Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Frederick Forrest
Awe-inspiring. Sublime. Masterful.
Apocalypse Now in its own abstract way shows the horror of the Vietnam War as a symptom of human darkness. Scene after scene demonstrates the idea of nobody being left untouched by the war, and yet the film never lingers on any individual or setting long enough for us to feel any real heaviness towards what we are watching. The violence seems gratuitous, which is odd in a war movie. When a character is killed, we sense that it wasn’t supposed to happen, or that it didn’t have to happen. And there aren’t any abiding sentiments from the protagonists signaling us to care about the carnage and death occurring on screen. Everything that happens just happens, and our guide through this hellish odyssey, Captain Willard (played perfectly by Martin Sheen), has long since given up trying to do anything about it. When a young sailor under his command gets a little too gung-ho and guns down a local family, killing two, and wounding a third, Willard finishes the job and essentially tells the crew to get back to work. He has a job to do. He must find a wayward Colonel (Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando as almost a boogie man) who has set himself up as a god in Cambodia. Willard has no interest for the majority of the film in distractions. He calmly sits and waits while the crew busies themselves with Playboy bunnies that are flown in for military enjoyment. All of these elements, I believe, are to serve the narrative’s ideas of disenchantment, apathy, and, principally, chaos. Clearly, critical things are happening constantly, and yet, nothing really matters. The consequences are quiet, emotions are muted.
There are a number of supporting characters, memorable characters at that, but most of them are one dimensional. Again this serves the narrative in leaving us with the stoic, contemplative Willard as our key. The beginning scene illustrates his loss of stability and perhaps sanity. He has fever dreams, and shadow-boxes the demons in his empty hotel room, wearing only his skivvies. He is no longer fit for anything but battle. During his journey, he meets several characters that are used more to represent an idea than to act as believable human beings. We are introduced to Robert Duval’s character (Kilgore) as he looks to, but never actually does, give water to an enemy soldier with his guts hanging out. Kilgore just wants to surf. Willard’s narration lets us know that Kilgore is the kind of guy that you know will survive the war. Laurence Fishburne is a black teenager that dances to the Rolling Stones on the way to battle. He dies listening to a tape-recording of his mother’s voice as she wishes him safety. The naval leader of the boat voyage (another stoic type and everyone’s image of a chief) is killed by, of all things, a spear. These parts serve to underline the madness of it all. I spoke earlier of disenchantment because no movie makes clearer the disenchantment of the United States towards our first real military failure. In the film’s most famous scene, evoking a sense of ambiguity, Willard hops along for an invasion of a Viet Cong base as Kilgore leads his men in helicopters across picturesque skies blaring Wagner’s Rise of the Valkyries. It is a glorious image. The music is triumphant. The violence is exciting and beautiful. Is Coppola glorifying war? It’s been said that the scene was used by the military for troop morale. I believe though, that in the context of the film, the scene serves as another piece of absurdity to an abstract picture. When you consider that the whole reason for the air strike is basically so that Kilgore has a nice place to surf, no amount of excitement or beauty could justify the violent means to his ridiculous end. Politically, the film is very ambiguous. Does war turn men into Kurtz? When Willard finally makes it to Kurtz, the latter makes a sort of crazy man’s sense to Willard. And when Willard completes his mission and kills Kurtz, the natives bow before him; he has taken Kurtz place. Willard and Kurtz appear to be two sides of the same coin as the expression goes. Both resigned. Willard resigned to do his job. Kurtz resigned to the Godlike status bestowed upon him, and finally to his assassination.
There is a scene of Willard walking through a massive forest completely dwarfed by nature, and I wondered about man’s significance. Kurtz does not put much importance in the life of an individual, but in the forest scene, I wondered if the film was making the same point: we are all just dust in the wind. What does Willard go back to? With redux opposed to the original, I like to imagine him going back to the French woman, but again we are left with more questions than answers.
-Walter Tyrone Howard-