By John Trafton
In 2008, the United States military implemented a therapeutic virtual reality video game, developed at the University of Southern California, called Virtual Iraq, a simulation program used to treat Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffering from PTSD, a condition documented in nearly 20% of returning veterans at the time of the study. The program was modeled on the landscapes and gameplay of popular war video games, such as America’s Army and the Call of Duty series, but rather than presenting a subjective panoramic vision of the battlefield, a feature which made these games popular, Virtual Iraq provides the player with optical illusions and a series of randomly generated images and scenarios which are tailored to the specific case history of the patient. The participant dons 3D glasses and headphones and is transported to Iraq by the therapist to confront specific elements of the Iraq War experience in order to master his traumatic experience.
The experience Virtual Iraq highlights has a distinct presence in both Iraq War films and Vietnam War films, where the condition of the traumatized soldier is discernible as a narrative device. This is expressed in numerous scenes which detail the imprinting of war on the human psyche, scenes that convey the hallucinatory and subjective experience of war through a variety of visual strategies. Two films that are especially significant in this regard are Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (United Artists, 1979) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker (Lions Gate, 2009). Both films render this remapping of the human psyche through expressive visual design. Each, however, employs a distinct mode of subjective representation that can be linked to specific thematic concerns.
“The Vietnam War”, according to William Hagen, “was an intimate, loosely framed, on-the-run cinéma vérité experience”, and a similar point could be made about the Iraq War. Representations of both wars can be seen as a competition of “war narrators”, challenging the mainstream media’s account of the war in more viscerally compelling ways (Hagen, 1983, 230). Both Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker broach audience expectations of war already shaped by documentary films, photo journalism, embedded print and television journalism, and (in the case of the Iraq War) Internet videos. Such media set the stage for Coppola and Bigelow to craft their films in a style which de-familiarized the war landscape viewers were accustomed to. At the time of Apocalypse Now’s production, “any film about Vietnam that followed the traditions of realistic narrative filmmaking (especially of war films) would be working against a collective sensibility that had arrived at different preconceptions of what was authentic”, and as similar preconceptions about the Iraq War experience became evident, The Hurt Locker followed the same rhetorical project as Apocalypse Now (Hagen, 1983, 231). The styles of both films are intended to encourage the progression away from previous memories of the war experience and towards deeper moral and philosophical debates.
Although Coppola’s and Bigelow’s film employ different visual styles, the intentions of their authors are similar. In this essay, I will show how The Hurt Locker borrows the narrative structure and the trope of battlefield haunting from Apocalypse Now in order to provide a critique on the way that war rewrites the human psyche. Battlefield haunting in The Hurt Locker and Apocalypse Now is expressed through uncanny repetition and a constant return to the scene of trauma through an episodic narrative structure. I will also show how both films render the traumatic, interior space of battle through the rewriting of war film genre codes. Both films incorporate the influence of pre-cinematic spectacle forms into their visual languages. Apocalypse Now radically departs from the influence of the panorama painting, a form with a strong presence in earlier war films, instead using phantasmagorical imagery of a haunted battle zone. By contrast, The Hurt Locker translates the new logistics of perception to the traditional panoramic vision of the battlefield, and in doing so offers a new visual mode, the moving panorama war film.
Geoff King characterized Apocalypse Now as a spectacle of “authenticity” and “artistic imagination” (King, 2006, 288). The key word here is spectacle, as war representations have been a form of spectacle since early cinema—as evidenced by the marketing of D. W. Griffith’s American Civil War film The Birth of a Nation (1914)—and in pre-cinema art as well. One such pre-cinema spectacle was the panorama, an attraction which attempted to transport the viewer into the thick of battle. Panoramic war depictions invited the eye to navigate the equally focused foreground and background action, an experience which attempted to mimic actual combat participation and one which war films would attempt to recreate (Fig. 2). Sweeping wide shots of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan (Dreamworks, 1998) and The Longest Day (Twentieth Century, 1962) and trench warfare in Paths of Glory (United Artists, 1957) are but a few examples that exhibit the influence of the panorama on war cinema.
The Hurt Locker presents a new approach to the panoramic war vision, one which presents the battlefield through a 360-degree view from a series of identifiable and unidentifiable spectators; The Hurt Locker is what I will call a “moving panorama” war film, one in which the panoramic vision of battle is all encompassing and unrestrained. I am using the term “moving panorama” to signify a particular type of panoramic vision—one in which the viewer is surrounded on all sides by a 360-degree panorama field, and experiences the event depicted as a montage of different perspectives. This experience not only exceeds the verisimilitude promised by the traditional panorama, but also offers the illusion of being transported into the event. Like the Virtual Iraq video game, the war experience of The Hurt Locker re-enacts a particular form of battlefield experience through this style, providing a new visual language for war. Beginning with the immediacy of observation-based material, Bigelow “experientializes” the rendering of war in a way which is “raw, immediate, and visceral” (Thompson, 2009). Starting from a cinéma vérité approach reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers, 1987), The Hurt Locker creates a montage of multiple perspectives—achieved through multiple cameras, varying film stock and camera speed, inconsistent angling, et cetera—in order to mimic the manner in which the human brain records traumatic battlefield events.
Apocalypse Now, by contrast, radically departs from panoramic vision and instead draws upon another pre-cinema spectacle art form: phantasmagoria, the use of optical illusions and juxtaposition of images to produce a distinctly haunting rendering of time, space, and events. Developed in Paris during the late eighteenth century, phantasmagoria was a spectacle form in which a lantern, placed behind a screen and mounted with a shutter containing painted slides, projected ghostly images upon the screen (Christie, 1994, 111). The lantern-projector would often be mounted on rails behind the screen, so that these images appeared to move about the screen, perceived by the audience as revenants (Burgoyne, 2010, 3). This form appears to have influenced subsequent movements in art, and war has often found itself to be the subject of these paintings, in particular those of the surrealists—Dalí, Gattorno, and others (Fig. 3). But the aim of phantasmagoria is not authentic recreation but rather to suggest something ghostly, or unearthly, about the subject represented. By invoking this form, Coppola’s film transports the Vietnam War itself to a haunted realm at the dark side of human nature. This is achieved through editor Walter Murch’s use of double exposure and partial dissolves, and through cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of colour.
Phantasmagoria and panorama: Apocalypse Now and phantasmagoria
Originating in Europe during the late eighteenth century, the phantasmagoria was a theatrical visual art form which relied on images projected from the magic lantern device over landscape art to suggest ghostly hauntings and to evoke the gothic (Fig. 4). This effect was achieved, literally, through smoke and mirrors, but also with the projection of images over paintings of a landscape or people—an optical illusion in which the uncanny clashes with the rational. This is what Tom Gunning describes as “the summoning of phantoms…while displaying the triumphs of the new sciences” (Gunning, 2004, 5). This form was adopted into cinema by the likes of George Melies and the German Expressionists, generating a visual style which Coppola drew upon for Apocalypse Now and much of his other work (Fig. 5). Apocalypse Now can be characterized as a phantasmagorical war film based on its presentation of the battlezone as a place of haunting memories, incoherency, and, most importantly, psychological degradation stemming from PTSD. Coppola himself even characterized the increasing surrealism during the film’s progression as “phantasmagoric imagery”. This is achieved in two distinct ways: editor Walter Murch’s use of dissolves and juxtaposition, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s philosophy and use of colour.
Let us use, for example, the image of Willard’s two-thousand-yard stare (Fig. 6). This shot is established through a partial-dissolve transition, starting with a shot of a burning jungle, then dissolving to a stationary shot of Willard looking upwards, then partially (not completely) dissolving back to the burning jungle so that the juxtaposed shot of Willard is in the foreground, and then bringing the burning jungle shot more into focus and Willard less into focus. The flaming jungle shot is a tracking shot which moves the images of flying helicopters and burning palm trees across Willard’s face like an image from phantasmagoria theatre (Christie, 2010). This shot in the opening sequence sets the expectation for the film’s thematic content and visual rendering of war. The aim here is to establish a doubling between Willard and Kurtz which Coppola will revisit in the film’s closing; Garrett Stewart notes that the film closes “upon its opening image”, as if Willard’s story is, by phantasmagoria, grafted onto Kurtz’s story, both stories underlining the dark side of neo-colonialism (Stewart, 1981, 468). As Willard proceeds upriver to Kurtz’s compound, the technique of dissolve and juxtaposition continues with increasing intensity until the film’s ending, a scene of Willard leaving Kurtz’s compound upon completion of his mission, a shot composition which echoes the phantasmagoria in the opening scene.
In Coppola’s film, “a luminous presence is superimposed on a dark past”, offering a link between Storaro’s use of colour and the presence of phantasmagoria in the film (Storaro, 2001, 270). In a study of chromophobia—fear and anxiety aroused by the use of particular colours—David Batchelor writes: “Figuratively, colour has always meant less-than-true and the not-quite-real” (Batchelor, 2000, 52). Storaro’s colours are designed to achieve precisely this. The use of orange, green, blue, and cloudy off-white colours pierce shadows and darkness to establish onscreen an otherness from the battlezone. The dark-light contrasts contribute to the film’s thematic context. One of the few explicit appearances of the colour white occurs when Kurtz’s Montagnard guards are revealed: “whitewashed, spectral natives who seem to travesty the pale Anglo villain come among them” (Stewart, 1981, 458). In an interview with The Guardian, Storaro cites the illustrations from Burn Hogarth’s Tarzan as an inspiration for the choice of colours in Apocalypse Now: “[Francis and I] didn’t want to do anything naturalistic….I didn’t want it to look like reportage. I put artificial colour [and] artificial light next to real colour [and] real light—to have the explosion of napalm next to a green palm tree; to have the fire of an explosion next to a sunset in order to represent the conflict between the cultural and the irrational” (Jones, 2003). Storaro additionally characterizes the film’s cinematography as representing “a discourse on the senses of civilizations”; the notion that light represents the civilized world and darkness represents the uncivilized (primeval) world is presented through “technological colour’s abuse of natural colour forms…in cinematic terms, this is the conflict central to the film…it is the way artificial colour violates natural colour” (Storaro, 2001, 280).
The Hurt Locker and the tradition of the moving panorama
By contrast, the visual rendering of the battlezone in The Hurt Locker can be compared to the nineteenth century tradition of the moving panorama, a form which was specifically developed as an alternative to the nineteenth century European static panoramas. The moving panoramic vision is expressed in Bigelow’s film through the cinematography and use of fast montage with varying points of view. In contrast to the static panorama, in which the audience is “in control of the spectacle” and “the visual experience of battle [is organized through]…several vantage points” (Bronfen, 2012, 193), the visuals work in conjunction with the war trauma and battlefield haunting central to the film’s narration. The influence of the panorama paintings on war films is re-written in The Hurt Locker to introduce a unique visual code, one chiefly inspired by the American tradition of the moving panorama. As great battles were often the subjects of nineteenth century panorama paintings, a link can be drawn between the historical developments of the panorama painting and the war films of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one which includes the moving panorama and the visual approach taken in The Hurt Locker.
The nineteenth century battle panorama has long been recognized as an influence on war films. To better understand this influence, first consider the impact of a late twentieth century battle panorama. The October War Panorama (Fig. 7), housed in a museum located at the spot of Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination, depicts an Egyptian victory over Israeli forces during the October War (Yom Kippur War) of 1973. Built in 1989 by North Korean artists, on Kim Jong Il’s suggestion to then president Hosni Mubarak, the museum fails to mention the successful Israeli counteroffensives which followed, as well as the U.N. brokered ceasefire. Additionally, a similar work—the Tishreen Panorama—exists in Damascus, Syria, also built by North Koreans, depicting Syria’s participation in the same war much to the same effect. These panoramas essentially rewrite history for Egyptian and Syrian nationalist sensibilities. They both function in a way similar to Paul Phillipoteaux’s Gettysburg Cyclorama (Fig. 4.2). Both old and new war panoramas promise (a selective) verisimilitude based on what Paul Virilio identifies as the link between optics and warfare. “The advance of panoramic telemetry”, Virilio writes, “resulted in widescreen cinema” (Virilio, 1984, 69). The influence of nineteenth century panorama vision is present in early war films, such as Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) (in which the American Civil War battle sequences seems as if they could have been lifted straight from Phillipoteux’s painting) (Fig. 8). The panoramic vision is present in the World War II combat film—in films produced during World War II and in later films about that conflict, such as The Longest Day (Twentieth Century Fox, 1962) or Saving Private Ryan (Dreamworks, 1998)—and thus, through the resulting visual codes, helped to define the “panoramic war film”.
In his study of panorama paintings, Stephan Oettermann argues that panoramas were the products of the nineteenth century with no precursors. The development of the panorama was not based on previous developments in the arts but rather on changes in culture (Oettermann, 1997, 5). Though a dubious claim, as the first panoramas appeared in the late eighteenth century and had antecedents in large-scale paintings (Christie, 2011), cultural changes did inform the development of the panoramic form throughout the nineteenth century. For Americans in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the traditional, static, circular panoramas were “visually inadequate to the situation in which they found themselves”, as the onset of railroad travel and the end of a war documented through haunting photographs (Fig. 9), and as such, the moving panoramas “anticipated, in art, the speed of travel” (Oettermann, 1997, 323). The static panoramas seemed distinctly European to the American viewer and were primarily focused on cities and pastoral landscapes that were familiar to the European viewer. The moving panorama paintings, by contrast, often depicted the rugged landscapes of the American West, still the primitive unknown in the minds of many eastern city-dwellers. These paintings, moving around a circular rotunda, contained vague or elusive vanishing points, the spectator’s vision brought to focus on different points as if an invisible director and editor were present. If the moving panorama was a response to the increasingly irrelevant form of the static panorama, the moving panoramic vision of The Hurt Locker can be seen as a similar response to previous war films and changes in visual culture. If the panorama could not have developed without the Industrial Revolution, as Oettermann contends, then the development of Bigelow and Barry Ackroyd’s approach to The Hurt Locker may be linked to the digital revolution.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd addresses the digital revolution, ironically almost, through non-digital means (the use of 16mm cameras). The role which documentaries and Internet videos play in the contemporary audience’s relationship with the Iraq War informs this approach. This is due in part to the variety of methods by which we experience the moving image—the multitude of screens we encounter on a daily basis. Writing about large-scale paitings, Ian Christie asks whether “our ability to contemplate such vast acres of canvas with more equanimity [has] something to do with our expanded sense of image scale—from proliferating IMAX cinemas and giant plasma to the miniature screens of our smartphones” (Christie, 2011). The approach taken in The Hurt Locker can be described as a moving panorama, the merging of two different cinematic traditions: montage and the moving frame. The moving panorama that is The Hurt Locker is a montage of competing gazes through multiple cameras that express their own consciousness, a point to which I shall return later. This new formulation of panoramic vision offers a novel way to analyze the visual score of The Hurt Locker, and it extends our understanding of the new logistics of perception in contemporary war films.
Impressed with Barry Ackroyd’s near-documentary approach in Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (Fig. 10), Bigelow remarked in an article for Exposure International that “[he] is a master at evoking the ‘you-are-there’ immediacy that [The Hurt Locker] demanded”. Hand-held tracking shots and low-angle shots (Figs. 10 and 11) are used in both Bigelow and Greengrass’s films. Ackroyd, operating four Super 16mm cameras simultaneously, constantly crossing the 180-degree line, and “providing multiple points of view”, intended to “make you feel like a participant” while providing the space for the actors to “do long takes with continuous action”. A single scene could be captured through a combination of close shots, aerial shots, long shots, and medium shots—few of which are static. The images produce what Gilles Deleuze refers to as “camera consciousness”: “we are no longer faced with subjective and objective images” but rather a free-floating perception that amounts to an “emancipation of the viewpoint” (Deleuze, 1986, 26). The copious footage from four 16mm cameras provided ample material for editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski to use in a montage in the creation of the Iraq War zone as a moving panorama.
As discussed earlier, Walter Murch’s editing in Apocalypse Now makes extensive use of partial dissolves, juxtaposed frames, and double exposure. By contrast, the editing of The Hurt Locker, particularly the bomb-disposal mission scenes, can be characterised as an overtonal or associational montage: the combination of tonal (cutting based on emotional or thematic content), metric (cutting based on time), and rhythmic (cutting based on both time and image) montage creates a psychologically complex narration—in the case of The Hurt Locker, a narrative flow not restricted to the perspective of the protagonists. Consider a series of shots in a sequence described earlier, in which James disposes of a bomb in the trunk of a car at the U.N. building (Fig. 12).
This series of twelve shots lasts approximately twenty-five seconds, covering several different angles and assuming multiple points of view (some of which are unidentified). Each shot is shaky and hand-held, whether it acts as a tracking shot or a static shot. The traditional editing technique of matching on action is abandoned here, as is fidelity to the 180-degree-line rule. The scene proceeds in this manner: the mission is interrupted by a terrorist’s sniper bullet from a balcony across the street and behind the EOD team, witnessed from the sniper’s point of view, the soldiers’ points of view, and undetermined points of view, the frequency of the cuts and the variety of angles and compositions increasing as the tension rises. After the terrorist is killed, tension grows again when it is revealed that the unidentified viewpoint from across the street (third shot from the left in the second row in Fig. 12) is from a young Iraqi with a video camera, and the logic (or illogic) which determines the presentation and combination of shots and angles is again applied further in the sequence (series of shots in Fig. 13 below).
The visual approach in The Hurt Locker suggests a break with the conventional influence of the panorama on war films, just as the visual approach in Apocalypse Now was also a departure from conventional form. Just as Coppola and Storaro wanted to take Apocalypse Now beyond the war journalism which invaded American television screens during the Vietnam War, Bigelow sought to distinguish her film from an even broader range of war coverage available to the Iraq War generation. The use of multiple cameras and montage suggests a competition of perspectives, which, in some respects, comments on the contending video and photo journalism of the war itself (Internet videos from soldiers and Iraqi civilians, documentary films, and cable news coverage, both American and other). This is achieved through the editing scheme of The Hurt Locker, which can be compared more effectively to the nineteenth century American tradition of the moving panorama than to the static panorama: the Iraq War battlezone, no matter how familiar it has become to us through other films and media, is rendered uncanny by editing which draws attention to undefined witnesses.
War as a way of thinking
Coppola’s exaggerated portrayal of the battlezone as a haunting, phantasmagorical state and Bigelow’s hyper-realistic battlezone, where the camera is a free-floating witness not restricted to the traditionally orchestrated war film experience, mark distinctly different visual approaches to the war film. The phantasmagorical imagery of Apocalypse Now offers an original visual representation of war. The otherworldliness of Coppola’s Vietnam becomes a haunting hall-of-mirrors for the Western spectator, and the metaphysical journey to the cause of this haunting is aided by Storaro’s non-naturalistic colours and Walter Murch’s juxtaposed frames, mimicking the magic lantern images of eighteenth and nineteenth century phantasmagoria. The film’s narrative running along “the river, the liquid track that keeps the story moving despite [its] episodic interludes”, according to Murch, allows the space for the “characters to break the frame” and, by extension, the ghosts of Vietnam as well (Ondaatje, 2002, 56, 70). The result is a Vietnam never seen by the likes of Walter Cronkite or the audiences of Hearts and Minds (Peter Davies, 1974), but rather a Vietnam which may only exist in the minds of its traumatized veterans.
The Hurt Locker is a war film whose style can be compared to the therapeutic video game Virtual Iraq mentioned at the start of this chapter. Unlike other popular war video games, like the Call of Duty series, Virtual Iraq and The Hurt Locker are devoid of the panoramic battlefield landscapes which are manifest in twentieth century war films (Fig. 14), nor does Virtual Iraq or Bigelow’s film make use of the panoramic pathos formula; the spectator of The Hurt Locker, and the player of Virtual Iraq, are no longer in control of the spectacle. The visual approach in The Hurt Locker acts in counterpoint to James’s acting-out as a form of self-defence. The theatrical escapism promised by the rush of battle is a motivation for James, but the cinematography and editing are not in conjunction with this view, and as such, we, the spectators, are dragged along by James through the Iraq War experience with no relief from the encroaching war trauma.
Elizabeth Bronfen notes that in war films “we implicitly take part in cultural haunting” (Bronfen, 2011, 7). Many of the films discussed in previous chapters engage with this cultural haunting, the Vietnam films confronting the ghosts of Vietnam and the Iraq War films anticipating the ghosts of that war which have yet to enact their haunting on American culture. Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker are exceptional cases in this regard, as they offer up the battlezones of American wars as some of the most haunted sites in American history. It is in this approach that the uncanny functions as part of Bigelow and Coppola’s “aesthetic formalization” of this cultural haunting. Rational human logic is subsumed by the otherworldliness of the combat zone (Bronfen, 2011, 7). Where The Hurt Locker and Apocalypse Now also converge in this respect is in their presentation of warfare, not as a place of battlefields (a series of towns to be conquered, fortresses to be overtaken, beaches to be stormed, etc.), but rather a state of mind (or battlezone) in which the mind is invaded by a primitive warrior code. If the evolution of the war film is marked by addressing “war as a way of seeing”, as Virilio remarked, then Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker delve deeper in their search for new modes of analyzing the impact of war: war, in these films, is a way of thinking, and the cultural haunting produced by war plays a formative role in shaping this way of thinking.
 Francis Ford Coppola. Apocalypse Now: Redux. Director’s Commentary track. United Artists, 2001.
 The ending described can be found in Apocalypse Now: Redux and on DVD versions of the original theatrical release; they do not include images of Kurtz’s compound exploding, which were contained in some of the original 35mm prints.
 For further information on war technology and the advent of widescreen, see Giles Taylor’s “Roller Coaster Ride: The Widescreen Trick Film and Embodiment”, featured in Big Screens, Little Boxes: The Aesthetics and Culture of Film Style, PhD thesis in progress
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John Trafton has recently completed his VIVA, defending his thesis titled “Genre Memory in the Twenty-First Century American War Film: How Post-9/11 American War Cinema Reinvents Genre Codes and Notions of National Identity.” This thesis, part of a forthcoming monograph with Wayne State University Press (to be released in 2013), explores how the American War films reinvent war film forms of the past in order to provide the genre with a new orientation. His research interests include filmic treatments of historical events, documentary film, New Hollywood cinema, and the war film. Hailing from Southern California, he also holds an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh and a B.A. in Film Studies and screenwriting from Chapman University.
Frames # 2 BAFTSS 21-11-2012. This article © John Trafton. This article has been blind peer-reviewed.