Memorial Day will likely never be considered date night, but there is plenty of war-themed programming and cookout tradition to warrant dinner and a movie.
The holiday began shortly after the Civil War when soldier gravesites were decorated with flowers by widows, mothers and orphans of those left behind.
These days, the holiday is marked by memorial services, parades, cookouts, the Indianapolis 500 and war-movie marathons.
As a kid, I loved war movies. Next to Japanese monster movies, watching Gary Cooper portray Sgt. York or hearing “Tora, Tora, Tora” passed up the Japanese military food chain was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
But my all-time favorite war film is Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now.” When the DVD of “Apocalypse Now Redux” came out in 2001, the auteur's vision was complete.
By the time “Apocalypse Now” arrived in theaters on 1979 it was preceded by torrents of bad press, reporting a chaotic production fraught with budget overruns, star Martin Sheen's heart attack and Marlon Brando arriving on set looking more like Fatty Arbuckle than Vito Corleone.
I begged and badgered my parents to take me to see the movie, despite its R rating, invoking my 13th birthday in desperation. That cinched it with my begging out of the experience.
Through the eyes of a kid, the first two-thirds of the film were as joyous as a young Laurence Fishburne waterskiing to the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction.” Robert Duvall's Col. Kilgore quickly became the center of idolatry for the film-and-music circle I ran with in middle school. As I entered my 20s, PBR Street Gang and Charlie Don't Surf would both become names for fantasy baseball teams.
But as a kid, the brooding, brutal final third left me confused. Why couldn't Kilgore have cranked the Wagner and come to the rescue at the end?
By college, videotape had taken over the world. “Apocalypse Now” was one of the first movies I ever owned. It was not uncommon for those walking by my dorm room at York College in Nebraska to hear The Doors' “The End” mixed over the whipping of attack helicopters pouring from my Pioneers at any hour of day or night.
In time, third act became less problematic. The T.S. Eliot poetry came into context, as did the script's interpretation of the source material, Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness.”
Coppola and screenwriter John Milius turned the simple tale of a small group of soldiers hunting down a decorated Marine named Kurtz who'd gone rogue, into a nuanced exposition of what's at the heart of war — chaos.
The film was made under chaotic circumstances, which might've helped inform its depiction of war's pure madness and how it permeates everything it touches. After a brief interlude with the absurdity of war, a delirious Chef, played by Frederic Forrest, reminds himself to “never get out of the boat.” Sheen, in voice-over, agrees.
The boat represents peace. As the boat goes farther upriver, war's dark powers become clearer. War invades the boat, attempting to draw its inhabitants out. Engagement is victory because it breaks the bonding power of peace. Division is death.
Over three hours, we see what happens to those who left the boat in a variety of brutal images. We hope with degrading confidence it will be enough to keep them in the boat. The final montage is an indication of war's victory over man.
In the “Redux” version, images of a massive air strike over what could be interpreted as Kurtz's compound are a last reminder that as long as violence and war exist, we are all at risk and achieving peace is a lot more complicated than guitar circles, two-fingered hand gestures and peace-sign posters.
Coppola and Milus aren't just blowing stuff up on film, they're showing us the darkness in our own hearts as we root on the air strikes in the beginning before taking us to a place where we want the fighting to stop by the end.
The film doesn't vilify those who serve during wartime at the behest of their nation, as it shouldn't. They're depicted as well-intended patriots victimized by chaotic forces, for whom no amount of training will protect. They are helpless heroes cast from the boat into the mouth of madness.
So how does one pair dinner with such a bleak subject? War is about death and discord, food represents life and accord.
Early on, Willard is briefed by a general played by late Oklahoma City native G.D. Spradlin over lunch. Coppola, ever the gourmand, aims his cameras squarely on the bizarre feast of roast beef and prawns about which Spradlin quips, “If you eat them, you'll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”
Later, the PBR Street Gang happens upon a private compound occupied by French nationals. So, they eat. The hosts are French after all.
The film reminds us of the circumstances from which Vietnamese refugees fled their war-torn country, many of whom settled here. Our thriving Asian district is living proof of humanity's ability to adapt and flourish no matter how dire the circumstances.
Vietnamese food in our city is in a class with any in this country. From the chaos of war came this blessing to Oklahoma City.
The banh mi sandwich, a product of the French colonization of Vietnam, are commonly found here now — usually for about two bucks. But this Memorial Day, perhaps you can make your own and pack a picnic on your way to pay homage to those who afforded you the freedom to have dinner and a movie this Memorial Day.
Baja Oklahoma Banh Mi
It's inevitable that the longer banh mi sandwiches are served in Oklahoma the sooner the ingredients will evolve. And why shouldn't they? It's a result of French-Vietnamese fusion. For best results, use roast turkey or chicken. Banh mi are typically served with matchsticks of marinated carrots and daikon, plus fresh hot pepper slices and sprigs of cilantro. I mixed a Mexican-style relish with the carrots and daikon to temper the heat of the peppers and brighten the overall flavor. Arugula replaces the cilantro for better texture and flavor.
6 French baguettes
1 ½ to 2 pounds meat of your choice
2 cups relish
2 avocadoes, mashed
1 cup shredded arugula
FOR THE RELISH
3 red onions, sliced into 1/8-inch slices.
2 carrots julienned
2 daikon radishes julienned
2 to 3 serrano chiles sliced in thin circles
1½ cup rice vinegar
½ cup water
10 whole peppercorns
1 clove garlic
6 whole cloves
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 2 small “cutie” oranges or 1 large navel orange