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.

10 thoughts on “Are You Talking to Napalm in the Morning?

  1. I’m gonna chime in on this. . .

    I think you’re essentially correct in assuming that most people completely overlook and disregard the nuances and intricacies of those two lines you mention. In fact, I know you are, because I know people who totally and utterly misunderstood, not only the lines in those films, but the entirety of the films themselves. I think this has to do with the fact that, both films are rather subtle and ‘vague’, as regards the subject matter and ‘morals’ of their respective films. Which I appreciate actually, as I hate films who try to pound their ideology, over and over again, into my brain. But there can be a problem when this is done in film.

    "Apocalypse Now" can easily be seen as ‘almost’ a ‘pro-war’ film (some of that may have to do with the writer of the line you quote-John Milius. A man not exactly ‘shy’ about being pro-military and pro-vigilante violence, see: Red Dawn) because it’s story isn’t really focused, primarily, on the horrors and atrocities of war (of course there is plenty of scenes that indicate ‘the horror’, but the ‘main story’ isn’t really about that) though, it’s ‘anti-war’ sentiment can clearly be felt by anyone who watches the film properly, as clearly you have done. Unfortunately, I think most people don’t.

    And I’m always astounded by people who completely miss the point of "Taxi Driver", seeing it as some kind of ‘vigilante justice’ film, where Travis is (quite literally) seen by these (very naive) viewers as some kind of ‘hero’. But again, a careful viewing of the film will show anyone with half a brain, that Travis (in the scene you mention for instance) is not only isolated and alone, he’s also reverted to a kind of child-like state in which he’s able to ‘play out’ his kindergarten era ideations of ‘cowboys and indians’. The idea that he’s clearly ‘wrong’ and an ‘inaccurate’ narrator can be seen plainly in the film. He narrates about ‘getting into shape" and to "stop filling his body with poisons"-while at the same time throwing back fistfuls of amphetamines and pouring whiskey on his breakfast cereal. . .and finally, the line which I think ‘says it all’ is when he narrates (while writing in his journal) that "one should not spend ones life in morbid self attention. . .one should be a ‘regular person’ like everyone else." meanwhile, through out the entire film, Travis does nothing but spend his hours in ‘morbid self attention’ and clearly makes no effort to ‘be a regular person like everyone else’. It always seemed obvious to me that he was ‘not to be admired’ or relied upon as a ‘hero’. But clearly, MANY people seem to miss this (seemingly obvious) point.

    I think the reason is partially people’s inattention to the details in the films, but also, there’s a part of ‘some people’ (especially ‘young white males’ at a particular age) when they are, ‘angry’ and see a bit of themselves in these characters. I think most of them tend to either ‘grow out of it’ or they don’t? And as you rightly state, a small percentage may go on to real and physical ‘acts of violence’ but I think the vast overwhelming majority continue to live vicariously through such characters.

    To sum it up: I think the main problem is a kind of filmic illiteracy. Because I know people who clearly see the ‘message’ of both films, but I know a hell of a lot of people who don’t. And they continue to watch films without care for the details and subtle clues that film demonstrates. To this day, they still watch films in the same distracted fashion, and I find that mostly sad.

  2. @karl – Very well put. I think you know these films much better than I do. I didn’t even know that Milius was one of the writers on AN. Red Dawn is a horrible movie on so many levels. I’ve never gone back and watched AN, because I remember it as kind of a mess. In its way, it is a more accurate depiction of modern war than anything I’ve seen: taking a beach to surf, the playboy girl riot, and Kurtz’s megalomaniacal imperialism. It smells like… Iraq.

    TD is a much more finely crafted film. I think I’ve told you before that I’m not that fond of it, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t brilliant. Thematically, it seems very close to The King of Comedy. What strikes me about it is not Bickle’s lost instability, but his desire for recognition–something I understand in this modern in which celebrity seems so easily and randomly won. In Bickle’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter if he is a good guy (Kill a pimp!) or a bad guy (Kill a politician!). What really stays with me about the film is the last scene when Betsy gets in his cab. In America, it doesn’t matter how depraved and dangerous you are if you are a celebrity.

    Both films are substantial works that do not trivialize their subject matter. But I’m afraid that most people will necessarily view them like they were Marvel comics.

  3. @frank: I think you’re absolutely correct, and it’s very well put. The majority of people watch films like they’re "Marvel Comics". That’s a much better way of putting what I was trying to say.

    Yes, I have watched both these films a lot. However, I will (without hesitation) admit that Apocalypse Now is NOT exactly a ‘tight’ film; certainly not in the way Taxi Driver is. And you’re right to point out that it’s a ‘bit of a mess’. It’s certainly overrated in general. Though I always thought the idea of transposing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to the jungles of Vietnam during the war, an interesting one; I just didn’t think it was all that well executed-but then we’ve talked of our mutual disappointment with Coppolla’s ‘famous’ work.

    Oh, and yes Milius (as entertaining as he can as a ‘personality’-and I don’t know if you know this? But he was, supposedly, the basis for the John Goodman character in The Big Lebowski and I would say, from what I’ve seen of Milius, Goodman pretty much did a ‘spot on’ job) has always had a very odd kind of ‘right wing’ view (in addition he helped to write the sequel to Dirty Harry-Magnum Force-which should tell you something right there. Though I did like his film: "Big Wednesday", but even in that ‘surf film’ he manages to put in his own pro-military ‘right wing’ sentiments, which were probably more ‘interesting’ when the film was made, not so much today?) I’ve even heard him ‘indignant’ about how he’s unable to work in Hollywood because of their ‘liberal bias’ and the fact that he’s ‘more conservative’ makes him less able to work there-perhaps that’s a good thing? As I completely agree with you, Red Dawn is a terrible film. Oddly enough, it too is a film that people who ‘like’ Travis Bickle and ‘love’ Robert Duvall’s character also completely adore, however I think in RD’s case that was actually the ‘agenda’ of the film, people were NOT reading that film incorrectly, they got the message loud and clear, and they loved it!

    You know what, you’re the first person I’ve heard talk about the ‘Travis as celebrity’ angle of Taxi Driver; I never really intuited that much before you mentioned it, at least not as heavily as you did-but now-I completely see it, in fact it’s almost all I can see (I’d always thought the ending of Taxi Driver was ominous in two ways, one was what you mention: Cybil Shepperd’s character suddenly becoming tantalized by Travis because of his new found ‘fame’ and the other is the fact that Travis is a ticking time bomb, ready to ‘go off’-he hasn’t changed at all through the film, it ‘seems’ like he’s changed, but really he’s only achieved a temporary notoriety, which will eventually wear off and he’ll be back to his brooding, loner self looking for another way to ‘get famous’-as the end shot of the film-flipping his reflection out of the rear view mirror-is basically a ‘loop’ to the beginning of the film-which says Travis has come full circle). You also make a great observation about The King of Comedy, it is essentially the ‘comedic positive’ to Taxi Driver’s ‘dramatic negative’-or the ‘yang’ to it’s ‘yin’. I completely concur, and wish I’d noticed that myself, a very good observation. It makes me want to go on about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but that would just clog the post. Anyway, suffice it to say, I think you get the point?

  4. P.S. I forgot to mention that you make a terrific point about Apocalypse Now (almost in it’s own ‘surreal way’) being actually MORE realistic-especially in consideration of the Iraq War. . .in a lot of ways the two wars are similar. . .yet again, you bring up a very good point that I haven’t heard anyone else mention and wish I’d noticed myself. . .kudos!

  5. @karl – I think the idea is great too. I’m very fond of Heart of Darkness, but not so much for the story but for the exquisite skill Conrad displays in telling it. I believe that novella is about 100 years ahead of its time. I can’t go into here, but it reminds me that I ought to read it again. (I just ordered it.) I suspect that the movie would have been better if Brando hadn’t screwed things up–even if what he did in the film is brilliant in its own way.

    That is probably the most provocative thing I’ve ever heard you say. You really think that the "napalm" scene is meant that way? What about Willard’s cowering and the totally ridiculous reason for taking the beach? The film starts with Willard freaking out, so he isn’t exactly stable. And yet when he gets out in the field, he finds that everyone else is far more crazy. He is the sane one. I’m curious your thoughts on this. Don’t back down. Let me know what you think. I will add: this is one of the problems with multiple screenwriters.

    I didn’t know that about The Big Lebowski, but that makes me smile. (Side: more and more that film makes me think of friendship and how we don’t much choose or like our friends. We just put up with them because, hey, we’re social animals.)

    I think Milius’ claim that he can’t get work because of his political views is typical Republican whining. Mel Gibson doesn’t seem to have a problem. Give me a break! Hollywood *loves* people like him because they feel guilty about all the harassment the right gives them regarding their "liberal" views. (Real liberal: Michael Moore was booed at the Academy Awards.) How else could you explain the career of Craig T. "The government didn’t help me when I was poor and on welfare!" Nelson?

    It’s interesting what you say about Taxi Driver. I thought it was obvious. Of course, not a lot of people may think about the connection with King of Comedy, because not a lot of people have seen it. As I’ve said, I prefer MS’s less popular films. I would go further regarding where Bickle is at the end of the film. (I didn’t know what about the mirror–I’ll have to watch it again; that’s great.) At the beginning he is lost. At the end, he is like a man who has found religion and is therefore much more dangerous.

  6. @frank: I love Heart of Darkness too, I’m also a fan of Conrad in general-he wrote some great short stories. But, I agree the whole premise to Heart of Darkness is the long ‘slow burn’ all the way to Kurtz-and yes, I think you’re probably right (as interesting as Brando’s performance is) he’s NOT quite Kurtz. Now, this may seem a little out of place, but I have a friend who went to a VERY liberal University and he would always tell me (when I brought up Conrad) that as much as he ‘wanted’ to read him he just couldn’t do it because his professors beat it into him that Conrad was a ‘colonizer’ and ‘politically insidious’ to read. I don’t know? I just thought I’d ask if you ever ran into this ‘position’ before? I know you’re well versed in literature and academics. I mean, I understand what they’re driving at, but this is an issue I have with many, many ‘liberals’-I just don’t ‘buy’ that there’s literature that’s ‘wrong’ to read.

    Ok, back on topic. Well, as much as I’d love to go ‘all out’ and totally commit to my statement (I respect that method of writing), I have to be totally honest too. I think Milius was probably brought in as a writer on AN because: 1) he was friendly with the whole USC crew of filmmakers (Coppolla and Lucas et al., and ya know Lucas was originally to direct AN in the late 60s/early 70s) and 2. he actually had personal experience in Vietnam, which most of the others didn’t (except, I think Micheal Herr wrote on AN too? And he definitely had a different ‘take’ on the war experience. He wrote "Dispatches" which Full Metal Jacket was based on and helped write that script too), so I think for ‘authenticity’ he was brought in? At least that’s my opinion. However, I do think he probably wrote that scene with a certain ‘intent’. . .do I think the finished scene is meant to be ‘pro military’ and praising phony macho bullshit? I think Milius might have liked it that way, but I think Coppolla had a different intent and agenda in mind? Of course, I can’t say for certain, but I do recall Milius saying he didn’t like how the scene was filmed. He said something to the effect of, "I wanted to show the ‘fun’ found in war"? Which is certainly different than the scene is played out, so I’m really not 100%, but I have my suspicions. . .I should re-watch the ‘extras’ of AN Redux again. I think Milius talks about the scene in there? And I’ll report back to ya with more accurate ‘details’.

    Well, I don’t ‘buy into’ Milius’ (and the other ‘right wingers’ in the documentary I saw on ‘right wingers in Hollywood’-I forget the title) bullshit that he isn’t able to get work because of his ‘politics’. Your examples are more than enough to shoot that theory to shit. In fact, I thought it was the Republican Indignation Routine again. But, he is a very entertaining guy to listen to. He’s almost exactly the way Goodman acts in Big Lebowski, more calm (from all I’ve seen) and a more ‘congested’ sounding voice, but very much like Goodman’s character. In fact when I heard that’s who his character was based on, I laughed out loud, because I could see Milius very clearly in that performance.

    Interesting thought about being ‘friends’ with people you don’t necessarily ‘like’. Haha, I have a lot of friends, I still hang out with and talk to, that I often times can’t stand-but as you say, we ARE social creatures, no way around that one-and believe me I’ve tried.

    Ya know, I wouldn’t say nobody mentions the ‘celebrity’ angle of Travis in Taxi Driver, but I will say that it’s not something that’s brought up and pointed out more than to mention the fact that he ‘achieves a limited amount of notoriety’ through a violent act. But to my knowledge, nobody, other than yourself, has pointed it out as an over riding theme of the film: fame achieved by any means. Most people focus on the loneliness, craziness and isolation from society leading to violence.

    I also think The King of Comedy is criminally ignored and a really great film. In addition to (as I think we’ve previously mentioned) After Hours. I keep waiting for Netflix to put After Hours and/or King of Comedy on their ‘instant viewing’ list. But that dream is probably moot?

    Hm, you bring up another very interesting point. You’re right, Travis has basically gone through a kind of ‘transcendent experience’ and come out a ‘religious zealot’ on the other side. . .like a perverse search for ‘grace’, then finds it in an act of violence. An act received by him like redemption-and you’re right, it makes him all the more dangerous in the end, like some warrior monk. Which is interesting and makes complete sense when you consider it’s a Paul Schrader script (Schrader, raised a Calvinist, I think would appreciate that ‘take’ on his script?).

  7. @karl – I’ve always associated Bickle with Bernhard Goetz. It would be wrong to say that this was reality imitating art, because the art was talking about the way life is. For some reason Oliver North comes to mind as well. They are all little men with smaller minds and pathetic (if motivating) dreams. It makes me wonder if Goetz and North hadn’t continued to get attention for their "thoughts" what they might have done.

    I don’t know much about Conrad, but I think that’s a pathetic argument. I don’t mind judging people in different times, but you kind of have to give them a break regarding when they lived–if for no other reason than for what future generations will say about us. But I think it is fine to say that Jefferson’s slave holding was totally unacceptable: he knew it was wrong and didn’t even fully fix it in his will. (Note: Thomas Paine was so ahead of his time, that you can use him to make any of the founding fathers look like assholes.) Some people let their politics pollute their fiction. I don’t think Conrad was one. I do think that Melville was, but that’s one of the things I like about him: he doesn’t have good impulse control–mostly anyway; he could craft a story as well as anyone I can name.

    Whether a film is pro-war or anti-war is probably all in the mind of the viewer. I think AN is anti-war, but I’ve known a lot of people who love how cool it makes war out to be. I can’t knock that except to say those guys are assholes. (Wow! Two "assholes" in one comment!)

    The King of Comedy is a brilliant film. I really like the screenplay. It is a classically told story without being obvious. That’s hard to do.

  8. @frank, I can completely see the association between Bickle and Bernhard Goetz, though I have to say, I’ve always felt a little sorry for Goetz. He was a ‘little man’, but I don’t think he really wanted the publicity? I may be wrong, but he seemed to reluctantly ‘turn himself in’ to the police. And seemed like a guy who was a ‘perpetual victim’; especially at that time in NYC (but it’s hard for me to totally judge him, as I was too young at the time). Today he seems like a simple, gentle guy who I’ve only seen talk about his ‘care’ of city squirrels-an animal lover-which I respect. But other than that I really know little more about the man. Ollie North, on the other hand, I have a harder time matching with Travis Bickle (just because I see him more as an ‘insider’ than the ‘outsider’ that Bickle appeared to be); however, I can see TB in him, if TB stayed in the Military. You’re right, he’s also another ‘little man’, but seemed completely devoid of empathy and a total opportunist (again, I was pretty young at the time Iran-Contra was happening, so I have a harder time arguing this). I don’t think Goetz was much of an opportunist, just pushed to the edge by looking like and being a ‘born victim’ who lived in 80s Manhattan.

    It’s funny you bring up Melville, because my friend is a total and complete fan of his and doesn’t seem to have any problem discussing him at all? But Conrad, jeez, he acts as if Conrad literally pushed that ideology on his readers (which I would disagree with as well), and that he was an active participant in ‘colonialism’ personally (which I can’t see how he could have been). However, he never read Conrad. He was only told not to by his professors. I think their ‘argument’ is pathetic as well, I just wanted to know what you thought about that. I couldn’t even convince him to read Heart of Darkness, he was THAT swayed by his school’s politics (which I also don’t understand, I’d never allow professors or a school to prevent me from reading something). When you say Melville let his politics run his fiction, I found that really funny.

    I think you’re right that most films labelled ‘pro war’ or ‘anti war’ are probably subjective (though some films, like Paths of Glory, are obvious?) but with AN, yeah I think it gets a lot more subjective? I personally see it as a totally ‘anti-war’ film, but it’s agenda and morals are a bit more hidden and obscured than other ‘war films’. But, seriously, anyone who actually thinks AN is a ‘pro war’ film IS an asshole. I mean, gimme a break, it’s pretty obvious if you really watch it. That reminds me of a John Huston quote: "If I ever make a ‘pro-war’ film, take me out and shoot me!"

    The King of Comedy IS a brilliant film. I haven’t read the script, but judging by the film, I’d say I agree with your assessment?

  9. @karl – Good points. If Goetz is feeding the squirrels, I’m on his side. Regarding North, I wasn’t exactly saying he was like Bickle, just that for whatever reason I associate them. You do remind me that there were good aspects of Bickle’s personality–for example, at least some empathy. I may have to revisit the film.

    I just grabbed a copy of "Heart of Darkness" because of our discussion. I want to revisit the technique. When I last read it, I thought it was interesting that the whole thing is a story about a guy telling the story. What I want to know now is why. I don’t recall there being any reason to write it like that, but there must be.

    I may have misspoken when I talked about Melville’s politics. It is more that Melville’s subconscious wasn’t very sub, if you know what I mean. All his passions come through loud and clear. It is what I most like about him, and I’ve learned a lot from him.

    Perhaps we can say this of AN: it shows that war is messy and amoral.

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