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Apocalypse Now Analysis

Updated on November 2, 2016
Apocalypse Now film cover
Apocalypse Now film cover | Source

Notes For Discussion:

  • The title
  • Opening sequence - the wall of jungle; the helicopters; emphasis on beauty and on destruction; echoes of hell; The Doors singing 'The End' ( reprised at the end of the film as well.)
  • Willard's unease with his present situation is unclear. He seeks another mission, yet says in his voice over that he will never want another after what he experienced (consider this building of suspense and compare it to Marlow). He is defined by the war. He has no identity without it/ can't function outside it.
  • What is the effect of the voice over narration?
  • Kurtz's name is mentioned in the voiceover. Consider how this builds the suspense/ mythic nature of his character/ Compare to the Heart of Darkness.
  • Willard becomes 'the caretaker of Col Walter E Kurtz's memory' (Willard). Compare Marlow.
  • 'There is no way to tell his story without telling my own and if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.' (Willard) Compare Heart of Darkness: whose story is it - Kurtz's or Marlow's?
  • The use of the photo of Kurtz as a motif to build the mythic presence. The first scene in which it is seen is in conjunction with the tape recording - hinting at madness (the snail crawling along the edge of a razor and surviving).
  • 'We must kill them ... We must incinerate them ... What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin ... They lie ... Those nabobs, I hate them, I really hate them.' (Kurtz)
  • Kurtz as one of 'the most outstanding officers' the US has produced. He is described by the General as 'brilliant', 'outstanding in every way', as 'humanitarian man', a man of 'wit and humour.' But his methods have come 'unsound.' Compare Heart of Darkness.
  • '... in this war things get confused ... out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil, and good does not always triumph.' (The General) Compare Heart of Darkness.
  • 'The Montagnard army of his (i.e. Kurtz) worship the man, like a god, and follow every order, however ridiculous.' (The Colonel).

Willard emerging from the water before killing Kurtz
Willard emerging from the water before killing Kurtz | Source
  • He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.' Compare Heart of Darkness.
  • 'Terminate with extreme prejudice.' It is here that Marlow and Willard differ most significantly.
  • Willard notes the ridiculousness of it all, the hypocrisy: 'Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out tickets at the Indy 500.' This echoes Kurtz's taped recording highlighting the hypocrisy of the assassins.
  • The Chief tells Willard of a man from the regular army on a special op. who shot himself in the head. Compare this with the doctor who examines Marlow and the men who go to Africa as scientifically interesting. It's also clearly echoed in the Swede who hanged himself.
  • The crew on the PBR: Chef, the machinist, shouldn't be there, representative of us?; Lance B Johnson, surfer (whose name echoes Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president responsible for America's escalated involvement in the war); Clean, still a teenager, frequently out of it on dope ( note the use of drugs throughout the film as a sort of survival mechanism); Philips, the captain of the boat (Chief).
  • Contrast the flippancy of the boat crew (waterskiing, The Rolling Stones, the dope) with Willard's reading of Kurtz's file and the recurring photograph. Note also the repeated references to Kurtz's voice.
  • 'Like they said, he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive. I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top spots.' (Willard on Kurtz)
  • Kilgore - consider the name. Note his Civil War hat linking him to the history of the US military and to the racist South (listen to his language when speaking of the Vietnamese).
  • Look at the sequence in the village: the bombed church, the noise, Kilgore and Lance discussing surfing, the priest/the Lord's Prayer, ascension of the ox (echoes of La Dolce Vita?), helicopters, smoke, etc - images of chaos, disorder, madness.
  • The 6 foot peak, 'Charlie don't surf.' The rationality of the army's decision making is thrown into question.
  • Kilgore embodies the values of eccentricity, playfulness, ruthlessness and madness of the real American war effort.
  • Look at the sequence leading up to the bombing of the coastal village: the ethereal dream-like music (the synthesisers and the high voices), the brilliant yellows and rich oranges, the cross fading of frames into one another, Willard juxtaposed with the surreal Wagnerian attack ('The Ride of the Valkyries', from Die Walkure). The music juxtaposes the pinnacle of man's creative ability with that of man's destructive capabilities.
  • Napalm - a mixture of gasoline, napthenic and palmatic acids. Rarely does anyone survive. Even hiding underground is unsafe as the fire storm creates a vacuum and victims dies of asphyxiation.
  • 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning ... It smells like victory.' Kilgore also delivers the poignant 'Some day this war's gonna end', repeated by Willard.
  • The boys want to get home, but Willard observes that 'home' just doesn't exist any more. What does he man by this and how is this reflected in Marlow's experiences in Heart of Darkness?
  • 'If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.' (Willard)
  • 'The more I read and began to understand, the more I began to admire (Kurtz).' (Willard). Compare Heart of Darkness.

Kilgore Scene On Surfing And Napalm

  • Following the tiger attack Chef repeatedly cries that one should never get off the boat. Willard's narration picks up this fact: 'Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way ... Kurtz got off the boat.' (Willard) Is the boat acting metaphorically here as a symbol of control, order, direction? You might consider linking it to the concept of restraint in Heart of Darkness. The boat is also traditionally a symbol of society (the island in The Lord of the Flies is boat-shaped). Can the boat be seen as a microcosm of the United States?
  • Clean's wild firing into the wilderness echoes the blind firing of the French man o'war in Heart of Darkness.
  • The close up of Willard's face, the haunting ethereal music, the voice-over narration are all used by Coppola to emphasise the introspective point of view. Compare the techniques available to Coppola with those available to Conrad.
  • Willard admits, 'The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired (Kurtz).' Compare Marlow's relationship with Kurtz. The photographs, documents, classified files, etc. keep filling the frame, adding to our fascination. Willard's narration begins to influence - his view of Kurtz shapes our own, just as Marlow's does.
  • 'The war was being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away.' (Willard)
  • '(Kurtz) kept going and he kept winning it his way ... They lost him; he was gone. Nothing but rumours and random intelligence.' As we listen to Willard and see the images of the four South Vietnamese executed at Kurtz's command, are we as fascinated as Willard or are we repulsed?
  • Where does truth lie? Kurtz's letter to his son claims the charges he face are insane: ' I am beyond their timid, lying morality and so I am beyond caring.'
  • Visions of hell litter the jungle: bodies in trees; burning shells of helicopters; tails of aeroplanes; etc. It appears as some sort of apocalyptic junkyard.
  • Lance's camouflage links him first to the jungle and the sense of being absorbed by it. He will later cry out, echoing the haunting cried from the jungle before the attack on the boat. Also, his camouflage paint mirrors that worn by Kurtz later on. At Kurtz's compound, he seems to have given in completely, performing a series of tai-chi movements and Marlow having to lead him off following the completion of his mission.

Willard bleeding and mentally unstable in the hotel room.
Willard bleeding and mentally unstable in the hotel room. | Source
  • The scene involving the sampan and the slaughter of the innocents serves as a representation of the My Lai slaughter, in which 347 villagers were killed in cold blood under orders from Lt William Calley Jnr, March 1968. As we have travelled with the boat and its crew, identifying to some extent with them, we share their guilt/shame and are equally horrified by Willard's act.
  • "There was a way we had over here of living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a band-aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies.' (Willard) Compare this to Marlow and the issue of lies in Heart of Darkness.
  • Following his act on the sampan, Willard feels he knows something more about Kurtz.
  • Do Long bridge acts as some sort of symbolic barrier. It represents the very edge, beyond which Kurtz exists. Note the surreal, dream-like, irrational, frenzied, chaotic mood of the scene (including flames, distorted / discordant music / bells, flares, screams). An endless cycle of destruction and rebuilding - a Sisyphean task emphasising the pointlessness of many aspects of war.
  • Colby, the captain previously sent to kill Kurtz, echoes Fresleven in Heart of Darkness. He is seen in a trance-like state as Willard enters Kurtz's compound. Colby's letter home had said: 'Sell the house. See the car. Sell the kids. Find someone else. I'm never coming home/ back. Forget it!!!'
  • The poignancy of Clean's death is highlighted by the recorded voice of his mother, playing over the scene, anticipating his return home.
  • '(Kurtz) was close. He was real close ... I couldn't see him yet. I could feel him. As if the boat were being sucked up river.' (Willard)
  • Whilst Marlow is never at risk on the boat, the Chief has always been suspicious of Willard. When speared, the Chief tries to strangle Willard or pull him down on to the spear.
  • The haunting water burial of Clean, conducted by Lance, contrasts dramatically with Marlow's ignominious tripping the body of the helmsman overboard.
  • '... the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront (Kurtz).' (Willard)
  • Naked bodies hanging from the trees and the severed heads indicate the extremity of Kurtz's behaviour.

The surf boards being delivered to Kilgore.
The surf boards being delivered to Kilgore. | Source
  • Chef defines what he sees at the compound as 'pagan idolatry.'
  • 'Everything I saw told me Kurtz had gone insane.' (Willard)
  • 'This was the end of the river all right.'
  • 'Have you ever considered real freedom?' (Kurtz) Is the suggestion that what he is practicing is 'real freedom'?
  • Kurtz: Are my methods unsound? Willard: I don't see any method at all.
  • The photo-journalist suggest it will be Willard's duty to set the record straight when Kurtz dies. Consider Marlow's role in Heart of Darkness.
  • Consider the play of light and darkness whenever Kurtz appears on screen - a figure of illumination or darkness?
  • 'The Hollow Men' - Kurtz reads Eliot's poem virtually in full, significantly omitting the poem's epigraph, 'Mister Kurtz, he dead.'
  • '(Kurtz) knew more about what I was going to do than I did.' Willard recognises that he is free, yet is paradoxically unable to leave.
  • '(Kurtz) broke from them (i.e. the people back home) and then broke from himself.' Find an echo of this in Heart of Darkness.
  • 'You have no right to judge me. It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who don't know what horror means ... Horror has a face ... Horror and moral terror are your friends.' (Kurtz)
  • In his recount of the Viet Cong's atrocious act, hacking off the inoculated arms, Kurtz says: 'The genius, the will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realised they were stronger than we, because they could stand it ... they have the strength, the strength to do that ... You have to have men who are moral and at the same time able to use their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgement, without judgement. Because it's judgement that defeats us.' You might want to consider whether Marlow is loathe to judge Kurtz.
  • 'There's nothing I distrust more than the stench of lies.' Kurtz entrusts Willard with the mission of carrying the 'truth' back to Kurtz's son.
  • Note the similarity between Kurtz's appearance and that of Willard. Willard's method of assassination is echoed in the slaughter of the ox, carrying a sense of sacrifice with it.
  • 'The horror. The horror.'
  • 'Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all.'
  • The sense in which Willard could replace Kurtz is very clear - his appearance, his position in the temple, the Montagnard's laying down of weapons, the use of light/shade.
  • Like Marlow, Willard is haunted by Kurtz's final words.
  • n.b. The film is dated 1979.

Your thoughts on the film adaptation?

Does Apocalypse Now represent Heart of Darkness accurately?

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Kurtz depicted with the composer's manipulation of light and shadow.
Kurtz depicted with the composer's manipulation of light and shadow. | Source

Viewing Guide:

  • How does Coppola create a sense of confrontation and mystery in the opening montage? Think about music, shots, sound, lyrics, multiple exposure, mise en scene, etc.) How does he reflect the context in which he created the film?
  • How does Coppola transform Heart of Darkness and all that it symbolizes in the opening montage?
  • Compare the voiceover of Willard to Marlow's opening comments. What are the similarities and differences?
  • How does Coppola create a sense of Capt. Willard being 'touched by the fever'? How does this relate to Marlow's touch of madness?
  • Why does Harrison Ford's character, Luke, give the audience information about Willard's past? How is Col. Kurtz described?
  • The tape recording of Kurtz talks about crawling on the edge of a straight razor and surviving. What is the significance? He then comments on lying and the camera pans to Willard's hand. Why? What links are there to Heart of Darkness?
  • How has Coppola transformed the scene in the novella where Marlow goes to get his appointment as a steamship captain? Examine the parallels of character, settling, imagery. How has Coppola reflected his context in his transformation? What values are beliefs become apparent?
  • 'There is a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between the good and the evil.' How can this be connected to the novella?
  • The idea of 'restraint' is introduced - why?
  • Why does Coppola use extreme long shots to show Willard being ferried down the coast? How does this connect to the imagery of the novella?
  • Why does the captain of the boat tell Willard about the last person he took down the river? How does this transform the novella?
  • Describe the 'civilisation' of the Americans. Does Willard fit in? How does this reflect the imperialism and colonialism of the novella?
  • With whom do you empathise, the natives or the Americans, in the village? Why? Is your empathy similar or different in the novella?
  • What is the effect of the wide angle shot of the choppers arising out of the jungle?
  • 'I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.' How do you feel about the captain who seems untouchable after watching him in battle? Who does he represent from the novella?
  • How is the playboy bunny show similar to the representation of civilisation in the novel?

The Playboy Scene illustrating the men's primordial and savage behaviour.
The Playboy Scene illustrating the men's primordial and savage behaviour. | Source

Need a copy of this classic film:

  • How does the power of the wilderness or darkness seem to increase as they head up river?
  • How is the final part of the journey up the river represented? Think about music, sound, editing, shots, angles, lighting, etc.
  • Describe the arrival of the boat at Kurtz's camp. How is the Russian from the text represented? How and why has Coppola transformed him?
  • How is the mob scene with Willard turned upside-down and multiple exposure similar to the opening scene of the film?
  • Why does Kurtz talk about travelling down the Ohio river? Why is he always hidden in shadow?
  • The camouflage warpaint is symbolic - of what? Who wears it and when?
  • Why does Kurtz say, 'You must make a friend of Horror.'? What is 'The horror. The horror,' in the film? Does it retain the same meaning in the novella and the film? Why or why not?
  • What request does Kurtz make of Willard?
  • Why does Coppola cut between the killing of Kurtz and of the beast?
  • What parallel is drawn between Kurtz's scribble in his notes and his report on the suppression of savage customs in the novel?
  • What effect does the voiceover and multiple exposure leave you with at the end of the film?
  • How is the character of Kurtz transformed in the film? What values and beliefs does he embody?
  • How effectives is the voice over at telling the story? Note the past tense. How does this connect to the novella?
  • The 'four star clowns' running the war are similar to the company directors in the novella. How are the relative power structures set up?
  • Fog plays a key role in the film and the novella. What is its significance in both texts?
  • The camera plays with light and shadow particularly with the characters of Kurtz and Willard. What effect is the director trying to create?
  • The tribe of Kurtz kneels before Willard at the end of the film, what does this suggest about him? Think about camera angle, lighting, etc. Has he 'crawled along the edge of a straight razor and survived'?
  • Why don't the titles appear until the end of the film? What effect does this have on the audience?
  • The title Apocalypse Now is significant. Why would the film have this title? How does it add to the meaning of the story?

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 10 months ago

      A very good Hub. Apocalypse Now does an excellent job of using the sureal to portray the insanity of war. While the Vietnam Conflict, or at least the U.S. involvement in it, is often treated as a special case it really wasn't. Apocalypse Now could be viewed as the conflict between those who wanted the fig leaf of fighting by a set of rules and those who believed to win there could be no rules. It is a theme used in many war movies.