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.)

25 thoughts on “friends in print: fred rexer”

  1. It seems unlikely that this colorful personage is peculiar or one of a kind. All the assorted Dirty Tricks Forces and counterinsurgency doctrines of the USA share a reasonably well-documented common methodological lineage.

    The old-school charmers like Reinhard Gehlen and Walter Rauff lent Uncle Sam their kindly hand in writing the anti-insurgency rulebook. The leader of the team that wrote its current incarnation freely admits benefiting from the treasure trove of their experience. So why should someone who lived and died by its precepts be totally unlike his tutors ?

    1. I take it that you are objecting to the following comment by Jan Horvath: “Yes, we must still root out the counter-state infrastructure in Fallujah using population resource control. [That’s a] mechanism to collect social and economic intelligence… The Nazi’s Gestapo and the Eastern European communists were the best at this. Without becoming tainted or infected by their methods and attitudes, we have picked up some of their systems and processes.” I am sure that Fred Rexer would endorse it in his capacity as an alumnus of the Phoenix program. But I cannot follow you in tarring their experience with the Nazi methods and attitudes.
          I value the contribution of men like Rexer and Horvath neither because they torture and kill communists and moslems, nor in spite of it. But I believe that such methods are excused, and even warranted, by necessity. And I refuse to agonize over the extent to which the bodies tortured and killed for my sins represent “real communism” or “real Islam”. And I am as grateful to the men fighting the war against Islamo-fascism, as I was to their predecessors, for winning the Cold War.

      1. If you sup with the devil, better get a long spoon

        Leaving aside rather controvercial question, whether the assault on Fallujah (and the whole invasion of Iraq) ever had anything to do with “fighting the war against Islamo-fascism”, or, rather, represented an instance of the brazen grab for vital resources, it is instructive to consider the fruits of those vaunted crafts of counterinsurgency, as practied by Nazis in Eastern Europe and Americans in Vietnam. In both cases, we see piles of civilian corpses and the ultimate ignominious defeat.

        I am at a loss how one can follow “systems and processes” without picking up “methods and attitudes”. Further, it seems to me that this “population resource control” was the official justification for bombing Serbia. I wonder, how many characteristics are missing from “population resource control” to distinguish it from the “ethnic cleansing,” – or “final solution”.

          1. Well-regulated torture

            It seems to me that both of your examples are the instances of scapegoating; the low-rank personnel were punished (not too severely – for instance, Lieutenant Calley got off with three and half years of house arrest for premeditated murder of 22 people) for their failure to keep clandestine the practices that were widespread and authorized from the highest levels. So, unless the distinction you are attempting to draw is that CIA and Pentagon cared more than Gestapo and Wehrmacht about good public relations, the examples are not so helpful.

            1. Re: Well-regulated torture

              Let us simplify our victimology. Your compatriots have murdered the Polish officer corps adding up to orders of magnitude over the number of victims at My Lai. The government has maintained its coverup, even as the perpetrators have gloated about their crimes in print. Not a single indictment has been handed down. It seems that American concern about good public relations makes a real difference in regulating torture and mayhem.

              1. Re: Well-regulated torture

                The number of victims of My Lai is a drop in a bucket compared to full magnitude of the crimes of American Army in Vietnam, as is well-known. Moving closer to current events, Johns Hopkins study estimated the excess mortality due to the US invasion of Iraq at 100,000 (excluding special cases like Fallujah from the study to make conservative estimate), as of summer 2004.

                Failure to punish perpetrators of Katyn is something that I am not proud of. But you really should read the Wikipedia article that you quoted, because it quite clearly demonstrates that the post-Soviet government has not “maintained the cover-up”. Note also that no perpetrators of Stalinist crimes were punished, and the choice of Polish officers over Russian officers or peasants or engineers or you name it, – more numerous by several orders of magnitude, – is something that one may wonder about.

                1. Re: Well-regulated torture

                  War is hell. As you imply without admitting, some cultures are much better than others at making hell in peacetime.
                      Fred Rexer is my friend. I never felt the urge to befriend his counterparts in the late U.S.S.R. The most salient difference is that his countrymen welcomed me as an American long before I spent three decades in this land, whereas your compatriots disqualified my colorful kind as Russians even after we spent three centuries on your soil. So kindly excuse me for running out of patience with provincial dialectics that claims its glory in voluntary servitude:

                  Пусть sclavus — раб, но Славия есть слава:
                  Победный нимб над головой раба!

                  Around these parts, we promulgate our empire from the land of the free and the home of the brave. This conjunction alone warrants our prospects. The Russian empire has had its run. The silent, sullen peoples have weighed its gods and found them wanting. Better luck next time.

                  1. Re: Well-regulated torture

                    So you choose to stake your claim of moral superiority of American empire on three and half years of hard time that Calley served on his living room coach (that comes to slightly less than 2 months per each killed Vietnamese) ?

                    The land of the free and home of the brave, in addition to operating notorious transcontinental clandestine Gulag for foreigners, incarcerates about as many of its citizens as Stalin’s Soviet Union.

                    Well, perhaps I spoke rashly about you making any claims of moral superiority. On closer reading, you seem to justify whatever the USA are doing by their apparent success in doing it. Perhaps, you wish to defend the point of view, expressed by the Grossmeister of Realpolitik: “Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong” ? Don’t just talk, then ! I hear the US Army has upped the maximum enlistment age – I am sure they will be happy to have more robust patriots on board. The Emperor George II has big plans.

                    1. Re: Well-regulated torture

                      I stake my moral claims on numerical proportions and constitutional absolutes. Any punishment meted out by the U.S. courts to U.S. soldiers for their war crimes in infinitely more just than the benign neglect in which Russia regards its innumerable perpetrators of genocides foreign and domestic. And the rights guaranteed under our social order are unequalled by any other, least of all by the provisional homeostasis of plutocratic authoritarianism practiced in present-day Russia.
                          I am sorry that you did not find my country to your liking. Here’s hoping that your skin tone, ethnic extraction, religious confession, and political affiliation continue to agree with the colors, tribes, creeds, and parties authorized by the government of your native land.

                    2. Re: Well-regulated torture

                      I am sure – you have sound reasons to believe, that the stern talking-to received by Calley for the murder of 22 Vietnamese proves moral superiority of the US, whereas 10 year jail term, served by colonel Budanov for the rape and murder of a Chechen woman he believed was sniping at his soldiers means exactly nothing. But you are keeping those reasons well out of sight, regrettably.

                      The issue at the center of this thread has been the direct lineage that is readily established between the Nazi and the US counterinsurgency doctrines and practices. If you object to Nazi methods in themselves, in addition to their choice of targets, you may rethink the virtues of collecting and disseminating fond anecdotes about the practitioners of the population cleansing. Alternatively, you may choose to live the stereotype of American Conservative exemplified by one Col. Frank Fitts, USMC – someone who collects Nazi paraphernalia on the sly.

                      As to the government blindness for religious creeds, “waging the war on Islamo-fascism” does seem to go ill with it, no ? Your adopted country is doing better with race blindness, though, now that the state of Alabama removed the prohibition of interracial marriage from its constitution in the year 2000. Please allow me to use the occasion to congratulate you on this momentous achievement of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

                    3. Re: Well-regulated torture

                      And Charles Graner Jr. got 10 years for Abu Ghraib abuse. If and when you can point out a single Stalinist executioner treated to a minute fraction of his sentence, we might revisit the issue of putative moral equivalences. Till then, I shall excuse myself from evincing more concern over Hollywood stereotypes of American conservatives, than you allot to the unpunished Soviet perpetrators of genocide suffered by the Polish officer corps. In regard to your native victims, I gladly leave you to the Russian tradition of internalized xenophobia (бей своих, чтоб чужие боялись). In the meantime, taking our respective sides entails my reveling in the rise of U.S. nuclear primacy, just as much as you choose to wring your hands over it.

  2. Fred Rexer

    I knew Fred Rexer briefly in Houston around the early 1970’s. I believe he had just returned from Viet Nam at the time. He rode a Norton 750 motorcycle and was a talented cartoonist, though I don’t believe he ever tried to get anything published. We worked together at Exxon and I never saw him after that. I do remember that he had a run-in with two members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang, both of whom regretted the encounter. Fred not only did some extensive bodily damage to them but had them prosecuted as well. He owned at least two fully automatic weapons at the time, one of which he sometimes carried with him in his car. I liked the man a lot, he made a strong impression on me and have often wondered what he was doing.

    I enjoyed reading your journal. Very informative. It was good to hear about Fred.

    Steve Moody

      1. Re: Fred Rexer

        Thanks. I don’t know if Fred would remember me. I worked with him for a year or two but we weren’t close friends. If he wants to contact me my email is –

        By the way, I think everything you said above is right on target. I enjoyed reading it.

        1. Re: Fred Rexer

          My family & I lived a couple of doors down from Fred in the ’80’s in Houston. Fred was a great neighbor. About 10 pm one night my wife said – Honey, that sounded like automatic weapons gunfire. Oh, I guess Fred had a potential customer and demo’d one of his guns.

          My son Greg got to handle Conan’s sword before Conan even came out. He still talks about that.

          Bridge City is well worth the read and is very similar to an incident that occurred much later with drug agent Enrique Camerana.

          I’d heard that he’d moved back to this area. Please forward my address to Fred, as I would love to hear how he’s doing.

          Richard King

            1. Re: Fred Rexer

              This is a cool site. I have several of Fred’s books, but had never heard of “Bridge City”. Is this a novel? Is it still in print? I googled it and came up empty.

              What is he doing these days? I figured he was dead as it seems he dropped off the face of the earth circa 1987.

            2. Re: Fred Rexer

              I managed to catch the last 30 minutes of Red Dawn yesterday and it made me think about Fred, google led me here.

              It’s been easily 15 years since the last time I spoke to Fred, but we used to see each other frequently at the Rock Store back in my SoCal motorcycling days. I remember turning-down a really good deal on his white BMW boxer and later wondering why. Glad to hear Fred’s doing well in Houston – perhaps you could let him know that Dana says hello. I’m pretty easily contacted via a web search.

              [ Last time I spoke with Fred, he was a little aghast at how much Internet content there was about him – he asked me if I could “take him off” the Internet 🙂 (like it was a BBS in the dial-up days) ]

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