it will no longer be possible to experience “victory.”

I’m the Only One Here

A similar thing goes on with Taxi Driver. Everyone remembers the line, “Are you talking to me?” I’ve never really understood why that line is so popular. I guess people like the badass aspect of it. But when I saw Taxi Driver in the theater, that was not how I experienced the scene, and I don’t think that is how the film was meant to be experienced. To me it all about isolation and a mind driven crazy by it:

“Well I’m the only one here.”

The scene is creepy, to say the least — the creepiest scene in a very creepy movie. What is most creepy of all, is that a lot of people look at Travis Bickle as a hero. In their way, I think they too are the only ones there. But by focusing on the first line, they fool themselves into thinking that Bickle — and by extension themselves — is doing something.

Similarly, I have known more than a few people who idealize Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. By remembering only part of what he says, they can think he’s cool, because a little crazy is cool. They can suppress the full understanding that this is a man who will be a serial killer as soon as he doesn’t have a war to occupy him.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all these people understand Bickle and Kilgore all too well. For every James Eagan Holmes, there are probably thousands — maybe even millions — who simply dream. And maybe it is best they have their Bickles and Kilgores to occupy them.

As for me, I will continue to be creeped out by these creepy speeches from creepy characters in all their especially creepy completeness.

Image cropped from original via The New York Times under Fair Use.