One of the first things you learn about writing a screenplay is that a passive protagonist, one who doesn’t drive the action of the story in some way, is no good. You want to watch your protagonist act, not react. How exciting would Indiana Jones be if he was just along for somebody else’s treasure hunt, never making the choice to raid a temple or save a sidekick? In fact, one of the complaints most frequently levied against Raiders of the Lost Ark is that Indiana Jones is simply a spectator of the climax; the Nazis are the engines of their own destruction, and the hero is rendered inert and immobile in their downfall. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with this particular complaint, but in general, there’s something inherently unsatisfying with a character who doesn’t make choices that impact the characters and world around them. We want our heroes to impact the world around them because A) we’re already sitting there watching a movie, we don’t want to watch somebody else who’s watching the action, we want to watch someone who is the engine of the action; and B) it’s comforting to be reminded, on some level, that we are in control in a physical world that responds to our actions. We can drive our own actions, and for the most part, we only have to worry about external challenges. Well, as it turns out, the real world is a little more complicated than that.
Twelve years before people were watching Indy slugging Nazis on the silver screen, they were looking at photos of the butchered bodies of women and children in the village of Son My, South Vietnam. Specifically, they were from the My Lai 4 hamlet, and they were raped, mutilated, and murdered at the hands of US soldiers; the brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers of those back home had inflicted unspeakable, barbaric, atrocities. “How could our Johnny do such a thing? He always did well in school, and he has such good manners.” The good people back home couldn’t do anything about the slaughter happening half-way across the globe beyond sit and watch the black and white news broadcasts of unvarnished combat footage, and ask themselves how the human soul could become so degraded, so quickly. What exactly would it take for their brothers and sons, so proud and so patriotic, to be reduced to bloodthirsty savages? What would it take for you? That’s a dark line of questioning to pursue, to try and face your darker self. You may have friends, family or power to help you in the physical world, but in your mind? That’s a lonely journey. Captain Willard, just about the most passive protagonist you could burden a film with, makes such a journey in Apocalypse Now, and it results in one of the greatest movies of all time.
At the Cannes film festival in 1979, just years after the end of the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola screened a three-hour work in progress cut of Apocalypse Now, about which he infamously stated:
“My film isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” - Francis Ford Coppola
On one level Coppola has a point––a point that becomes particularly elucidated if you watch the film’s sister documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse––because the making of the film was representative of the same excesses, hubris and chaos that became hallmarks of the United States’ military intervention in Vietnam. But that’s not what the film is about. Yes, the Vietnam War is absolutely crucial to informing its setting and contextualizing the actual themes in a way that would be immediately resonant with its contemporary audience—and this proved a canny artistic choice as the movie, as difficult and strange as it is, earned over $300,000 in five days…at one theater— but what the movie is actually touching on is timeless, and it’s not Vietnam. None of the principal creatives involved in making Apocalypse Now actually fought there; not Coppola, not his co-screenwriter John Milius, and not Willard’s actor, Martin Sheen. But they did watch it on TV, and they were forced to confront the darkness in the hearts of America’s soldiers abroad, and the darkness within themselves. Thus the passivity that is so taboo in conventional cinema, especially in a war film, is rendered as the only means to tell the story of Apocalypse Now: not of the soldier in Vietnam, but of all of us as we wrestle with the dark recesses of our souls within ourselves.
Despite its box office success and its accumulated critical praise, Apocalypse Now remains an elusive film. The first time I watched it as a teenager, I thought I was going to be watching a war movie. Instead, I got…strangeness. I wanted Indiana Jones punching Nazis in the face, not Captain Willard doing whatever it is he’s doing in his underwear. Despite my initial discomfort, however, Apocalypse Now lingered. Whether I understood it or not, it affected me deeply; I just wanted to know why. I’ve seen it several times since that first viewing, and only on this most recent viewing do I feel I have sussed out a satisfactory reading, and more importantly a method, for myself. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers (or any answers at all), and it’s entirely possible the next time I watch the movie I’ll see something completely different in it. But if you were like I was when I first watched this film and find yourself conflicted and burdened by it, this may set you on a path where you can glean your own meaning from this slippery death-knell of New Hollywood cinema. Shall we begin?
That’s right, we begin with the end. Not the end of the movie, that’s the beginning. The beginning is the end is the beginning is the end, and so on and so forth. How am I doing? You still with me? Good. Thank you. I promise this will eventually make sense if you keep reading (just not right now, sorry).
We open on a verdant jungle. Trees swaying in the breeze. Helicopters brush in and out of the frame. A yellow haze wafts in. “The End” by The Doors begins to play. The jungle erupts in a fiery spew of napalm. We’re in Vietnam. Then… Sheen’s sweaty, inverted face dissolves in over the flame? And we’re not in the jungle, we’re in a hotel room? The helicopter is a fan? Where the hell are we? The jungle or the hotel room? Don’t worry, your feelings of disorientation are perfectly natural, and there’s a reasonable answer to your questions: we aren’t in either the jungle or the hotel room. Coppola and his gargantuan editing team comprised of Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, and Lisa Fruchman use dissolves––or the superimposition of multiple images on top of one another by means of a chemical process––not for the sake of playfulness, or weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but as a concise and visual way of cluing the viewer in to the unique point of view of the film. I may have been a bit misleading when I said we aren’t in either the jungle or the hotel room. We are in the jungle, and we are in the hotel room, but we’re not in either of them, we’re in both of them –– or rather, we’re in Willard’s internal conception of them. Willard’s head isn’t just there to freak you out but to show you that what he’s seeing is what you’re seeing. There’s a synchronicity between his perspective and the viewers, which is important for understanding why Willard’s passivity works for this movie.
What else do we see during this hallucinatory opening coda for the film? We see Willard’s personal effects, a photo of his ex-wife as we later find out, on his nightstand. We see a bottle of alcohol, too. And finally, on the other side of the inebriated form of Willard, we see a pistol in the bed beside him. What do these things tell us about Willard, before he even speaks for himself? He’s tortured. He’s trapped between his life back home on one side, and the violence of war on the other. These were separate worlds for him, but the danger is they’re becoming blurred because as he’s lying there in bed he still sees himself out in the jungle of fire, and the sounds of helicopters bleed into the sound of the fan circling above him. Willard’s conscience is eating away at him, rendering him inert and inward, resorting to alcohol and drugs to cope with his disorientation and moral rot.
If the imagery didn’t clue you into the point of view of the movie, Willard’s state of mind, and his character’s motivation, then his voice over should do the trick.
“Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after the first tour it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing.” - Willard
The fact that there’s voice over at all indicates we are inside Willard’s head, and his hushed delivery reinforces that. The words themselves aren’t just hard-boiled flavor text either, as the crux of Willard’s dilemma is revealed almost immediately. Just as the opening images showed us, Willard’s words reveal he thinks he’s still in the jungle, even when he’s back home in the States, ruining his relationship with his wife (notice how he burns the photo with his cigarette). All he can think about is getting back into the jungle, even though it’s a place he hates.
“When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” - Willard
Willard doesn’t just want to go back into the jungle, he needs to. In fact, he’s been wasting away in that darkened hotel room in Saigon for a week just waiting for a mission. Why does Willard need to go into the jungle? And more importantly, what does the jungle mean? The jungle is tied to Willard’s interior self and his moral torment as – he presently reveals, an assassin for the army. Willard is trapped between his life at home, there on the nightstand, and his life as a killer, the gun in the bed beside him. And at this point in the film, the gun is closer. Of course, he doesn’t realize any of this yet, but he needs to go into the jungle to face the killer inside of himself, because he needs to confront that darkest self that still haunts him even when he’s home with his wife, and either kill it or let it consume him. In the meantime, his purgatorial torment has rendered him passive and inert. tormented and passive. When the mission Willard’s been waiting for finally arrives, the soldiers have to carry him out of bed.
TERMINATE WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE
The briefing scene in which Willard receives his orders to travel into Cambodia by boat and assassinate Colonel Kurtz, a US green beret––and by all accounts, a model patriot–– who has gone rogue and seemingly insane, is the inciting incident of the film. This mission, passed-off and unsought for, onto Willard, is the nexus for his internal corruption to either resolve or consume itself. Willard has reached a breaking point and this mission was going to come to him whether he wanted it or not. It was an inevitability that he would escape his purgatory and be sent into hell.
Kurtz’s seemingly obvious insanity compels Willard because he sees something of himself in the colonel. Kurtz, a model soldier, has gone off the grid in the jungle, the same jungle driving Willard and reducing him to base savagery. By accepting the mission, Willard is granted the opportunity to find out why the jungle calls to him, and how a man so like himself can end up consumed by it. He has to know if he will suffer the same fate as Kurtz.
Already there are clues as to what may have pushed Kurtz to the brink. A group of military men sit around a lunch table and talk about killing a man, an American in their own military no less, and discuss the notion using obfuscating terms such as “terminate his command,” refusing to acknowledge the savagery of the act they are ordering by using the word “kill.” Doesn’t the whole thing smack of hypocrisy? Clearly, Kurtz seems to have lost his mind based on the recordings played for us, and there’s no question he has committed horrifying war crimes, but it seems as though the military brass is more concerned with him not respecting the chain of command and allowing the world to see the savage acts he’s committing via a civilian photographer documenting his acts, rather than the acts themselves. Terminate with extreme prejudice––the veneer of civility here only runs so deep. Notice how the camera—Willard’s eyes, during this scene—lingers not on the men’s faces, but on the decadent food, the animals, they are eating. Their words say one thing, but their actions reveal another.
But Willard is captivated by Kurtz already and accepts the mission without questioning–– as a good, loyal soldier should––and throughout the rest of the film he will ruminate and question and obsess over the documents on this figure who isn’t seen on screen until the third act, yet whose presence looms over everything. Kurtz seems to be the endpoint for Willard’s condition. An important distinction here though, and one that will become the dramatic fulcrum of the story by the end of it, is that Willard doesn’t accept the mission so that he can kill Kurtz, he accepts it so that he can see evidence of something he feels within himself.
The bulk of Apocalypse Now is comprised of episodic vignettes as Willard travels upriver in a Navy patrol boat with four sailors. Apart from Willard’s narration, notice how he sinks into the background of just about every scene, as he––and we––are silent observers of a journey that seems to be getting more insane and chaotic the closer they get to their destination. The more insanity we see, the closer to Kurtz we feel. It’s easy to see how a man could lose himself to his darker impulses in such a place.
The first stop is one of the most iconic, and the only one that is even reminiscent of a war being fought… and yet, it still feels more like a slaughter of epic proportions than a battle. The army, led by Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (played by an unflappable Robert Duvall), decides to decimate a village not for any tactical reason—although they do clear the way for Willard’s boat—but because there’s good surfing there. By the time the chaos is over, Kilgore says:
“Someday this war’s gonna end.” - Kilgore
And he doesn’t sound too happy about it. What’s the difference between Kilgore, who uses shock and awe tactics and seemingly indiscriminate butchery, and Kurtz? Why is one still in command and the other sentenced to death? They’ve both given themselves to the jungle, but Kilgore still hasn’t bucked at the civility and order that Kurtz felt was nothing but a lie.
Willard is silent through most of this escapade, as he will be for all of them because what he’s seeing are the things that are eating him away inside. Kilgore is just another reflection of Willard, and the insanity of the sanctioned killing he has made his life. It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference if you blow up a village for some good surfing, or if you do it so you can drop a boat for a man to kill a fellow American. Kilgore’s reflective property, and that of many of the colorful cast of characters Willard runs into on his journey helps transmute Willard’s passivity into the active nature of those around him, as though they are pouring forth from the same primal source that manifested the hallucinatory visions back in the hotel room.
One of the most interesting stops on the journey is when Willard and Chef, aptly nicknamed for his former career as a saucier, venture into the jungle to collect mangos. Of note is that this scene begins with this dialogue from Chef, still on the boat, said to nobody at all:
“I’m not here. I’m walking through the jungle gathering mangos.” - Chef
It suggests that not just Willard, but everyone in the jungle is suffering from this unreality of being displaced from the physical world, forced to wander through the darkened corners of their minds whenever they step off the boat. Notice how the color palette in this scene is a deep blue, and the camera frequently pulls back to show the imposing and shadowy nature of the pure jungle, untouched and untamed by any trace of civilization. The jungle is transformed into the most base, savage nature of man, and some aren’t able to handle what they find lurking inside. Chef and Willard end up coming eye to eye with a tiger, the predatory animal instinct they’ve both been harboring all along. This encounter is too much for Chef’s mind to handle, and in a fit of madness tears off his shirt and screams, “Never get off the boat!” Willard, on the other hand, is able to stare down the tiger without a hint of fear, because he’s ready to take the boat all the way and see if there’s something worse than a tiger lurking in his mind.
Later, on the river, Willard makes his first decisive action to drive the story forward. Chief, the boat captain, slavishly sticking to protocol, orders the men to search the boat of some Vietnamese civilians. Willard sees this as a needless distraction from the mission, but Chief runs the boat. The soldiers end up gunning down all the civilians over nothing but jumped up nerves, enacting their own version of the My Lai massacre. One of the women is badly wounded and Chief, still holding on to military decorum, says they have to turn the boat around and take her to a hospital. Willard, in the only true manner of agency he has, shoots the woman in the head. All the sailors are horrified, but Willard, like Kurtz before him, sees the utter hypocrisy in the military order.
“We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a band-aid.” - Willard
Willard’s decisive execution puts him further on the path to embracing the same savage instincts that Kurtz did. Why go through the rituals of taking the wounded woman to a camp when she was dead the minute they stopped the boat? Willard has seen nothing but the foolishness and lies that the military has been trading in, and by killing that woman he has begun the process of severing himself from that world completely, planting one foot firmly in the jungle.
DO YOU KNOW WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
Eventually, on their last stop before they reach Kurtz’s compound in the theatrical cut, the last vestiges of order and sanity reach their threshold. They pull into the pitch dark of Do Lung Bridge, men throwing themselves into the water after their boat, like lost souls trying to save themselves from eternal damnation. Willard goes looking for someone in charge, and the baby-faced surfer of the squad, Lance, who’s dropped acid and fully succumbed to the chaos, tags along.
We soon find out no one is in charge here, at least in the flesh. Every day the US soldiers repair the bridge to please command and every night the Viet Cong blow it up. It’s the ultimate Sisyphean example of the sheer insanity taking place, of the attempt to cling to civility and civilization, represented by the bridge, when it seems as though man’s nature is simply to destroy. By this point in the film, we are as convinced as Willard of the ludicrousness of it all. Everything in this scene is bathed in shadow, a strobing light only occasionally illuminating the haunted and crazed faces of the soldiers who remain here. They can’t even see who they’re shooting at anymore, they fire into the darkness at disembodied voices. Willard asks one soldier if he knows who’s in charge here. The soldier responds “yeah,” and steps back into the blackness. It’s a chilling sequence and one that suggests that perhaps the devil or man’s worst (true?) nature is in command, if indeed there is even a distinction between the two.
This final dalliance in the heaving carcass of civilization is the last one Willard and the boat crew will have before facing Kurtz. By now Willard is fully undecided on what he’s going to do when he meets Kurtz; all he knows is that he has to meet him.
Immediately upon reaching the foggy banks of Kurtz’s compound, the boat is barraged by an onslaught of wooden arrows, a surreal moment and a far cry from the hail of bullets and rockets the crew had to contend with earlier. The arrows turn out to be toys fired by children, but the momentary relief subsides to pure primal terror as Chief is killed by a spear thrown by a painted native.
If it seems as if the movie has stepped out of the bounds of the Vietnam War, or of modern civilization entirely, that’s because it has. If you watch the Redux cut of Apocalypse Now, where Coppola and Walter Murch re-edited the film and added in deleted scenes back in 2001, there’s actually one last stop before Kurtz’s compound that helps elucidate this temporal dislocation. In that additional scene, the boat pulls up to a dock bank, where the thick, ghostly fog wisps away to reveal French soldiers, still guarding and living on a plantation. Now, if you’ve not brushed up on your history of the Vietnam conflict, all you have to know is the French made the same error of hubris the United States did in trying to impose their will militarily on this country, only they realized their mistake and left a year before the United States became involved. So what are these French soldiers still doing here after their country has pulled out? Because as the boat is going up the river it’s also going back in time. By featuring the French soldiers Coppola was foreshadowing an element of cyclicality that becomes apparent when they reach Kurtz.
If the French plantation is a decade or so in the past, then Kurtz’s temple with its Buddhist iconography and spear-wielding native population is the ancient past. The whole movie we had been thinking that what is afflicting Kurtz, and perhaps Willard as well, is the endpoint of the madness of military involvement, but by making it feel so primordial the film actually suggests that the madness the jungle represents is actually the beginning, and the napalm exploding over the jungle is its end (hence that particular song by The Doors). Or, maybe it’s not quite so linear as that and it’s a chicken and the egg paradox, where it’s impossible to determine which link came first in the chain of madness and destruction. Either way, we are not presented with an easy solution where simply killing Kurtz will bring an end to this kind of terrifying exodus of reason.
SMOKE AND SHADOWS
Before we delve into the bizarre climax of the film (still a sticking point for some critics, who describe it rather uncharitably, but not altogether unfounded, as “anticlimactic”), I want to touch on the film’s visual code that, by this point in the film, has become stratified between intense usage of shadows and hallucinatory colored smoke flares.
The darkness is used to depict the shroud of amorality and confusion of order that has beset Willard’s soul as he reaches his destination. If the nightscape of Do Lung Bridge was a precipice of nihilism where shadows masked all pretense of sensibility in warfare, then Kurtz’s inky black room is a complete blackout, where even death itself becomes nothing but a clandestine concept and notions like “exterminate them all” can look like something other than the ravings of a madman.
The smoke flares are used initially for practical militaristic purposes: to guide the landing zones of helicopters. Eventually, their trippy colors diffuse through the frame as a way to suggest the onset of madness. The celebration of hallucinogenics during the counterculture movement of the era can be seen as a coping mechanism in the face of the unrelenting sociopolitical violence of the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s no mistake that acid dropping Lance is the first of the crew whose mind goes first. Prior to reaching the compound, Lance dances on the bow of the boat with a pink smoke flare in hand, a contrapuntal color anathema to the natural colors of the jungle around them; it’s an image that feels as though it should not exist. By the time they arrive at Kurtz’s compound, any pretense for motivated use of the smoke has dissipated, as has sanity itself, as the colored smoke drifts across the surreal hellscape of Hieronymous Boschyian torment as an accented portent of death. What started as a practical, sensical military tool is transformed into madness incarnate, as has everything else within the frame.
Now, both feet on the tainted earth of Kurtz’s monument to death itself, Willard is able to confront his darkest self (in a moment of redundancy, Willard comes face to face with the man who had the job of assassinating Kurtz before him, a man who has joined Kurtz’s cult of the jungle), but he’s more paralyzed than ever. He allows himself to be swarmed by Kurtz’s followers and imprisoned, and even when he’s freed he does nothing but lounge around the temple and listen to Kurtz pontificate on the madness that has led him here. Willard doesn’t want Kurtz to die any more than we do, because Marlon Brando’s performance is simply captivating. There are magnetism and truth to Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz that is absolutely essential to the role because we have to believe he could make a compelling case for why anyone would want to join him.
At last Willard acts, and once again his agency is through an act of killing. The reasons he kills Kurtz are never clearly stated, and one imagines they are a multitude. To give Kurtz a soldier’s death like he wants (rather than waste away from malaria afflicting him), end the madness that Kurtz’s desecrated grounds represent, and to test himself once and for all, to see if he can give himself to the temptation of the darkness and be able to return whole.
As Willard rises from the steaming waters with his war paint on, ready to end Kurtz’s suffering, he is being born anew, part of a ritual of rebirth as ancient as life itself. Kurtz is the sacrificial ox, and by slaughtering him Willard is replacing him. The end is the beginning is the end. But after cutting down Kurtz, Willard declines to participate in this cycle of violence and madness any longer and throws down his blade, and as he does, so do Kurtz’s followers, now Willard’s. This is Willard’s most powerful and wide-reaching action of all; it suggests that man not only has the capacity to face the darkest corners of his mind’s jungles but can make his way back again with for a more peaceful existence. Although as he leaves down the river he came from, the image dissolves again and we see Willard, the jungle, and the idol. He may have been able to leave the jungle, but the jungle will always be within him. Kurtz’s final words close the film: “The horror, the horror.” Willard may have been able to step out of this paradoxical cycle, but it will continue.
Willard’s only actions in the whole two and a half hour film amount to him deciding twice to kill and once to kill no longer, and yet he felt like a crucial part of every sequence despite his irrelevance to their incidences or resolutions. Apocalypse Now manages to make such filmmaking faux-pas work for its meaning-making because it a different kind of movie than the one you are taught to make (and that wasn’t the only rule Coppola broke in its making). Where most films are a reflection of the world and people around us, Apocalypse Now depicts the world within us; it is the internal movie, not the only one of its kind but certainly the largest in both its scale and cultural presence. Apocalypse Now will remain a titan of filmmaking for the same reason it works at all: there is a jungle inside all of us. Ultimately we can only confront our particular jungles alone, but for the time being, we can watch Apocalypse Now with each other, and go with Willard first, helping to make sense of what might be within us and the cinema that reflects it.