It is strange that I can’t remember where I was the first time I watched Apocalypse Now. It is one of a handful of films that have had a significant effect on me (Bladerunner is another) and it is certainly the most haunting. Somehow it got under my skin and it never went away.
If you haven’t seen it, Apocalypse Now tells the story of a special forces captain, Willard (played by Martin Sheen) who is given a mission to find a renegade special forces Colonel by the name of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. Kurtz has gone insane, setting himself up as a demigod with a tribe of indigenous people as his worshippers, carving out his own kingdom on the borders of Cambodia, fighting his own war against the Viet Cong. Willard joins a PBR, a river patrol boat, commanded by Chief, with crewmen Lance, “Chef”, and “Mr. Clean” to head upriver. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film is now recognised as one the greatest war movies of all time.
In Apocalypse Now, Coppola takes the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness from the Congo in the mid to late 19th Century and plants the story in Vietnam in 1969. Willards’s voiceover provides the narrative as the boat travels from one set-piece incident to another, a story that reflects Willard’s own war-weary and cynical view of the conflict. Reflecting on Kurtz’s alleged war crimes he says:
“Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.”
Another telling quote is:
“They were gonna make me a Major for this, and I wasn’t even in their fuckin’ army anymore”
In a surreal incident where Willard and Chef leave the boat to collect mangoes and are then hunted by a tiger, Chef loses it. “Never get out of the boat” he says. “Never get out of the boat…I got to remember: never get out of the boat,” He goes on and on, while Willard’s voiceover comes in over the top.
“Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you’re going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.”
Somehow, never get out of the boat feels like the key to the whole film. The boat seems like a place of safety, an objective point from which Willard observes the insanity of Vietnam. Kurtz, by “getting out out of the boat”, has committed himself, accepting the reality of the war. His crime, his madness, is his choice to commit wholeheartedly Vietnam as his new normality. Within the insanity of the war, Kutz’s actions are sane.
At the end of the film, in a haunting finale, Willard tracks Kurtz to a ruined temple. In the final scenes an overweight Marlon Brando sits like a giant Buddha statue and read’s T.S.Eliot’s The Hollow Men. The Poem which Eliot prefaced with a quote from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
“Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
Next post: Heart of Darkness