Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola
By Roderick Heath
With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. The recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.
The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.” Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation.
Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream. The film’s weird and expressive texture gains its inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.
Apocalypse Now proved at once the apotheosis of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong, and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic. His triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked and spiralling in Promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.
For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open when combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.
Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal.
Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat. But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.
The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod. For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos.
The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show. The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.
Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration. The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can be waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”
Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.
The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ethereal eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.
Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.
Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.
In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and receives wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.