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Apocalypse Now uses the American experience in Vietnam as a conduit to exploring evil – our perceptions of it, and the moral code we build around trying to combat it. This distinguishes it, in a miniscule but important manner, from a straightforward Vietnam or even war film. It seems reductionist to talk about Francis Ford Coppola’s work in the same breath as, say, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, even though both are fine movies.
The Vietnam War happens around Capt. Benjamin Willard and the crew on his patrol boat as he journeys up the serpentine Nung River in to Cambodia and toward his showdown with Col. Walter E. Kurtz.
It is brutal, horrifying, and sickly humorous. It is Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, who is enough of a nihilist to bomb a village just so he can surf along its shoreline, and a USO Show with Playboy Playmates that quickly gets out of hand, and the nightly terror of a battle between U.S. and Viet Cong forces at a bridge along the river. These are all memorable stops, but they are distractions ultimately from Willard meeting Kurtz, from a gatekeeper of civilization meeting someone now on the outside. The horrors intensify as Willard gets closer to Kurtz. And then, the target of his mission finally in view, the Vietnam War mostly evaporates.
There’s something so much more elemental at the end of the river than “containment” and other post-World War II geopolitical buzzwords. Scrawled in white paint on an ancient temple in Kurtz’s camp are the words that give the film its title. “Our Motto: Apocalypse Now,” it says – a clear signal to the viewer that this could happen anywhere (Vietnam, Belgian Congo, and so on) and anytime, Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Victorian-era Africa, even perhaps when the temple itself was erected.
Of course, a timeless quality had to be what Coppola was going for. Despite appearing to pick directly at the still-fresh wound of America’s entanglement in Vietnam, the story itself is adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. Its protagonist too journeys down a never-ending river on the outskirts of a sprawling empire – the river being the Congo, the empire being Belgium.
And that, in turn, explains why the War recedes in to the background the closer Willard draws to Kurtz. It makes sense of the overwhelming sensory nature of the film itself. It explains why this is such a brilliant adaptation of its source material.
Almost paradoxically, color and sound – the very things that could define Apocalypse Now as a Vietnam movie – manage to mostly transport the viewer out of the film’s setting.
The opening, in which The Doors’ “This Is the End” and the slow-motion sound of a helicopter blade provide the only soundtrack for an anonymous patch of jungle exploding in flames, sets the tone. But it is carried on through Kilgore’s anachronistic use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to intimidate Viet Cong fighters before an airstrike. And it is present in almost every corner of the film.
There is darkness. There are sunsets. There are purple vapors and the “smell of napalm in the morning.” There are military outposts that look like carnivals gone horribly wrong. There are pans and fades of the eerily calm river matched with the periodic fishtailing of the patrol boat as it putters along it. These are the elements that provide the most continuity in the film. None of them are really indigenous to Southeast Asia or endemic to U.S. activity there in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It all reinforces that Willard (and us with him) are at the bleeding, deteriorating edge of civilization – and that we are always closer to that edge than we think.
“Never get out of the boat,” he says during a voiceover. “Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way. ... Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.”
The intimation here is that there’s only a lousy patrol boat between any of us and “goin’ all the way.” And how sure can any of us be that we won’t “split from the whole fuckin’ program” when someone as civilized – as drilled and trained and decorated – as Walter E. Kurtz could.
Kurtz’s fall is so unsettling for this reason. He crosses a fine line – clearly, but only barely in comparison to what his superiors are actually willing to abide. Willard is dispatched to “terminate the Colonel’s command with extreme prejudice” because he commands his own force in neutral territory, and because he uses that force brutally. The severed heads of people he has deemed enemies are left lying around his camp, yet despite that brutality, there is the unmistakable sense that it is the autonomous force (and not the measures it employs) that is the far greater and truly unforgivable sin in the eyes of U.S. Army.
How else to explain the simultaneous and staggering blind acceptance of someone like Kilgore, who justifies the bombing of a village by barking “Charlie don’t surf,” at a dissenter and who shares enough respect for the enemy with Kurtz that he affords a dying VC soldier a drink from his canteen and yet is not considered a threat? Or someone like Willard, who shoots an innocent civilian just to keep moving his mission forward?
Kurtz’s “split from the whole ... program” is unsettling because of its manner – the dismemberment and blood. It is uncomfortable and downright disturbing because you begin to actually understand his perspective, a viewpoint that we tell ourselves should be far outside the norm. When Kurtz tells Willard that he is “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill,” it is hard to disagree. Shortly thereafter, he drops the severed head of the boat captain in Willard’s lap, and yet his point seems to still stand. There is even dignity and honor to Kurtz’s death at the hands of Willard. Much like the water buffalo that is being sacrificed outside his quarters at the same time, he dies standing up, spouting a few of pieces of wisdom.
Coppola’s film takes us uncomfortably close to evil. You can practically taste it. The real epiphany is not that you can simply get that close, but that you can begin to understand it once its breath is upon you. You might not want to run off and join Kurtz in the jungle, but you can at least sniff out the hypocrisy and frailty of the “civilization” that decides he is operating outside its bounds.
We tell ourselves that civilization is there to protect us from men like Kurtz. Maybe it does. But it also allows men like him to operate within its bounds at least for a time, and it only rarely seems to actually explore what would push someone like him beyond those borders.
Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam and Cambodia, sure, but it is hardly about those places at all. Coppola’s film is about the very nature of humanity and its relationship with its clumsy construction of civilization. It is brilliant and terrifying – his best and most universal work.