Analysis Of Apocalypse Now

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Critical Analysis of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now
11/17/00

The Vietnam War was fought in order to preserve democracy, restore peace, and prevent the Communist threat from taking over another country. However, once the fighting began the initial goal disappeared into the Vietnamese jungle. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now portrays the confusion of the war in Vietnam through the eyes of Captain Benjamin L. Willard. He is sent on a mission with the objective to kill a Special Forces colonel, Walter E. Kurtz, who has disappeared into the jungles down a river outside Vietnam. Before Willard sets out on his mission, the viewer hears his commentary:

"I was going to the worst place in the world and didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable"”plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory"”anymore than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is a confession, then so is mine." (Apocalypse Now)

Apocalypse Now draws parallels to the book it was based on, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. General Corman states the underlying theme in the movie during his briefing with Willard, "Out there with these natives it must be temptation to be God. "˜Cause there's a conflict in every human heart between the rational, irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph." (Apocalypse Now). Conflict dominates the plot of Apocalypse Now as the battle between good and evil rages through the jungle settings of Vietnam. Unfortunately, the good and evil are not particularly easy to tell apart as Willard makes his way up the river to Kurtz's compound.
        Coppola uses the settings of Apocalypse Now to portray the confusion between good and evil. As Willard plows up the river to find Kurtz, the jungle constantly portrays contrasting ideas. The Viet Cong forces hide in the jungle and are constantly a threat because of their guerilla tactics and ambush maneuvers; yet, at the same time, the forest is the most peaceful place in the war. During one scene, "˜Chef', one of Willard's crew, decides to get off the boat to get some mangos. Captain Willard follows him. "The great cinematographer Vitorrio Storaro shows them as little specks at the foot of towering trees, and this is a Joseph Conrad moment showing how nature dwarfs us." (Ebert). At this moment, the peaceful scene becomes overwhelmed by the jungle and again seems treacherous. The jungle is also portrayed as a haven for evil because it is where the enemy Kurtz has set up his compound. However, Coppola shows the good in the forest when he shows a peaceful group of villagers living out their lives. Unfortunately for this particular group of villagers, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and his Wagner-playing helicopter forces destroy them.

"You smell that? Do you smell that? "¦Napalm son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning! You know, one time we had a whole hill bombed for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell--you know that gasoline smell--the whole hill"”it smelled like victory. Someday this war's gonna end"¦[walks off unhappily]." (Apocalypse Now).

Kilgore's sentiments illustrate the blur between good and evil during the Vietnam War. The so-called American "good guy" has completely obliterated a peaceful, natural scene with the rationale that no one can be trusted: the enemy is everywhere.
        The central roles of Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz are the two most crucial roles in the film, and the men cast to fill these roles had to be perfect. Marlon Brando's role as Colonel Kurtz was the obvious choice except for his one million dollar salary. On the other hand, as Ephraim Katz states that the role for Willard went to Martin Sheen who took over from Steve McQueen and Harvey Keitel, a role rejected by (Robert) Redford, (Jack) Nicholson, (Gene) Hackman, (Al) Pacino and (James) Caan. Willard and Kurtz are pitted against each other from the beginning of the film when Willard is told to "terminate (Kurtz) with extreme prejudice," (Apocalypse Now). Kurtz is the supposed force of evil in Apocalypse Now when the film begins, with Willard as the force of good on a mission to win. The theme of the confusion between good and evil is expressed through the two main characters when Willard states his feelings on killing Kurtz:         

"How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I know about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time it was an American and an officer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. S---"¦charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?" (Apocalypse Now)

While on the river traveling to Kurtz's compound, Willard tries to justify why it is right to kill Kurtz. He believes that he will know exactly what to do when he arrives and that his journey will be short. After all, the colonel is madly insane. However, after arriving at the compound, Willard states:

"On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I'd know what to do, but it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard, I was free, but I knew he wasn't going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he had really gone? He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart." (Apocalypse Now)

Willard sees how far from sane Kurtz has gone, and pities him. Willard has second thought about killing Kurtz, but with all the dismembered bodies strewn about and the head of Chef (Willard's crew mate) presented to him by Kurtz, Willard knows he has to kill Kurtz. The conflicts between Willard and Kurtz and between Willard and himself heighten when they talk about why Willard has come:

"Kurtz: "˜Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my
Command?'
Willard: "˜I was sent on a classified mission, sir.'
Kurtz: "˜It's no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?'
Willard: "˜They told me you had gone totally insane, and that your
         methods were unsound.'
Kurtz: "˜Are my methods unsound?'
Willard: "˜I don't see any method at all, sir.'
Kurtz: "˜I expected someone like you. What did you expect? "¦Are you
an assassin?'
Willard: "˜I'm a soldier.'
Kurtz: "˜You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to
collect a bill.'" (Apocalypse Now)

Willard partially agrees with Kurtz because Kurtz is an overpowering man who is able to exert his influence on anyone"”even a free-lance photographer. Roger Ebert states, "The photographer is the guide, the clown, the fool, providing the balance between Willard and Kurtz." This photographer, played by Dennis Hopper, somehow found his way to the compound and stays there ranting, obviously stoned, about Kurtz:

"The mans enlarged my mind"¦he's a poet-warrior in the classic sense"¦I mean, just the other day he took me aside and said did you know that if is the middle word in life? If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, if you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs"¦I mean, I'm just a small man, he's a great man, he's a great man, er, er, I should've been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas"¦hey, take me with you huh, don't leave me here"¦" (Apocalypse Now)

The photographer is the court jester who appears the fool, yet perceives the tenuous distinction between the good and evil represented in both men. He is able to give a very realistic view about the future of Kurtz's reputation, "What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a wise man? That he was a kind man? That he had plans? That he had wisdom? Bulls*#t man!" (Apocalypse Now) The photographer lays the facts on the table and Willard takes the information to determine the final move in his mission.
"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." (Apocalypse Now)
Coppola's blur between good and evil reflects the bigger picture of the Vietnam War itself. The ambiguity is evident in Willard's decision to kill Kurtz rather than to attempt to save him as in The Heart of Darkness where the main "good guy" Marlow tries to bring the also-insane-from-the-jungle Kurtz back to the civilized world. However, in Apocalypse Now, Willard's mission was to kill Kurtz, and Kurtz in turn, wanted to be killed himself. Before Kurtz dies, he comments on "the horror:" (Apocalypse Now).
"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." (Apocalypse Now)
Kurtz's last words are, "The horror. The horror." (Apocalypse Now) Roger Ebert states, "If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool's paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss (the horror). What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this."
        "You understand Captain that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist," (Apocalypse Now) states Colonel Lucas, one of the briefing officers telling Kurtz his mission. The mission itself represents a third element expressing the ambiguity between good and evil. Coppola uses the mission to show how terrible Vietnam really was. Something has to be wrong when an army has to put down one its best because "the horror" (Kurtz) has taken over his mind. The lies surrounding Vietnam caused many soldiers to become angry and disillusioned with the United States Army. Willard states, "It's a way we had over here with living with ourselves. We cut "˜em in half with a machine gun and we give "˜em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies." (Apocalypse Now). He adds, "Oh man, the sh*t piled up so fast in Vietnam you needed wings to stay above it." (Apocalypse Now). The obscurity between good and evil is developed when Kurtz gives one of his last statements:
"I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw, because there's nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me Willard, you will do this for me." (Apocalypse Now)
The mission Willard is initially sent on is a lie"”something both Willard and Kurtz dislike. Coppola shows a hazy line between good and evil because the two opposing sides in the movie are in agreement on the same topic. Willard even questions the necessity of his mission to kill Kurtz: ""¦I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone." (Apocalypse Now). His misgivings reflect the problems of the mission in the big picture of the Vietnam War. Even the soldiers fighting for all the right reasons were partially consumed by evil and are part of Coppola's blur between good and evil themselves.
        "Life's a lesson, you learn it when you're through." (Limp Bizkit "Take a Look Around"). Death is both the solution and resolution for both Willard and Kurtz. But were their plans for great good or great evil? Coppola and Conrad use setting, characters, and individual missions to illustrate the obscurity between good and evil. Through these three elements, Coppola and Conrad are able to exhibit a sympathetic view towards the portrayed evil force and a hesitant view towards the force of good. In both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, the character of Kurtz contemplates his failed potential: "I was on the threshold of great things."(Apocalypse Now). "I had immense plans." (Conrad 143). In the end the viewer is left to wonder which force would have ultimately drawn him.         

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