In keeping with the episodic nature of the whole, the initial exposition phase effectively operates as a self-contained short film. Jim Morrison’s lyrics playing over images of a verdant jungle devastated by the explosive intrusion of human technology followed by a scene in a claustrophobic hotel room effectively brings together the external socio-political world and the interior human psychology. And these dual aspects of the film come together in the superimposed image of the jungle fires playing around Willard’s head. The war and its effects are inescapable. Willard’s response as he peers between the slats of the blind, ‘Saigon: shit’, represents at several levels what within a few years of the deployment of troops came to be the dominant American response to Vietnam. Our guide is immediately disconcertingly positioned as observing this place but yet cut off from it and unable to comprehend it. We begin with a contradiction which is also a statement: ‘This is the end’. This film is in its entirety going to be about ‘the end’: the end of civilisation, the end in terms of the death of the individual, and most of all, the end in terms of a reaching of the extremes of human experience.
The resolution phase too ‘works’ in the same way; from the moment Willard reaches Kurtz’s kingdom we find ourselves in a section from the whole that has its own sense of narrative structure with its own exposition, development, complication, climax and resolution phases. The only element holding the whole together is the presence of Willard, just as Marlow is the only link maintaining any sense of coherence within Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is entirely appropriate: the creative impulse behind both the film and the novella is the idea that the only thing enabling any sense to be made of the world at large is the connectedness achieved through the individual consciousness (and storytelling).
To be more critical, this film is Americancentred and highly masculine6 in its outlook. However, this would be to criticise it for what it is not rather than to recognise it for what it is, to judge it in terms that are beyond its terms of reference. This is a key US film because it attempts to deal with a national disaster that was at the time very recent. That it explores this period in such a way as to convert a naïve (if not idiotic) foreign policy into a heroic if doomed effort to come to some understanding of the human condition might be a valid criticism; but the fact that it does this at precisely this point in American history demonstrates the strength of the US desire to see its efforts prevail and to envision even its failures as Hollywood, even epic, in scale.
This film is a reflection of complex contradictions found in the USA in the period, and not simply, as some commentators have suggested, a condemnation of the war. In its bold approach it embodies the emergence into the cultural arena of the confidence of a younger generation taking on the perceived failings of their parents. It attempts to confront the arrogance of US foreign policy and yet remains firmly and confidently UScentred in its offering of solutions. The sequence showing Kilgore’s attack on the Vietnamese village is entirely conventional in Hollywood terms in its use of sound and cinematography to engender an atmosphere of gung-ho excitement; and yet it also employs the powerful juxtaposition of the cut to the peace, tranquillity and innocence of the village that is about to be attacked. We are given a full-on Hollywood experience only to end in the shadows of a cave with a madman searching for truth in an insane world (‘Horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror.’ ‘To kill without judgement because it is judgement that defeats us.’). It is not just that war is pointless and inhumane (and yet horribly human), but that there is something sick at the very heart of man; and this evil cannot be escaped but only faced and accepted.
1. Several photojournalists simply disappeared into the jungle in South East Asia in the period US forces were operating in the region. One of them, Sean Flynn, as the son of actors Errol Flynn and Lili Damita, had a slightly higher profile than the others. He worked in both Vietnam and Cambodia, but was captured in Cambodia by the Viet Cong or Khmer Rouge in 1970 and is believed to have been killed in 1971.
2. Kurtz reading from The Hollow Men was added during shooting and was not in the original script from Milius.
3. There are few representations of women in the film. The Playboy ‘chicks’ ‘choppered’ in and then swiftly out of the first American base visited on the Mekong are conventional sex objects and the disembodied, taped female voice playing at the death of ‘Mr Clean’ is that of the other traditional female figure of the mother.
4. The handmaidens of Odin who in Old Norse mythology rush into the confusion of battle on horseback and with swords drawn in order to carry off those selected for death; who are then taken to Valhalla as heroes.
5. See Frank P. Tomasulo, ‘The Politics of Ambivalence: Apocalypse Now as a Prowar and Antiwar Film’ in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (eds), From Hanoi to Hollywood: the Vietnam War in American Film, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 145–58.
6. See the shot of the hand caressing the missile slung on the side of a helicopter as Kilgore’s attack commences.
James Clarke, Coppola, London, Virgin, 2003.
Eleanor Coppola, Notes: On the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now’, London, Faber, 1995.
Peter Cowie, The ‘Apocalypse Now’ Book, London, Faber, 2000.
Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (eds), From Hanoi to Hollywood: the Vietnam War in American Film, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Zoetrope Studios. Director and producer: Francis Ford Coppola. Screenwriters: John Milius and Coppola. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Music: Carmine Coppola and Coppola. Editors: Lisa Fruchtman, Gerald Greenberg and Walter Murch. Cast: Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Robert Duvall (Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks), Sam Bottoms (Lance B. Johnson), Albert Hall (Chief Phillips), Laurence Fishburne (Tyrone ‘Clean’ Miller), Dennis Hopper (photojournalist).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.