Apocalypse Now: A Critical Essay
Coppola’s Portrait of a Disneyland Overrun by Insanity
Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, set in the height of the Vietnam War. It is based on the novella Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad and follows the mission of a U.S. Army Captain. Captain Willard is played by Martin Sheen, he is ordered to kill a U.S. Army Colonel, Walter Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.
Since the war in Vietnam had ceased less than a year prior to the filming period, the film was shot in the similar rainforest environment of The Philippines. The on-location filming process started in February 1976 and lasted 238 days, much longer than any other Hollywood film would usually take. When Coppola and his team returned home, they had nearly 200 hours of filmed material on their hands. As a result, an editing period of almost three years was needed before a final product could be spoken of.
As for the budget: because of the controversial topic of the production, Coppola failed to recruit any sponsors. He put all he had into this film, not only mentally and physically but also financially. The budget started at twelve million dollars and ended up soaring over thirty million dollars. Apocalypse Now ended up becoming the film to make or break Coppola and, oddly enough, I perceived that same ‘make or break’ feeling as I sat through this three-and-a-half hour long invigorating nightmare.
Coppola exhibits an expedition through insanity from the very beginning of the film. You are transported to a surreal world of rainforests, mystery, and chaos. A setting that your imagination isn’t able to create, even in your wildest dreams. The first sequence helps you enter this world. By slowly panning from left to right, you get a good look at a line of trees, a view you would recognize as an ordinary rainforest. This changes when the serene sight goes up in flames. Paired up with an intense non-diegetic soundtrack and the faint sound of helicopters, you witness the first scene of madness. Sheen is introduced as Captain Willard: a drunk man suffering a breakdown. The genuineness of the acting is daunting, Sheen was in fact drunk during the filming of this scene. He performs unstable martial arts, cries violently, injures himself and is restless until he exhausts himself and sees his entire bed is stained with his own blood. Coppola very cleverly lets Sheen look straight into the camera, something awfully uncommon in cinematography. This too has a huge effect on the spectator: you realize that you’re in this fantasy world that feels very real, one in which even the actor isn’t acting anymore.
Captain Willard is then given the mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who has moved up to Cambodia while committing inhumane attacks on villages run by the Vietcong. The Captain commences on his journey into the unknown, accompanied by a crew on an army motorboat. They are met by an incredible character, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. Even though the protection of a screen is present, Kilgore is a frightening figure, a lunatic with an uncommon methodology. A magnificent shot is produced at the start of an action-packed day. A long-shot pictures a swarm of helicopters flying over the top of the rainforest at dawn. There is no dialogue, only the unified yet slightly dissonant sounds of a string orchestra. It feels as though the helicopters are flying right at you, from afar and in slow-motion. This effect is achieved by holding the camera in a stationary position and is a unique perspective. The dark insect-like machines stand out against the pale orange sky in the background and an eerie atmosphere is created.
This eerie yet peaceful scene changes suddenly as preparations are made to attack a village. Kilgore gives orders to put on the music, the iconic Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner: a perfectly chosen piece for the heat of the moment. The trembling of the strings paired up with the infamous melody played by the brass instruments adds to the already compelling scene. The internal diegetic music becomes louder and louder until the shot and music are abruptly cut. The timing is impeccable: the spectator is caught off guard, which results in Coppola gaining the full concentration of observers. This was certainly his goal as the following scene was not an easy one to compose. A huge amount of different diachronic shots are used to capture the violence and terror executed by the incoming helicopters. The distance, angle, and movement constantly changes to imitate the flying course of the helicopters, while they destroy everything and everyone. This scene is perfectly in line with the surrounding ambiance created by Coppola. You feel horrified by the violence, overwhelmed by the amount going on and yet intrigued by the manner of filming and the amount of action taking place.
When the U.S. Army soldiers have landed, a series of strange events takes place that make you consider yourself as an incredibly normal being. The landscape is portrayed as a chaotic whirlwind of war and Kilgore starts a conversation with a famous surfer about surfing, a great passion of his. With bullets and bombs hurtling past them from every direction, he confidently discusses the most irrelevant topic possible and the controversy is spectacular. You become a witness and a part of this insane act. To make matters even more unbelievable, he orders two of the best surfers to ‘catch some waves’. With Kilgore blasting orders through a megaphone, they desperately try to dodge bombs falling beside them. Coppola sees to the fact that the audience is disorientated by this, it has an aspect of humor in it but you don’t allow yourself to laugh because of the urgency of the rest of the situation; you can’t keep your thoughts straight.
A monologue that strikes me, is then held by Kilgore: ‘Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like.. victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.’
This excerpt of speech is extremely captivating. It apprehends the horror of war and all its faults. The only image that appeared before my eyes was the photograph of Kim Phuc and the idea of all the people suffering because of identical napalm attacks. A sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach was the consequence. The harshness of the Lieutenant’s words is accentuated by a shot that slowly zooms in on the character telling his story. The tumultuous setting is quieted, investing all the more attention to the shocking words being spoken. This increasingly adds to Coppola’s sketch of insanity.
Leaving Kilgore behind and after stealing his beloved surfboard, the crew proceed their journey up-river, into the vast and dense jungle. To have filmed everything on-location was a terrific decision. As you watch, you are enclosed by this great mysterious atmosphere. This is further emphasized by calming long shots, allowing you to soak up every aspect of the complicated, busy setting. A noticeable change at this point is the influence the rainforest and being on a mission has on Captain Willard. He seems more at ease in the dangerous rainforest than in a hotel room in Sai Gong. The concept of feeling this way in such an environment is extremely hard to comprehend and Coppola choreographs the whole thing as if totally natural. You see the main character transition from an unstable drunkard, to someone who is part of a team and crew, helping to make decisions on behalf of the others.
Speaking of nature, an incredibly gripping scene including a live tiger is filmed in the depths of the rainforest when the Captain and another member leave the boat to find food, thereby breaking the sacred rule to ‘never leave the boat’. The composition of the scene is genius and bone-chilling. The shift from a casual conversation to complete and nerve wracking silence, in which the men realize they are not alone, grasps the spectator once again. The fear in their eyes and shock on their faces looks truly genuine and after watching the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), I learned that the tiger was indeed loose and untamed. The reactions of the actors were therefore not completely acted, as a normal human response to a tiger jumping up at you in a natural and precarious setting, would be one of fear. The choice to film the scene in this way is risky but effective. The grave and genuine expression on their faces after the tiger attack, gives the setting an evermore unreliable sense to it.
Using all these different methods creates a mysterious, seemingly real setting; to such an extent that the audience feels enveloped in it, unable to fathom and escape the amount of happenings and details and aspects throughout the entire production. Coppola succeeds at this, time and time again. He keeps creating scenes in which acts of craziness are exhibited. As the boat proceeds, the crew encounters another American boat crew. The two boats head in each other’s direction, only just avoiding a headlong crash. The danger is averted until the Captain’s crew notice their boat’s canvas going up in flames. While they desperately attempt to put out the fire, I couldn’t help thinking what a strange prank to play in that situation. I would have thought the boat they encountered would have a friendlier approach to men of their own country and culture, showing them solidarity as they are all situated in the same hostile war. This segment is not at all important to the story, yet has been included to build further on the hateful environment these young men find themselves in.
The crew is constantly portrayed as a bunch of good men during the expedition, men with dreams and aspirations in life. Yet a particular scene shows how the war affects even decent, ordinary people. The crew comes across three natives on a small boat. Captain Willard learns that the standard procedure is to search the boat, he argues against it but the crew nevertheless proceeds to search the vessel. It appears the local inhabitants are transporting harmless goods such as vegetables but as soon as a girl tries to stop a crew member from looking inside a certain basket, they open fire in a ridiculous manner, brutally killing the three people. Even the youngest member on board the army vessel, only seventeen, starts shooting like a maniac. When at last they stop firing, they go on to assess what the girl was trying to hide. As the hidden product is revealed to be a small puppy, the realization sets in that they have assassinated three innocent people, merely as a result of suspicion. The girl is in fact injured, not dead, and the crew wants to make sure she receives medical care. Captain Willard’s actions are then striking. While at first being against the so-called obligatory search of the local boat, he resorts to killing the injured girl as he feels they have already lost too much time in regard to his mission. The whole composition of the scene is bizarre and twisted. They resume their journey and take the puppy with them, showing that they are good-hearted men only negatively reformed by their surroundings. It shows a psychological effect similar to the one shown by Professor Zimbardo in his ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, in which an amount of normal students are put in a terrible prison. The outcome of this experiment was that even the best of men can act in an inhumane or morally incorrect way. That same phenomenon is illustrated in this scene, giving the perfect example of one of the psychological aspects of Coppola’s film.
After receiving letters from their loved ones at home, the crew’s situation is looked at through rose coloured spectacles. The sun is shining as they read and reply to their letters aloud. One of the crew members reads: ‘There could never be a place like Disneyland, or could there? Let me know.’ Responding to this, he says: ‘Jim, it’s here. It really is here. Disneyland. Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland.’ This statement sounded very sharp and had me thinking about what Disneyland is to people. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Disneyland can be defined as ‘a large, bustling place filled with colourful attractions’ or ‘a place of fantasy or make-believe’. The most well-known definition of Disneyland is, however, the theme park in the USA. In fact, the last definition of Disneyland can be seen as a combination of the three definitions: a large fantasy world, filled with colourful attractions, brought to life. Where the rainforest serves as a large, bustling place filled with colourful attractions: such as rushing water, vibrant trees, and ferocious tigers. Where the fantasy element is created by the extent of unbelievable acts committed out of pure insanity and people not knowing what to do with themselves. And where all this is brought to life? In a film following Captain Willard’s journey up to Cambodia to complete a secret mission to kill a Colonel.
To summarize, Apocalypse Now is a film in which the storyline is not the focal point. It is a movie with countless components to paint this ghastly, intriguing, and very real picture of what war can look like, and it succeeds in that. Furthermore, I did not enjoy watching this film as it was extremely hard to watch. The amount going on at one moment is overwhelming and suffocating. Although I feel it was Coppola’s intention to keep the audience’s attention on anything other than the storyline, continuously watching the film was almost distressing at times. It is therefore notable that these moments are simultaneously incredibly clever. Coppola makes a great choice of soundtracks, transitioning them from diegetic to non-diegetic sound while keeping it perfectly parallel with the complex shots being shown. A huge number of different shots was used to achieve the perception of a spectacular horror setting, which is truly unique. The insight this film offers into a realistic war scene is very rare and special. For this reason, it can certainly be stated that Apocalypse Now succeeds in being Coppola’s very real portrait of a Disneyland overrun by insanity.