Into the Heart of Darkness
“My film isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Those words were spoken by director Francis Ford Coppola while on the press tour for his 1979 war epic Apocalypse Now. Perhaps as an attempt to cut through mediations on the “symbolism” or “metaphors” present in his tale, Coppola was eager to dispel the idea that such things were present. Instead, Coppola’s film and his own words compelled us to look at the screen and take everything at face value – war is hell on earth.
This would lead one to suspect that there’s nothing insightful to extract from the film as it is merely a visceral experience. If that were the case, it would still certainly stand on it’s own as Coppola and DP Vittorio Storaro crafted one of the most striking examples of war ever put to film. Not only are the sequences of violence uncomfortably jarring (we’ll get to that later), but the framing and lighting on display is a barrage of iconic imagery. It could be said that the 70s is where lighting and shadows were played with the most, appropriate given the dark subject matter of some of the era’s best films. Apocalypse Now fits this criteria perhaps better than any of them, soaking their unsavory characters in golden-orange hues to leave them exposed to the world, but later bathing them in darkness to signify their lack of humanity.
It is the subject of humanity and the cruelty of our actions that are being judged here. The film’s plot centers on the delirious Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), as he’s dispatched on a mission to Cambodia to assassinate rogue Special Forces officer Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is an incredibly decorated officer, seemingly a template of the ideal military career. But his superiors want him dead because he has reportedly gone insane in the Vietnam jungle. Funnily enough, Willard is probably just as mentally unstable; desperate to get home while he battled in the war, he has settled into a sadistic longing for the violence and the jungle amidst his domestic surroundings back home. Willard and Kurtz come to represent a concerning mirror image. Even as Willard is positioned as the hero by circumstance, the war has left him as morally compromised and as mentally fractured as his target. This is Coppola’s damning critique on Vietnam – that there are no heroes, just people who die and who survive.
Never is that cruel reality more exemplified than the film’s equally exciting and terrifying sequence, as Willard bears witness to the infamous napalm sequence. Colonel Kilgore (a scene stealing Robery Duvall) orders the strikes, leading to a breathless chain of destruction as the unit attacks, the locals use a young woman as a trojan horse for a grenade, and Coppola’s camera takes us on rollercoaster of a POV shot as machine guns fire. All the while we see glimpses of dead bodies, dismembered limbs and cries of anguish. The scene plays almost like documentary footage, and it’s horrific nature would be nearly unwatchable if it wasn’t so well made.
But what is the point of it all? Much has been covered about how nearly catastrophic the film’s entire production was, most of which covered in the documentary film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). The more famous tales, such as Brando being needlessly difficult to work with, pales in comparison to the sets that were practically destroyed due to weather and Michael Sheen’s heart attack during production. All of this hell, just so Coppola and screenwriter John Milius could show Vietnam, but not necessarily have anything insightful to say about why the conflict happened and what we can learn from it. That dilemma has aged quite well, as over 40 years has past and America still has not fully reconciled with it’s role in that war. So perhaps the more malleable answers are not in asking about the Vietnam War; perhaps it’s more pertinent to ask what does Apocalypse Now, as a piece of pop culture fabric, say about the world?
Well for starters, the film’s title was concocted by Milius as a play on “Nirvana Now” – a popular slogan among hippies during that period. What a juxtaposition in the 1970s, between the people who hoped for a better tomorrow and for those who believed we were seeing the end times (an idea that doesn’t hit close to home in 2019, nope not one bit!). In doubling down on the grim violence, Coppola presented Vietnam as truly the Apocalypse. While Willard is our POV character, Colonel Kurtz acts as the author’s stand-in, who sees that the Apocalypse is already here. He mocks Willard’s mission: “you’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” He tells Willard of the horrible acts he’s seen from the Viet Cong and asserts that while Willard may have the right to kill him, he has no right to judge him. Kurtz is not insane, at least not relative to anyone else involved in this strife, including the superiors that have filed the orders of his assasination. He’s as mad as the world that made him.
It’s those dark ideas that makes Apocalypse Now an appropriate film to come out at the tail end of the 70s. A decade dominated by pessimistic crime dramas, surreal Sci-Fi omens, and cynical political thrillers, highlighting Hollywood’s attempts to come to terms with a turbulent 60s and 70s. Apocalypse Now arrived as the most audacious film of 1979 while displaying a natural escalation of the grim themes of the decade. While earlier films depicted their world with a calm but cold gloominess, Coppola’s film depicted absolute chaos. A film where death was not a plot point, but an expectation. At one point, a character is murdered while images of a water buffalo getting dismembered are interspersed. This signals the lack of morality and order in the world, a sign that war is a free for all where cunning and heartlessness prove to be your greatest tools for survival.
Given the horrific nature of the film, it’s funny to note how fondly movie bluffs look back on the epic. Sure it is expertly made, but the charismatic cast is what makes Apocalypse Now a more palatable experience. From Robert Duvall’s carefree colonel, Dennis Hopper’s trippy war correspondent, to even a debuting Laurence Fishburne (at only 14 years old during filming!) as a youthful and joyous soldier, the film is brimming with memorable characters and dialogue.
Yet despite a eclectic group of characters, what stays with you are vividly grotesque and grim images. The legacy of Apocalypse Now is that of pain and cruelty, and a flirtation with giving up on the world. But perhaps this worldview was wrong. It’s 40 years later and the Apocalypse hasn’t come for us yet. Films of the past can teach us where we’ve come and where we can go. If we can survive the uncertainty of the 1970s, surely we can create art and ideas in the opposite direction but equally audacious as Coppola’s Vietnam fable. So until the Apocalypse actually does come, maybe we’re due for an artist who can deliver us to nirvana.