Apocalypse Now
Coppola's American way

by B. Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 16-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

By now you all know the story of APOCALYPSE NOW: one part Vietnam, one part Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, one part Jonestown as it could have been. Furthermore, you know the story behind the story: the devastation of Typhoon Olga, the budget inching up to the $31 million mark, the crisis over the ending. It's more than a film by now, it's a special event, and this reviewer's opinion of its "quality" assumes a quite minor importance beside the mere fact, finally, of its existence. Important or not as an event, great or not as a film, APOCALYPSE NOW has succeeded at commanding our media's attention, and therefore our own.

What we have, then, is a relatively unusual critical occasion. We both know the story and we both know the stakes. Everything else is up for grabs and open to examination: the theme, the sources, the beginning and (God help us) the ending, the technology, the genre, the Meaning, and maybe even the Vietnam War and Amerika, if it ever comes around to that. For openers, APOCALYPSE NOW is the archetypal male quest, done up real good. Imagine you're Captain Ahab, and you're heading upriver on a Raymond Chandler assignment into the darkest regions of the Wild West. Relax. Coppola is charting the course.

The story involves one Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who at the film's beginning is relaxing, so to speak, in his Saigon hotel room. But the first images are scraped from the depths of his waking nightmares. They've been widely described: a flat plane of jungle seen in full 70mm panorama; its vista crossed and recrossed by helicopters gliding in super closeup across our field of vision, Dolby saturation enveloping us in their noise; the perfect green peace erupting into a bonfire of napalm, "the smell," as the infuriated Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore will later say, "of victory." Advance reports of this film in no way prepare one for the hallucinatory spell of these images, reassembled inside Willard's brain back in his hotel room, which is what the flaming jungle dissolves into, its helicopters transmuted into a ceiling fan, the intense close-ups of the machines of war giving way to other close-ups of Willard's personal effects (a bottle of Martell, a lighter, a gun) and Willard's eyes. We are either inside his head looking out, or inside his room looking in. The helicopters fade, the whirring chorus of sounds dies down, and Willard, lying upside down to the camera lens, speaks.

To our amazement, what voice should come from Willard's mind (it's an offscreen voice, Willard's lips are fixed and mute) but the numbed, skeptical voice of the paperback private eye! The narrator of Conrad's story was named Harlow, so it's the simplest, slyest sleight of Coppola's hand to transform him into another mythic namesake, the redoubtable Philip Marlowe, private detective.

One of the pleasures of APOCALYPSE NOW is that Coppola never settles for a single explanation. Just as the opening scene dissolves each image and sound into another, and then layers even those, so too the voices and characters are composite references traced back and forth through time, cinema, society, and literature. The voice may belong to this Willard character, this man we don't yet know and whose voice we therefore can't identify. Dr it might belong to a hardboiled, Philip Marlowe-type hero, the type evoked at once by the words, spoken with that familiar, drained indifference:

"Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission. And for my sins they gave me one. Brought it right up to me like room service."

And what of Michael Herr, author of this narration, whose voice intoned the tales that made Dispatches.

Yet, literature aside, another distant voice echoes in the soundtrack, another voice intoning the tale of his downfall and moral anguish. It's the voice of Orson Welles speaking from the heart of another film darkness, narrating THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. That movie ended in a house of mirrors, but Willard's tale begins with just one room and just one mirror. There the hunter, impatient for the hunt, stalks his own reflection. Martin Sheen's Willard, though, is nothing like DeNiro's taxi driver. He is no psycho out on a binge, no maniac like the Charles Manson whose picture appears in a newspaper in the next scene. No, he is the character that Coppola would have us take as not exceptional, as typical, an embodiment of modern alienated man set down in exceptional circumstances, in a dark place where methods are, in Conrad's words, frequently "unsound."

A film like APOCALYPSE HOW has to make a lot of statements. The first "statement" edges on screen in the episode that follows our visit to Willard's room. It's the very elegant scene in which Willard's briefed by a manicured inner circle of military authority, who dine impeccably on shrimp and illustrate their orders by employing a larger-than-life Sony tape recorder that introduces the "evidence" necessitating the mission. Remember, this is the same filmmaker who made THE CONVERSATION, first introducing Technology in a star-supporting role. For these military men, looking a shrimp in the eye is a display of courage, a concept that may briefly be supported by close-up shots of gigantic shrimps on a platter, but is fast made obscene by the horrors of not-still-life that follow. Is it any accident that one of these authorities bears an uncanny likeness to Peter Lorre? They are mannered criminals. Unlike Lorre, they are legit, certified to carry out their crimes, well equipped with Sony for the home and napalm for the jungle, and men like Willard to take over the sensitive tasks too delicate for a technological solution.

Coppola wants us uneasy about these men, and we are, but it's never clear why. Are their functions wrong, or just their manner of proceeding? Are their methods unsound? Or is it just their elitist hands-off decorum that Coppola dislikes, preferring that they get their hands dirty as craftsmen of death? It's hard to decipher the intent here: whether Coppola is objecting to the war, or only wishing it back in the craft stage again. Whichever, one of the more reprehensible characteristics of these authorities clearly is their moral stance, an arrogance in making judgments ("he is obviously insane…, he thinks he's God") that they, in the heart of this moral whirlpool, have no right to make. Accordingly, Coppola violates the sanctity of their environment by intruding on the soundtrack with an aural ferment, overamplifying the distant sounds of helicopters whirring, insects, music, voices. "Good doesn't always triumph," says the General, as though he knew, and Coppola edits to his next image across the unifying bond of technology. Willard is jumping from a helicopter, already off on his mission, musing in the same distracted voice-over on how many men he has killed so far, anticipating his goal and fearing already its implication.

It's fair time to warn how little of the film is actually taken from Heart of Darkness. The boat journey remains, to be sure, and the character of Kurtz (Marion Brando) and his camp deep in a dark continent are taken whole, all of a piece. But virtually nothing else, apart from the aura of fascinated corruption, remains. It is here, in the area of difference and invention, that we can come closest to discovering just what the core of APOCALYPSE NOW may be.

Willard is moving upriver toward Cambodia (back when we weren't supposed to be there) on a boat manned by a motley crew that is hauling along U.S. pop culture and floating through the war like tourists. Two of the crewmen are black, two white (a mix borrowed from Conrad's pilgrims and savages): Clean, son of the Brooklyn streets, rocking out to the Stones in a GI station; Chef, a New Orleans saucier who gets over a taste for mangoes; Lance, a surfer boy from the Age of Aquarius, tripping the ultimate trip; and Chief, the levelheaded commander of the craft, who's not about to take orders from a honky mystery man like Willard.

As the boat moves upriver, Coppola moves us along with it, into darker and darker spaces of layered sound, hallucinatory images, superimpositions of shifting realities, and narration spoken from an eternally "other" place. The meticulously calibrated soundtrack summons the kind of aural sensitivity that Coppola exploited in THE CONVERSATION, except that here the function is not one of suspense, but rather, the suspension of disbelief. We cease mistrusting our senses. Meanwhile, the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (Bernardo Bertolucci's longtime cameraman) sweeps the diverse elements together into a symphonic movement. Yet the audience never entirely fails prey to the film's manipulations precisely because of their dazzling excess. One never fails to recognize Coppola's hand arranging the work, or to remember that this is a film, or to consciously appreciate its construction. Thus is Coppola able to build his apocalypse into a myth, a distanced fictional work of art, a story that reminds us always of its telling.

If APOCALYPSE NOW is a tale set in movements, its central movement is surely the episode occupied by the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the film's most colorful character, a Patton-style roughrider who is willing to napalm an entire stretch of territory held by the Viet Cong because six-foot waves are peaking there and, dammit, "Charlie don't surf." He heads a helicopter commando outfit famed for bombing hell out of the enemy in a style worthy of the Third Reich: approach the village from inside the rising sun, ready armaments, and blare music at full blast.

"I always play Wagner. Scares the hell out of the slopes."

Kilgore wears a ten-gallon hat, rides his chopper like a bucking bronco, and relaxes with his boys around the campfire at night grilling steaks, swigging beer, and playing the guitar. Kilgore's techno-cowboy is persuasive and illuminating.

APOCALYPSE NOW would seem to be a war movie. Everything points to it, from the subject matter to Coppola's own heralded statements, such as the program note on his concern with "the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war." And yet APOCALYPSE NOW is so much more than a war movie that, finally, it may not be a war movie at all. It begins to look suspiciously like an 80s western.

War movies are usually set during World War II, or perhaps the Spanish Civil War, occasionally the U.S. Civil War. Sure, those wars had their share of moral dilemmas, but film treatments on the conflicts could always rest on a basic history of soldiers fighting the good fight — against fascism, against slavery. No such luck with Vietnam, where, as in the Wild West, our boys were fighting the bad fight, a war of genocide. The moral center was not found in an indefensible raison d'etre, but in the individual isolated from it who preserved in his behavior some ahistorical kernel of morality by ignoring, indeed denying, the conditions that had called the war into being. The war of genocide thus can be reduced to a backdrop to the essential drama of human (read, male) nobility.

There remaining no frontier for today's cowboys in the USA, men like Kilgore must turn instead to Vietnam (just as cowboys in other films, like STAR WARS, turn to outer space). The eastern bankers and railroad tycoons of yore become here military brass, those shrimp-eating creatures far from action who order such and such a bridge held at any cost and are as ignorant of that cost in human terms as the soldiers paying it are ignorant of the abstract point being won or lost there. The western, like the war movie, poses a male domain of action. Where the western had its prostitutes, Coppola provides his modern men with a more abstract version: an outlandish USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies airdropped into a fantasy Coney Island jungle clearing (and promptly airlifted out again, as the carnality that once fed on prostitutes displays a more violent aspect).

As the boat moves further upriver and out of the U.S. militarized zone, Willard leaves behind the war as western and catches a brief glimpse of the war as war, the war that we might once have thought the entirety of APOCALYPSE NOW would represent.

It is understandable that Coppola shows very little of this war. It is not easy to view. Conrad knew exactly why and pinpointed the cause in Heart of Darkness:

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Coppola looks into it once, in his "puppy-sampan" scene. The action-green boys on the boat stop a passing sampan to check its credentials; fearing a double-cross when one woman races back to a barrel, the pacifist chef and his trigger-happy sidekicks spray the boat, killing all the passengers but the woman, who barely survives. Only then does the chef discover that inside the barrel was not a bomb but a puppy. During this sentimental moment of grief, Willard fires his only shot of the film: it's into the half-dead woman. Fed up with false sentimentality, fed up with a code of honor that could massacre a boat and then feed on its remorse, Willard remarks that it is now, in this moment, that he has begun to feel close to the mysterious Kurtz whose fate lies in his hands.

In this scene, APOCALYPSE NOW comes closest to being the examination of the Vietnam War that Coppola has started out to make. There are no fancy special effects, no mega-death beauty, no nobility, no myth — just a dirty little killing in a dirty little boat. The grittiness is underlined by an unusual bit of realism: the sampan "actors" were authentic boat people, who had fled Vietnam only two weeks before, and were forced here into a flashback of the history they thought they had escaped. The "puppy-sampan" scene is one of the most disturbing, least uplifting, in the film, and one of the few scenes to deal with the actuality of the war rather than the nobility of the warriors. The moment is brief. Hereafter, as the border of Cambodia is passed, Coppola leaves Vietnam and its war behind and drifts, like Willard, into the dark zone of human evil. If the Kilgore surf's-up/ napalm's-down sequence established the ties of APOCALYPSE NOW to the western, then the sampan sequence similarly fixes its war movie connections. Now Coppola glides with his film out of Vietnam, out of history, and into the world of Conrad.

At this juncture, the surfer boy drops acid and attempts to treat war as play. His folly prompts an attack from shore. It's a hail of arrows, and it signals how thoroughly the terrain has been altered. We are back in the land of Conrad, where the "Enemy" has been replaced by "the savages" and where technology has been turned backwards into arrows and spears. First Clean, the rock 'n roller, is felled; next, the stalwart Chief falls (following what looks to be a new Hollywood trend of killing off the minority characters first — cf. THE CHINA SYNDROME). Further into Cambodia, the scene becomes stranger and stranger. Parts of burnt helicopters are stranded in trees. Corpses litter the banks, a portent of Kurtz's proximity. The geography falls victim to a deranged imagination. Coppola has translated Conrad into a vision worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, into a surfeit of the imaginable.

Here, suddenly and unexpectedly, APOCALYPSE NOW takes a turn for the worse. Why? Perhaps it's the inevitable consequence of anticlimax, for after such a river journey, any destination would appear insufficient. Perhaps it's the memory of Guyana, with that real-life Jonestown compound still too horrible to allow room for this parallel fantasy. Perhaps it's the unexpected media consciousness of the scene, with sets looking like DeMille's props revivified (even though we know, we know, how expensively and painstakingly they were constructed), and with Dennis Hopper acting out the part of a harlequin updated as a news photographer. Perhaps, as other critics have already lamented, the failure lies in "the horror, the horror" of Marlon Brando's performance.

If Willard has begun to exhibit a Ahab-like obsession with his prey, then Brando/Kurtz certainly fills the bill as his Moby Dick, a great white whale beached up in a jungle drained of order. Alas, APOCALYPSE NOW is itself too pretentious to allow Brando to brandish that same quality in his acting, let alone to accept Brando's overdose with such hushed reverence. Brando takes his Kurtz much too literally from Conrad, but makes a travesty of classicism with his overweighty mannerisms. At worst, Kurtz sounds like a bad imitation of Richard Burton doing Shakespeare; at best, he appears to be Don Corelone in the wrong movie. (This comparison is not entirely frivolous. To fit the male parameters of his western/war quest, Coppola has introduced a little sex change: Kurtz's heir in the Conrad story is a woman, "my intended," while Coppola makes the heir a man, "my son," in keeping with his own demonstrated fondness for godfathers and patriarchal lines of descent.)

In Kurtz's compound, Willard is indeed lost in a funhouse, a madhouse, a place not unlike the hall of mirrors that this review took as its starting point. Kurtz reads his poems, Willard performs his mission, and Willard's exit begins. There is no suspense to the ending, no surprise except the absence of surprise. But for all the simple courage of his closing moment, Coppola cannot redeem the half hour that precedes it. The entire sequence of the Kurtz hell is a disaster — but it is a disaster intrinsic to the structure of Coppola's film, and as such, instructive. The dead end up Kurtz's gulch is the logical consequence of a thread traced by Coppola throughout APOCALYPSE NOW. Beginning with the flash-forward prologue that serves to inform us of the hero's ultimate survival and to provide the narrative with the distancing and framing it needs, Coppola moves adroitly through a series of three styles that reflect his three levels of political perspective. The first is the Kilgore spectacle, the second is the war qua war, and the third is the myth/ritual.

In the first, the wild west movement of this apocalyptic opus, war is a spectacle of technology, both cinematic and ballistic. Its visualization brings vividly to mind the words of Marinetti, the Italian futurist turned Mussolini champion:

"War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the ceasefire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages … Poets and artists of Futurism… remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art may be illumined by them."

Marinetti's aesthetic of war finds a perfect embodiment in the character of Kilgore, striding happily on the beach, relishing the napalm-red setting for his surfing display. A bit more disturbing, however, is how Marinetti's words resonate in Coppola's fashioning of this section of the film.

Making this film, Coppola is playing at war with all the passion of a schoolboy, relishing its spectacle, aiming a technology as powerful as a war machine at his vision, creating a rainbow of fatal gasses, a crescendo of deadly weaponry, a Coney Island in place of a morgue. True, the snake is defanged: we know this visual violence leaves no dead. Still, the viewer may well be disturbed to feel stirring not horror, but pleasure at this sight — a special kind of pleasure, the kind Walter Benjamin argued Marinetti expected war to supply; "the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology." Coppola is engaged in a very tricky business, exploring war as visual spectacle, as metaphor. Thus, in the film's first section, war as pyrotechnics, Willard and the viewers gaze as spectators upon a war that exists precisely, as a vision.

This metaphor recedes as Willard's cruise gets underway, and moves out from under Kilgore's protective wing to darker waters. Coppola throws a cute swipe at television by showing us a TV film crew directing a brief bit of war games to bring home to the U.S. people as "news." Their little camera has a limited field of vision, as did the news of that time, so Coppola obligingly opens up the frame to show the larger picture. It is this section of the film that must be responsible for the rumored Vietnamese approval of the movie as a statement on the war. Certainly APOCALYPSE NOW is free of the overwhelming racism of the DEER HUNTER, with its teeming masses of servile, undifferentiated South Vietnamese and crazed Viet Cong. Coppola has omitted the South Vietnemese almost entirely, portraying Vietnam's debasement with a "made in USA" label, and he throws a number of rather dubious compliments to the North Vietnamese.

If Kilgore bears the burden of outrage, then the sampan scene bears the burden of judgment. "Charging somebody with murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500," Willard says near the start of his mission, an observation that resounds as forcefully through the sampan scene as it might have in real life through the Calley trial. Yet these political judgments are not what really interests Coppola. There is not enough drama in them. They stir the gut instead of the imagination. Coppola quickly moves on, demonstrating that neither the Vietnamese, nor the U.S. presence, nor even the political points hanging in the balance are his primary concern in the film. "I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars," reads his program note; "I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers…"

There is a clear method to his movement. Coppola is bent on a quest for the essence of individual morality, an essence that by its very nature cannot be found in a social scale of historical events, but only in the private moments of tragedy. The Vietnam-Cambodia border becomes the boundary line to be crossed in Willard's movement from warfare to ritual, from the nation-state to the individual, from politics to morality. Thus the film enacts the movement of Coppola's thought as a philosophical quest, piloting Willard upriver in pursuit of the last of the renegades, the Individual, located beyond the sphere of warfare, up where killing is no longer a political act. The scene of Kurtz's death is enacted not as murder but as ritual: Willard foresakes technology for a samurai sword, loses his uniform to emerge as mud-caked as the Montagnards around him, and thus equipped engages in combat with Kurtz. Their combat becomes at once a throwback to primordial battle (accentuated by chiaroscuro lighting) and an enactment of ritual (underlined by intercutting a simultaneous tribal sacrifice).

The danger lurking in Coppola's elegant construction is exposed most clearly in his film's final sequence of killing and departure. Coppola has posited for us a notion of morality that is "beyond" politics, nations, warfare, history — that is lodged in the individual. That individual is Captain Willard. He is a mercenary, a CIA-trained assassin, a man who is in a position to exercise this morality only because of the immorality (his mission) from which he would not stand apart. It is this contradiction that explodes in the film's final moments. Willard's killing of Kurtz is a ritual, to be sure, but unlike the tribal slaughter of the sacred beast, it is a ritual empty of meaning, a symbol signifying nothing. The audience, following the pathway that Coppola has cleverly cleared, is left stranded in a moral vacuum. Tracking rugged individualism upriver into the jungle, we find that Kurtz, as promised, is one of "the hollow men," and that, moreover, Willard is equally hollow (as the speaker, whose empty, disengaged voice opened the film, he has come full circle.) Cutting ropes, moving beyond society, beyond history, beyond politics, the individual is left out in the dark, an impulse without a center.

But wait. Can this really be the end? Has Coppola really constructed a film that exposes the hollow core hidden in our contemporary heart of darkness? Is his return to the elemental in man really a critique? No, this review — like its subject — has two endings. It could be that Coppola is really looking for himself in that jungle. It could be that Kurtz is not only Marlon Brando, and not only Charles Foster Kane, but finally, maybe, Francis (Ford) Coppola, the empire-building artist in extremis. Why, "apocalypse" is a mere letter away from a perfect anagram: "yes, coppola."

If this is so, if the quest into the darkness is really a narcissistic quest for the self (like the mirror reflection that opened the film), then Coppola's apparent critique may in fact be a bid for redemption. And if so, then pay no mind to Coppola's rhetoric, to the Vietnamese approval, to the print already donated to the Cubans — because the tale of APOCALYPSE NOW is a familiar, traditional, all-American story. It is a portrait of the rugged individualist, the man who can outwit them all, the Homo sapiens USA model, Darwin's chosen species. And Francis Coppola has made a film in the highest tradition of Hollywood. He's made the perfect "Godfather, Part III."


Reprinted with permission, © 1979 The Chicago Reader.