Apocalypse Now or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Insanity

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There is no question that war plays a high and important role in American society. One could craft a sound argument that many Americans harbor a fascination with war akin to an unhealthy addiction. It permeates much of our culture and enjoys mass popularity in mass media: books, politics, television, video games, film. While many of the aforementioned mediums present war in a glorious light, a noble and heroic endeavor always for the greater good, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now presents it as something wholly different: a torturous hell. I have seen many war films, including some of the more recent entries to the canon, Fury and Anthropoid. All of them agree that war is hell, but where Apocalypse Now stands out is in the belief there are no heroes and the goodness in man all but burns to ash when the world goes insane around him. War is subjugation, one nation forcing itself on the other, causing hatred, disconnection, and atrocities on both sides. Unlike other war films, it is not an analysis of war- a moral look or judgement- but a slice of war, the truest experience film can achieve. Coppola accomplished this not through story, but through specific filmmaking techniques: fantastic, at points dreamlike visuals and lighting, the feverish, unhinged yet human performances of his actors, the iconic soundtrack, and shocking, brutal imagery.

Apocalypse Now is not an ugly film visually. The themes are ugly and uncomfortable- the darkness of man always is- but the images are beautiful. Sweeping shots of jungle awash in rays of the setting sun, night shots bold in color and high in contrast, accented reds and yellows marred by hazy smoke and steam from leftover wreckage. Most war films today opt for a subdued color palette. The dry, desaturated look has become synonymous with grit and realism, the ‘Saving Private Ryan Look’. The use of more color by Coppola, specifically the hazy reds and yellows is representative of two things: the humid, constantly oppressive heat of Vietnam, and the feverish, dreaminess of the world surrounding the characters. War is a real, all too common occurrence, but it doesn’t feel that way to those involved.

Watching this film through the hazy smoke of the presented picture, we feel the stickiness of the climate. The always uncomfortable feeling of sweaty skin, wet and dry and wet again. It makes me feel itchy just writing about it. The yellowish tones absorb the audience and place them squarely in the jungle with the soldiers. Yellow, and to a lesser extent, red, are not popular color choices in today’s world of orange and blue film. As a result, to me, it communicates a dreamlike air when I see it in films, a sense that what you are seeing is not quite the norm, not quite real, something parallel, reflected by the real world, yet not touching. The other example that comes to mind is Enemy. With its psychological trappings, washing the world in yellow was a similarly inspired choice. In Apocalypse Now’s yellow/red world of high contrast, flames and burning stand out considerably, creating a startlingly stark image that accentuates the characters in the foreground. It shows a world none of us has inhabited, and contributes to the metaphor that these men are trapped in hell.

The decision to frame and light Kurtz specifically in shadow for most of his appearances in the final scenes of the film, while motivated by, if I remember correctly, the fact that Brando hadn’t lost the necessary amount of weight in time for production, also ended up being a beneficial choice. Kurtz walks among his subjects like a god of war. He is something more than human throughout the whole story, he is a legend. Stories whisper and circulate about him. When he is very nearly introduced, we see his army of palely painted subjects first. Spears, near-naked bodies, tribal warriors of a seemingly bygone era. All this contributes to Kurtz’s stature, and he must be presented in kind. Seeing him as a shadowy face in the blackness of his temple, only his eyes and bald head shining, we immediately realize the man is at once everything Willard has been told and more, that he is categorically insane. The decision to frame Brando in a close-up works towards this as well. His face fills the screen, vignetted by darkness, like the face of God in the clouds, but slowly contouring forth from slick oil instead, a much more uncomfortable image.

A film can have a lot of things going for it, great script, great camera work, great direction, but unless the editor is one in a million, a film without great actors is a house built on quicksand. Fortunately, Apocalypse Now has a powerhouse cast. If you watch the documentary associated with this film, you’ll see the difficulties that went into making it, and how the actors, especially Martin Sheen, cracked their sanity during filming. The scene at the beginning where he smashes his hand on the mirror? That’s real blood. Actors need to commit to a role, and all the cast, specifically Brando, Duvall and Sheen, did that. It might be overboard, but it somehow seems appropriate for the actors to find their darkest corners in a film dealing with just that. The performances are affecting. Brando as Kurtz shows the audience the darkest recesses of man’s collective soul, the pit we all have inside us that we jump over conveniently in our day-to-day activities, the hole we ignore in each other. Sheen’s Willard is a man given new purpose after being driven to disillusionment by the war, only to be driven to the very brink again on the road to Kurtz. He conveys that pain, and whether it is really Sheen’s, or just performed, it serves the story either way. The side characters, from Hopper’s photographer to Duvall’s Kilgore, cover all the possible manifestations of psychological depth and darkness. Loving the smell of napalm in the morning is one thing, destroying a village so that you can surf is something wholly darker.

You must commend the actors for committing so strongly to these roles. They aren’t easy. Acting is vulnerability, it is putting yourself on display no matter what school of study you come from. Finding the truth in every situation is the goal, and to create characters who are brainwashed by a god of war, who forcibly inject the hobbies of their normal existence into a foreign space, who trade fuel for two hours with stranded Playboy bunnies, requires searching inside yourself for something that relates. That creates believability. We can therefore reasonably conclude that most of the lead and supporting characters in this film took a big risk and put themselves, as well as their characters, on display. Because of their chance, we see humans and not characters. We see people stuck in a situation where their actions are akin to psychological coping. People who, like us, can’t survive in hell. This is much more truthful than the heroic war film that aspires to be just as gritty. Fury comes to mind. It has a few good scenes of humanity stuck in hopelessness, but they are marred by a miserably clichéd and moral ending that should be relegated to the halls of fairytale storytelling.

Music is an unsung hero in film. In today’s industry, music is treated as background filler and forced to conform to other films, creating boring, monotonously similar scores that fade behind the events on screen. We leave the theater with not a single composition from the film stuck in our heads. Apocalypse Now is on the opposite end of the spectrum in this regard. I will mention the iconic Flight of the Valkyries scene. Apart from the title, the score choice itself placed over charging helicopters and the hard incursion into the coastal Vietnamese village creates a very specific mood. It mixes awe with a sort of “rah rah” patriotism. This, relatively early in the film’s long runtime, presents the image of war we as an audience are used to. Our boys charging forth, eradicating the enemy. It is enough to make you swell with pride, until it ends and that pesky, dreamy reality sets in again. The injured are hoisted off the choppers, screaming, maimed, dying. The Vietnamese prisoners role by in the background, tied together like a chain gang. In this case the score was a bait and switch. We were led to feel something that was then quickly turned on its head, kind of like the green recruit, shipping out for his first battle, full of songs of heroism and glory, before being hit with the grisly truth. There’s a reason that scene is iconic, and I believe the score has the majority to do with it. Music doesn’t communicate in language, but in emotion, and the manipulation of the audience in that scene is wholly due to the musical choice.

Lastly, no war film is complete without the brutal, shocking imagery that war entails. We see this in all war films worth their salt, but, working in conjunction with everything else discussed above, the horrific images in Apocalypse Now are elevated to something more. Hanging bodies, dismembered limbs, flayed appendages, it is standard shock fare. This imagery, coupled with the presentation of insanity in all its different aspects embodied by each character, somehow affects the audience more. This could be due to the fact that Apocalypse Now achieves a more complex and chaotic vision of warfare. It gets under our skin and sticks there. The production design, the sets, they all contribute. The ruins, the bodies, the fire and strewn about garbage, it all burrows deeply into us. But there is something more here, something different from other films: Coppola never lets the camera linger on the external horror. It is behind the characters, off to the side, seemingly not important. This, to me, contributes to the shock. They are not of consequence, those everyday war examples, they are present everywhere, they are the average fare. The idea that there is somehow more horror inside the characters themselves makes the appalling images more awful. How can the filmmakers be so desensitized to it, we wonder? Because there is something worse in the living than in the dead. Other filmmakers show the devastation externally, and their characters react to that. Coppola places the devastation inside, with the external factors being unfortunate consequences of the darkness of men, but not the cause.

Apocalypse Now is not a film to be viewed for fun. It set out with a very specific goal, and through the vast techniques employed in creating the engrossing world of the screen, it succeeded. Hell is not some abstract world of punishment for those who don’t say please or thank you, it exists right here in the real world, simultaneously in many places at once. Everywhere bombs have, do, or will go off has the potential to be converted into a personal hell for all involved. Apocalypse Now avoided moralizing, feel-good heroics, and the traditional story of good vs. evil. Instead, it gave us a realistic portrait of the fever and bloodlust that becomes the new normal when a gun and a purpose are handed to a soldier. Perhaps this film should be revisited more often to remind us what goes on beyond the lens of the news cameras and the microphones of the politicians. Maybe then we would not be so eager for conflict.