Overview: Captain Willard travels to Cambodia in pursuit of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s definitive Vietnam masterpiece. United Artists; 1979; Rated R; 155 Minutes
We Live, As We Dream — Alone: Coppola permits precisely one minute of calm, settled audience. The medium long-shot stationary perspective, the frame held on unmoving palm trees. The serene and soothing opening notes of a musical piece. Then the whirring of helicopter propellers, rhythmic white noise to lull us to our sleep and his dream. The dust rises first, Jim Morrison’s haunted wail pronounces the apocalypse as a helicopter passes, and napalm firebombs are dropped.
As unsettling as this sequence is, it is perhaps the most film-practical scene in the movie. Moving forward, the visual, narrative, and audio stimulation becomes increasingly surreal. Darkly hallucinogenic. You know the saying. War is hell. Apocalypse Now builds that hell out of broken fragments of humanity, imagines hell as a product of human consciousness—the triggers of recognition are psychological, biological, cultural. A hollow-spirited Lieutenant (Robert Duvall) makes battle decisions of mortal consequence in pursuit of surf-able waves. A helicopter assaults a village while Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries scores the massacre—a twelve-minute opus that pairs man’s lowest (war) with his highest achievements (music). A failed USO show with Playboy playmates displays the under-riding connection between the sexuality and the power-struggle of war. The dangling lights strung across the hillside to the edges of the screen paint a bridge attack as a black carnival. Apocalypse Now is a nightmare that we will ourselves into, in spite of our increasing fear, in an attempt to locate the instrument of black percussion, the darkness of our hearts…
The Dreams of Men, The Germs of Empires: In the opening and closing scenes, Captain Willard’s face is vaguely imposed over the carnage, a symbol of how war has become his identity. Martin Sheen establishes Willard as a man infected by war, unable to function outside of the conflict. There is a stark difference between the broken man in the Saigon hotel room—with his hallucinations, incomprehensible mumbling, his face painted in the agony of Christ—and the calm operative soldier that pursues Kurtz upriver, unflinching in the violence.
The Ebb of That River Into the Mystery of An Unknown Earth: The kinetic energy of the Nung River, the embankment pushing to a narrow horizon point as the voyage grows more crooked and foggy, creates a sense of moving toward something bad. Even the landscape is sentient, aware of how this must end.
The Horror, The Horror: In his last role of consequence, Marlon Brando brings to Colonel Kurtz his larger-than-life presence and established iconic respect. Kurtz, in his life before ruin, was a decorated mastermind and hero. Now, the same virus that has infected Willard has emptied him and taken complete occupancy of his body. Kurtz doesn’t just move in the shadows, he is made of the shadows. In all of the film’s preceding dark scenery, we have not seen shadows as heavy as those that cling to the Colonel. He speaks primarily in turns of poetry and nonsense, but, in one stretch of monologue, expresses concern about his relationship with his son and it sounds eerily like a dying human calling for help from the bottom of a well. His murder by Willard’s machete is edited to sync with the village’s ritualistic water buffalo sacrifice. Two statuesque figures, symbolic in size and scale, slaughtered in the best interests of their societies. That sort of horror must not be let live.