In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola released Apocalypse Now, one of the most prominent war films in American cinema. Influenced by Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the epic Vietnam War film stars Martin Sheen as Army Lieutenant B.L. Willard and Marlon Brando as Walter Kurtz, a crazed renegade American Colonel. Captain Willard receives the mission to make his way upriver by boat to Kurtz’s remote compound in Cambodia, assassinate him, and capture his command.
Unlike most American war films, Apocalypse Now shies away from the typical conventions often employed, and instead, uses a surrealistic and symbolic approach to illustrate how the savagery and madness of the war transforms the nature of man; this greater focus on the psychedelic, metaphorical journey of Willard and his crew is shown through the film’s camerawork, alternative ideas, screenplay, cinematography, editing, and sound.
Traditionally in the American war film, subjects including combat, battle strategies, and victories or defeats demand the majority of thematic attention. Bloody bodies fill the screen as well as sounds of thunderous explosions and rapid machine guns rattling rounds of bullets in the air.
Colonels scream orders over the deafening clatter to their troops. Aerial shots, also frequently used in American war films, demonstrate fighter planes flying overhead firing at the enemies’ base. War strategies and tactics are often discussed between generals, adding to the audience’s comprehension of the plot. In American war films preceding the Vietnam War this film content was commonplace.
For example, Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front simply gave viewers a realistic and anti-war perspective on World War I. Contemporary war films such as Steven Spielberg’s powerful Saving Private Ryan still portray many of these same fundamental qualities of war. Spielberg’s famous opening scene depicts the American D-day invasion of the German army at Normandy, presenting a gory, graphic view of World War II combat. Spielberg, through his use of modern technique and special effects, captures the realism and turmoil of the war.
However, the Vietnam War differs greatly from earlier American wars because much of the circumstances surrounding the war-guerrilla warfare, the jungle, the Vietcong, the infamous threat of Communism, and the purpose for fighting the war-were unclear to American citizens and soldiers. Due to this sense of unknown, the Vietnam War mentally transformed many of its participants. Coppola’s early films, such as The Godfather, The Rain People, and The Conversation all indicate his fascination with violence, and there is no shortage of gruesome bloodshed in Apocalypse Now. Coppola does include several battle scenes throughout the film, including the Air Cavalry’s attack on the village and several gunfights on the boat.
More importantly, however, Coppola wanted to address the individual emotional and psychological traumas of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now focuses on the insanity and madness created from the psychological power of the war using surreal conventions to represent the metaphorical and psychedelic themes of savagery and man’s inhumanity to man.
This insaniety that Coppola portrays becomes evident when Willard arrives at Kurtz’s Cambodian compound, where sticks prop up decapitated heads and bodies are hung from trees like glorified statues. These images are symbolic of Kurtz’s descent into madness and absolute disorder as a result of the war’s horrific violence.
But Kurtz does not just keep this insanity within himself. The crazed regenade employs a host of Cambodian natives, who worship Kurtz as their leader and protect him from Captain Willard’s ship of naive and unseasoned privates. Gilbert Adair’s Vietnam on Film sums up clearly that “Coppola’s Vietnam epic [Apocalypse Now] had to be about something else, as well. And this something else could hardly relate to such moral concerns as heroism, compassion, human dignity, all familiar features of traditional war movies.”
The screenplay of Apocalypse Now differs largely from other conventional American war films because of its central focus on the metaphorical theme concerning the nature of man and war. Coppola incorporates little about the struggles and conditions that man faces in war and instead shows Willard’s journey and gradual transformation into Kurtz’s persona. In Peter Cowie’s The Apocalypse Now Book, Coppola writes a brief synopsis of his film:
…The story is metaphorical: Willard’s journey up the river is also a journey into himself, and the strange and savage man he finds at the end is also an aspect of himself. Clearly, although the film is certainly ‘anti-war’, its focus is not on recent politics. The intention is to make a film that is of a much broader scope; and provide the audience with an exhilarated [sic] journey into the nature of man, and his relationship to the Creation. It is the hope of the film-makers to tell this story using the unique imagery of the recent Vietnamese War; its helicopters, disposable weaponry; as well as the Rock music, the drugs and psychedelic sensibilities.
Coppola explains that the film is not a representation of the historical context of the Vietnam War, but rather, a man’s struggle between good and evil. Although this is the film’s primary focus of the film, Coppola expresses further in Frank McAdam’s The American War Film: History and Hollywood his intentions to reveal the chaos and evils of the Vietnam War upon man: “The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war…” American cinema has encountered several anti-war films over its long history, but Coppola’s reveals this “madness” and “horror” to represent surreal metaphors of war rather than purely realistic and graphic views featured in other American war films.
Toward the end of the epic film, the cinematography and editing symbolically show the transformation of Captain Willard into Kurtz’s persona. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of pictorial lighting creates thematic symbolism during many shots toward the end that feature Captain Willard and the fanatical Colonel Kurtz. When Willard reaches Kurtz’s compound and meets the man he has been sent to terminate, Storaro’s profound use of lighting reveals the psychological and spiritual bond between the two characters. Both Kurtz and Willard are filmed with their faces half in and half out of the shadow as the camera cuts from half-shadowed dark face to the other.
This combination of cinematography and editing symbolize the moral conflict between good and evil of each character: ultimately, the lighting indicates that Willard has become Kurtz. When Kurtz later holds Willard captive, Storaro’s use of shadows keeps the viewer in suspense of the mysterious, sinister Kurtz. Cowie explains, “Kurtz is at first heard, not seen, and then the crown of his head emerges like a crescent moon from the shadows. Soon afterwards, he appears before a caged Willard, looming out of the darkness, his head daubed with whorls of camouflage paint, and tossing the severed head of Chef into his captive’s lap.” As Willard finally puts an end to Kurtz’s deranged life in this final highly-shadowed and surreal sequence, the editing symbolically crosscuts from the slaughtering of Kurtz to the simultaneous slaughtering of a bull during the sacrificial ceremony.
Despite the tremendous power of the visual imagery in Apocalypse Now, sound plays a critical role in sustaining the symbolism and mysterious, surreal themes of madness and savagery throughout the film. During Captain Willard’s stay in Saigon early in the story, sound designer Walter Munch created a symbolic image and sound relationship by adding the sound of a helicopter to the shot of the ceiling fan blades spinning. This symbolic relationship between sound and image separate Apocalypse Now from the traditional war film, for images are not always superior to sound. Apocalypse Now uses a remarkably unique sound montage, combining complex patterns of sounds to create symbolism, emotion, and deeper meaning. In the opening scene at Captain Willard’s hotel in Saigon, Willard expresses his wish to be back in the jungle to fulfill his combative desires.
As Willard dreams about the jungle, Munch removes the city sounds of Saigon with primitive jungle sounds to show the relationship between mind and body and their needs. In another scene, when Captain Willard’s jumpy crew stops a Vietnamese boat and rattle their machine guns, Munch added supplementary elements to the machine gun; Munch was still able to give the viewer a sense of realism through the addition of artificial sound layers. In addition, the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now supplements the profound themes presented on the screen.
Coppola includes “The End,” a long, psychedelic song performed by The Doors, in the final segment to match the insanity and madness displayed during this final, climatic scene of Kurtz’s assassination. This innovative use of sound and music in Apocalypse Now has helped distinguish it from other war films and left a profound impact on war film production in American cinema.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now changed the way that audiences and film critics perceive the American war film. By transcending the traditional portrayal of American war featuring action, strategies, and gore, Coppola’s Vietnam War epic looks beyond the battles to the psychological impact of war upon man. With its mysterious, surreal, and symbolic, conventions, Coppola demonstrates the metaphorical and psychedelic journey of one man and how the moral dilemma of war eventually transforms his soul.