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Apocalypse Now



“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.”

Stanley Kubrick said that all a director needed to make a good film was six to eight “non-submersible units”–that is, the core memorable sequences of a film.  It is not difficult to see this philosophy in the great director’s post-Lolita output.  From 2001 onwards, Kubrick filmed epic, memorable sequences without caring much how they were strung together, narratively.  This disgruntled critics like Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufmann, who seemed to see no point in this mode of filmmaking, and viewed Kubrick’s latter output as structurally tortured.  If a film is only its narrative, or viewed only on such a surface level, then such a filmic construction would naturally be displeasing.  But Kubrick frustrated narrative cohesiveness with architectonically perfect thematic form.


And lots of people inexplicably looking at their eyebrows.



I discuss this aspect of the great Kubrick’s filmmaking to compare with Apocalypse Now, a film with more non-submersible units than perhaps even Kubrick would have thought possible.  Considering the end result, it is difficult to believe that Coppola thought his film was a mess that no amount of editing would salvage.  Each sequence is a masterpiece unto itself, Willard’s fugacious encounters serving as signposts as his little boat putters into madness.

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We first meet Willard (a mesmeric Martin Sheen) after he has already been broken by his experiences in the war.  He lays in bed, out of focus behind the shattered remains of his personality in the foreground.  What is left of his self, his ego?  Dog-tags, a letter, a picture of his wife–ex-wife, I should say, since the only meaningful relationship in Willard’s life is between him and “the jungle.”  He lacks another way to define himself.  He is approached by US intelligence officers with a mission: travel up the Nung River into Cambodia to find an American Colonel gone rogue.  Colonel Kurtz, once seen as the model soldier and on track to become a general, has gone insane, as evinced by cryptic and eerie radio broadcasts intercepted by the intelligence officers, and the fact that he seems to have developed his own army out of the natives.  No sane person would do this, you see.

Willard is not an amazingly together guy.


That Willard begins his journey broken is important; for he is not simply journeying upriver, he is plowing straight ahead into the psyche of Kurtz.  There is no Willard to get in the way of the unseen Colonel’s psychic hold upon his surroundings.  Willard has no more barriers.

Oh, yeah, and the name of the boat Willard joins is Erebus, who in Greek mythology is the personification of darkness and shadow.  I’m sure that’s a happy coincidence.

"Napalm in the morning, napalm in the evening, napalm at suppertime..."


Our first major encounter of the odyssey is with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (what an interesting surname), an empty and jingoistic fellow, who agrees to escort Willard upstream for nothing more than the promise of some good surfing to be had.  He is a hollow sap, sure, but operates under a certain morality.  He offers a dying enemy combatant water, saying “Any man willing to fight with his guts dropping out can drink from my canteen any day.”  Of course, he promptly forgets about this seconds later when he realizes that a famous surfer is nearby.  Also, he likes how napalm smells.  He seems to be a bit crazy, but he’s still on America’s side, you see, so it doesn’t matter so much.

"Wait, who? The Silver Surfer?"


Kilgore gives us the film’s most famous sequence–indeed, one of the most famous sequences in all of cinema: The attack on a beachside village to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.”  It’s a small, surrealistic touch in perhaps the film’s most straightforward scene.

From there, the scenes become increasingly surrealistic and oneiric.  Nothing unrealistic happens, per se, but Vittorio Storaro’s phantasmagoric cinematography calls into question the objectivity of the images we see.  They drift further from lucidity the closer we get to Kurtz, as one’s thoughts stray into the tenebrous and obscure as sleep approaches.

Consider the playboy bunny scene.  It is the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere.  A helicopter appears from the void to provide a sea of troops with various Miss Months jiggling about.  And jiggle they do, until some of the boys in the front forget the do not touch rule, which apparently applies everywhere.  The women are carted back to the helicopter, which fades into the night.  The whole sequence plays like a naughty dream where you wake up before anything too entertaining happens.

Or the scene where Willard and Chef go hunting for mangos.  The landscape is such as we’ve never seen it before, a ghostly blue with greenish overtones, the humans dwarfed by the ancient flora surrounding them.

And of course there is a huge, apocalyptic battle when Willard finally meets the Colonel, with gunfire and explosions and bits of things getting blowed up real good.

Except, not really.  Coppolla’s climax is an internal battle, one of ideas and emotions.  Willard attempts to understand this man he’s meant to kill, the man behind the medals and dossiers.

The tension built up by the time Willard finally encounters Kurtz is almost unbearable.  In any other film, the tension would be released upon our first view of the Colonel, but Coppola manages to sustain it, by keeping him hidden from us, even while we are in his considerable presence.

It is such that when we do finally see his face, an entirely new kind of tension has been built–one that will continue until the final few frames.

Kurtz recounts:

Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.  …And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

If we sacrifice our ideals to stay alive, we are no longer Americans; if we hold to our ideals in spite of everything, we may die.  This is but a simple platitude to many, but there are those actively faced with this realization every day.  Kurtz, the soldier, the patriot, was driven mad by this realization.  I imagine Kurtz as one of Asimov’s robots, who has just been told by a human to kill a human.  Something does not compute.  Kurtz is the result of a man living two truths at once.

Kurtz is also not an amazingly together guy.

Leonard Maltin complains that the ending of Apocalypse Now was “cerebral and murky.”  I can see, I suppose, this being a popular opinion upon the film’s release.  Media reports abounded in the late 70s of the maladies afflicting the production, especially the dyspeptic Marlon Brando showing up for duty unprepared, besotted, and obese.  Coppola’s crew spent days standing around, manning unused equipment, eating money, while the director and Brando discussed how to play Kurtz–including how to film him, since the vain and insecure (and did I mention now morbidly obese) Brando refused to be seen too unflatteringly.

The reconception of Brando’s character from emaciated military remnant into imposing brute was entirely correct–even if it did come about by happenstance.  A cadaverous Kurtz would have been more realistic, perhaps, even pitiable.  But the finale calls for a someone the audience can fear, a force strong enough to seduce entire tribes (not just of natives), and cast an unbroken spell upon Willard.

If there is a certain inevitability to Willard’s final actions, it is only inasmuch as there is an inevitability to rituals in general.  And Willard is participating in a ritual, one Kurtz has been waiting for since well before his desertion.

Coppola was quite vocal during his editing process that he had no ending in mind, and had no clue whatsoever how to turn his tangle of celluloid and psyche into an actual film.  Lucky for the director, Walter Murch, one of the greatest film and sound editors currently alive, was in the editing room to shape the film.  Speaking for myself, as I do, I cannot see the seams.  There is no indication while watching the film that there is anything amiss, anything out of place, that the ending is anything other than the inevitable result of Willard’s mission.  Perhaps  the labyrinthine miles of footage shot necessitated the zetetic editing approach employed by Coppola and Murch’s team, but it is entirely right for this material.  Perhaps Maltin and the film’s other critics wished for Coppola to resolve the philosophical contradiction in the narrative somehow, and blame this perceived shortcoming on the dramas offscreen.


The horror.



Well, if Coppola had been able to reconcile these ideas satisfactorily, then there would be no more war on Earth.  No reconciliation is possible.  But he illuminated them more viscerally than anyone before or since.  Francis Ford Coppola made four masterpieces in his career, all of them in the 1970s–this is the last, his most cryptic, most haunting.  It is a wonder to behold.  What makes Apocalypse Now the greatest of war films* is that it is not content to show us war.  Many excellent films do little more than just show us examples of war.  Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, The Deer Hunter, are all expertly-directed, great films.  But they all say the same thing: ‘Here is War.  Bad Isn’t It?  War is Quite Displeasing.’  Apocalypse Now shows a man going not into war, but into the mind of one driven mad by it.  That is much more difficult, more moving, more haunting.  And that Coppola accomplishes this expressionistic wonder without straying too far from plausibility is nothing short of a miracle.

Miracle.  I hate that word.  It is overused in today’s demon-haunted world.  But “miracle” is an apt noun in this context, I believe: the fact that Apocalypse Now exists at all is one.

*“…the greatest of war films.”  Did I say that?  I think I’d rather give that honor to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but Coppola’s film is frighteningly close.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 2013.10.28 18:06

    One of my favourite movies which I recently covered here – but this sums up what I wanted to say far better. Love the focus on the surrealism, cinematography and intro via Kubrick. Fantastic post.

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