A FRIEND of mine noted wryly not long ago that his young son was growing up with the belief that World War II was really one long joke for those who participated in it, a series of pranks and parties spanning the ridiculousness of "McHale's Navy" and the absurdity of "Hogan's Heroes." I laughed when my friend told me that. After all, World War II movies have run the gamut, and provided our society with an enormous pastiche of the experience. But what filmdom has done with Vietnam is another story, and it's no laughing matter.

Hollywood has developed a distorted view of our Vietnam involvement, which is on the one hand grotesque in and of itself, and on the other damaging to us as a society attempting to assimilate that failed war into our national mentality. The first generation of Vietnam films, which have reached their peak in the illogical absurdity of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," are overwhelming in their depiction of the Vietnam War as crazed fantasy, and of those who fought in it as unstable or demented. If these themes persist, I can only wonder what my friend's son will someday think of his father for having had the audacity to survive a year of combat.

I have long believed that the arts will provide resolution to our national angst over Vietnam. Only a good book or play or painting or movie can conjure the emotions and ambiguities of an experience, and through such exorcism affect attitudes that shape consciousness. We are seeing a good deal of art with respect to Vietnam, but unfortunately very little of it has allowed us such emotional growth. Almost nothing, especially on film, has captured the essence of Vietnam. Essence is a chemistry, a texture provided by sympathetically (or at least accurately) drawn characters in a state of mental conflict, reaching for artistic resolution. If artistic resolution is reached, it can be allegorized into societal resolution. If it is false, the art form fails along with the allegory.

The recent spate of movies about Vietnam provides a more interesting psychiatric profile of Hollywood's attitudes than it does of the war and the veterans themselves.

Only "The Deer Hunter" and to a lesser extent "Go Tell the Spartans" have dealt sensitively with those who fought the war, and touched a nerve in our cultural makeup that would trigger catharsis. "The Deer Hunter" deals with violence and madness as an effect on characters who are sympathetically drawn. The combat scenes are realistic. The emotional traumas are representative. The enemy -- whom so many in our society (including Coppola in "Apocalypse Now") seem to envision either as nonexistent or as 3 million helpless kittens -- is credible in its harshness and brutaility. Unfortunately the themes and conflicts in "The Deer Hunter" remain obtuse, avoiding (perhaps deliberately) artistic resolution.

As for the other films, a Vietnam veteran hoping for societal understanding of the ambiguities he faced is left with these sorts of bludgeons to the spirit: "Heroes," about a psychiatric basket case (however warmly portrayed) who escapes from a VA hospital and searches for a friend who died with him in Vietnam. After one moving scene where our "Hero" is briefly reunited with a combat buddy who has been unable to adjust to being back on his farm in Missouri, he comes totally unglued during a flashback to Vietnam combat, the movie ending with him spent and helpless in Sally Field's confused embrace. "Rolling Thunder," about two stoically crazed returning POWs who endure a plethora of abuses, including the loss of a hand down a garbage disposal, and end up killing off an entire hotel filled with bad guys in retaliation. The movie ends as the two walk into the sunset, dressed in their uniforms, bloodstained and arm-in-arm. Just your typical POW story. "Who'll Stop the Rain," which allegorizes Vietnam into a chase for a bag of heroin smuggled into the country from Nam by two former Marine buddies, Mister Weak and Mister Strong. The chase becomes symbolic of our entire nation's lawless, dope-oriented distraction, and of the death of machismo (Mister Strong) at the hands of cowardly, leeching profiteers. The former Marine protagonist (Mister Strong) is, of course, a numbed killer alienated from society, who reads Nietszche like a preacher does the Bible. "Coming Home," which mixed a love story that has been rehabilitative to the image of paraplegics with absolute political banality: If you resist the war and share Jane Fonda's polemics, you, too can become whole. But if you persist in attempting to find meaning in your Vietnam experience, you are doomed to impotence and even suicide. "It was like taking castor oil with orange juice," noted one of my close friends, a paraplegic Marine veteran. "The Boyd in Company C," which rendered some entertaining boot-camp scenes, but ended up frivolizing the combat experience. Soccer games in combat? Hogan's Heroes would have been proud.

All these are prologue, however, and pale beside the long-awaited "Apocalypse Now." Francis Coppola, who claims that he wanted "to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War," has rendered a remarkably bad and thoroughly offensive emotional amalgam, an insult to both the experience and those who fought there.

We learned in Vietnam itself that it takes more than money, fancy equipment and a massive publicity apparatus to come to grips with the complexities of the war. Coppola, however, has been positvely presidential in the making of "Apocalypse Now," and has become as bogged down in the movie as the government once was in the war. It became costly -- $31 million -- and time-consuming: almost four years in the making. Coppola switched motives, themes, writers, actors and endings, searching for artistic resolution. He has failed in that search, and is now apparently counting on an extensive publicity effort to extract him from the mess he is in. Sound familiar? Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy might commiserate.

In any form of art, absurd characters set on unrealistic terrain can only produce artificial conflict and ultimately unproductive themes. Coppola has drawn together all the worst, most offensive stereotypes from every crazy movie and barroom story about Vietnam, embarked them on a journey with no conceivable realistic basis whatsoever, showing events ludicrous in their fantasies from the first moment forward, and then stated that we should forget the distortions in the name of surrealistic "film opera."

In his production notes, Coppola states that "although ('Apocalypse Now') is set during the Vietnam War, it could have taken place any time, in any jungle where the civilized encountered the primitive." However, he did set it in Vietnam, and his narrative does provide extensive comment on American fighting men there. Thus, he became in some way obligated to render the terrain of his allegory with accuracy, if not with sensitivity.

This is Coppola's Vietnam: A fast-track West Point colonel (Marlon Brando) who has gone insane and now heads up his own empire of tribesmen deep in the Cambodian jungle, inside ancient ruins littered with the carcasses of people he indiscriminately slaughters from time to time. A captain (Martin Sheen) who is so psychotic that he must drink himself numb every night and who tears apart his hotel room in self-mutilative frenzy, cutting himself on pieces of a mirror he has smashed. Inexplicably, his is chosen for an inexplicable top-secret mission: Kill the crazy, fast-track colonel. An Airborne battalion commander (Robert Duvall) by the name of Kilgore (get it: kill-gore) who is so demented that he walks around in the middle of a so-called combat scene, wearing a bright yellow scarf, dropping playing cards onto dead civilians and saying neat things like, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." He then orders an attack merely to secure a good surfing beach. People (almost totally Vietnamese women and children, of course) die in droves, and the commander surfs, ignoring the battle he is supposed to be controlling. "Do you want to surf or do you want to fight?" he asks one soldier. American soldiers drawn right from a celluloid dream: crazed, baby-killing dope fiends who are totally beyond control. A USO show which strangely takes place right on the banks of the supposedly hostile river (thinl allegory and you will survive) ends up with the troops swarming onstage, attacking the girls, then hanging onto the helicopter rails when the USO people depart. The narrator then ominously intones, "Charlie [the Viet Cong] didn't get much USO," Neither did the grunts, Mr. Coppola, neither did the grunts.

Civilian dead litter the landscape at every turn and are often perfunctorily killed by the Americans (genocidal war, got it? No matter that civilian casualty rates were lower in Vietnam than even the Korean war). The final output before Brando's Cambodian retreat -- a bridge under heavy attack that for some strange reason is lit up with lights like a Christmas tree -- is held by predominantly black troops who are fighting without officers. (Leaderless, racist war: No matter that company-grade officers died like flies -- 10 percent of the entire West Point class of 1966 -- and that minorities died right along with the rest of us -- 12.2 percent of the casualties out of 12.6 percent of the servicemen.)

Marlon Brando finally appears, or at least his face does, for several minutes toward the end of the film. Brando utters a plethora of serious phrases designed to give shape to the amorphous voilence of the previous two hours, but ends up for the most part dribbling Orwellian double-speak.These are nonetheless the best moments of the film, and could have been put to good use if Brando were allowed (or forced) to put some density into his character. As it is, he merely comes off as the most insane of the group of preponderantly insane fellows who have been consumed by insane events.

In order to accept "Apocalypse Now" as a legitimate piece of art, it is necessary to believe -- as, for example, last week's Newsweek review suggested -- that all aspects of the Vietnam war were totally insane. The review spoke of the move as providing "a journey into the consuming madness that was the Vietnam war." If, on the other hand, one believes -- as an artist should -- that the truth is inherently ambiguous and that art should address those ambiguities, the movie becomes a cop-out, a form of esthetic simplification, which is to art what disco is to music.

United Artists notes without irony that the people playing the victims fo the most blatant atrocity scene in the movie were real-life Vietnamese boat people. They had only days before escaped from Vietnam, landing in the Philippines where Coppola was filming. How fascinating it must have been for them to pretend death on a boat at the hands of supposedly freaked-out Americans after having faced such a real possibility as they fled the totalitarianism Coppola manages to dismiss with one or two Brando lines. They really must think Americans are crazy.

But that's Hollywood, I guess.