In “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola’s souls turn away in the fog of war

Apocalypse Now

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Burrow into a man’s soul and see what you find. You may discover a darkness beyond comprehension or a light as bright as the flares that cut against the night sky. But if you mangle that soul in the throes of war, maim it through acts of killing, expose it to enough raw horror to blight mind and body, you can never really know. The parts of ourselves we hold dear become wrenched and twisted within that grim crucible, until they become unrecognizable.

That’s the overwhelming feeling that washes over you during Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal 1979 masterpiece. Set during the Vietnam War, the film sees Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a U.S. Army assassin, dispatched to travel upriver into Cambodia and take out the infamous Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is a decorated officer who’s gone rogue and cultivated a following all his own, one which strikes fear into the hearts of all sides of this conflict. In that framework, the movie peers into the souls of these two men and considers what, if anything, can be gleaned from their war-ravaged psyches.

Apocalypse Now is undeniably a war movie, one that not only renders the theater of Vietnam in brutal-yet-riveting terms, but that also captures the absurdity that underlies its abiding tragedies. But the famously troubled production is first and foremost a psychodrama, channeling all these harrowing and surreal events, on both sides of the camera, through their effect on Captain Willard. The film’s greater project is to examine how war has warped him, his target, and everyone else this bloody business touches.

Apocalypse Now

Willard’s mission is deceptively simple: find Kurtz and kill him. But the damnable details, which take up most of Apocalypse Now’s runtime, are far messier. They provide Coppola and his team the time and space to examine the braying callousness of the American assault, the brutality visited upon defenseless civilians and the hidden terror of the opposing force. At the same time, though, Willard’s broader quest along the way is to understand Kurtz — both to help aid him in his mission and to settle his own curiosity. The suggestion is that understanding Kurtz might help Willard better understand himself at a fraught time and place.

In the movie’s gorgeously edited opening sequence, Willard gazes at the ceiling fan in his disheveled Saigon weigh station, and the sight and sound take him back to scenes of choppers firebombing the Vietnamese countryside. From the jump, Apocalypse Now conveys the sense of a man riddled with PTSD, who’s all but lost himself in the trauma. Willard’s weighed down by the things he’s seen and the things he’s done, which have rendered him spiritually crippled and unable to escape this war’s inexorable grasp.

Kurtz represents a kindred spirit on that account, another trained killer who’s seemingly lost his head in the jungle. Willard reads about the life and family the Colonel gave up back in the States, the call to battle he could no more ignore than Willard could, the acolytes he amassed in the realm he feels at home anymore. One assassin is sent to find another, but with the palpable sense that it’s not clear whether he’ll complete his mission or fall under Kurtz’s sway like so many others. There’s the tantalizing hint that Kurtz has figured something out that no one else has, or that they refuse to acknowledge.

From the jump, Apocalypse Now conveys the sense of a man riddled with PTSD, who’s all but lost himself in the trauma.

This cinematic dark night of the soul hinges on the question of whether Kurtz has gone insane or if, instead, he’s adopted the only sane response to a psychotic situation. Coppola and co-writer John Milius approach the issue with creditable ambiguity — has Kurtz gone off the deep end, or does he simply see the truths that so few in this conflict are willing to countenance?

Those truths come down to the futility, hypocrisy, and senselessness of war. Critics have long debated whether Apocalypse Now is a pro-war or an anti-war film. There’s merit to the pro-war view, if only because armed confrontation has never looked as captivating on film. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro doesn’t shy away from the sheer savagery in bloom, placing his focus on the repugnant and the barbarous at every turn. But he also makes each frame so striking and constructs tableaus so eye-catching, that the audience cannot possibly look away.

Beneath the gripping performances and cerebral take on an operatic story, there is an excellence of craft that carries the day for Apocalypse Now. Whatever its central message, it’s easy for viewers to see the expertly-cut sequences of death raining from the sky and nevertheless feel awed by it, in a way that glorifies war through the beauty of Storaro’s art, even as the film means to discredit it.

Make no mistake, though, that intent is clear, regardless of whether the sheer artistry of Apocalypse Now stands in the way of achieving it. As stunning as those images are, what they communicate is disturbing on both a visceral and psychological level.

That comes through in the film’s most iconic stretch, where the appropriately named Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) destroys a North Vietnamese outpost. Apocalypse Now puts the sheer, fiery destruction on terrible display, with the overwhelming force of the American attack decimating overmatched combatants and innocent school children alike. Kilgore is blasé about it all, chastising his foes as savages for daring to strike back and showing disinterest in the mission until he revels in the prospect of its chances for epic destruction and good surfing.

The top brass will make you into a monster and then break out the pitchforks and torches.

This collection of moments, from the famed “Flight of the Valkyries” soundtrack to Kilgore’s paean to the scent of napalm, are iconic for a reason. They’re constructed to be equal parts thrilling and gut-wrenching, and thus become a metonym for Apocalypse Now’s take on war writ large. It is an absurd, gruesome business, where notions of justice and the sanctity of life are sacrificed upon the altar of a butcher’s fleeting, shallow whims and unexamined, self-justifying biases.

Many perish over the course of the film. But these are not good deaths. They are not necessary evils in support of a broader cause. They are a gunmetal-shaded circus of the profane, where lives are taken as an accessory to amusement and hell rains down for a good break in the waves.

The Vietnam theater is a place where bridges are built just to be torn down again. Perpetual fights are fated to be waged with blood to be spilled, in fruitless Sisyphean pursuits. Small children die in a flurry of napalm outside their homes or in a hail of bullets while their poor mothers bid them return. Death stacks upon death in that wilderness, indiscriminately without reason or purpose. The film presents an unending nightmare, in sharp contrast to the glamorous ideals of defending freedom or protecting the innocent.

The central act of Apocalypse Now is to cast off that pretense. And the film’s central, tragic irony is that the generals and other power brokers prosecuting this war know that it turns the men under their charge into abject killers. And yet, they still judge and punish those ordered to carry out their grim errands for the very corruption of the soul they caused. In the dark recesses of Apocalypse Now, the top brass will make you into a monster and then break out the pitchforks and torches.

Willard participates in this system, knowing its callousness and costs. He understands the absurdity of accusing a man trained to be a murderer of committing a crime, when the people leveling the accusation brought about his transformation. The Captain loses his faith in any system that would allow this, knowing its lies hold no purchase when checked against the realities of what lies upriver, even when he cannot extricate himself from its gravitational pull. 

The theater of war, on Apocalypse Now’s account, is a place where morality has no meaning, where cruelty is disguised as mercy and mercy is disguised as cruelty. How could anyone not lose themselves and their sanity when exposed to that? To witness and bring about so much slaughter hollows out Willard, Kurtz, and so many like them. To witness and enact these horrors is to eventually lose yourself within them. The film’s two central figures are not so special, merely the poor souls with the profound misfortune to realize this. 

Willard feels that truth with even more force when he reaches Kurtz’s compound. There too, death hangs in the air. But it’s also the only place along his journey where such moral ambivalence and mortal costs make sense.

Kurtz is dangerous because he understands all this. Because he gave up the pretense that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, that any of it is just. He stopped buying the official lies and began doing what was required when you live in hell. Kurtz’s gory handiwork still horrifies Willard while the Colonel waxes rhapsodic on the nature of man. But even amid torture, he too is captivated by Kurtz’s epiphanies. He too comprehends the hardscrabble facts the two men know only by dint of their inner turmoil and the blood on their hands.

Kurtz’s true crime wasn’t murder. What is murder in a place where killing is currency? It was to stop taking orders, to stop pretending this is righteous, to stop killing their way, on their terms. Willard completes his task. He kills, with or without judgment, offering his target a measure of release. But in the final moments of Apocalypse Now, he turns off the radio that connects him to his superiors. In the end, he takes Kurtz’s parable to heart, and stops listening.

In Coppola’s masterwork, the true nature of the soul cannot be uncovered under these extreme conditions. Those whose spirits have been so battered in the crossfire may be too far gone to recover. And yet, these poor hollow men may still hold onto enough of themselves to turn away, at last, from those who would still distort and abuse that last tiny sliver, in the name of one more ghastly falsehood.

Apocalypse Now Trailer:


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