Friday, May 8, 2009

Apocalypse Now: A Journey into the Primitive

For years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Hollywood mostly refused to comment through depictions of it on film. Since opinions on the war were so varied and the public so split, there was no conclusive way to attack a Vietnam Combat Film. How could they truthfully reflect what went on there? Would they be forced into pro-war or anti-war sentiment? Would a single aspect or account be satisfactory in creating Vietnam? No single war story is going to ring true to every honest experience of the war. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979, Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, is not about something that anyone experienced during the war; it was about the experience of Vietnam. Coppola himself said, “It is Vietnam” (Woodman 103). Such a statement may seem pretentious, but his claim isn’t far off. The film is about the journey into darkness that must accompany war, an often confirmed idea. The events that lie within represent accurately the idea of primitive madness as a necessary component in war. Such an element cannot be put into frame within the confines of a truthful or literal war film. Coppola sticks to the thinking that “those that capably aspire to represent it accept the imperative that fictions must be used to tell the truth” (McInerney 11).
The story of the film revolves around the mission of one Captain Willard. Willard is sent by his superiors on a confidential mission into Cambodia to exterminate the command of a Colonel who is described by them as “unsound”. This Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz, is seen as having lost his mind because of the brutal and illegal tactics he implements. As Willard’s journey continues he finds himself “unaccountably sympathizing with the man he was assigned to kill” (Steier 3). The men who sent him on his mission, his boat crew, Lt. Kilgore, and practically every soldier depicted within pushes him closer to Kurtz’s mindset.
Over the course of the film many characters lose themselves to the horrors and insanity of this primitive war, but Willard is able to survive through his acceptance of it. He is a visibly disturbed individual in the opening scenes of the film. He flails around wildly drunk, taking in very few of the amenities that his hotel room provides him, save for the alcohol. The narration of his mindset has him still in the jungle with the enemy, as if he had never truly returned to humanity. His actions are reminiscent of a wild animal that has been caged.
It takes the forceful hand of a group of officers and a quick shower to shake him back into reality. This was to be short-lived as his assigned mission unleashes him again into the wild of Vietnam. The men who assign him the mission have never had to face the war. They are calm, cool, and collected, with clear convictions about the way war should be conducted. Theses men represent an important part of Coppola’s thinking, that “civilization is the mask the animals wear to hide his true nature”, which to many is perhaps, “the greatest evil of all” (Steier 8).
These men are barely at odds with Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore is another one of these characters. His ability to crush VC villages with his cavalry of helicopters keeps things fairly stress free for him. The war hardly seems to faze him. Bombs hit less than ten feet from him and he doesn’t even flinch. When the fighting has finished and he’s acquired the proper waves for surfing. Charlie doesn’t surf, like these men. Later on, Willard also exclaims, “Charlie doesn’t get no USO”. These distractions for the soldiers to make them feel more at home are frowned upon by Willard, for they distract from the cruel war being waged. If they were sent into the thick of the war, they would fail as soldiers, as our Nation did, because they lack the proper mindset for war.
An episode with the highly strung character, Chef, illustrates a prominent theme in Apocalypse Now. After smoking some pot, he tells Willard that he wants to venture into the jungle to collect some mangoes. While out in the thick of things, he discusses his life before the war. Then out of the darkness of the forest a tiger charges the men. They shoot at it and run. Chef is particularly shaken by this. He proceeds to carry on hysterically, “don’t fucking get out of the boat!” This crew is not allotted the same comforts as Kilgore’s men. They can’t make the war like home, even talking about home while out in the jungle gets the men into trouble. The tiger is there to remind them exactly where they are; the wild. Chef can smoke pot while in the boat, but he can’t have the mangoes he desires. This instance displays the boat as a symbol of separation from the war. The men don’t want to get out of the boat and let their states of mind wander into the primitive jungle. By the end of the film, all the men in Willard’s crew will have gotten out of their respective boats, most do not survive.
A prime example of men who have gotten off the boat is described in Brian J. Woodman’s essay Images of African American Soldiers in Vietnam War Combat Films. Part of this essay describes the nature of the African American soldiers our protagonists meet at the Do Lung Bridge. The character of Roach is particularly examined. He is focused on the kill and calm despite the hectic conditions that surround him, he carries a grenade launcher painted with tiger stripes; he also dons war paint and a necklace of teeth. These elements are obviously meant to portray the character as an African warrior. While at war, Roach has reverted to a primitive part of his history, to a time when his ancestors were a part of the wild that now surrounds him (p.102). This wild seems to be consuming the sanity of others present at the bridge, chipping away at whatever civility may remain. If they do not become like Roach, then they will not survive.
It is also around this time that Lance begins to slip from his former self. To help cope with the madness around him, he inflicts another sort of madness upon himself through the use of acid. He carries and shields a puppy as he crouches and slips through the forces at the bridge, watching everything in awe. From this point on, Lance seems lost in the nature he has come to accept. He is a part of it even more as the story commences, presumably without the influence of anymore psychoactive substances. This attitude keeps him alive while the members of his crew drop like flies, it even allows him to thrive amongst the natives in Kurtz’s compound.
The last stop of boat comes at Colonel Kurtz’s compound. This is where the idea of the boat as a safety net is completely stripped away. The natives in the area hurl spears at the boat, killing both Clean and Chief Phillips, who clung to their senses of ethnicity and to the comforts of home. Clean is even listening to a tape from his mother when he is struck down. This just goes to show that the notion of home has no place in Vietnam. “The Chief on the boat is killed by a spear, (the jungle reconquers the urban ghetto)…” (Steier 8) The primitive inhabitants of the area even have their own boats. With them they create a barrier in the middle of the river that Willard and his remaining men must part to get to Kurtz. They are allowed through; this signifies the moment when they become completely immersed in nature. Whether they are in it geographically in the boat or not, makes no difference. Chef even meets his demise while waiting in the boat. The primitive creature that is Colonel Kurtz emerges from the jungle to brutally decapitate him; the jungle is now everywhere, and those who do not accept it will die.
Upon arrival, the photojournalist is the first man the crew meets. He is a wild man, obsessed with Kurtz’s dogma. He responds to Willard’s looks of disgust with only mild embarrassment, explaining that Kurtz’s sometimes goes too far. This man has seen the true brutality associated with war and is insane because of it. He is meant, as a journalist, to bring the truth about the war to the people, but he will never do that. It’s the truth that caused his meltdown and binds him to the compound. He will never tell his story about his descent into primitive madness, but others will tell their less than truthful stories. The cameo by Coppola himself, filming the attack by Kilgore’s cavalry, shows him setting up a shot and telling Willard not to look at the camera; this is the representation of the war that is shown to the masses. The story of this man seems to reflect the idea that a truthful representation of war is unattainable by those who did not experience it.
The man representing the truth about war is the epitome of madness, Colonel Kurtz. In a passionate speech made to Willard shortly before releasing him, Kurtz recalls events that lead him to Cambodia. He tells of a village his men were sent to inoculate and how the Vietcong amputated every arm they touched soon after their departure. It was upon seeing this that he knew victory was impossible. The horrors of war would continue for eternity if he didn’t aim to become more primitive and ruthless than the enemy. He brought it upon himself to bring an end to the war. To do this he would need to “utilize primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment because it’s judgment that defeats us.” Yes, the evolved brain’s capacity for judgment was the greatest enemy.
Kurtz told Willard to tell his son what he tried to do. He was proud of what he attempted to do and was sound in his reasons for it, but he knew that the madness had won out and that he had failed. In accordance with his mission and with Kurtz’s own desire, Willard returned to the compound under the cover of darkness and slaughtered him “. The scene in which he does this cuts back and forth between another scene of a water buffalo being slaughtered for sacrifice or food. Both deaths are brutal and very real. Kurtz no longer wants to live and wills his own death because of the pain caused by his constant primitive mindset. His last words reflect the life he has been living with, “the horror…the horror”.
Willard then leaves the compound with no opposition from Kurtz’s legion. They actually throw down their weapons, welcoming him as their new leader. Willard resists this temptation, refusing to fall victim to his own primordial desire for power, and leaves with fellow survivor, Lance. He is out of the madness and into his boat, where he proceeds to shut off the radio, his only means of communication. Willard is no longer in the jungle but also he, “wasn’t in their damn army anymore”, because the army was ill equipped to deal with war based on their morals inability to accept the brutality of war. He will never be capable of going back to his civilized self because his mind will always echoes the horrors he saw.
With all the themes of Apocalypse Now it’s only appropriate that Francis Ford Coppola nearly lost his own mind during shooting. He fought with his actors, lost an unhealthy amount of weight, his marriage nearly ended, he nearly went bankrupt, and he threatened to kill himself on set. Trying to reflect the truth about war in his film nearly drove him into madness. The truth about war, or at least his version of it, was madness - a mental slip into the primitive. He accomplishes a representation of this in the film with severe consequences to himself and his crew. Many of the events in the film as well as the situations surrounding it show madness in truth. To see the truth about war, we in the audience don’t need to see representations of war or war stories; we need to see the insanity of war.

Works Cited

McInerney, Peter. "Apocalypse Then: Hollywood Looks Back at Vietnam". Film Quarterly. University of California Press, 1980.
Steier, Saul. "Make Friends with Horror and Terror: Apocalypse Now". Social Text. Duke University Press, 1980.
Woodman, Brian J. “Images of African American Soldiers in Vietnam War Comb
Films.” The War Film. Ed. Robert Eberwein. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Up, 2005.

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