I was surprised to learn that Francis Ford Coppola's film, “Apocalypse Now,” is 40 years old.
I was surprised to learn that Francis Ford Coppola’s film, “Apocalypse Now,” is 40 years old.
I had not thought we would grow old so fast.
When it came put in 1979, I was primed to become fascinated: I had studied and taught both Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and the Odyssey, two sources of its plot. Like many my age, I had tensely followed events in Vietnam in the Sixties, knowing it might be my personal destination. Finally, I had been very impressed by Coppola’s “Godfather” series.
I saw both the 35mm and the 70mm releases, illegally made a sound recording of the soundtrack, had my student secretary type up the dialogue, read interviews and accounts of the making of the film, and wrote two articles. I still think they are darn good essays, by the way.
Before I wrote about the film, what were my impressions?
I remember the sound, in a theater with a newly installed Dolby surround system. In the opening scene, Willard (Martin Sheen) is in a hotel room; a friend and I heard voices behind us. He turned to quiet the viewers, only to realize the row was empty. The sound was really chambermaids in the hotel hallway outside Willard’s room, coming to us from rear speakers. Of course, the sound was stunning throughout, from rock songs to the helicopter assault on a Vietcong village.
Visually the film was also stunning. The massive green jungle, night scenes flickering with flares and fires, the frenetic editing in the assault, the spectacle of bodies in the approach to Kurtz’ compound, all punctuated with memorable dialogue: “with extreme prejudice,” “Charlie don’t surf!” “I love the smell...,” “‘Who’s in charge here?’ ‘Ain’t you?’” The human element in the midst of the jungle pressing in and the chaos of battle.
We all knew that this was not Vietnam, the real war. But somehow Coppola captured a sense of Vietnam, as it was being experienced by the young men there and home viewers transfixed by the nightly news. Coppola recently said he was trying to present how the draftees from the West Coast might see the war, the surfers, stoners or, as Willard observes, “Rock and Rollers with one foot in the grave.”
The other thing I noticed were the deliberate ambiguities in point of view and the endings. Willard’s opening voice-over seems to come from him in the hotel, reflecting on what has happened to him, but at the same time two officers come into the room to start the story of what has—and will!—happen to him. At the end, it’s not even clear that he makes it back.
It’s not quite correct to speak of THE ending either. Two releases of the film (35 and 70mm), two endings...seemingly. One ends with Willard contacting command. Will he call in an air strike to destroy Kurtz’ army or not? The other ends the same way, but then we see a fiery destruction of the compound behind the credits. No, no, said Coppola later: It didn’t mean Willard called in an air strike at all! Just that the director had extra explosives left over and he thought it would be neat to destroy the set to create an entertaining video behind the credits.
And then there was the incredible footage of the assault on a Vietcong village. We think we’re on the side of the guys in the helicopters, but then there are ground-level shots of school children fleeing and determined men firing up at the helicopters. For a moment, we wondered, “Whose side are we on?”
Course, to stage such an incredible battle, Coppola had to mix World War II with modern battle features. What would happen if the Viet Cong actually hoisted a flag over a village and tried to defend it with fixed anti-aircraft guns? No helicopter assault; the military would simply bomb it into the Stone Age. In other words, there wouldn’t be the battle we enjoy so much.
And if we’re going upriver into the interior, why are we suddenly at a village on the coast where there is surf? Never mind.
Such are my memories of watching the two releases of the film, before I turned it into a research project.
Recently, I watched it again—and a few years ago, watched a director’s cut that restored what was
edited out of the original releases. As often happens with extended director cuts, I came away with more appreciation for studio-enforced editing. For instance, there is a scene where Willard and the boys on the boat have an exquisite meal at a French-owned plantation that for unexplained reasons has not been touched by the war. It was in the original script as a nod to the Lotus Eaters episode in Homer’s Odyssey. But it makes no sense; too unreal even for this surreal film.
This time too, I tried to understand Coppola’s hope that the film might explore the reasons for war, not just the Vietnam War. This is where he hoped Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” might help. Conrad, of course, charted two levels of evil: Kurtz had shucked off his Western moral reason and had unleashed his appetites in the quest for ivory; on a more serious level, there are the company officials, happy with all the ivory, but unhappy with what they call the improper methods. Killing natives and collecting heads are not to be condemned in and of themselves, but are bad because he’s ruined the region for future exploitation.
I side with the traditional Catholic view that sins pre-meditated, rationalized or ignored through use of reason are more serious than sins of pure emotion or uncontrolled appetites.
Coppola’s Kurtz, Marlon Brando, indeed has gone over the edge, as shown by the bodies that are hanging and strewn about in his camp. But Coppola let Brando ramble on about making horror your friend, about the superiority of the VC in dedicating themselves to carry out horror. The officials who send Willard to kill Kurtz seem to have good reasons for doing so, but as events unfold on the trip up the river, they are not really in control of what is going on. That’s certainly the case at the Do Lung Bridge, shelled each night, then rebuilt by GIs during the day. “Who’s in charge, soldier?” “Ain’t you?”
Maybe the film captures what can happen to men in war, particularly a de-centered war with fleeting encounters and no fixed lines, where units and individuals operate cut off from the kind of command operating on a traditional battlefield. But the reasons for war are usually political: decisions and miscalculations, not very exciting or filmic.
Still, what a film. Capturing an aspect of ourselves, strung out and equipped with heavy weaponry.
Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at email@example.com.