Gardens of Stone is probably the least watched of Francis Ford Coppola’s 80s films, but one of the most interesting, since in its own modest way it forms a spiritual sequel to Apocalypse Now. Based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Proffitt, Ronald Bass’ screenplay is also about the Vietnam War, but from the perspective of the Old Guard, who oversee Arlington National Cemetery and form a military escort for the President. In other words, this is a film about the Vietnam from the home front, revolving around four main characters, each of whom has a unique take on the conflict – Sergeant Hazard, played by James Caan, Sergeant Nelson, played by James Earl Jones, Second Lieutenant Jackie Willow, played by D.B. Sweeney, and Samantha Davis, a Washington Post reporter played by Anjelica Huston. Griffin O’Neal was originally cast in the role of Willow, the young soldier who becomes Hazard’s protégé, but he was replaced at the last minute following his part in the death of Gian-Carlo Coppola, Francis’ eldest son, in a speed boating accident the previous year. That tragedy hangs heavy over Gardens of Stone, which feels like a movie made in the midst of trauma, never quite coming together or congealing, even though its individual trajectories are often fascinating.
The most interesting parts of the film revolve around the Old Guard as the spectacular apparatus of the US military, and its role in legitimizing the Vietnam War to the American public. As a Vietnam War film that virtually never leaves Arlington, Gardens of Stone is eerily serene when compared to Apocalypse Now, presenting us with the opposite pole of the conflict from what we saw in Coppola’s masterpiece. In a sense, the Old Guard doesn’t simply legitimize the war, but makes the war recognisable as a war, folding it back into all the ceremonies and spectacles that have contoured American military activity over the last two centuries, even or especially as the conflict in Vietnam seems to defy much of that tradition and history. Early on, Hazard tells Willow that Vietnam isn’t even a war, since there’s no way it can be won – at least not on terms that are meaningful to the average American. As the film proceeds, Hazard becomes even more vocal, telling anyone who’ll listen that “there ain’t no front in Vietnam,” and that the Old Guard thus has to concoct a conflict that doesn’t exist.
While Gardens of Stone may be set in the 1960s, then, it reflects the context of the 1980s, and anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s provocative argument that the First Gulf War didn’t exist outside of American media manipulations of it. Here, Hazard is pretty much suggesting the same thing, joining forces with Nelson as he tries to convince Willow that there’s no point in getting out of Arlington and heading for Southeast Asia, since the “war” as he understands it doesn’t exist – it’s simply a confection of images created by the Arlington media machine. Sure enough, behind the serene façade, the Old Guard barracks play out like a frathouse comedy, or a noxious hazing film, full of long scenes that are crude, vulgar and generic, evoking an abject underbelly lurking beneath the spectacular machinery of American military commemoration. In one particularly striking cut, we move from Nelson making a series of perverse sexual innuendos to the first sustained depiction of a funeral ceremony, now knowing that all the soldiers are bored, disillusioned and resent having to be part of the show.
No surprise, then, that most Old Guard soldiers here hate themselves – they’re “just a bunch of toy soldiers,” according to Hazard – or that Willow’s desire to fight is presented as ridiculously naïve, born of his belief that “a right soldier in the right place at the right time can save the world.” As we move between these characters and worldviews, the tone changes pretty vertiginously, but this works to Coppola’s advantage, since it undercuts the automatic authenticity assumed as a matter of privilege by most war movies. With such a mercurial tone, Coppola is never able to immerse us for long enough to forget that we are watching a military spectacle, as funeral ceremonies and official processions lapse into a picaresque pastiche of the past that has no real referent in the present. In one especially surreal sequence, a funeral procession segues into a recreation of the Revolutionary Army, light years away from the military vocabulary of Vietnam – part of a broader recourse to the neoclassical backdrops of Arlington and Washington DC. Every exterior shot muffles even the most distant rumblings of Vietnam into serene sightlines that exude security and stability, full of buildings that have remained aloof from American conflict since the Civil War, or even the War of Independence.
In other words, Gardens of Stone focuses on the Old Guard as a spectacle business that needs to operate as a tourist destination as much as a military institution. Initially, Samantha seems to offer some critical distance, since she works for the Washington Post, and is far more left-leaning than Hazard. However, over time, as they enter a relationship, their shared interests converge the media coverage of the war with the military spectacle of the home front, eliding the lived realities of the war itself from anything the film can process. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola seemed to be searching for an image to rival those that sustained the Vietnam War, but Gardens of Stone is more about the source and motor engine of those images, the spectacular apparatus that Apocalypse Now was trying to exceed. By this stage in his career, Apocalypse Now must have felt like an inconceivable prospect to Coppola – and he translates this feeling into this film, since it’s almost impossible to think that the images in Apocalypse Now and the images in Gardens of Stone could be part of the same American military event.
This disjunction is particularly clear in the one scene where the Old Guard try to bring the landscapes of Virginia and Vietnam together – a field duty mission in which they use the woods around Arlington as preparation for the Southeast Asian jungle. In this sequence, Coppola opts for an impoverished and parodic pastiche of Apocalypse Now’s combat scenes – there are explosions and flares, but they’re on a much smaller scale, and the fighting is all overtly performative, shot through with the awkward artifice of trying to graft Vietnam back onto Virginia. These training sequences also try to project earlier conflicts onto Vietnam – there’s a sequence involving traditional trench warfare – but end up just reiterating the quotidian dangers of the American woods, as when a soldier comes face to face with a bear.
Instead, the only real glimpses of the Vietnam War occur on televisions, which gradually predominate over the second act of the film. The first time we see Vietnam on television, the image is quickly concealed by Rachel Feld, Willow’s fiancée, played by Mary Stuart Masterson, who stands in front of the footage to announce to her father that she has decided to defy his wishes and marry Willow. This initial imagery of Vietnam thus shifts abruptly into the wedding, and another stately Arlington scene, only for Coppola to move even more rapidly into another televisual broadcast, this time a series of images that are especially redolent of the river scenes in Apocalypse Now. From there, we jump abruptly, once again, in both space and time, as the narrative moves forward to Arlington in 1969. For the first time, we see snow, which makes Virginia feel more remote from the Vietnam jungle than ever, especially since Coppola now shoots this winter sequence like a pastiche of the Revolutionary War, with a plethora of horses and carriages making it seem we have jumped back, not forward, in time.
As this sequence might suggest, the latter part of the film sees Coppola moving rapidly between the televisual reception of Vietnam and the spectacular apparatus of the Old Guard, as if trying to counter both the enormous televisual saturation of Vietnam, but also the fact that the war only existed as a televisual spectacle for the vast majority of Americans it was supposedly being fought for. In these rapid shifts in and out of television footage, Coppola seems to be searching for some line of flight from television, some way back to cinema, while also conceding that his images can no longer aspire to exceed live broadcasts, as they did in Apocalypse Now. Instead, Coppola compensates by setting these televisual images in staticky, angular, abrasive relief against the stately Arlington style of the film as whole, until they feel like missives from a different media universe. In essence, these televisual montages displace Hazard’s actual trip to Vietnam, which is radically abbreviated, and feels more like an attempt to traverse these proliferating televisual simulacra than a journey in regular time and space.
While most of Coppola’s 80s films – and indeed most 80s films about Vietnam generally – tried to recapitulate the vision of Apocalypse Now on the big screen, Gardens of Stone thus explains why they couldn’t. In that sense, it’s the true spiritual sequel to Coppola’s masterpiece, not least because of how much it finally retreats from grand cinematic gestures, eventually playing more like a telemovie, in need of regular ad breaks to ground its highly episodic structure. In the final scenes, Coppola returns to the Old Guard, and to their funeral processions, but in a purely formal way, ending with a reveille and salute rather than any real resolution of the characters or their different ideological viewpoints. Refusing to square the circle between Virginia and Vietnam leaves the film in an odd state of incompletion, but it also makes for one of Coppola’s most adventurous, albeit inconsistent films of the 1980s, and still one of the most incisive films made about Vietnam, even if it’s set entirely in Arlington.