I have thought for a while now that one of civilization's most impressive advancements is the lack of noise and effort required to get a film playing in your living-room.

The tray on my DVD player whispers shut and after a few bland legal notices, a thick line of trees waves across the screen before an orange fireball incinerates them to the sound of the sad thronged voices of Wagner's Pilgrim's Chorus. We are supposed to think of the faceless dead, the barbecued Vietcong, the napalmed innocents. We are supposed to be visited by horror as the massed choir cartwheels over the crack-boom of incendiaries. We are supposed to stare into the pretty, reclusive eyes of a greasepaint smeared grunt and see ourselves staring back as the chopper blades whomp overhead. I hit pause and brush crumbs off of the sofa where they are threatening to dig into the flesh of my leg. I reach for my lighter, scrabbling around for it on a shelf above my head, and in the process knocking the empty DVD case down onto the seat next to me. On the cover a small boat creeps along a river flanked by a jungle of flame that stretches into stylized mountainous distance. 

Abandoning the search for my lighter for a moment, I examine the box again, even though it has only been ten minutes since I fished the disc out of it. The title 'The Hollow Men' stands out in plain white lettering against the overwhelming red of the hand-drawn boat, the text slightly ragged in the manner of 1970s pre-Mac typography. The director's name and the few stars who were famous at the time line up at the bottom in a much smaller and spindlier font. I open the case out like a pair of wings, arching it back along its spine so the glossy insert bows and out drifts a slip of paper I did not know was there. A credit-card receipt, dated about ten years ago, its print fading to nothing like a family photograph in a time-travel movie, but still recognizably bearing the deep ballpoint scribble of my brother's signature. He bought it just before he left. I press play and watch the jungle disappear as the alleluia rings out.

There is a flashback - there's always a flashback. A senior officer, the creases of his uniform an origami map of authority and perfection, lectures a less compromised and blighted version of the hero.

"Why did you sign up for this mission, son?" he asks, almost fatherly, despite an age difference of no more than ten years.

"I want to contribute, Sir," he replies, thoughtlessly.

"No, I'll tell you why you signed up. It's because you want to become a man. I guarantee you - do this, and you'll know you're one and nobody will ever be able to tell you different." The camera pulls away from the hero's face to reveal him back on the running plate of the boat as it motors upriver, and the film lapses into a few quiet minutes meditating alongside him as he tracks the impenetrable veil of trees at the riverside. I asked a similar question of my brother before he left for Africa, and received a similar reply. I believed him then, and still believe him now, despite the fact that he barely dented adulthood enough to be called a man.

Fizzing rockets, stetsons, verdant tree canopies and earnest young patriots: none of these things help me locate my lighter, which is perhaps dug in a cleft in the sofa somewhere, or proudly beyond reach on the table top. The springs of my inherited sofa are too yielding, and my position too weak for me to prop myself up right now and undertake the reconnaissance required to find it. I can still feel crumbs clinging to my legs, and it feels like a couple have crept inside my boxers and are softening mutinously against my arse. This almost makes me writhe with distaste and gives me the motivation the missing lighter could not to get up off the couch, to kneel while the voice-over keens behind me, and sweep urgent swipes of my hands across the fuzzed upholstered surface, blasting imaginary crumbs onto the floor for my cleaner to find. I also take off my boxers, brush my hands over my alarmingly clammy skin, and shake the plaid cloth before putting them back on.

To be honest I glaze over for the next twenty minutes or so of the film, which is brilliant of course, but doesn't cope all that robustly with repeat viewing. I'm able to zone out by looking at the arrowhead ripples on the river caused by the snub boat as it presses on into the jungle. The brief shore-bound interludes have all the hazy vagueness of a Huck Finn dream, which I suppose they are meant to recall, but with obvious irony because of all the guns and the eventual crescendo of rape and torture and execution I have to wait another hour or more to see. Famous songs are heard in static book-ended bursts every five minutes or so, eked from the transistor radio by the cast's one black actor who struts around caught halfway between sage and black panther, before he is killed cruelly-but-transcendentally by the script-writer in a moment of violence that achieves nothing. I swim back into contention with the screen when the pinging of gunfire continues beyond the lulling rhythm of the early parts of the movie and erupts into an extended firefight and eventual air-strike. Unlike some I don't relish war movies for the fighting. It isn't the tree-shredding rain of bullets or the mud-spattered despair of it all that compels me to watch. I enjoy the sense of purpose and the journey. The fact that there is a destination. The battle ends and the diminished crew return to the water and I hit pause again to make a cup of tea.

It's late and my eyes are getting red and I'm not sure if I have enjoyed any of the film so far, or the cigarette I allowed to half burn to nothing - even my tea is steeping into cold mahogany with the paper tag stuck wetly to the side of the mug. I consider switching the DVD player off and going to bed, though I probably wont sleep, and instead elect to continue watching as I dislike the feeling of defeat that comes from starting a film and failing to finish it. My comprehension of the plot is remembered rather than gleaned from the action on screen, and only a handful of choreographed deaths and an unlikely flash of nudity return my full attention to the television. 

The hero and his insane target finally meet, and as the profound philosophical confrontations of the film begin, clarity of purpose and good intentions are things that seem meaningfully absent from my life. With the hushed dialogue balanced on the edge of audibility, I think of my brother on a far continent, buried with the malarial parasites that killed him; I think of my parents and the mixture of sadness and satisfaction I presume they feel about his life and death; I think about myself and the fact that this is the third Vietnam film I have watched this week. 

The film is nearing its conclusion and the main actor is narrowly avoiding death with every second step. Bullets and arrows whiz by his head as he escapes from the Cambodian jungle having completed his mission at the potential cost of his sanity, or at least his patriotism. As I watch the miraculous escape I'm pulled into a kind of sour reflection on probability, as often happens, projecting countless alternative stories in which each successive bullet finds its mark. The crescendo of action has the rhythm and respiration of nightmare, and I see myself on screen tripping, or being caught by quicker rebels, blood blooming outwardly through the thick fabric of my fatigues, machete blade cutting into the meat of my arm. I watch freedom achieved and know that had it been me or anyone else slaloming through the jungle we would have been slaughtered, hacked to pieces; we would have failed the hysterical high-wire act of staying alive and we would lie dead as the credits rose. This does spoil the movie for me a little.

Philip Walford lives and writes in London. He is currently working on a novel, and has short fiction and poetry forthcoming in Burnt Bridge and Eunoia Review.

"We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks a little." - Bart Simpson, 'The Day The Violence Died'

I have no shame in admitting that this story was inspired, at least in part, by a throwaway line in an episode of The Simpsons from 1996. I caught it on a re-run in a hotel in San Francisco, and the line eventually led me to start thinking about my generation's veneration of movies depicting a war we didn't fight in. The tragedies we face now are individual rather than generational, but we're still irresistibly drawn to the wide-angle sadness of films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon



Copyright 2009