There are undoubtedly many portrayals of the Vietnam War that warrant discussion, but Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, strays away from the conventional Vietnam War narrative by taking great precedence from another text, Heart of Darkness, written in 1899 by the Polish-British novelist, Joseph Conrad. In doing so, the film provides an introspective examination into the futility of the American war effort in Vietnam, which is an angle few other films of the genre have taken into account. The film centres around the journey of an officer in the United States Army Special Forces, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, up the entirely fictional Nung River into Cambodia in order to assassinate a fellow American commander, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who has since strayed from all military edicts. One familiar with Heart of Darkness immediately witnesses the parallels of Conrad’s Marlow and his own descent into the depths of Africa via the Congo River with Coppola’s film, which interestingly expresses the problematic complexities of the Vietnam War by exploring the personal moral degradation of the film’s protagonist. There has been much discussion about the film’s portrayal of the Vietnam War, and what exactly the film’s message constitutes. The film retells the brutality of the American war effort with equally brutal honesty, but at the same time offers a glimpse into the darker recesses of the human condition during an utterly apocalyptic situation. The works of academics such as Margot Norris and Jeffrey Childs usefully analyse the degree to which Coppola’s emphasis on the surreal aesthetic of the film depoliticises its narrative. On one hand, Norris reinforces how Apocalypse Now’s screenplay powerfully evokes the problematic nature of American imperialism through its parallels with Conradian depictions of European imperialism. Childs, meanwhile, takes a step back from contending between the film’s aesthetic and its representation of the Vietnam War, and instead observes how Apocalypse Nowcontends with the notion of influence through its episodic portrayal. In this article however, I shall argue that the film’s examination of the self and the moral sacrifices one makes amidst the apocalyptic conditions of an unjust war, asserted through the underlying political significance of various narrative and cinematic elements throughout the film, constitutes Coppola’s most significant message.
Before we delve into the narrative of moral sacrifice evident in Apocalypse Now, it must first be clarified that it undoubtedly also stands as a commentary on American imperialism in the Vietnam War. Coppola deliberately establishes this through a hellish presentation of the Vietnam War, punctuated by the excessive brutality and violence of the American military. To achieve this, the screenplay becomes replete with instances of American soldiers delighting in the wanton incineration of Vietnamese homes as well as the outright murder of native civilians. The presentation of a technologically superior foe mindlessly advancing upon the helpless Vietnamese immediately describes to the audience the notion of an unjust war being waged.
In no other character does Coppola encapsulate American imperialism more saliently than in Lieutenant Colonel William ‘Bill’ Kilgore, whose absurdity exceeds the standards of Willard, and even his own men. In conducting an air strike upon a Vietnamese coastal village, he announces his arrival beforehand, an act that seems counter to the workings of standard military operations. Nevertheless, he announces the impending air strike with none other than a recording of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. The music trivialises the entire experience and is reinforced by Kilgore’s men anticipating the spectacle that is to come, to the point of comedy even. Any comedic undertones the scene possesses only lends the following turn of events an air of absurdity and horror, as one of the Air Cavalry’s targets is none other than a school building filled with Vietnamese children, all garbed in pristine white uniforms that clearly reflect the innocence of the village.
Norris’ analysis of this scene accentuates the notion of American imperialism further, as it overturns the U.S. military’s “mythic role of chivalric rescue”(Norris), revealing it as little else than “genocidal destructiveness”(Norris). Norris then draws on Heart of Darkness, capturing “Conrad’s glorification of imperial conquest and its exposé as criminal robbery and murder”(Norris) by juxtaposing the romantic descriptions of European forays into the uncivilised world against what she describes as the “sordid truth of the colonial enterprise”(Norris). In the words of Conrad himself, “disease, exile and death”(Conrad, 20) ran rampant in colonial Africa as Marlow ventures deeper into its heart, evoking the hypocritical mismanagement that came with European colonialism and imperialism. Hence, members of the audience familiar with the text can observe the parallels between the falsities of the American military effort in Vietnam inevitably brought up during Apocalypse Now, as well as that of the European mission to colonise Africa.
With regards to Norris’ work, we can thus see Apocalypse Now as a very obvious criticism of American imperialism on account of the subtle symbolisms that Coppola weaved into the film’s narrative. She identifies many similarities between the film and the novella, ultimately to challenge the criticism by Joel Zuker that “the issue of American colonialism in a war we could never win are [sic] passed over”(Norris). As in the novella, the American war effort is eventually presented as little else but a “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”(Conrad, 31). This particular devilry however does not constitute the entirety of the film, as Coppola also explores the breakdown of Willard’s psyche during his journey. The evil of the American military machine is not the only evil in the film, as Willard eventually discovers once he delves deeper into the unabashed and unfiltered darkness that awaits him in Kurtz’ Cambodian stronghold.
Hence, amidst the backdrop of an inherently flawed imperialist enterprise, we witness the moral sacrifices made by the film’s protagonist, Willard, as he comes to terms with the falsities of the U.S. military. Coppola takes great pains to characterise Willard as an individual that has already been warped by the horrors of the war effort and its demands. His journey up the Nung River only reaffirms the disillusionment we are initially given a glimpse of at the beginning of the film, with his continual experiences driving him to commit certain actions one might consider questionable. Examples include his arranging an evening with the stranded USO Playmates for his boat’s crewmembers, Clean, Chef, Lance and the older Chief in order to appease their carnal inclinations, to killing a wounded Vietnamese woman instead of getting her medical attention. Childs’ analysis of the film comes into play here as he explores the concept of influence within the film’s narrative and treats the entire work as a “more general parable” rather than a reflection of “historical phenomenon”(Childs). It is with Childs’ analysis in mind that the very first scene of the film becomes extraordinarily significant. Willard is presented as being “under the influence”(Childs), although of what exactly remains ambiguous to the audience. Coppola, as Childs notes, presents us with several alternatives, from alcohol, the images of treelines going up in flames, the primordial depths of a jungle, the firearm close at hand beneath Willard’s pillow, to even Jim Morrison’s voice. The multi-layered symbolism replete within the scene convinces the audience that the American war experience (and all of the problems associated with it, as expressed by Norris previously) has imparted a madness upon Willard. Charlie Sheen, during the filming of the scene, was intoxicated, and did injure himself upon striking the mirror, adding to the scene’s effect(Vallely, Martin Sheen: Heart of Darkness Heart of Gold).
Once we are introduced to Willard’s obviously fractured nature, his subsequent journey upriver becomes what Childs describes as a search for “clarity”(Childs). Through the film’s narration, it becomes obvious that a sort of infatuation with Kurtz develops, culminating in the film’s climax, where Willard emerges from the river, clad in war paint and bathed in the same darkness that visually clings to Kurtz. Willard proceeds to murder Kurtz, the entire act juxtaposed against the brutal, ritualistic sacrifice of a buffalo, resulting in what Childs describes as a “victory” for Kurtz in becoming a sole “source of influence” for the film’s “disoriented” protagonist(Childs).
What exactly Kurtz’ influence entails is the profound realisation that moral judgement becomes a liability amidst the cataclysmic horror of war. On one hand is U.S. militarism, senseless, brutal and inevitably hypocritical. Willard’s disillusionment with the war effort can be witnessed during the aforementioned horrific scene where the Vietnamese passengers of a sampan are horrifically gunned down by Clean amidst a drug-fuelled rage. Willard himself provides the final shot, ending the agony of a wounded woman and later commenting on the problematic nature of “cut(ting) them in half with a machine gun”, only to later “give ‘em a band-aid”. The U.S. military effort hence “loses all hypocritical ideological cover and becomes narrativizable and visualizable as pure murder” as Norris elegantly describes it. Both Childs and Norris posit that the scene subtly hint at the My Lai massacre, an atrocity which practically undid any form of public support for the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. The alternative Kurtz offers, however, is no less unsettling, and is only the “visible and unconcealed variant”(Norris) of the atrocity perpetuated in Vietnam, requiring the full sacrifice of one’s moral judgement and humanity in order to carry out the mission, because as Kurtz eloquently lectures Willard, “it’s judgement that defeats us”. It is at this point that Apocalypse Now’s introspectiveness evokes the inevitability of the moral degradation brought on by the Vietnam War. Coppola deliberately highlights the ambiguity of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and alludes to its inherent hypocrisy. Willard notes the problems associated with the war effort, himself both tainted and increasingly disillusioned by it as he witnesses the moral degradation of American troops during scenes such as the USO Playmates’ Show, where soldiers began stampeding in order to grope at the provocatively dressed female performers. Kurtz advocating the relinquishment of the hypocrisy associated with the moral high ground of the U.S. military campaign proves almost attractive to Willard as a result, although the film’s conclusion reminds the audience that the sacrifice of one’s own morality is undoubtedly problematic in itself.
Comparisons with Conrad’s novella at this point help us to further delineate this notion of sacrifice. Childs considers it a shortcoming of Coppola’s characterisation of Willard, in that the soldier fails to come to the same “state of understanding”(Childs) that Conrad’s Marlow does about both the falsities of the imperialist enterprise as well as the human condition. Marlow comes to the grim realisation of how an attempt at coming to any form of moral judgement over Conrad’s Kurtz’s actions constitutes absolute “folly”(Conrad, 31), on account of Marlow being pinned between the inherent hypocrisy of European values as well as the direct unabashed malevolence exhibited by Kurtz himself. Coppola’s Willard, pinned between the same proverbial rock and hard place, chooses one evil over the other, and sacrifices his moral self, along with Kurtz and the water buffalo eventually.
By looking at the criticisms of both Norris and Childs, it can be definitively agreed that Apocalypse Now represents a highly complex text that straddles various issues. Norris’ insistence on the deeply-seated politicisation of the text confirms that the film is itself a glimpse right into the heart of the very darkness that was the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Childs adds another layer of interest to this premise, subsuming the pervasiveness of the film’s politicisation as just one of the problematic influences that assails Willard. Both of these insights add constructively to this article’s main argument about the film’s greater intent. Undeniably, the war is presented as an unjust and unwarranted conflict wrought with atrocities not too dissimilar from those that took place during the earlier era of European colonialism. This unjustness, and the attempts to disguise it beneath the veneer of noble purpose, then forms the backdrop against which the protagonist’s moral degradation sprouts from, only for him to realise that in the conduct of war, amidst horrifying demands and overt brutality, the only alternative is to unabashedly succumb to the evil of the entire conflict. The film’s ending leaves Willard’s ultimate fate ambiguous, although it is clear that he chooses to leave Kurtz’ army to its own devices. Even so, Kurtz’ exclamations of the “horror” he has experienced provide the tone for the film’s conclusion, as the truth of Willard’s sacrifice hits home. Whether he truly finds “clarity”(Childs) amidst Kurtz’ influence and simply enacted his “right to kill” the man, or whether he chose to fulfil the hypocritical verdict of his military superiors in attempting to eliminate a problematic figure that no longer abided by the “madness and irrationality” of “military logic”(Norris), remains as unanswered as Willard’s eventual fate, although either alternative reflects the irreversibility of the moral sacrifice made during the apocalyptic Vietnam War.
- Childs, Jeffrey. “Apocalypse Now,Vietnam and the Rhetoric of Influence.” Materialidades de Literatura, Vol. 1.2, 2014, 11-24.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, 2nd edition, edited by Ross C. Murfin, St. Martin’s, 1996.
- Norris, Margot. “Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.”Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 44.3, 1998, 730-766.
- Vallely, Jean. “Martin Sheen: Heart of Darkness Heart of Gold.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 1 November 1979.