Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now follows Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey, up the Nung River, on a mission to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The film is an inventive interpretation of America’s Vietnam experience; Tom Engelhardt explains the film portrayed ‘the war largely as an insular struggle for the American soul.’ (2007: 277). As explained by Engelhardt, Vietnam offered America a sense of victimhood (2007: 274). This victimised outlook of the war conjured up an image of the victim hero; Willard represents the tortured soldier, a common trait in many Vietnam War films such as; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and Rambo in First Blood (1982).
The film is not concerned with detailing a realistic and historically accurate expression of the war; it delves into the surreal and mythic landscape of American culture and the darkness of war. John Hellmann explains that, ‘Coppola uses the hardboiled detective formula to transform the river journey of Heart of Darkness into an investigation of both American society (represented by the army) and American mythos (represented by Colonel Kurtz [Marlon Brando]).’ (1986: 190) Hellmann outlines that the narrative illustrates the surreal reflection of the decadence of American society, which forces Willard to search for the ideal, ‘Kurtz represents that mythic ideal and finally the horrific self-awareness of its hollowness.’ (1986: 190) The film shows the impact not only on American soldiers but also the values of American society.
The following details a few scenes to explore the thematic concerns of Coppola’s film. The key aspects are; the trauma experienced through the victim hero, the futility of American values and the unrestrained force of the American military.
THE VICTIM HERO
The opening shot of the napalm airstrike clouded in yellow smoke illustrates the confusion and destruction of the conflict. The dissolve to reveal a close up of Willard face feeds the impression we are viewing a memory, the dreamy effect of the dissolve continues while panning around the room. ‘The film begins, as does Dante’s Inferno, with the protagonist alone, in midlife, having lost his moral and spiritual compass and undergoing a tortured, agonizing dark night of the soul.’ (Donald M. Whaley, 2010: 7) Shrouded in darkness the hotel room acts like a prison, the only glimmer of light seeps through the blinds. The shot which sees Willard looking out through the blinds reveals the normality of life Willard is unable to return to, he is a victim of his experience. The shadows of the blind on Willard’s face reiterate the image that he is locked away from civilised society. Unable to conform to civilised society Willard explains; “When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”
The illusion of the heroic soldier is shattered in the first few moments of meeting Willard. Hellmann explains, ‘Willard is a portrait of the traumatic fall the American self-concept has experienced in Vietnam.’ (1986: 191) this is further exacerbated by the next part of the scene which sees Willard descend into a drunken madness; alcohol is his form of escapism from the trauma of his Vietnam experience. As Hellmann explains, ‘representing the contemporary American ideal experiencing traumatic self-doubt, goes on a mission through the mean streets of American culture and his own soul to confront the original American mythos’ (1986: 193). The extent of this damaged self-image is reflective of the drunken moments of the scene which sees Willard punch a mirror after seeing his own image.
The scene climaxes to reveal Willard crying out. This shows his characters vulnerability, Willard sits on the floor of the hotel room defenceless and broken. Gibson explains, ‘most combat soldiers quickly learned the difference between war-movie fantasy and real war’ (1989: 19) He goes on to quote an unnamed American soldier ‘I felt sorry. I don’t know why I felt sorry. John Wayne never felt sorry.’ (1989: 19) Wayne represented a strong patriotic vision of the idealised American hero; Vietnam shattered the value of these mythic constructs. Willard is the victim hero; he is the complete opposite of John Wayne. Willard is representative of the struggle to support the disillusionment of American myth.
THE FUTILITY OF AMERICAN VALUES
Hellmann explains that, ‘Apocalypse Now is full of allusions to Southern California… centering on the surfing, rock music, go-go dancing, and drug-taking associated with the west-coast culture of the time.’ (1986: 190) The scene which best depicts these cultural values is when Willard and his crew arrive at a military base, where preparations are made for the playmates to perform. The scene depicts the absurdity and meaninglessness of American values in the midst of the jungle, and the contrast between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese.
The start of the scene sees Willard and his crew approach the supply post which is doused in floodlights, bemused by the setting, Clean (Laurence Fishburne) explains, “This sure is a bizarre sight in middle of this shit.” As the crew leaves the boat, Clean comes across bikes and expresses his excitement. This in effect shows not only the displaced priorities of the American soldiers, but the unnecessary expense that went into the war. This supports Buscombe’s comments on the films representation of the war effort as a wasteful expense. There is no logical understanding of the landscape the American’s are fighting in, which is shown through the wasted expense on the unnecessary equipment provided to the soldiers.
The scene moves on following Clean as he asks for fuel, to which he is ignored by the Sergeant. The shallowness in the importance placed by the Sergeant is shown when Chef asks for drugs, the Sergeant leans in with interest. Rather than fulfil his role in providing troops with essential items he is absorbed by the needless requests asked of him. As Hellmann outlines the film, particularly in this scene parallels the west-coast culture of the time, this shows that rather than adapt to the difficult environment, the soldiers are more interested in the familiarities of home. The effect of these empty values is shown through Willard’s character, as he shows his disgust to the values that mean nothing in the midst of war. In effect Willard’s anger is directed to the Sergeant, as his anger builds he grabs hold of the Sergeant.
Whilst the bemusement of American values is shown to be meaningless in the landscape of war, the meaninglessness of these values are shown by the contrast between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese, Willard reflects on the contrast during the USO show, saying “Charley didn’t get much USO… His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.” It’s during the USO show that the real displaced ideas of the American soldiers are shown. A shot of the Vietnamese behind a fence shows them all quiet and calm in comparison to the loutish screams of the soldiers. The scene ends with the show finishing in chaos as the soldiers’ lose control and stampede the stage. During this chaotic scene Willard is seen calm and revolted by the behaviour of his fellow soldiers.
Overall the scene highlights the displaced values of American culture in the setting of war. Willard reflects on the contrast which assumes meaning in that the Vietnamese know they are fighting for a cause while the American seem to have lost their sense of purpose and instead fixate on the insignificant values as a memory of home.
THE UNRESTRAINED FORCE OF THE AMERICAN MILITARY
Buscombe comments on how Coppola captured a representation of war in Vietnam. He refers not only to the unrestrained force used by the American military, but also highlights the confused intentions of America’s role in the war; the attack on the coastal village best represents this.
The scene opens with the view of helicopters approaching the village blaring out Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Gilbert Adair explains the music as being ‘stripped of all but its most blatantly bellicose, even Nazi connotations- questionable as music criticism, maybe, but unambiguous (if facile) statement of the film’s own antiwar ideology.’ (1989: 108) Adair emphasises that the music is emotive to a warlike atmosphere; however he also references the connotations with the Nazis. The use of this particular music positions the America’s to the traditional role of the enemy in war films, as the music by association is linked with Germany. The music adds to the grandiose of the scene and also the questioning moral justifications of America’s role, as in the previous scene Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) motivations for the attack was based on his desire to surf.
After an establishing shot of the helicopters in formation, a cross-cut shows a long-shot of the Vietnamese village. All that is visible is a schoolhouse with children rushing outside before being led away to safety, the faint sound of the helicopter looms in the background. This shot of the schoolhouse shows the peaceful village before the disturbance of the American Air Cavalry. As Adair further explains, ‘the village was there only to be annihilated, its existence as an autonomous human community being preceded by its essence, from the American point of view, as a target.’ (1989: 113) As Adair explains, the Vietnamese are unimportant to the goals of the US military. The main goal for this battle being Kilgore’s desire to see Lance surf, this scene reiterates Buscombe’s comments on the distorted intentions of America’s wartime role.
The shots that follow show the haunting American Air Calvary’s unrestrained force, from shots of Vietnamese running to safety only to be gunned down viciously by the helicopter gunmen, to Kilgore calling in for a napalm air strike to clear the village of any last remaining dissidents. The whole battle scene mocks the grandiose of past war films, the use of the music and the character of Kilgore dressed in such a way as to mimic the frontier hero adds to the grand production. This grand production highlights the superiority of the American’s over their Vietnamese enemy.
Overall Apocalypse Now alludes to a mythic and surreal interpretation of the Vietnam War. The mythic landscape of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse now highlights the metaphoric understanding of the deeper issues the war highlighted in terms of the American experience. The film is more about the reflection upon the American conscious rather than the effects and impact the war has on the Vietnamese. The film also abandons any explicit knowledge of explaining the point of war, as explained by Buscombe. The self censored restraint taken by Coppola to explain the war as more of an interpretation to the American consciousness through a mythic interpretation rather than politicising a controversial and sensitive issue that at the time still divided public opinion.