February 18th, 2006


friends in print: fred rexer

“In self-defense, there’s no such thing as Overkill. The word ‘kill’ is absolute: you can be less than dead, but not more than dead. Dead enough. Other words that are absolute are ‘malevolent,’ ‘dangerous,’ and ‘stupid.’ If a person is malevolent, dangerous, and stupid enough to try his luck while you’re toting your .45 Automatic, he ought to be absolutely killed… not wounded. Don’t set yourself up to argue in court with some lout who’s accosted you. Kill him! Dead men give no testimony. Let the bum’s morgue photos speak for him while you’re being no-billed by the grand jury.”
—Fred Rexer, Jr., Dead or Alive: A Textbook on Self-Defense with the .45 Automatic, IDHAC Publishing, 1977, p. 2
[John] Milius remains adamant — and persuasive — in his claim to the heart of the matter. “My whole career is justified by having written Apocalypse [Now],” he says “I wrote the screenplay in 1969, and based the [Martin] Sheen character, and some of Kurtz, on a friend of mine, Fred Rexer, who actually experienced the scene [related by Marlon Brando] where the arms are hacked off by the Viet Cong. There were six drafts of the screenplay — well over a thousand pages. At one point Francis [Ford Coppola] said, ‘Write every scene you ever wanted to go into that movie.’” The title, he recalls, came from a button badge popular among hippies during the 1960s — “Nirvana Now.” [Note: “My whole career is justified” is from author’s phone conversation with John Milius.] <…>

    Melodrama pursued the production even in the comparative peace of the Sentinel Building. Fred Rexer turned up while they were looping the film, and regaled the sound engineers with stories of how, as a CIA operative, he had executed Viet Cong chieftains by squeezing his fingers through their eye-sockets and literally tearing their skulls apart. This colorful individual had presented John Milius with a rifle as a mark of respect for The Wind and the Lion, the film that had established Milius as the standard-bearer of the new machismo in Hollywood. In the basement studio he produced a loaded .45, handed it to Martin Sheen and said: “You could shoot anyone in this room. You have the power of life and death in your hands.” Sheen was stunned, and Coppola gaped in horror through the glass of the control room. The specter of the war continued to haunt Zoetrope long after Apocalypse was completed. One veteran tried to reach the upstairs offices, insisting that Coppola should make a film of his experiences and that if he would not, well, then he’d blow him away. [Note: “Fred Rexer turned up” is from author’s conversations with Richard Beggs.]
    —Peter Cowie, Coppola: A Biography, Da Capo Press, 1994, pp. 120, 128, 271, 272

Fred Rexer at Long Tieng, Laos in 1967
    The character of Willard, the army captain who toils up-river to terminate Colonel Kurtz and his renegade command, was based on Fred Rexer, whom Milius had met at a gun show soon after completing The Wind and the Lion. Rexer had been a Green Beret in Laos and had taken part in the Phoenix programme to subdue VC influence in the villages. Surreal by nature, he told Milius how he and his comrades had gone into Vientiane, ordered tiger-striped tuxedos from the local tailor and then dined together in their new regalia. Rexer had actually experienced the scene recounted by Kurtz in the film, where the arms of children are hacked off by the Vietcong. Sensing the symbiosis between Kurtz and Willard, Coppola wrote in one his earliest notes about the film in prospect, ‘if [Willard] can accept Kurtz, then he can accept himself’.
    —Peter Cowie, The Apocalypse Now Book, Da Capo Press, 2001, p. 158

    According to Doug Claybourne, who was supervising the post-production process, there were between thirty-five and forty-five different recording sessions of the voice-over, interspersed with screenings. ‘We did it many, many times,’ sighs [Michael] Herr.
Martin Sheen would come to San Francisco, and we’d be in the booth for a couple of days, recording it, and putting it to picture, and trimming it. One cut after another, I think there were like eight or nine. At one point we left, my wife, and our baby, and I, and just split, after like nine months.

    John Milius had also tried his hand at making sense of the narration. In a draft dated 26 January; 1979, he seemed finally to have licked the opening sentence: ‘Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.’
    While Herr was away in New York, Fred Rexer, a friend of Milius’s, joined the Zoetrope scene to help with the narration. A towering hulk of a man, with pale skin and blue eyes, he would regale the sound engineers with stories of how, as a CIA operative, he had executed Viet Cong chieftains by squeezing his fingers through their eye-sockets and literally tearing their skulls apart.
    Doug Claybourne remembers Rexer as
the counterpart to Marty Sheen’s Willard in real life — he was the guy who was on a mission, to do whatever was needed to keep the war flowing the right way. It got really wild when Francis and Marty were down in the mixing room along with Milius and Rexer. Once Marty was on hand for the first or second narration, and he went out and did a lot of drinking. At about 2 o’clock in the morning I got this call from the police saying, ‘We have this guy Estevez and he’s in jail; come and get him.’ Marty had started dancing in a bar, and had been arrested and used his real name, Estevez. So we called out our lawyer and rescued him!

    In another incident, during a break for food in the basement of the Sentinel Building, Rexer produced a loaded .45 and handed it to Martin Sheen and said, ‘You could shoot anyone in this room. You have the power of life and death in your hands.’ Coppola, understandably not wanting anyone killed on his watch, pulled Milius aside and told him that loaded firearms were simply not part of the editing process. Rexer did spend time watching raw footage, however, and would extemporize and comment on what he was seeing, from his perspective as a former Green Beret. He even dictated snippets for Willard’s voice-over:
Napalm is the answer to the grunts’ prayers…
    I’m back in Vietnam. I can dream about times before Vietnam when I didn’t know the intensity of combat but the dreams part to a reality when you come out of it and you despise the fact that you have the intensity in you… but you want it… now that it’s there.
    I’m sitting in this hotel room and Charlie’s beating my ass because every minute that I stay here I get weaker and every minute Charlie stays in the bush he gets that much stronger.

And, later:
Every day I lay here I become less of a soldier and every day he squats in the bush he gets stronger.
    Pink-faced house cat… messenger boy for the lifers.
    Bernard Fall once said that war was too valuable to be entrusted to generals and peace was certainly too valuable to be entrusted to politicians…
    Charlie don’t surf but Charlie don’t fuck up by the numbers either.
    Perhaps the jungle hasn’t corrupted Kurtz, perhaps it’s purified him.
    ‘Few readers of the novel are immediately aware that there is a double narration,’ Herr said in 1987.
Marlow is only the second narrator. There’s a main narrator who listens to the story told by Marlow. All the problems connected to Apocalypse come, to my mind, from the impossibility of bringing Joseph Conrad to the screen. He’s a purely literary writer. You can’t transfer his sublime irony to the screen.
    —Ibid., pp. 107-109
    Kurtz: I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God… the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
    —Apocalypse Now

    [Nat Segaloff:] What the hell is Brando talking about in his colloquy?
    [John Milius:] He’s trying to explain to Willard what Truth is. He’s trying to make him look into the pit that he’s looked in, and see the Truth. He describes the VC [Viet Cong] and how they fight—that they are capable of this barbarity, but they fight with passion. They have concern for the children. He says, “If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles would be over very quickly.” They are not fighting a lie.21 One of the terrible things about the Vietnam War was that it was a lie between the president and the grunts. Prior to that, people knew what they were fighting for. Fred Rexer22 said that this generation, that was capable of the kind of heroism that he experienced when he was there in ’65 and ’66, will “never be again purchased so cheaply.” In other words, you used up not just a generation, but a nation’s ideals. And perhaps that’s at the root of a lot of our problems. [June 2000-February 2001]
    21 The meaning of this scene was clarified when Apocalypse Now Redux was released in 2001, restoring a major plot point: Kurtz had warned, in a suppressed intelligence report to the Joint Chiefs, that “dilettantes” with one-year tours of duty were useless against a dedicated enemy.
    22 Fred Rexer is a former Special Operations expert and frequent adviser on Milius’s films.
    —Patrick McGilligan, editor, Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s, University of California Press, 2006, pp. 296-297

(Posted in reference to Euroweenie cavils.)