Directed and produced by Francis FordÂ Coppola
A movie review by John Lobell
Apocalypse Now is number five on Ebert’s list on this site of visionary movies (2001 is number 1). He writes: â€œCoppola’s epic retelling of The Odyssey combined with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a totally unique, absolutely original cinematic vision. Again, as with Kubrick and Lucas before him, the mythic structures are consciously intended, as Coppola shows us in the climax when his camera pans over a shelf of Kurtz’s books to reveal copies of Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and of The Golden Bough. The central myth of Coppola’s movie is the death of the old, sick king and along with him, his entire crumbling kingdom of Iron age madmenâ€¦.â€
Ebert also has a two-part YouTube discussion of the move that you can click on the left of this site.
Originally released in 1979, the film was reissued in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux with material left out of the original. In going through some old files, I came across a review of the movie I did in 1979 that was never published, and that indicates the mythological approach on this site. Thirty years ago, here is what I wrote:
With the god Krishna as his charioteer, Prince Arjuna took to the battlefield against a usurping cousin. But on facing the enemy he says: “Alas, we are resolved to commit a great sin, in that we are ready to slay our kinsmen to satisfy our greed for the pleasure of a kingdom! Far better would it be for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand, should slay me in battle, unarmed and unresisting. I will not fight.”
Then Krishna, who had revealed himself to Prince Arjuna as Vishnu, Lord of the Universe, bedecked with celestial ornaments and the radiance of a thousand suns, now reveals himself devouring the warrior chiefs of both armies, crushing their heads to powder as they rush into his flaming mouths, and says to the Prince:
“I am mighty, world-destroying Time, now engaged here in slaying these men. Even without you, all these warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall not live. Therefore stand up and win glory; conquer your enemies and enjoy an opulent kingdom. By Me and none other have they already been slain; be an instrument, O Arjuna. Killâ€¦ the great warriors â€¦ who have already been killed by me.”
(From Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces)
Our most recent experience of the horrors of war, and the one documented in Apocalypse Now, was in Vietnam. But war has always been, and we are far from understanding its causes or its real meaning. One thinks of the Victorian attitude towards sex. In their attempt to deny its legitimate place they twisted sex until it became the perverse thing they condemned it for being in the first place. For us, war is a mistake, a sin, an abomination. We leave it to the dregs in our culture, the only ones who will touch it, and then we are abhorred by what they make of it.
Coppola presents us with what war has become for us: a surrealistic television spectacle: strutting psychopathic cowboys, kids on LSD, seas of napalm, and the mechanized slaughter of the innocent. But most of all a psychedelic visual and sound fantasy, an archetypal mythic form distorted by its own attempt to deny itself. We might ask: is war inherently a part of the human soul? If so, what is its meaning? If not, why is it still with us? One thinks of certain “primitive” people where women raise children, garden and build houses. The men take hallucinogens and play war games, annually staging a confrontation with a neighboring tribe, violent enough to justify vigilant preparations, but seldom enough to seriously injure anyone. A people who have their mythic archetypal patterns under intelligent control. Of course, they are primitive. But we are civilized, and our civilization is in a state of disintegration:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” With this remark, Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s narrator in many stories, tells of his own journey into the Heart of Darkness, and of his encounter with Kurtz.
For Conrad, the place of darkness is the place where the individual soul and the collective soul become one, and where the disease of one is the disease of the other. For Conrad it is Africa and it had also been London. For Coppola, it is Vietnam and it is also America.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is adapted from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Conrad’s story, the young Marlow is sent to Africa to deal with Kurtz and the ivory trade. Kurtz is spectacularly more successful in sending out ivory than anyone else but his methods are “unconventional.” Marlow encounters an Africa laid to lethargy and sickness by the heat and by the encounter of the worst in colonized and colonizers. His trip up river to find Kurtz becomes his trip into his own unconscious.
Coppola’s story is set in Vietnam. Willard, a secret service agent, is today’s Marlow, a character out of a Raymond Chandler mystery rather than an educated man of the British Empire. His mission: to “terminate Kurtz with extreme prejudice.” Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, is a Green Beret who has deviated from orthodoxy to the point of moving into Cambodia and forming his own personal army of mountaineer tribesmen. Willard’s journey up river through the war in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia is the journey through the horrors of the decay of the American soul.
Throughout history heros have lived out the possibilities of human destiny: Jason, Oedipus, Odysseus, Medea, Finn McCool, Joshua, Siegfried. As described in Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero journey is always the same in structure in the great monomyth, the myth that is all myths. The hero separates from ordinary reality, journeys to a land of fabulous forces where a decisive victory is won, and then returns to enrich the world. In the separation Odysseus is in the land of the lotus eaters, Luke Skywalker’s leaves the farm, the frog returns the golden ball to the princess. In the realm of fabulous forces, Odysseus enters the underworld, Luke encounters the space technologies of the empire, and the boy meets the dog with the saucer eyes. Odysseus’ victory is over the suitors, Luke’s is the destruction of the Death Star, and Prince Charming’s is the parting of the briars enclosing the castle to awake Sleeping Beauty.
Willard’s journey up river in Apocalypse Now is a hero journey, but the role of Marlon Brando, of Kurtz, is also that of the hero, a special role, one in which the hero fails. Before the briars part for the sword of Prince Charming, many other strong and brave Princes struggle to cut through them, but die in the attempt. So the hero who is not chosen is as ancient an archetype as the hero who is. Kurtz is such a hero, one who seeks to emerge from the mass to change the destiny of the human soul in a time which admits to no such change, a time which sees destiny in every individual, and not just in one.
Alexander had flung his armies across Asia, spreading the Hellenic vision of the emerged individual amongst a people who had seen the human spirit as proscribed by the orbits of the stars. But Alexander’s role falls into question in our time, and we see, for example, the failure of Lawrence of Arabia to forge an Arab empire. Lawrence prefaces The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house,that your eyes might be shining for me when we came.
But Lawrence’s task remains ultimately unfulfilled, and he continues:
Death seemed my servant on the road, till we were near and saw you waiting;
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me and took you apart;
Into his quietness.
And finally he writes:
Men prayed me that I set our work, the inviolate house, as a memory of you.
But for fit monument I shattered it, unfinished; and now the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels in the marred shadow
Of your gift.
Some can face the horrors of life and transcend them, stepping out of the wheel of life into the blue sky to achieve spaciousness. Some, like Kurtz cannot, and become consumed by the horrors. Conrad writes:
Kurtz “cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’ ”
And the horror strikes Marlon Brando-Coppola’s Kurtz-also. In a scene cutting back and forth between Kurtz’s room in a Cambodian temple ruin and the ritual slaughter of a cow, Kurtz is willingly slaughtered by Willard.
Awash in the surreal beauty of napalm, Coppola takes us to the limits of human will to confront ourselves in war and death.