Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s famous 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now is arguably the most ambitious project in his extensive filmmaking career. Before Coppola got to it, numerous filmmakers, including the illustrious Orson Welles, had tried to adapt Conrad’s work to the cinematic medium but Welles’ plan was abandoned in the pre-production stage. He went on to make 1941 film Citizen Kane instead. Coppola took it on and would deliver arguably his finest work.
On paper, it still sounds like an impossible task to undertake: a retelling of the problematic source text in the context of the Vietnam War which allegorically deconstructs the evils of American interference, colonialism and the human capacity for unabashed hatred. Despite all the problems with the production of the film and the theoretical caveats with the narrative, Coppola managed to make one of the most profound, philosophically rich and visually stunning war films of all time. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, the acclaimed filmmaker rightly said, “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
Shot in the Philippines during a rebel insurgency, Apocalypse Now begins with a shot of a forest being blown up. The screen is obscured by dust and the legacy of napalm in the air. Helicopters zip around like flies and ‘The End’ by The Doors starts playing as we bear witness to mass destruction. We begin at the end. The protagonist Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is a soldier whose mind is debilitated by PTSD, he looks at the ceiling fan and thinks of an attack helicopter. He is a soldier who has no subjectivity when he isn’t fighting and therefore, is the perfect resource for the military-industrial complex.
Willard is sent on a mission to locate Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), a rogue army officer who does not play by the American government’s rules anymore. Willard’s orders are to “terminate with extreme prejudice” but just like Willard, we are intrigued by the enigmatic Kurtz whose voice filters out of a tape recorder and utters one of the most iconic and bizarre lines in film history: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor.”
The scene in which Willard sets out to meet Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) is where Coppola is at his scathing best, fiercely transgressive and shrouding everything with napalm and irony. We are presented with the straw huts of a Vietnamese village being trampled by American war machines. The sanctity of Coppola’s recreation is punctured by the director himself. He makes a brief cameo with his cinematographer, filming all of it and screaming, “Just go by like you’re fighting. Don’t look at the camera. It’s just for the television.”
Coppola indulges in the meta-fictional commentary to mock the fact that lives were destroyed just for publicity. The two cameras confront each other like two mirrors engaged in the infinitude of self-reflexivity. Large-scale destruction becomes a recurring motif throughout the film but it is never as cynical as it is in this scene. Kilgore appears on-screen and yells, “Lieutenant, bomb that tree line back about 100 yards! Give me some room to breathe.”
Duvall’s character cannot tolerate the natural ecosystem of Vietnam, perceiving it as a threat. This is the same man who proudly proclaims, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Death cards are placed on corpses as a cruel way of keeping tabs, and loudspeakers keep repeating the phrase “We will not hurt or harm you” but such claims are immediately succeeded by the sound of explosions. Coppola is unforgiving in his insistence that the battlefield is the graveyard for all human values.
Coppola had a lot of trouble while shooting one of the most difficult scenes in the film, the one where helicopters bear down on an idyllic Vietnamese settlement while blasting Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries‘. The German composer’s sublime music is interspersed with sounds of gunfire, explosions and missiles, turning it into the symphony of death. While they were filming this scene, the Philippine army (who were providing the helicopters for the production) received intel that the rebels were just ten miles away from the set. They kept taking the helicopters for their own war and Coppola grew increasingly frustrated because the Hollywood tabloids kept mocking the delayed timeline of the production with headlines like “Apocalypse When?”.
Looking back at it now, it seems silly to even question such a peccadillo about a masterpiece of obvious quality but, at the time, these delays and constant disruptions in shooting were very scary for Francis Ford Coppola because he had invested almost all of his money in this project, putting both his house and winery up as collateral for a bank loan. However, he kept powering through all of it. When asked why he had not given up, he said it would have been the same as quitting from one’s self.
Apocalypse Now is a collection of vignettes of violence where the aftermaths of human evil come into focus and stay lodged behind our eyeballs even after the scenes have faded away. Coppola contrasts the brutal images with psychedelic nightscapes, bright lights and hallucinatory events briefly illuminating the omnipresent darkness. At Hau Phat, all the latent aggression and frustration of “Les Soldats Perdus” (the lost soldiers) devolve into the carnivalesque. A helicopter with the Playboy logo slapped on it descends from the heavens with Playboy bunnies, signifying the collision of fantasy and reality. Soldiers clamber onto the stage to greet the magazine icons they are so familiar with but it’s just a diversionary tactic. Nobody pays any attention to the Vietnamese on the other side of the metallic fence, studying this American spectacle with utter confusion. These nightscapes become an important part of understanding the aesthetic of the film. At the Do Lung Bridge, the psychedelic becomes the psychological. The darkness is no longer kept at bay by angelic models but is only lit up by flares and fire.
Willard makes his way up the river towards Colonel Kurtz but history unravels in reverse all around him. From the modernity of the Vietnam war, the boat travels through a colonial plantation whose masters refuse to acknowledge their predatory inclinations and finally arrives at the primal state of amplified danger, Kurtz’s cult. The boat itself becomes a liminal space that is in transit, shielding them from the forest’s reminders of their mortality like the tiger, jumping out at them from nowhere.
Frederic Forrest, the actor who played Chef, recalled the iconic scene and said, “There was no reality anymore. If that tiger wanted you, you were his.” Time is subjected to all kinds of disruptions while they are in the boat. A crew member reads about the Charles Manson massacre in the newspaper and nonchalantly claims that he found it weird. These are the same people who never blink an eye when confronted with the genocide all around them.
Coppola lays an extensive philosophical framework beneath his simple allegory about an assassin trying to find another. John Milius (co-screenwriter) compared Willard’s journey to the Odyssey. He insisted that it was “not just Heart of Darkness but the Odyssey. Willard was Odysseus, Kilgore was Cyclops and the Bunnies were the Sirens.” We sift through these layers of allusions with delight as they are never esoteric, always universal and always poignant.
For an entity as authoritarian and structured as the U.S. Army, Willard finds himself in the wreckage of collapsed structures. He goes from camp to camp and asks around for a Commanding Officer but never finds any. The only authority he finds himself under is that of the mysterious Colonel Kurtz and his cult. Dennis Hopper is brilliant as a rambling photojournalist who acts as an advocate for Kurtz’s genius, reciting T. S. Eliot’s poetry like the Colonel has taught him to do. He roams around the old Cambodian temple with 12 cameras, armed with the weapons to capture reality but never making it past the symbolic stage.
Marlon Brando is almost unrecognizable as Kurtz, always obscured in shadows and always preaching about the fallacies of humanity. Coppola makes fantasy and reality collide again when Kurtz reads the pro-US propaganda from Time Magazine and asks Willard to decide for himself what the truth is. The apocalyptic anarchy of the cult leader is clearly influenced by his experiences as a soldier but he arrives at a flawed thesis: “Drop the bomb! Exterminate them all.” He is a man who just wants to watch the world burn.
Coppola really struggled with writing the ending, right from the start. He kept complaining that it was all building up to something but the ending was just not there, that he was not the man to write it. John Milius had initially wanted the film to end in an epic Vietcong battle scene but Coppola rejected it because he thought it did not reflect the gravity of the ideological journey that Willard had started.
Even after all his complaints about the final scene, Coppola did manage to pull it off. Willard butchers Kurtz as “The End” by The Doors starts playing again, from one end to the other. The river becomes cyclical. An actual tribal ritual is simultaneously shown with a caribou being beheaded, signifying that the mythical figure of Colonel Kurtz had been reduced to the status of a sacrificial lamb, a martyr for “the biggest nothing in history.” He does not retaliate but stands tall and accepts his death, he accepts his anthropological impotence.
All he can do is whisper “the horror” as Apocalypse Now reaches its miserable conclusion: “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”