Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola (USA; 1979) Martin Sheen; Marlon Brando
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 9 Nov 23; ticket: £7
The spectacle of everyday America
After reading Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ my feeling is that though there are elements of the novella incorporated into Coppola’s scenario, the script owes more to Hollywood Westerns such as Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ which has the theme of a search and find mission, plus a number of other such genre movies where a lone cowboy or cowboys track down ‘a baddie.’
I saw this film first when it opened and it made a big impression. I was blown away by the visual impact of the set piece spectacles, a scenario exploiting the idea of America sucked into the darkest vent of hopeless destructive nihilism. On re-seeing Coppola’s movie I immediately understood the effect that ‘Apocalyse Now’s’ opening sequence had on me both in establishing the mood of the film and colouring the film’s atmospherics. The opening sequence is not so much defined by its visuals but by the sound track which emotionally overwhelms the audience: Jim Morrison lead singer of ‘The Doors’ gives a scarring performance of his song, ‘The End.’
“This is the end….My only friend…the end…Lost in a wilderness of pain….
And all the children are insane….Kill…kill….kill…” The lyrics, often improvised live by Morrison stretched out on acid, become a primal scream that sweeps up into itself all the dirt of a culture locked into death.
The power of Morrison’s voice, the initial slow restrained tempo building towards chaos, the sparse instrumentation that locates close to an Indian raga, lends the sound a cosmic etherial dynamic, all combine to engender a state of mind open to the apocalyptic vision, a revelation of suburban America’s ‘End of days’.
‘The End’ bookends Coppola’s film, both opening and closing the movie. It is the first and the last: initially priming state of mind for what is to come; at the end signing off its audience with an interpretive confirmation of the thematic play out of what they have seen.
After the first spectacle of Willard’s burst of self directed rage in his hotel room, the scenario charts his up-river journey to find and kill Kurtz, a special forces operative who has gone native. The trip is a series of set pieces, the filming anchored in the images of the war: the massacre of a Vietcong village from the air by attack helicopters, the obscenity of the entertainment industry flown into the war zone, the vison of war seen as a ‘Son et Lumiere’ experience under the influence of drugs. America encapsulated as – guns – sex – drugs – and rock n roll – America on an acid high fucking the world. For what?
‘Apocalypse Now’ at this level is silent about the: ‘For What?’. Second viewing impressed that this a film about the USA, the Vietnam war is a backdrop. The ‘For What’ invites the idea that as Jim Morrison suggests that the USA is an idea on the verge of tearing itself apart but instead in an act of psychic transference rips other countries apart.
As he sails upstream Willard becomes obsessed with Kurtz as he reads his dossier and then writings. Willard is consumed by his throughts about Kurtz, not about the war and the types of decisions that brought both men to where they are, to Vietnam. Willard presents as an increasingly empty figure, the empty American, a sort of tourist gazing at the externalities of life but unable to see what is happening.
Kurtz is the central figure for both Conrad and Coppola but Conrad is careful that whilst describing Kurtz’ qualities as a man, not to actually quote any of his writings. Coppola has Brando playing Kurtz, and as part of the deal Brando is allowed to write and deliver his own end monologue: ‘The Horror’. In the course of his speech Kurtz tells a story: about how a group of Vietcong hacked the arms of the little village children after they had been vacinated by the Americans. Kurtz with crystal clarity understands this moral cruelty. The Vietcong’s ability to go through with this horror, was a mark of their superiority, a statement of their moral certitude: their knowledge of the need to destroy the enemy and anything tainted with him. But Kurtz’ speech has a strange anomalous section. Kurtz continues with this claim that, “…if he (Kurtz) commanded ten divisions of such men…our troubles here would be over very quickly…”
The issue with this statement is the phrase: ‘our troubles’. To whom does the ‘our’ refer. Presumably to ‘us Americans’. Despite, ‘the Horror; the Horror’… the horror caused by the American decision to fight the Vietnamese war, Kurtz for all his fine understanding and personal qualities simply wants the Americans to win the war. The why and to what purpose to win might serve, is left as a conceptual vacuum, a vacuum into which ‘Apocalpse Now’ is also subsumed. There is also a contradiction here in that the Vietcong could behave as they did towards these children because they totally believed in the rightiousness of thier cause, this is what motivated their resistance to the Yanks. There was no such primary belief amongst US soldiers in Vietnam. They were fighting as part of the generation who listened to Jim Morrison. They were fighting in the darkness of their own bankrupt society.
With the fall of Saigon happening the year before shooting for ‘Apocalypse Now’ began, the USA had experienced a humiliating total defeat at all levels: political military and most pertinently psychic. Nothing of this brutal actuality feeds into Coppola’s script, which takes place in the vacuum of the film making world, rendering the movie just another spectacular Western but without any of the moral baggage of the best of this genre.
Conrad’s story works because Marlow comes away understanding something about where his journey has taken him, into certain realms of metaphorical darkness. By contrast, I came away from Coppola’s film with the feeling that as Willard returns downstream having killed Kurtz, that all he has understood is that to solve America’s problems,what you have to do is to kill another American.