The pulsating whir of the chopper, descending from overhead, is that great signifier of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” This is the image referenced time and time again as the measure of cinematic bluster, the kind of shot that takes (per Ethan Hawke, comparing Coppola’s grueling shoot to his experience shooting “The Northman”) “hubris,” “arrogance,” and — of course — “balls.” It follows that we are intimately familiar with Coppola’s famed helicopter shot, in which a quiet, cloistered jungle-scape is doused in flaxen smog. Consider, however, the film’s other helicopter shot: airlifting in, not napalm, but bunnies.
At the USO base, we are surely “in” the jungle, but still our surroundings seem mechanized, commercialized. Our crew’s first action is to purchase some fuel — our first sign that around here, it is capitalism as usual. Moments ago a tiger roamed free, now the only animal present (besides Lance’s puppy, a Golden Retrieving reminder of neatly mowed grass and picket fences far, far away) is the logoized Playboy Bunny, plastered brazenly across the prow of the descending aircraft. Referencing a kind of primordial sexuality (“fucking like bunnies”), the Playboy brand epitomizes the New Masculinity of the 1970’s. With the arrival of Women’s Lib, gender dynamics of yore were facing their greatest threat yet, and no one was better primed to shepherd the “New Man” through this imminent crisis of masculinity and towards a celebration of consummate bachelordom than one Hugh Hefner. The Playboy set opted to ditch the stodgy girlfriend, the nagging wife, and embrace the Bunny.
The Bunnies’ agent crows the arrival of the “centerfold,” and there she is, photographed against an inky-black background, a paper doll come to life. The Playmate of the Year, the pinup fantasy of a sweaty-handed boy playing at American adventurism, at “Cowboys and Indians.” And here, once again, the substance of Coppola’s film is bound up in its presentation: the “Cowgirl” playmate above, Cyndi Wood, was 1974’s real-life Playmate of the Year. Fact and fiction blurs: below Wood appears beside Coppola, a Playmate playing a Playmate. Coppola lounges in his director’s chair, clad in army fatigues and aviator frames, looking as much a G.I. as the throng of actors (extras, mainly gleaned from American military institutions in the Philippines) he has assembled before him.
“Apocalypse Now” seeks to lay our capacity for horror bare, on every level possible, but — as Coppola readily admits — it can never be an anti-war film. The helicopter motors in, the G.I.’s drop from the heavens, and Lt. Kilgore bares his muscular frame: spectacle abounds. So it is no coincidence that t he Bunnies drop in via aircraft, as tempting and incendiary as a crate of napalm. They are scraped off the page, lifted from the centerfold, and dropped (as Coppola will tell it, 40-some years later in an interview with the real-life Playboy Magazine) into the “ancient, primeval jungle,” the Phillipines “playing” Vietnam just as Cyndi Wood “plays” Cyndi Wood. A “unlikely show-business show” within an “unlikely show-business show,” deposited “right there in the midst of antiquity” — “right there in the midst of antiquity.”