What’s the connection between the world’s most famous whirly-bath and the iconic movie Apocalypse Now?
That film made a huge impact on many people and continues to resonate long after the noise of most Vietnam-genre pictures has faded, because it carries something ancient about it. Something atavistic. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the proximate basis for the story, is grim enough on its own, and provides the satanic Kurtz complete with his horror, but it isn’t the only source, and you don’t have to scratch too deep to find Virgil’s Aeneid, with the hero on the river Styx seeking the ultimate darkness within his own soul.
It’s nightmarish, it’s crazy, it’s bizarre and absurd, but what has it got to do with Jacuzzis?
Here’s a hint: PBR Streetgang — the call-sign for Captain Willard’s boat (Patrol Boat, River) that had reached the heart of darkness and somehow come back again. Almighty Almighty.
All right then.
In the early 1900s, seven Italian brothers, the Jacuzzis, arrived in the United States.
Francisco, Valeriano, Galindo, Candido, Giuseppe, Rachele and Giocondo Jacuzzi were no fools and all of them went into industry, becoming machinists. In 1915, one brother, Rachele, was so inspired by what he saw at an airshow that he designed a unique new propeller, which came to be known as the Jacuzzi toothpick. The boys went into business together and before long, the Jacuzzi Brothers firm was building aircraft, including an early monoplane which could carry passengers in a closed cabin — revolutionary for its time. Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy when, in 1921, Giocondo died in a plane crash. The surviving brothers never built another aircraft, but their expertise didn’t go to waste.
Using their knowledge of hydraulics acquired in the six years of building planes, they started making pumps for deep wells and revolutionised the Californian orange-growing industry by providing vastly-improved means of irrigation. As I said, these were smart boys.
Candido had a son — Kenneth — who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and who needed hydrotherapy treatment in hospital. The child was in great pain most of the time, but in 1948, his father adapted one of the company’s agricultural pumps to swirl the water in his bath and the resulting whirlpool relieved the child’s discomfort.
Seven years later, the company decided to sell the pump in bath shops as a relief for worn-out housewives — rich ones. The J-300 model could be placed in any bath and it caught the imagination of Hollywood stars for its decadence and luxury. Once the likes of Jayne Mansfield had a J-300, everyone wanted one and so the Jacuzzi was born. The ultimate consumer item: a modified agricultural pump.
It was a short step from there to making a bath with built-in pumps, and from there to adding heaters and filters. The Jacuzzi name joined Hoover, Jeep and Rizla as the definitive name for a range of products.
What does this have to do with Apocalypse Now?
Well, the Patrol Boat, River, (PBR) on which most of the Apocalypse Now action is set, was specially designed to operate in water clogged by weeds. It needed the ability to turn rapidly, rotating within its own length and it had to be able to stop suddenly. A propeller couldn’t meet any of these needs. It would quickly become clogged with vegetation. It couldn’t be reversed suddenly and it couldn’t give a sideways push.
A water-jet, however, could do all of these things, and therefore, when the US Navy wanted directional propulsion for its high-speed river patrol boats, it turned to a company that, ironically, had started out making propellers fifty years earlier: Jacuzzi Brothers.
Thus it was that the patrol boat carrying Captain Willard to the heart of darkness and back again, a boat on which young Sam Bottoms perfects his tan and which sees the destruction of a Vietnamese village so that Robert Duvall can enjoy watching a champion surfer, was powered by the ultimate symbol of American decadence in the Sixties: a Jacuzzi.
The horror. The horror.