Great films VII
Apocalypse Now (1979) is producer/director Francis Ford Coppola’s visually beautiful, ground-breaking masterpiece with surrealistic and symbolic sequences detailing the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War. Coppola had already become a noted producer/director, following his two profitable and critically-acclaimed Godfather films (1972 and 1974) – the epic saga of a Mafia-style patriarch and his successor. This provocative film did for the Vietnam War genre what The Godfather did for the gangster movie.
After a three to four year wait for the notorious film (that brought other award-winning Vietnam war films to the forefront a year earlier – The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978)), the film that was budgeted at $12-13 million was something of an extravagant, self-indulgent epic in the making that cost almost $31 million – with much of the film shot on location in the Philippines. The highly-publicized delays and catastrophes in the grueling shoot (scheduled for about 17 weeks but ending up lasting about 34 weeks), along with extra-marital affairs, a grandiose and suicidal director, drug use and other forms of madness, were mostly due to a rain-drenching typhoon (named Olga) and a star-debilitating, near-fatal heart attack for star Martin Sheen.
After its first editing, the original version was six hours long and had to be severely edited. A documentary about the film’s chaotic making, shot in part by Coppola’s wife Eleanor and including interviews with most of the cast and crew, was titled Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker’s Apocalypse (1991). [Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was an inspiration for the film.]
This war story’s screenplay, written by John Milius and Coppola himself (with a separate credit for Michael Herr for Sheen’s narration), became a metaphorical backdrop for the corruptive madness and folly of war itself for a generation of Americans. Francis Ford Coppola described his own motivation in the making of the ‘quest’ film, with elements borrowed from the horror, adventure and thriller genres: “to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.” Coppola’s masterpiece chronicles the harrowing intersection of optimistic innocence and experiential reality in the Vietnam conflict. Although the film is flawed by its excesses, an ambiguous and incohesive script, and a baffling ending, it still remains a brilliant evocation of the madness and horrors of war.
The film’s story, a type of Odyssey story similar to the one in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), was indirectly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (about a steamer journey up a river into the Congo and African jungle – and into the darkest reaches of the human psyche), and also was derived from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. The film tells about US Army assassin Willard’s (Sheen) mission, both a mental and physical journey, to ‘terminate’ dangerously-lawless warlord and former Colonel Kurtz (Brando) who has gone AWOL, become a self-appointed god, and rules a band of native warriors in the jungle. [Incidentally, Orson Welles was director Coppola’s first choice for the Kurtz role ultimately played by Marlon Brando. And both Steve McQueen and Harvey Keitel were considered for the Willard role ultimately played by Martin Sheen. A made-for-TV movie adaptation Heart of Darkness (1993), directed by Nicolas Roeg, starred John Malkovich (Kurtz) and Tim Roth (Marlow/Willard).]
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing, but the film won only two well-deserved awards: Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound. However, it was awarded the Palme D’Or (the top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival.
[In 2001, twenty-two years after its original release, a longer, expanded and restored version of the film – at three hours and about 20 minutes – was released and titled Apocalypse Now Redux. “Redux” means “returned,” as from battle or exile. The new Apocalypse Now edit added 49 minutes to the original, which, depending on whether it was shown in 35mm or 70mm, with or without credits, has been clocked as running from 139 to 153 minutes. (According to Miramax, which released the new version, this new cut totals 197 minutes.)
The vibrant film with a remastered, fuller soundtrack used original material and reintegrated scenes excised from the 1979 version (to include greater character detail for Willard, his crew, and Colonel Kurtz (in a scene where he reads from an actual Time Magazine and shows how the American public was lied to), an expanded Playboy Playmates sequence after their helicopter is downed, and an additional French colonial plantation sequence). Consensus was mixed about the reworked version, although most critics felt that the additional material did only a little to enhance the film’s themes or expand upon the plot. The best scenes of the film are still those found in the original version.]
The lyrical, slow-moving opening sequence is a dazzling combination of cinematography, music and hallucinatory images from the brutal and destructive war in Vietnam. [There are no traditional opening credits or titles. The title of the film appears as graffiti toward the end of the film in the complex presided over by Kurtz.] The sounds of the war chopper blades (chuk-chuk-chuk) are heard and flaming sights of war are seen at the edge of a green-canopied jungle of palm trees as napalm is dropped. The mind-altering, mournful words of the soundtrack from The End: “This is the end…” (sung by burned out 60s rock star Jim Morrison of the Doors) play over nightmarish memories of the war. Dust swirls and golden, billowing napalm flames fill the air.
In 1968, debauched, moody, divorced Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) of US Army Intelligence (505th Batallion, 173rd Airborne), lies in a sleazy, dingy, sepia-toned Saigon hotel room, isolated, alienated, sweat-bathed and recovering from battle fatigue. (At first, his inverted face is superimposed over the left half of the screen.) There are panning shots of his dog tag, a pile of bills, his wallet, a woman’s picture, an opened letter and envelope, cigarettes, a glass and Cordon Bleu bottle, and a gun lying next to his pillow. He is drinking and deliberately closed off from the outside world, haunted by his liquor-induced memories of the choppers, gunfire and the war.
The sound of the helicopter blades is brought back by the whop-whop (or puck–puck) sound of an overhead ceiling fan. He realizes his present state of inactivity, having been in Saigon a week – and fears that he is beginning to go a little crazy. In a flat-voiced voice-over, as he looks out the slats of his venetian-blinded window and lies on his bed, he reveals that he is desperately “waiting for a mission” and praying to get back into the N. Vietnamese wilderness:
Saigon. Shit! I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now. I’m waiting for a mission – getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.
During a frenzied, spastic, half-nude karataka dance in the room, he self-destructively punches and breaks the mirror (symbolically destroying his own image), bloodies his right fist and then wipes the bright red blood all over his face and nude body.
The narrator is a hired assassin during the conflict of war. Introspectively droning in a cold, detached and passive voice about a covert assassination mission, he is soon to learn that his wish is fulfilled. He is visited by two astonished officers who are there to escort him to “a real choice mission”:
Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. They brought it up to me like room service…It was a real choice mission – and when it was over, I never want another…
Escorted by chopper to an intelligence compound/airfield at Nha Trang in Vietnam for a luncheon meeting, the hand-picked, special intelligence agent Willard is led to an air-conditioned trailer:
I was going to the worst place in the world, and I 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, any more 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 really a confession, then so is mine.
He is given a questioning and then a briefing by two grim military superiors: southern-accented General R. Corman (G. D. Spradlin) [the name pays tribute to director Roger Corman, although the name is spelled Cormen in one of the dossier’s documents], and bespectacled junior officer Colonel Lucas (“Luke”) (Harrison Ford). [His character name, Lucas, pays homage to George Lucas who directed Ford in American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977).] A third silent, civilian-dressed, unidentified individual named Jerry (Jerry Ziesner) is presumably a CIA operative. [The civilian is the only one who heartily eats the meal.] In the hospitable American setting, their working lunch is composed of imported Texas roast beef, shrimp and Budweiser beer. Willard is shown a picture and told about a witty, brilliant American officer, a once-decorated operations officer and war hero – and now an insane, deranged, rogue renegade Green Beret Colonel named Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). A reel-to-reel tape recording of Kurtz’s voice is played:
I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream, it’s my nightmare. Crawling, slipping along the edge of a straight razor and surviving….But we must kill them, we must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army, and they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful for those who lie, for those nabobs. I hate them. I do hate them.
The “outstanding officer” Kurtz has become “unsound” and committed murder by waging his own ferocious, independent war against Vietnamese intelligence agents with his own native Montagnard army across the border in an ancient Cambodian temple deep in the jungle. The colonel has become a self-appointed, worshipped godlike leader/dictator of a renegade native tribe while conducting a reign of terror. Kurtz is about to be “arrested for murder” – he ordered the execution of some Vietnamese intelligence agents (men he believed were double agents). General Corman explains the confused insanity of the war: “In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity.” General Corman describes Kurtz’s temptation to be deified:
Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the Dark Side overcomes what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Therein, man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
The noise of a chopper interrupts the judgement that has been pronounced. The mission involves a pilgrimage, a journey on a U.S. Navy patrol boat with a four-man crew up the jungle-lined Nung River into off-limits Cambodia to follow Kurtz’s path to his remote stronghold island. [The Nung River is fictional – and represents the Mekong River.] Willard is told to be a military assassin and “terminate the Colonel’s command.” According to Corman, “he’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct – and he is still in the field commanding troops.” The command is made very clear by the CIA operative speaking only once:
Terminate with extreme prejudice.
And Willard is to understand that “this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.”
On his helicopter and boat journey to his mission’s starting point, Willard remembers the other times he had killed: “There were those six that I knew about for sure, close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. It wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did.” Willard wonders at the hypocrisy of the trumped-up murder charges received from military intelligence:
Shit! 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? But I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him.
Special Services captain Willard is ferried down the coast to the Nung River on an unobtrusive Navy PBR “plastic patrol boat” crewed by a young group of draftees, representing a cross-section of America. Since the story is told almost entirely through Willard’s eyes and point of view, he introduces the boat’s demographically-diverse crew: “The crew were mostly just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves”:
- Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Engineman 2nd Class, the dope-smoking boat’s machinist and hippie gourmet cook from New Orleans: “He was wrapped too tight for Vietnam, probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans”
- “Lance” B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Gunner’s Mate Third Class, a famous blonde, tanned Southern California surfer champion who water-skis behind the boat and works on his tan with reflectors: “To look at him, you wouldn’t believe he’d ever fired a weapon in his life”
- Mr. “Clean” (Laurence Fishburne, credited as Larry Fishburne, aged 14!), another Gunner’s Mate Third Class, actually Tyrone Miller, a 17-year-old jive-talking South Bronx ghetto youth who often listens to rock music on his tape player: “I think the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head”
- efficient black Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), Chief Quartermaster, the boat’s experienced tough commander/NCO: “It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was the Chief’s boat”
Ominously, Chief Phillips recalls that on a previous trip six months earlier, he took another “regular Army” officer up the river for Special Ops – but tragically, “heard he shot himself in the head.”
[Transposed to about an hour later in the Redux version: The PBR crew entertain themselves to Armed Forces Radio playing the Rolling Stones’ 60’s hit: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The grunts crew dances to the radio and gets stoned – with a strange sense of normalcy. Lance even water-skies behind the boat – the rough wake of the boat disrupts peasants in a simple boat, an apt metaphor for the intrusion of Americans into a foreign country.]
As they proceed, Willard leisurely studies the dossier materials, thumbs through the documents, and ponders the absurdity of his assignment. He wonders how he must murder an American officer while leading his own forces in senseless murder:
(Williard – in a flat voice-over) At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn’t believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Etcetera, etcetera. I had heard his voice on the tape and it really put the hook in me. But I couldn’t connect up that voice with this man. Like they said, he had an impressive career, maybe too impressive, I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots in the corporation: General, Chief of Staff, anything. In 1964, he returned from a tour with advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. His report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson was restricted. It seems they didn’t dig what he had to tell ’em. During the next few months, he made three requests for transfer to Airborne training, Ft. Benning, Georgia and was finally accepted. Airborne? He was thirty-eight years old. Why the f–k would he do that? 1966: Joined Special Forces, returns Vietnam.
As they near their rendezvous point for an escort (to the mouth of the Nung River), they see and hear an impressive B-52 bomber strike, code-worded “Arc Light” (“Charlie will never see ’em or hear ’em”). With some of the film’s fabulous cinematography, they encounter the Huey helicopters of the notorious Ninth Air Cavalry that are just mopping up after a destructive assault by the Viet Cong: “It was the Air Cav., first of the Ninth….our escorts to the mouth of the Nung River. But they were supposed to be waiting for us another thirty kilometers ahead. Well, Air Mobile, those boys just couldn’t stay put.”
Bloodied civilians are victims of the damaging attack, visible through the smoky remains and carnage on the beachfront. “The first of the Ninth was an old cavalry division that had cashed in its horses for choppers and gone tear-assing around ‘Nam lookin’ for the s–t. They had given Charlie a few surprises in their time here. What they were mopping up now hadn’t even happened yet an hour ago.”
After they disembark and look for their contact, they first encounter a TV news crew getting mock footage for the evening US news [the crew is led by director Coppola himself in a reflexive cameo]. They are shouted at:
Don’t look at the camera! Just go by like you’re fighting. Like you’re fighting. Don’t look at the camera! This is for television. Just go through, go through.
At the start of the film’s most memorable, greatest set of sequences, Willard seeks the CO in charge of the attack. He encounters the commanding officer of the Air Cavalry as an American military archetype. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore [Kill-Gore] (Robert Duvall) is a hawkish, lunatic, flamboyant commander, who wears a black horse soldier’s Stetson cavalry hat with a cavalry sword emblem, sunglasses, and a yellow dickey (in the mode of Gen. George A. Custer and Gen. George S. Patton). The idiosyncratic, unflinching, war-loving Kilgore places signature cards (“death cards”) over the bodies of the civilian (or VC) dead: “Let’s Charlie know who did this.” A soldier announces on a loudspeaker to the stunned Vietnamese: “We are here to help you.”
Obsessed with surfing in a ‘Dr. Strangelove’-like style, Kilgore breaks away from the operation (after generously offering water to a dying VC) to meet Lance Johnson, admire the surfer, and congratulate him on his ability to nose-ride and cut back: “It’s an honor to meet you, Lance…None of us are anywhere near your class, though…We do a lot of surfing around here, Lance.” In the meantime, the injured and women and children are being taken away. A helpless and frightened calf in a massive net is hauled away by a helicopter – an apt symbol of what is occurring.
That night, Kilgore presides over a nocturnal beach party on the China Sea for the troops – with imported beer and T-bone steaks. He “turned the LZ into a beach party.” Willard questions making Vietnam like home: “The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” Kilgore strums unconcernedly on his guitar. Willard describes “Wild Bill”:
Well, he wasn’t a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys and you felt safe with him. He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here.
Unsure about securing a Vietcong beachhead at a N. Vietnamese village so that Willard’s mission can “get into the river,” Kilgore balks: “That village you’re pointing out’s kinda hairy, Willard,” but then changes his mind after learning from the California surfer that the surfing is fantastic there: “It’s unbelievable, it’s just tube city.” He reconsiders an attack at “Charlie’s point” since it has a “six foot peak” and is one of the Vietcong’s best surfing areas in “Charlie’s” territory. He is unperturbed about interference during the liberation of the beach area the next day: “Charlie don’t surf!”
At dawn, after a trumpet cavalry charge is sounded on a bugle, Kilgore orders a massive helicopter air attack on an unsuspecting, seemingly innocent, quiet, peaceful Vietnamese village. The armada of choppers glide silently through the breaking dawn like a harmless flock of birds – it is one of the film’s most impressive, memorable sequences. The crazed Kilgore has ordered the music: “We’ll come in low out of the rising sun, and about a mile out, we’ll put on the music…Yeah, use Wagner. Scares the hell out of the slopes. My boys love it.” Chef reflexively imitates other soldiers by removing his helmet and sitting on it – to avoid having his “balls blown off.” [Castration anxiety and fear is constantly on the men’s minds.] Kilgore commands: “Shall we dance?” as the music is piped out from the swarm of helicopters – the front of his copter is painted with the motto adorned with crossed swords: “Death from Above.” The choppers become menacing as rockets and gunfire spew out along with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (from Die Walkure) blasting over the helicopter-mounted loudspeakers to scare the enemy. Surfboards are loaded on the side of the command helicopter.
Innocent, uniformed schoolchildren who are attending school and other villagers are caught as peaceful non-combatants during Kilgore’s senseless attack and amphibious landing. Some run for cover while others prepare for battle. Concealed Viet Cong counter-attack with their own weapons and shoot at the helicopters. Kilgore promises a reward for a direct hit: “Outstanding, Red Team, outstanding. Get you a case of beer for that.” Kilgore barks orders: “Ripple the shit out of ’em,” and wonders at the VC’s resilience: “Don’t these people ever give up?” The helicopters land and scores of soldiers hit the ground for the assault. One screaming black soldier has been seriously and painfully wounded in the leg, and is being treated with morphine by medics before evacuation. A young peasant Vietnamese woman in civilian dress throws a bomb concealed in her straw hat into the Medevac Huey that has landed to evacuate the wounded American soldier – it kills all onboard. Kilgore exclaims: “The f–king savages!” The fleeing woman is vengefully pursued by a chopper and shot down with strafing machine-gun fire. One seemingly-invincible OH-6 helicopter is blown out of the sky above the jungle.
After devastating the waterfront Vietcong-controlled coastal village with the pyrotechnic helicopter strike, Kilgore is intent on one thing – surfing the “six foot swells.” The oblivious (or immune) commander doesn’t duck when warned: “Incoming,” casually unaware of the dangers around him. Kilgore gives one soldier a clear choice: “You want to surf soldier?…That’s good soldier, ’cause you either surf or fight, is that clear?” Kilgore encourages Lance to get excited about the unusually great surfing conditions (“one guy can break right, one left simultaneous”). Willard thinks the gung-ho, zealous surf-lover Kilgore is crazy:
Willard: Don’t you think it’s a little risky for R and R?
Kilgore: If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach. I’m not afraid to surf this place…(He rips off his own shirt.)
To make the surfing beach even safer from sniper fire, he orders an additional air strike with napalm along the tree line (“Bomb it to the Stone Age, son”). [Apocalypse Now Redux: A restored scene shows Kilgore helping to save a Vietnamese child brought to him by the distraught mother.]
With the jungle leveled and engulfed in flames behind him, he smells the napalm, squats on the beach, becomes rhapsodic, and exclaims to Willard – in a now-famous line of dialogue about the thrill of senseless murder:
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 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. Smells (or smelled) like – victory. [A bomb explodes behind him.] Some day, this war’s gonna end.
Kilgore’s last line in the film is uncharacteristically delivered in a matter-of-fact tone as he laments the war’s end. The scene fades to black as Willard watches Kilgore walk off.
[Apocalypse Now Redux: Additional footage is also inserted of surfin’ amidst the attack. The perfect waves are adversely affected by the wind pattern created by the napalm assault. Kilgore profusely apologizes to Lance for the poor surfing conditions. After the assault, Willard and his crew decide to rapidly evacuate the beach area and board their patrol boat. Just before leaving, they show lighthearted camaraderie as Willard playfully steals Kilgore’s surfboard for Lance, demonstrating that they still haven’t accepted the harsh reality of the war. And slightly later, they hide under jungle growth by the river’s edge as Kilgore vainly pursues them upriver by helicopter with recorded loudspeaker entreaties: “I will not hurt or harm you. Just give me back the board, Lance. It was a good board – and I like it. You know how hard it is to find a board you like.”]
Finally, the journey upriver on the Nung begins for Willard and his patrol boat crew. In a myriad series of episodes, their journey is an hallucinatory odyssey and metaphor for an apocalyptic descent into the horrors of Hell. Willard knows that he can’t go backwards, only forwards:
Someday this war’s gonna end. That would be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren’t looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I’ve been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist anymore.
Kilgore, the ‘respectable’ side of the Vietnam experience, is ironically contrasted to the other side of the same coin – Kurtz, the ‘barbaric’ character who is the object of the mission. Willard questions what the real reason might be for the orders to assassinate Kurtz:
If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, 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.
Clean asks Willard about the journey upriver, “Is it gonna be hairy?,” and learns: “I don’t know, kid. Yeah, probably.” Chef (“raised to be a saucier”) and Willard leave the boat at night, in a stunningly-visual sequence, to search for fruit (mangoes). Dwarfed by the eerieness of nature all around and the trees above them, Chef and Willard (on guard against VC) are attacked by a ferocious but beautiful Asian tiger. Chef is terrified and becomes unglued after retreating to the safety of the boat. Willard vows (in voice-over) that they must not “get out of the boat” [a statement of US foreign policy and involvement in SE Asia during the war]:
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin’ all the way.
As they proceed farther into the wild jungle by boat, Willard becomes more and more fascinated by Kurtz’ dossier of press clippings, photographs, and letters (both official and personal) and compares himself to the self-appointed leader. He reads about his family, his career, and his rise from being a decorated officer to an embarrassment to the establishment, musing:
Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f—ing program. How did that happen? What did he see here that first tour? 38 f—ing years old. If he joined the Green Berets, there was no way you’d ever get above Colonel. Kurtz knew what he was giving up. The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired him. His family and friends couldn’t understand it, and they couldn’t talk him out of it. He had to apply three times and he put up with a ton of s–t, but when he threatened to resign, they gave it to him. The next youngest guy in his class was half his age. They must have thought he was some far-out old man humping it over that course. I did it when I was 19 and it damn near wasted me. A tough motherf—er. He finished. He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead…October 1967, on special assignment…, Kurtz staged Operation Archangel with combined local forces. Rated a major success. He received no official clearance. He just thought it up and did it. What balls! They were gonna nail his ass to the floorboards for that one, but after the press got ahold of it, they promoted him to Full Colonel instead. Ah man, the bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.
They arrive at an isolated US base supply depot at Hau Phat in a surreal nighttime scene – the warehouse-arena is glittering and brilliantly-lit by half-circles of floodlights. They collect diesel fuel, supplies, and “Panama Red” smoke for Chef at a depot. [Playboy centerfolds are posted on the wall.] Because they have no destination – their “destination is classified” (according to Willard), the Sergeant in charge is testy, but then when confronted offers the crew press-box seats “for the show,” and also presents Willard with a bottle of contraband bourbon.
In a memorable, morale-boosting, staged USO show, three beautiful but untalented Playboy Bunnies are airlifted in via helicopter to entertain the horny, sex-starved troops (conducting “Operation Brute Force”) at the base. Tall, golden, phallic-shaped towers stand behind the audience. The show is introduced by emcee/manager Bill Graham (Himself):
- Miss August Playmate Sandra Beatty (Linda Carpenter)
- Miss May Playmate Terri Teray (Colleen Camp)
- Playmate of the Year Carrie Foster (Cyndi Wood, credited as Cynthia Wood)
The young women are the worst example of American values exported to a strange, alien world. The women perform USO-style, with taunting, tantalizing, blatantly-seductive bump and grind dancing (to the tune of “Suzie Q” performed by Flash Cadillac, before the song was popularized by Creedence Clearwater Revival). The show features the three women skimpily dressed as a cavalry officer, a white double-holstered cowboy and an Indian squaw – re-enacting the defeat of the natives in the West [a parallel image to the defeat of the US troops in Vietnam]. All of the scantily-clad, shimmying women ostentatiously caress and fire their guns. Behind chain-link fence, some of the Vietnamese people watch in amazement and puzzlement. The audience becomes an aroused, frenzied, uncontrollable mob that charges the stage as the show degenerates. MP’s fight off the soldiers during the quick evacuation of the women by the USO crew. As the female performers climb back into a helicopter to whisk them away, their manager shrugs his shoulders to the audience, and displays a Victory (V-sign) in the air. [His departure is an impersonation of Vietnam War-era President Nixon’s last farewell, before he boarded a helicopter. Bill Graham’s death occurred years later in a helicopter crash.] One or two men hang onto the skids of the copter, and then fall off, as it slowly ascends.
In the emptied stands, as Willard watches the end of the debacle from afar, he notes as he drinks from his bottle:
Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R and R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death or victory.
[Apocalypse Now Redux:
Willard continues to muse as the stage is cleaned up the following morning after the USO concert and they pull away in their patrol boat. He thinks cynically about the direction of the war and its leaders: “No one but Kurtz put a weed up Command’s ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.”
An earlier section of the original film, at the point where the crew hears the B-52 strike, is transposed to this location. The PBR crew entertain themselves to Armed Forces Radio playing the Rolling Stones’ 60’s hit: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The crew dances to the radio and gets stoned – with a strange sense of normalcy. Lance even water-skies behind the boat – the rough wake of the boat disrupts peasants in a simple boat, an apt metaphor for the intrusion of Americans into a foreign country. Willard, in voice-over, reads more of the dossier – a quote from Kurtz’ own writing:
Commitment and Counter-Insurgency, by Col. Walter E. Kurtz. As long as our officers and troups (sic) perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilletantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence. (In the document, but not read aloud – The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy…The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war…)…We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…]
Other patrol boats engage them in mock warfare, mooning, and a game of “chicken.” As they continue on, Willard reviews more of the dossier’s classified materials, learning how Kurtz investigated and quickly and efficiently murdered four Vietnamese double-agents, and then retreated into Cambodia when pressured by the American army:
Late Summer, 1968. Kurtz’s patrols in the highlands coming under frequent ambush. The camp started falling apart. November: Kurtz orders the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one woman. Two of the men were Colonels in the South Vietnamese army. Enemy activity in his old sector dropped off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right four people. The Army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold. And if he pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumors and rambling intelligence, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia….
(Reading from a typed letter written by Kurtz to his son)
Dear Son: I’m afraid that both you and your mother will have been worried of not hearing from me in the past weeks, but my situation here has become a difficult one. I have been officially accused of murder by the Army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double-agents. We spent months uncovering them and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted – we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, and in the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane. In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action – what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be only clarity – seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it – directly, quickly, awake, looking at it. I would trust you to tell your mother what you choose about this letter. As for the charges against me, I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid, lying morality and so I am beyond caring. You have all my faith. Your loving father
[Apocalypse Now Redux: The occupants of the out-of-fuel and downed Playboy helicopter are found stranded and marooned in a remote base camp. They have sought refuge during a fierce and torrential rainstorm in an unorganized, muddy Medevac Center that lacks a CO (dead from stepping on a land-mine months earlier). Willard barters with the girls’ manager (Bill Graham) in one of the hastily-assembled tents [in a ‘frontier town’ reminiscent of the one in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)]. He exchanges some of the boat’s reserve fuel for several of his randy crew members to have sex with the female entertainers. He tells the disbelieving group:
I just made a deal with the people from Hua Phat. I negotiated two barrels of fuel for a couple of hours with the Bunnies.
Chief Phillips objects and declines the offer, preferring to remain with the boat:
Chief: (Are) you givin’ away our fuel for a Playmate of the Month?
Willard: Nope. Playmate of the Year, Chief.
The two others find Bunnies as partners. In cross-cut scenes, Chef (a collector of Playboy magazines) is entertained by ex-Busch Gardens bird-trainer Miss May in the cockpit of the Playboy helicopter, while Lance socializes with the beautiful blonde Playmate of the Year in one of the tents. (When Lance removes his Playmate’s boots, her groans simulate an orgasm after she asks: “Is it coming?”) In a long monologue, the blonde describes her lonely fate as a celebrated centerfold to Lance, as he silently opens her blouse, bares her breasts, lays her down, applies stripes of green to her cheeks, and gently strokes her face. Her feelings emphasize her exploited, prostituted life, similar to the ones of the recruits sent to the battlefield:
Being Playmate of the Year is the loneliest experience I can imagine. It’s like – you try to express your feelings to someone, and show them your heart…and there’s this glass wall between you. This invisible glass. And they can see your mouth moving…But they can’t hear what you’re saying…’Cause you can never really make them hear what you’re tryin’ to say…That’s why I tried so desperately to show somebody that I had some talent…They make you do things that you don’t wanna do, like, like, this picture here. (She opens up a photo scrapbook and points to one of the pictures.) I started feeling repulsed with myself…Maybe I’m unfit to have a relationship with a beautiful, innocent boy… (Lance applies face paint to himself.) I wish, I wish I could find just one person that could share my point of view. (She jumps up, stumbles across the muddy room, and accidentally upturns a metal coffin holding a soldier’s naked corpse. Mortified, she cowers in a corner while being comforted.) Lance, that was somebody’s son. Lance, there were things that they made me do that I didn’t wanna do. They said, “Pull the ribbons between your legs.” And I didn’t wanna do it. But they said that was what was expected of me, that that’s what people wanted to see. (She is startled to see Clean waiting outside to be next and peering in the window.)
Meanwhile, Chef has donned his lovely, barely-clad calendar girl with a dark black wig and compelled her to pose like her centerfold (Miss December) portrait. He confesses: “You know, I can’t believe it. Me, J. Hicks. I mean, I can’t believe I’m really here…Just think, if it hadn’t been for the Vietnam War, I never would have met you, Miss December.” She quickly corrects him for the second time: “Miss May.” Although a bird aborts the start of their love-making, his bird-loving companion is ecstatic over their first kiss (“You kiss just like a bird…Take me like a bird. Fly, baby. Cock it to me”). To turn her on even further and drive her crazy, Chef flaps his arms like an eagle.]
After their encounter with the entertainers, the paranoid and uneasy crew frequently begins to argue. Lance, in particular, has become primitive in his actions and appearance – wearing full green/black facial camouflage makeup (“So they can’t see ya, they’re everywhere”) – (and later, a loincloth, and a spear.) All are anxious to carry out their mission to drop Willard at his destination and quickly retreat.
In a revolting and horrible scene, Chief insists on stopping an innocent-looking, lone sampan with Vietnamese civilians for a routine search, despite Willard’s protests. Weary and jittery – and armed to shoot, the crew nervously suspects that the sampan is smuggling supplies and other VC contraband. Chef boards the vessel to search it, shouting that there is nothing suspicious, while Lance and Clean look on with their weapons ready. But when a young girl makes a quick move toward a yellow can that is to be inspected, Clean (and later Lance) opens fire. Almost the entire boatload of civilians on board is slaughtered in a tremendous barrage of bullets as the murderers scream: “Motherf—ers!” It turns out there are no weapons – in the can is a puppy. Chief wants to take the only survivor – the badly wounded, moaning young girl – to “some friendlies” for treatment. Willard -the ultimate assassin – rebukes him, and then shoots her with a single bullet through the heart, rather than diverting the boat to get medical help from an ARVN. The soldiers scream, cry, and yell obscenities at each other – in shock and guilt. Willard orders the boat and its hostile crew to continue its fateful journey: “I told you not to stop. Now let’s go.” Lance keeps the little, golden-haired puppy for himself.
The killing changes Willard and the crew’s perception of him, as he expresses increasing empathy for Kurtz:
It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut ’em in half with a machine gun and give ’em a bandaid. It was a lie – and the more I saw of ’em, the more I hated lies. Those boys were never gonna look at me the same way again, but I felt like I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier.
In another hallucinatory sequence at the last army outpost before they venture into Cambodian waters (to Kurtz), the patrol boat cruises through a bizarre night battle (of rocket and mortar fire) for the besieged, psychedically-lit, American-held Do Lung bridge. During the heavy Vietcong artillery bombardment, commanding officers are not visible, and soldiers jump in the water with suitcases begging to be taken home. Willard is given a packet containing mail and an updated classified report and told: “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” He leaves the boat with acid-head Lance (tripping on acid, and with the puppy inside his jacket) to survey the situation and get some information from a commanding officer. [Lance’s internal hallucinations are vividly projected onto his environment.] They plan to be picked up on the other side of the embattled bridge.
Without COs anywhere, they discover a terrified black GI shooting recklessly into the night sky at an unseen enemy: “They’re gooks out there by the wire but I think I killed ’em all.” The half-crazed man asks if Willard is the CO: “Ain’t you?” The confused soldiers listen to Jimi Hendrix cassette music. A “slope” who is wounded and hanging on the wire, taunts them: “F–k you, GI…I kill you, GI.” After the black GI fires his weapon in the enemy’s direction, the taunts are silenced. Two men are blown off the bridge as Willard searches unsuccessfully for a commanding officer, but he has found some ammo. The Chief describes the real reason for the bridge: “We build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the generals can say the road’s open. Think about it.” With everyone back on board, the boat passes under the temporary bridge, entering Cambodia for the final part of the hellish trip upriver.
In the new information he has received, Willard learns of a recent development in his mission: “Months ago, a man was ordered on a mission which was identical to yours. We have reason to believe that he is now operating with Colonel Kurtz. Saigon was carrying him MIA for his family’s sake, but they assumed he was dead. Then they intercepted a letter he tried to send to his wife. Captain Richard Colby (Scott Glenn). He was with Kurtz.” The other crew read the mail and news from home, while Lance is inspired to yell that the Vietnam War experience is similar to an unreal theme park:
Disneyland. F–k, man, this is better than Disneyland.
Chef reads outloud a newspaper article sent from home about Charles Manson and the slaying of Sharon Tate, and how his girlfriend Eva “pictures me at home having a beer watching TV.” Clean listens to a cassette tape sent from his Mama while Lance lights a “Purple Haze” flare (that he calls “rainbow reality”). [Purple Haze was both a type of LSD, and a popular Jimi Hendrix drug song.] Suddenly, the patrol boat is surprised by an enemy Vietcong attack from the river banks. Lance’s puppy is lost, and Clean is killed in the sniper assault before he is able to hear the final ironic wishes of his mother’s voice on the tape:
I’m so glad you decided to join the Navy. That’s much more than I can say for some of your friends. If this tape is any good, I will have Dad and the family send you a tape of their own…(The assault commences.)…And so I’m hoping that — pretty soon — not too soon — but pretty soon I’ll have a lot of grandchildren to love and spoil. And then when your wife get ’em back, she’ll be mad with me. Ha, ha, ha. Even Aunt Jessie and Mama will come to celebrate your coming home. Granny and Dad are trying to get enough money to get you a car, but don’t tell ’em, because that’s our secret. Anyhow, do the right thing. Stay out of the way of the bullets. And bring your heinie home all in one piece. Because we love you very much. Love, Mom.
[Apocalypse Now Redux: In an additional disorienting, dream-like (almost narcotic and gauzy) 20-minute segment or interlude, the boat comes upon a battered and devastated French colonial settlement – it emerges from the smoke on the river bank almost as if from a time warp. The entire journey is one that parallels Vietnam’s own historical background – from the American outpost, to the French settlement, and finally to the natives themselves in a primal state. The mood is eerie and tense as the patrol boat pulls up to a broken-down wharf. Shortly after disembarking, the blowing smoke dissipates and reveals that they are confronted by a gun-toting squadron of Frenchmen. The French planter Hubert de Marias (Christian Marquand) welcomes them after learning that they lost one of their men. He explains that generations of his family have been at the plantation site in Cambodia for 70 years. He also asserts: “And it will be such until we are all dead.”
In a ceremony accompanied by the French militia, (and within view of the two-story plantation partially hidden by the jungle), Clean is given a respectful burial – his body is momentarily draped by a tattered American flag (before his canvas-wrapped corpse is lowered into the ground, along with his tape player). A bugle plays during the final rites.
Afterwards, the crew are invited to an extravagant French, white-tablecloth (with napkins and crystal glasses) dinner (of wine, sauces) with the extended family of the patriarch/planter – four generations of the plantation-owning family clinging to their past. Waiters (and the chef) are Vietnamese servants. Two of the planter family’s youngest members, Gilles and Francis (Coppola’s own sons Gian-Carlo and Roman) recite Baudelaire at the dinner table, as Hubert later explains:
It’s a very cruel poem for children. But they need it, ’cause life sometimes is very cruel.
The planter vows to stay in Cambodia forever – it’s his family’s home soil, he bangs the table and argues, even though his country has a long colonial history of losses there and worldwide (in WWII, Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, Indochina): “But here, we don’t lose. This piece of earth, we keep it. We will never lose it, never!” Soon, there is further disagreement over the purpose of the present war and American involvement in Indochina (“The Vietcong were invented by the Americans”), and now that the Americans have taken the place of the French, they must fight the Vietminh. The French planter (and his uncle) foretell the American fate in the war effort:
And what can you do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Vietnamese are very intelligent. You never know what they think.
During the heated dialogue, one of the younger, upset de Marias family members asks Willard why Americans have lost their will to fight in Vietnam: “Why don’t you Americans learn from us, from our mistakes? Mon Dieux, with your Army, your strength, your power, you could win if you want to!…You can win.” The planter concludes the conversation by recounting why they are dedicated to remain there, while the Americans are not:
…the Vietnamese, (we) worked with them, make something – something out of nothing…We want to stay here because it’s ours – it belongs to us. It keeps our family together. (Ironically, almost everyone has left the table by this time). I mean, we fought for that. While you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.
The golden-hued sunlight fades and darkness falls over the room as the dinner scene ends.
The beautiful, chiffon-wearing, delicate-faced and blue-eyed French widow, Madame Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clement), who has been ‘making eyes’ with Willard during the entire dinner conversation, notes that he looks “tired of the war.” She recollects: “‘Twas the same in the eyes of the soldiers of our war. We called them ‘Les Soldats Perdus‘ – The Lost Soldiers.” She invites (and convinces) him to share a cognac drink rather than attend to the boat and his men: “The war will be still here tomorrow,” she reminds him. They also prepare to smoke opium in her bedroom, lying on her canopy bed. [She used to prepare an opium pipe for her husband, using the addictive pain-killer as morphine for his war wound.] As she is about to place the pipe into Willard’s mouth, she tells him about something she once said to her husband (her “lost soldier”):
There are two of you. Don’t you see? One that kills and one that loves.
Her former husband responded: “I don’t know whether I’m an animal or a god.” In contrast, she sees Willard as having both evil and god-like qualities:
But you are both….All that matters is that you are alive. You are alive, Captain. That’s the truth.
In a poignant, ethereal, and tender seduction scene, she strips naked and gracefully unties the gauzy curtains that drape down from the canopy over the four sides of the bed. He reaches up to caress her face through the semi-transparent mosquito netting, as her words are repeated on the soundtrack: “There are two of you. Don’t you see? One that kills and one that loves.”]
The journey recommences as the previous scene dissolves into the next foggy dawn’s mist. As the smoke, wreckage, and carnage increase along their watery route, the grief-stricken, crazed crew are fearful of what is coming. Fog drifts over the boat, as they pass the wreckage of an airplane. Willard feels Kurtz’s ominous presence closeby:
He was close, real close. I couldn’t see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the boat were being sucked upriver and the water was flowing back into the jungle. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t gonna be the way they call it back in Nha Trang.
In another surprise attack, this time with primitive arrows and spears presumably from native tribesmen (some of Kurtz’ Montagnard warriors), Chief Phillips is impaled and killed by a spear from behind as they attempt to retreat. On his back with his last bit of strength, Chief struggles to pull Willard onto the same spear sticking out of his chest.
As Lance (with an arrow playfully sticking through his head) gives Chief a watery burial, Willard tells an outraged Chef his real mission:
Willard: My mission is to make it up into Cambodia. There’s a Green Beret Colonel up there who’s gone insane. I’m supposed to kill him.
Chef: That’s f–kin’ typical. S–t. F–kin’ Vietnam mission. I’m short and we gotta go up there so you can kill one of our own guys? That’s f–kin’ great! That’s just f–kin’ great, man. S–t. That’s f–kin’ crazy. I mean, I thought you were goin’ in there to blow up a bridge, or some f—in’ railroad tracks or somethin’.
Chef recommends that they should keep together on the security of the boat and all go together. Willard narrates (in voice-over) about his fears as they get closer to their destination. The scenery is bathed in bright flaming red and golden hues: “Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.” Willard rips up his dossier materials and tosses them in the river.
In dugout canoes, the native tribesmen (covered with white ash and wearing loincloths), [a perverted version of the landing of a whaling ship in sun-drenched Tahiti], the guerrilla Montagnards and other ragtag mercenaries await Willard, Lance, and Chef at Kurtz’s strange jungle outpost – a decaying Angkor Wat-style, ancient Cambodian temple. Hanging, mutilated corpses and decapitated heads on posts (of enemies or dissenters?) decorate the approach to Kurtz’s camp compound. [The Montagnard tribesmen were portrayed by the Ifugao people of Banaue of the Philippine Islands.]
In Kurtz’ camp, a site of primitive evil, they are greeted by a crazed, hyperactive, fast-talking, spaced-out, free lance, American photo-journalist (Dennis Hopper looking like Charles Manson), who loudly announces: “It’s all been approved.” [The character was reportedly based upon legendary photographer Tim Page, author of Nam and Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden.] The babbling, deranged combat photographer, garlanded by his camera equipment, hopes for their sake, that they haven’t come to take “him” away – Colonel Kurtz. He describes the great awe all the natives have for their jungle lord: “Out here, we’re all his children.” The photojournalist appears to be a fanatical follower of Kurtz. He worships the enigmatic, genius “poet-warrior” Kurtz as a personal god and expounds Kurtz’s cause:
You don’t talk to the Colonel, well, you listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense…I’m a little man. He’s a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across floors of silent seas. [These lines were taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock] I mean…He can be terrible and he can be mean and he can be right. He’s fighting the war. He’s a great man. [Notice the graffiti title to the film on the temple’s stone blocks.]
He offers first-hand advice from his own experience: “So, ya just lay it cool, lay cool, laid back, dig it…You don’t judge the Colonel.” Willard is impressed by Kurtz’s power over the people. He notices Captain Richard Colby (Scott Glenn) holding his weapon (with a bloody hand) among the natives tribesmen. Leading them on a short tour of the island, the photo-journalist also describes the compound, cluttered with bloodied bodies:
The heads. You’re lookin’ at the heads. Eh, uh-sometimes he goes too far, you know, and he’s the first one to admit it.
The photo-journalist vows that Kurtz isn’t crazy, and becomes ecstatic: “If you could have heard the man just two days ago. If you could have heard him then, God – .”
Chef, nervous about being off the boat, suggests that the crew return to the boat to wait until Willard can talk to Kurtz. He fears that the Colonel is the master of an eternally-evil place:
This Colonel guy, he’s wacko, man. He’s worse than crazy. He’s evil…It’s f–kin’ pagan idolatry. Look around you. S–t. He’s loco…I ain’t afraid of all them f–kin’ skulls and altars and s–t. I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn’t be able to make it to Heaven. But now, f–k! I mean, I don’t care where it goes, as long as it ain’t here. So whaddya wanna do? I’ll kill the f–k.
Willard leaves with Lance to “scrounge” around and try to find the Colonel, keeping Chef on the boat and instructing him to radio for help if necessary: “If I don’t get back by 2200 hours, you call in the airstrike…The code is Almighty – coordinates 09264712.” During their scouting trip in a drenching rain, Willard sees hundreds of bodies – proving Kurtz’ insanity, and his power over life and death:
Everything I saw told me that Kurtz had gone insane. The place was full of bodies. North Vietnamese, Vietcong, Cambodians. If I was still alive, it was because he wanted me that way.
Willard is dragged in the mud and eventually taken to Kurtz’s location to meet his prey:
It smelled like slow death in there, malaria, and nightmares. This was the end of the river, all right.
He is granted an audience with Kurtz, seen in dramatic dark shadows in his inner sanctum. The baffling, unbalanced, overweight, and decaying Kurtz is shaved bald. [Brando weighs almost 300 pounds, although in Conrad’s original book Heart of Darkness, Kurtz was gaunt and emaciated – the other extreme.] He questions Willard about his past, and his Ohio (Toledo) background. Kurtz is reminded of a childhood experience of traveling down the Ohio River and coming upon a gardenia or flower plantation where “you’d think that heaven just fell on the earth in the form of gardenias.”
Slow-speaking and slightly deranged, Kurtz knows Willard’s mission is to kill him. While sprinkling cool water on his bald head from a bucket, Kurtz asks: “Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinion of others? Even the opinions of yourself? Did they say why, Willard? Why they want to terminate my command?” After a long pause, Willard responds coldly: “I was sent on a classified mission, sir.” “It’s no longer classified, is it?” is Kurtz’ response. Willard must confess his mission and knowledge of Kurtz’s brutality and insanity:
Kurtz: What did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound. (Kurtz clenches his fist.)
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: (disdainfully, with his face in full view) You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.
The next morning, Willard is found imprisoned and standing upright in a tiger cage. Surrounding the cage are other slaughtered bodies lying about (with the sound of buzzing flies). The prisoner is interrogated in a one-sided, convoluted conversation with the photojournalist who circles around the cage:
Why would a nice guy like you wanna kill a genius?…Do you know that the man really likes you? He likes you. He really likes you. But he’s got something in mind for you. Aren’t you curious about that?…There’s something happening out here, man….I know something that you don’t know. That’s right, Jack. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. Oh, yeah. He’s dying, I think. He hates all of this. He hates it, but the man’s, uh. He reads poetry outloud, all right?…He likes you ’cause you’re still alive. He’s got plans for you. No, no, I’m not gonna help you. You’re gonna help him, man…I mean, what are they gonna say, man, when he’s gone, huh? ‘Cause he dies when it dies, man. When it dies, he dies. What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bulls–t, man! Am I gonna be the one that’s gonna set them straight? Look at me. Wrong! (Pointing with a jabbing index finger) You!
After eight hours of waiting on the boat, Chef calls in on the radio, and identifies himself as the “PBR Street Gang” to Almighty. A pair of feet ominously approach the tiger cage, where Willard is bound like an animal. During the rainy night, he looks up to witness the evil Kurtz’s atrocities first hand – he sees Kurtz approach wearing camouflage paint on his face, illuminated by the light of the fire. The hungry and terrorized man is presented with Chef’s grotesquely severed head in his lap. The scene fades to black.
Through a sun-lit opening in a new, walled-in prison enclosure, children (and bald-headed Kurtz) view Willard and wave their hands through the slit.
[Apocalypse Now Redux:
Kurtz’ character is more fully revealed (both in the daylight and through his interactions) as he speaks to captive Willard in a metal shed. He more clearly explains his bizarre and renegade defection from the world (and society) and muses over the insanity of war. In a monologue, Kurtz quotes an actual lie-riddled, flag-waving, weekly Time news magazine article while surrounded by children. He unmasks deceit and disparity concerning the war while reading the American media’s news magazine and its political assessments of the military situation in Vietnam:
“September 22, 1967, Volume 90, number 12. The War on the Horizon. The American people may find it hard to believe that the US is winning the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, one of the most exhaustive inquiries into the status of the conflict yet compiled offers considerable evidence that the weight of US power two-and-a-half years after the big buildup began is beginning to make itself felt. White House officials maintain the impact of that strength may bring the enemy to the point where he could simply be unable to continue fighting.”
Is this familiar?
“Because Lyndon Johnson fears that the US public is in no mood to accept its optimistic conclusions, he may never permit the report to be released in full. Even so, he is sufficiently impressed with the findings and sufficiently anxious to make their conclusions known to permit experts who have been working on it to talk about it in general terms.”
No date, Time Magazine.
He also mocks American intelligence operations:
“Sir Robert Thompson who led the victory over Communist guerrillas in Malaya is now a RAND Corporation consultant recently returned to Vietnam to sound out the situation for President Nixon. He told the president last week that things felt much better and smelled much better over there.”
How do they smell to you, soldier? (He stands.) You’ll be free. You’ll be under guard. Read these at your leisure. Don’t lose them. Don’t try to escape. You’ll be shot. We can talk of these things later.]
Willard is released from the metal cage and kept alive with water and rice by the mercy of his captor, for some purpose known only to Kurtz. While Willard recovers from his ordeal, the Colonel reads to him from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men. [Eliot was inspired to write this poem by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.]
We are the hollow men.
We are the stuffed men leaning together at peace filled with straw.
Alas, our dried voices when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass, or a rat’s feet over broken glass in a dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion.
The unglued photojournalist interjects his own pronouncements about dialectics during the reading, recalling the words of the French widow about duality. He reveals that he has reached his own personal end:
He’s really out there…Do you know what the man’s saying? Do you? This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine. No maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space. You can’t go out in space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions. What are you gonna land on? One-quarter? Three-eighths? What are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus, or something? That’s dialectic physics, OK. Dialectic logic is, there’s only love and hate. You either love somebody or you hate ’em…This is the way the f—ing world ends. Look at this f—ing shit we’re in, man. Not with a bang. A whimper. And with a whimper, I’m f—ing splitting, Jack.
[His words are derived from the poem’s famous last two lines that he has undoubtedly heard many times: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.”]
In voice-over, Willard feels ambivalent about his mission’s task, finding Kurtz brilliant but rambling and spiritually troubled – as the camera pretentiously pans across mythic texts in Kurtz’s headquarters (The Holy Bible, From Ritual to Romance by Jesse L. Weston [this book inspired T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”], and James Frazier’s The Golden Bough):
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 he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was gonna do than I did. If the generals back in Nha 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’d really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.
Kurtz speaks of the “horrors” that he has seen in the bloody conflict, and denies that Willard has any moral right to judge his actions or behavior:
I’ve seen the 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.
Kurtz also believes that “moral terror” and “horror” are necessary to preserve civilization as he philosophizes with further pronouncements:
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.
Willard also listens to Kurtz – in a major monologue meditating on life and death – as he recalls a turning point in his life. It was an incident from his American Special Forces days a few years earlier (it “seems a thousand centuries ago”) when Vietcong guerrillas came into a native village and hacked off the left arms of South Vietnamese children who had been inoculated against polio by his Special Forces:
We’d 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 say. 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 me because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men — trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts who have families, who have children, who are filled with love – that they had the strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then 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.
Kurtz believes the atrocities revealed for him the moral strength and commitment of men who loved their families and could still act so monstrously “without judgment” – with a primordial instinct to kill. According to him, those revelations have accentuated the moral ambiguity of war and justified his rampage in Cambodia – a mass-murder and mutilation of the enemy “without judgment,” to shorten the war. [The Killing Fields (1984) was also about the ‘secret’ war and bombing of Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge – that ultimately led to an internal bloodbath. Swimming to Cambodia (1987) was a semi-comic monologue by actor Spalding Grey, dealing – amongst other things – with his experiences as a bit player during the filming of The Killing Fields (1984).] Kurtz wants primitive men, similar to agent Willard on his mission, who can kill without judgment “because it’s judgment that defeats us.” The conventional war effort of Americans (with high-tech bombs and other machines and weapons of war, and a judgmental news media) will ultimately be defeated by triumphant opposition forces of primitives that are committed and determined.
The berserk Colonel tells Willard that his chief worry is that his son back home won’t understand him after he has been assassinated, that he might judge his father’s raids to be atrocities:
…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 – you will do this for me.
The scene shifts to preparations for a caribou sacrifice, even as Kurtz commands Willard to preserve the truth about him. (Lance blends in with the native peoples, with his face paint, loin-cloth, and half-naked body.) Willard has returned to the patrol boat, where the radio transmission from Almighty startles him (the radio’s voice questions his next move: “This is Almighty standing by. How do you copy?”)
Accepting the inevitable, Willard is poised to kill Kurtz as an act of mercy. In a climactic moral battle that rages within himself (in voice-over), he questions his own commanding officers. Though secretly identifying with and admiring Kurtz, Willard understands that he must perform his God-given duty as an officially-sanctioned assassin – who makes no judgments about his orders:
They were going to make me a Major for this and I wasn’t even in their f—in’ army any more. 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.
He slips off the boat and approaches toward the sacrificial temple. Waiting in his temple headquarters, Kurtz allows Willard to carry out his sacrificial mission that night. Willard’s head rises up out of the steamy primordial depths of filthy water as he begins (and ends) his quest, to seek out his prey for the slaughter – the imposing, bullish Kurtz. Lightning strobe effects and the frenzied rhythmic sounds of the Doors’ The End accompany the stalking and slaying of Kurtz with a machete.
Come on, baby, take a chance with us
Come on, baby, take a chance with us
Come on, baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus tonight…
Kurtz is reading into a tape recorder in his quarters, faced sideways before the golden light of his inner sanctum.
We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘FUCK’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.
He turns and permits his own sacrifice when he sees Willard approaching. It is a ritualistic slaughter, brilliantly cross-cut with the brutal sacrificial killing of a carabao/water buffalo by the natives as a ritualistic sacrifice to their gods. As he dies on the ground, Kurtz mutters a few final, dying words, accepting the evil present in the human soul:
The horror. The horror.
[The words duplicated the last words in Joseph Conrad’s story upon which the film was based, Heart of Darkness.]
The old king/chieftain of the people is sacrificed, in order for the land to become liberated. As Willard exits from the compound, his eye catches one of Kurtz’ type-written documents, where he reads “Drop the Bomb – Exterminate Them All!’ scrawled in red ink across one page. For a brief moment, he sits at Kurtz’ desk, contemplating the opportunity to take the Colonel’s place as a new god and king. The subservient villagers bow down to their new powerful god-like leader, and although he is tempted, Willard refuses to bask in their reverence. With the bloody machete and Kurtz’ papers in hand, Willard is given a path through the awed, native throng. They lay down their weapons as he passes. [This climactic scene has a surprising, uncanny resemblance to an unlikely film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). The hero, who has journeyed to a strange land, is worshipped by the local people after vanquishing their god-like leader and liberating them. The Wicked Witch of the East is eliminated, as are the Wizard and Kurtz – who are similarly bald, oppressive, and usually hidden from view).]
With his bloody mission accomplished, Willard guides stoned-out Lance to the patrol boat so that they can begin their return journey. They retreat in the gunboat as the natives close in on them on the banks. As they pull away, a cleansing hard rain begins to fall and static-filled radio transmissions from Almighty play on the soundtrack. Willard abruptly shuts off the radio (preventing an immediate airstrike?). During a series of slow dissolving images, Kurtz’s last words are echoed again.
A. The film fades to black. [The end credits roll and are played silently against a black background. These credits were added to the film’s 35mm screenings.]
Two Other Treatments of the Ending and Credits:
B. In the 70mm version of the film (for its initial release), there were no credits for the film (nothing but a one-line copyright notice at the end of the film) – printed credit booklets were issued to audiences.
C. Director Coppola fiddled over what would be the ‘final cut’ version of the 35 mm film, so various editing and differing release versions were screened at showings in 1978 and 1979 – many with alternative endings that ultimately were not used. Many theatre-goers at the time recollect this alternative ending — as Willard and Lance started downriver, the credits rolled over surrealistic (even psychedelic) explosions of the temple, Kurtz compound, and the burning jungle. (According to Coppola, this left-over footage made a good visual backdrop for the credits.) The Philippine government required the destruction of the Kurtz compound after filming ended – and this footage was to be used over the closing 35mm credits, but never became part of the ‘final cut’. Were the explosions the result of an airstrike? [The explosions recall one of Kurtz’ type-written documents titled “Drop the Bomb – Exterminate Them All!’]
[Apocalypse Now Redux: Conventional end credits are played at the film’s conclusion – after the fade to black. Non-scrolling white text on a black background.]