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It should go without saying that if you’ve never been to war, you can’t pretend to know what it’s like. Yet for those of us who never have been, the movies have created our image of war; they’re the closest thing to it that most of us are likely to get. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter attack sequence in “Apocalypse Now.” I was a college newspaper intern who’d talked my way into the film’s American premiere on Aug. 15, 1979, at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. The movie, in a word, was shocking. The sound of Jim Morrison singing “This is the end…” told you, from the outset, that the stakes were about something larger than one disastrous American military morass, and by the time the helicopter massacre arrived, the film had become a trip and a nightmare at the same time, one that let you feel the adrenaline rush of killing (which was rather obscene, but a rush nonetheless) and along with it the sting of death.
The great war films that emerged from the Vietnam era were mass-cultural touchstones, and two of them, “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket,” rank among my favorite movies of all time. Yet as astounding as they were (and still are), as cinema and as moral reckoning, I always felt, probably naively, that the lesson that lurked inside them — this is what war is, and if you ever suspected it wasn’t **** then perish the thought, because it really is **** — was one that the culture now embraced as a stone-tablet truth. Thanks, in part, to the primal power of movies, mere propaganda could never again disconnect us from that lesson.
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