Apocalypse Now (Redux): an illustration of how war fashions society and individuals in its own image

Francis Ford Coppola, “Apocalypse Now (Redux)” (2001)

The actual plot is very basic: sometime during the Vietnam War ¬†– a newspaper clipping on Charles Manson’s trial suggests the year may be 1970 and there is mention also of President Nixon – the protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission by his superiors to hunt down and kill renegade US colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The mission seems fairly straightforward enough but in the nightmare that was the Vietnam War, Willard’s quest turns into a personal surreal and hallucinatory descent into inner hell. As his boat takes him up the Nung River and deep into Cambodia, Willard learns more about Colonel Kurtz’s history from the dossier given him and is drawn to the man’s contradictory character. It seem that Colonel Kurtz had been a model soldier and leader and was mooted for a position as General in the US Army. Willard learns that Kurtz was rather too efficient at his job, using methods and tactics to kill Viet Cong which his superiors “disapprove” of and has now become deranged.

On his way to the river that will take him to Kurtz, Willard and the four men he travels with (they are all known by various nicknames) encounter a rag-tag bunch of characters and witness some strange incidents: there is the eccentric and trigger-happy Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, recklessly orders an air strike on a Vietnamese village and then directs his men to spray napalm fire into a forest, turning it into one huge inferno. Kilgore helps Willard and his men reach the Nung River where the group commences to travel on its own. Crewman Lance (Sam Bottoms) is spooked by a tiger and wastes ammunition trying to get rid of the animal. Sailing upstream, the men come across a US supply depot show featuring some Playboy bunnies which ends in chaos with soldiers punching one another over the girls. An encounter with some fisher-folk on a sampan goes awry when one of the crew goes berserk and machine-guns everyone; when the crew decide to take an injured woman on board their boat and seek medical help, Willard cold-bloodedly shoots her dead. Later the US navy boat is attacked by unseen assailants who kill crew-member Clean (Lawrence Fishburne), leading to a simmering conflict between Willard and the boat’s skipper Chief (Albert Hall).

A surreal episode follows in which the crew are entertained by French colonial plantation owners who might have stepped straight out of a time-machine from 20 or 30 years ago. On resuming their journey, the crew soon reach their destination which turns out to be a savage fiefdom of mountain tribal folk in awe and worshipping a living god who turns out to be … Kurtz, living in a temple surrounded by corpses. Kurtz imprisons Willard and taunts him by killing one of the crew members and throwing the dead man’s head into Willard’s lap, and then lecturing Willard on his own theories of war and civilisation. For a while, it seems as if Willard will end up as yet another of Kurtz’s victims but there are some surprises in store.

The film is noteworthy in part for its technical work and cinematography which often render the setting very dream-like and psychedelic in parts. The night-time scene during which Willard’s men panic at the presence of a tiger is rendered in blue and green light, thus heightening the fear of the unknown that the men feel. At times, viewers can well believe that as the US navy boat continues on its journey, it is entering another very ghostly dimension in which conventional beliefs about morality fall away and men like Colonel Kurtz become truly and dangerously free; there are shots in which mist rises from the waters and envelops the boat as it sails. The crew-men’s use of hallucinatory drugs, their liking for the psychedelic rock music of the period and their increasingly fragile mental state add to this viewer’s impression that they are physically as well as mentally entering another world in which everything is somehow brighter, darker, deeper, more vivid and more dangerous, spiritually as well as physically. For much of the film, the cinematography is beautiful and unearthly, and the film’s leisurely pace combined with long scenic shots of forest, river and above all the mist rising over the river have the effect of plunging viewers deeply into a world, seemingly a paradise at times, far away from the reality of war.

The music soundtrack is significant to the film also, and never more so than in the climactic scene (in which a song by The Doors is playing) in which Kurtz is made to confront his own mortality and the full awfulness of human (and by implication his own) cruelty, darkness and the hollowness to come. In this scene also, Willard (who throughout the movie has been studying the military dossier on Kurtz and has come to identify with the man, his background and motives) finally bonds with Kurtz in spirit and action. Oh all right then, here comes the spoiler: Willard kills Kurtz with a machete. ¬†Here at last the film makes a profound statement about the effect of the Vietnam war on individuals like Kurtz and Willard and, through them, on American society: war as an entity seizes people and refashions them in its own image and values, turning them into total killers, and then unleashes them onto the rest of the world. Initially when the Americans brought total war to Vietnam, they imagined they could control it with their technology, their ideals and beliefs, and their goals; but the war ends up controlling America heart and soul. One imagines that when Willard returns to “civilisation”, he will be handsomely rewarded and celebrated as a war hero and role model for future generations of soldiers to follow … but spiritually and morally he is dead inside.

Significantly even though this is a film about the Vietnam war, very few Vietnamese people appear save as extras: all the violence and the suffocating insanity are provided by Americans. Everywhere in the film where Americans group together, the viewer gets the feeling that violence, madness and mindless killing will result … and the viewer is usually right. It would make no difference if Willard were to meet Kurtz or not and Kurtz, when he does appear, comes across as a very ordinary if rather eccentric fellow: no more and no less mad than his fellow Americans, he epitomises the perfect robotic killing-machine made so by the demands, expectations and rewards of the military culture that took him in as a young man.

The film perhaps makes too much of its theme of human nature as essentially contradictory and capable of both good and evil, and not enough of that theme’s dark twin which is that human nature also reflects back to society and to us the values and behaviours prized and rewarded by that society. Kurtz is what he is because American society has rewarded him with war medals and increased status in the army and society generally while pretending to ignore his amorality and brutal methods. Eventually he reaches a state where he realises that American society is essentially as amoral as he is, in celebrating him first and secondly fearing and rejecting him for much the same reasons it celebrated him originally – because he is too efficient at what he does. Having reached his pinnacle and finding no satisfaction in it, just emptiness, he submits to his society’s final judgement over him. This is really what makes “Apocalypse Now” such a powerful work, not least because we are still so reluctant to acknowledge that as social creatures we are highly malleable, we reinforce what society wants from us and in turn allow society to mould us even more in particular directions. If war seems to be the permanent state of the world, it is because that is what our society celebrates. We need not invoke biological explanations to explain our war-like and avaricious behaviour and actions towards others.

The film remains one of Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest directing achievements from the 1970s; it’s a great pity that his work after that decade declined so much.

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