Special Forces operative, Captain Willard, is given the task of journeying up the Mekong River during the Vietnam War to find and kill a US army officer, Colonel Kurtz, who has set up his own kingdom deep in the jungle where he is worshipped as a god by the local people. A series of episodes along the way highlight in various ways the insanities of the war before Willard locates and assassinates the enigmatic Kurtz.
Heavily indebted to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, it might be argued that this film wears its literary credentials rather too pretentiously. When we first meet Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist character,1 for example, he seems to attribute godlike stature to Kurtz (Marlon Brando) partly on the basis that he quotes lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; hardly the most likely piece of verse to be quoted by a US army officer who in the late 1960s/early 1970s has set himself up as a small-time, ultra-authoritarian dictator deep inside South East Asia. When we eventually meet Kurtz himself there is further use of Eliot’s verse; this time perhaps more appropriately from The Hollow Men but still rather lacking in originality.2
But it is not the range of literary allusions, from the placing of a copy of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough on Willard’s bedside table during the opening to the photojournalist scuttling from Kurtz’s presence towards the end reciting the final words from Eliot’s The Hollow Men, This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper, that makes this an important film. These somewhat forced attempts to express profound insights into the wider nature of the human experience are probably the weakest part of the whole. The most interesting aspect of this film is the way in which it offers, just four years after the fall of Saigon, a complex set of responses to the American experience of Vietnam.
In Conrad’s book the narrator, Marlow, takes the reader ever deeper into the depths of the late nineteenth-century European colonial enterprise, on a journey that operates as a metaphor for an examination of the (dark) heart of man:3 in Apocalypse Now we follow our narrator, Willard, as he is drawn with fatalistic inevitability ever further into an exploration of the American imperialist venture in Vietnam and Cambodia. Through him we experience both the historical realities of this particular war and its psychological ramifications for those individuals (and maybe a whole society) ensnared in the ongoing nightmare of that moment. Both Marlow and Willard move towards a mysterious man called Kurtz, who seems to offer the possibility of some insight into not only the particular expansionist enterprise under examination but also the psychological (even, the spiritual) state of man. Both the novella and the film move towards their culmination in the final words of Kurtz, ‘The horror, the horror’, and both abandon the reader to their own devices to decide the significance (if any) of these words.
Apocalypse Now utilises a very basic episodic narrative with no great sense of new complications or developments – we are simply and inevitably moving towards the climactic rendezvous with Kurtz. A sequence of events may occur which reveal an ever stronger sense of the madness at the heart of the American GI’s experience of Vietnam but these are merely sights along the way. A lieutenant colonel, Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who loves ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’ leads a helicopter charge scudding across the sky to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; 4 troops at an army base riot at the sight of the tantalising glimpses of home offered by Playgirls during a surreal ‘girlie’ stage show; soldiers in a forward base surrounded by Viet Cong and abandoned by their commanders survive in a drug-induced haze; and, in between, a routine search of a sampan results in the slaughter of an innocent Vietnamese family by inexperienced, nervous US ‘kids’ abroad. There is no connection between these events other than that they occur during Willard’s journey towards Kurtz. And this sense of a disjointed, dislocated picaresque narrative is entirely fitting for a film about the madness of war and the insanity of man.
However, despite this episodic approach there is some sense of steady incremental change as the story progresses. We move from daylight and vast tracts of open water at the start of the journey towards an ever-narrowing funnel of a river, ever more night-time episodes, and ever darker and more death-filled events. Not only that but Willard and those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves accompanying him into the jungle darkness lose their innocence in a remorseless delving ever deeper into their self and away from ‘civilisation’. For Willard this culminates in a shot of him emerging at night from a swamp, half-naked and with his face blackened, on his way towards carrying out the ritual slaughter of Kurtz.
In one sense Willard might be said to kill his alter ego, in another he plays the endgame as Kurtz seems to require it to be played, but in a further narrative sense he simply operates as the traditional hero who successfully reaches the inner cave where the final test must be endured and emerges triumphant and therefore able to return to the world changed but also ritually cleansed. What this has to say about the American experience in Nam, about war in general (and about the human condition) is open to interpretation.5 If as Kurtz asserts he has seen through to the purity of action that is required in order to win such a war, then in showing this as unacceptable to the US authorities the film might be seen to be critical of the armed forces (and perhaps a democratic country) that was not prepared to go far enough. However, Willard’s comment that he can see no method in what Kurtz is engaged in positions him as the restorer of not only order but also reason (and, therefore, sanity).