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Apocaplypse Now analysis

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Apocaplypse Now analysis

Old 01-02-06, 04:40 PM
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Apocaplypse Now analysis

I am not sure if this is right forum to post this or not.

Here is an English paper of sorts on one of my all time favorite movies. Hope you enjoy it.

It is quite long but hopefully not too boring. I'm not sure if DVD Talk is used to an in depth movie analysis/review like this, but here it goes anyway.


Spoiler alert: Do not read this if you have not seen the movie. If you have not seen the movie, go rent it, watch it, and if you’re still interested, take a look at my thoughts on the subject.





“Apocalypse Now” is Francis Ford Coppola’s 11th directorial effort, possibly the best war movie ever made, and in this writer’s mind, one of the best movies ever made. It is a movie that, in the end, begs the eternal question and indirectly ponders the most difficult theme for a work of art, or anyone, to tackle: ‘Why are we here?’

“Apocalypse Now” is based on the novella by Joseph Conrad, called Heart of Darkness. It is one of the boldest movies ever made, and succeeds at almost every level. It is quite possibly the filmmakers masterpiece, and easily one of the darkest movies, thematically, to ever hit the silver screen. The movie attempts to ask some very dark, deep questions about the past, present and future of humanity, and about man’s eternal struggle with himself and his dark side. In my opinion it succeeds in asking these questions and in answering them, but leaves it up to the audience, ultimately, to answer the questions for themselves.

Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), is assigned to assassinate Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone AWOL and, according to intelligence reports, is in command of an army of Cambodian natives deep in the Cambodian jungle. His mission is to deploy with a Navy Patrol Boat and its crew through the rivers of Vietnam, into Cambodia, and to “exterminate…with extreme prejudice”, Colonel Kurtz. Of course, a mission like this is no small feat for a soldier, and Captain Willard is no exception. He expresses doubt during the entire trip, through haunting narration done masterfully by Martin Sheen. Captain Willard expresses doubt about killing a fellow soldier and an officer of such high ranking, and, coupled with his clear understanding of the hypocrisy of war, and of the Vietman War in particular, his very soul is being pulled in two different directions by his superiors and by Kurtz, who he has not even met. Kurtz, though he does not know it, accomplishes this soul theft without lifting a finger, or even knowing who Willard is. The intelligence reports that Willard reads on his way up the rivers of Vietnam is ammunition enough for Kurtz. Willard’s superiors, while simply supplying him with every reason that Kurtz should be killed, unknowingly fuel Willard’s own doubts about the war and of war in general, as he reads about a man ‘gone insane’, and realizes and reinforces in Willard the idea that everything around him is insane. In essence, Willard looks up to Kurtz before even meeting him. This is the dilemma.

From the beginning of the movie, Willard appears to be a washed up special forces soldier, just “waiting to get back into the jungle”. He is drinking heavily, and, as far as it appears, losing his mind. Already, he and Colonel Kurtz seem to be on a parallel course of destruction.

The difference between the two is that Kurtz is in this for himself with no one to answer to but himself, while Willard’s allegiance is to his country and fellow soldiers. Or is it? Very early on Willard’s voice narrates his own slow descent toward darkness and his descent toward Kurtz’s way of thinking. But we never see Willard become insane or revel in the dark side. He is our guide through this surreal story of timeless questions. He remains ‘good’ throughout the movie. This is simply a way of allowing the audience to identify with Willard, but through his questioning comes reason for us to see the world around us, through Willard’s view, in a very different light.

After a bloody night alone with a broken bottle and some heavy drinking, Willard is thrown into a cold shower by men sent to bring him to Na Thrang, in which Willard replies, “what’d I do?”. One of the first words spoken by Willard convey a sense of paranoia of his own government and military, foreshadowing his ability to see things Kurtz’s way, or to at least ask himself the same tough questions that the film would have us ask ourselves, about ourselves.

By the time he reaches the office of General Corman (by the way, I believe this name and character is a play on Roger Corman, who had Coppola direct his very first movie. Corman was known for very low budgets and a ‘get it done’ attitude. Thought I’d share), played by G.D. Spradlin, and is greeted by him, a special agent, and Colonel Lucas (more smiles), played by Harrison Ford, Willard is unprepared for what he is about to learn. As he is told the story of Walter Kurtz and hears two tapes of his recorded voice, Willard is visibly shaken, but accepts the mission.

Along the way to the Kurtz compound, we see a collage of the Vietnam War. We see a helicopter invasion of a small village, a Playboy Playmate show for an audience of lonely soldiers, and we also become familiar with and relate to the crew of the Navy Patrol Boat, who reflect a strange mix of different types of people from all across America. While these segments are always entertaining and/or interesting, they also help to paint a picture of what this war is about, and the seriousness of winning it. There was no serious effort to win it. Not by the upper echelon, anyway, and this is reflected by the actions of many of the soldiers throughout the movie, through drug use and a general sense of doom throughout the movie (I was not there, so I do not know how much this is true. I am only going by the way in which this movie presents it). This only adds to the confusion of Willard and to the arguments and ideas held by Kurtz, which ultimately lead to Kurtz’s death. The hypocrisy of it all. “The horror…the horror”.




"I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us." – Colonel Kurtz

By the time Kurtz utters these words, the movie is in its last act, and it becomes very clear that in his madness, the Colonel understands one very simple, scary thought about the nature of war: whatever it takes. Is it this thought that has driven him to madness? Is it his totalitarian leadership over the natives that has driven him to madness? IS he mad? Well, yes, he is mad, actually. Much as war is mad. Kurtz is quite simply a metaphor for war. He is war.

Kurtz’ keen understanding of the nature of man and of man’s propensity for war are what force the audience to ask themselves the big question: Why are we here? Why are we here and what is the purpose of our existence when surrounded by the madness of war? Are we to continue our search for the goodness of humanity amidst constant war and struggle, with death and destruction as the end result? Kurtz, in all of his wisdom and intelligence, and even though he is ‘clearly insane’, or so we are meant to believe, does not know how to answer these questions that are at the heart of our hypocritical and paradoxical selves. And Willard’s answer, and so it is ours, too, is to at a minimum stop what Kurtz is doing. He will at least be stopping one more leader from waging war of any kind, while at the same time allowing Kurtz ‘to go out like a soldier’. On top of that, he is following orders, which in his mind is the least he can do to avoid letting himself fall into complete mental chaos, as Kurtz has. In reality, Kurtz is a soldier and does not understand how to answer these questions. The questions are unanswerable in any terms that you or I are probably familiar with. They are only answerable by those ‘at the top’, so to speak, and these are the people who Kurtz is in fact rebelling against. Kurtz is asking them the big questions, while Willard is answering Kurtz on their behalf: ‘Don’t ask’.

“Out there with these natives…it must be a temptation to be…God”

The above quote is at the heart of this story, and one of Kurtz’s goals is to force Willard to understand the temptation. In a sense, these two are at battle with each others’ souls, as well as at battle with their own souls. It is unclear whether or not Kurtz wants Willard to take over control of the natives and their jungle, or if Kurtz simply wants Willard to see what he has seen and to understand why he has done what he has done. In fact, at one point he requests that Willard find his son to tell him ‘the truth’. Kurtz no longer understands how horrific the truth would be to his son. Willard says as much in his narration. But there is the feeling that Willard understands this truth that Kurtz speaks of, even though his duty as a soldier and as a decent human being will not allow him to side with Kurtz, especially not enough to assume any kind of leadership role over the natives, once he assassinates Kurtz. As I said before, this is the dilemma for Willard. He understands the soul of Kurtz, and in his own way can relate to it and to the choices that Kurtz has made, or at least understand his ‘method’, even though he can not allow himself to become Kurtz.

“This is the end
My only friend, the end.”

As the final assassination scene begins, and The Doors song “The End” begins to play, it is clear to the viewer that Kurtz and Willards’ friendship is sealed, as Willard carries out not only what he has been ordered to do by his government, but what he has been given silent permission to do by Kurtz in his own compound.

“Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway.”

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