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From Book to Film: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is an Anti-War Epic

By Reggie Peralta


One of the most anticipated films in September at The Frida is the final cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, the film updates the book’s critique of colonialism for the then-still raw issue of the Vietnam War. Starring Martin Sheen as Army Captain Benjamin Willard, the captain is sent on a classified mission to “terminate” Colonel Kurtz, a rogue Green Beret waging his own savage war against the Viet Cong. With the story of its troubled production almost as famous as the movie itself, the final product proved to be an immense, immersive experience that plunged viewers into the sights and sounds of the Vietnamese jungle and, some argue, captured the essence of America’s disastrous involvement in that country’s civil war. Coming out five years after Coppola’s last film, The Godfather Part II, one might go as far to say that Apocalypse Now is a more ambitious - or even superior - film, thanks in no small part to Coppola’s original Godfather collaborator, Marlon Brando.

Despite appearing in only the last quarter or so, Brando manages to turn in an iconic performance in a career already dotted with iconic roles. Often shrouded in shadow and darkness, Brando still conveys both power and menace as the heavyset Kurtz, dangerous not just for his physical prowess but for his strength of mind and will as well. At moments, he even appears as little more than a disembodied head, an effect achieved through a combination of closely-framed camera shots and chiaroscuro lighting. This is utilized to terrific effect in his monologue to Willard, a brilliantly-understated delivery of bleakly penetrating material. Sheen, in turn, plays Willard as a passive figure for much of the movie. He narrates and grounds much of the action and drama but largely functions as a bystander to the bloody madness around him. Yet Willard proves to be not just an effective stand-in for the audience but a compelling character as well, with his gravelly voice befitting the dire nature of his mission and his haunted, pensive stare betraying the struggle of past traumas to accommodate the new ones occurring before his eyes.

Sheen’s voice isn’t the only aural element that augments the sheer sense of hopelessness. Carmine Coppola (the father of Francis) contributes a grim, synth-heavy score that leans in an experimental direction, at times mimicking different textures like helicopter blades and always underlining the atmosphere of dread that pervades the film. Of the original pieces, the one that accompanies Willard and company’s arrival at the Do Lung Bridge — gliding as it does from sinister synths that pulse and drone to erratic electric guitar and discordantly carnivalesque cymbals and organ — has to be the most potent. However, the two most memorable uses of music feature licensed tracks: The Doors “The End” and a recording of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. The Doors song serves as a bookend of sorts to the film, while the Wagner piece is played by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) during a helicopter attack on a village. Both are put to impressive use, with the dismal tone and violent climax of “The End” paralleling the physical violence we see onscreen and the triumphant brass and swelling strings of “Valkyries” serving as accompanying fanfare for the Air Cavalry. It also (given Wagner’s posthumous association with fascism and militarism) identifies the attack and, by extension, the American war in Vietnam itself as an imperialist enterprise.

The “Ride of the Valkyries” scene, of course, is one of several show-stopping set pieces encountered on the way to Kurtz’s base. While others like the farcical USO show and the eerie bridge scene leave their own lasting impressions on viewers, none are as instantly iconic as the chopper attack, with its masterfully-choreographed kinetic action and adrenaline-pumping pyrotechnics. Sparing no expense in its recreation of the Vietnam conflict, the film makes use of period-accurate tanks, helicopters, and other vehicles but was shot, ironically, on location in the Philippines. This was necessitated in part by the resemblance of the local environment to the Vietnamese rainforest but also by the US Army’s refusal to participate in the production, forcing Coppola to seek the cooperation of the Filipino military (which had received generous amounts of the needed equipment as aid from Washington). This location shooting also allows for some truly spectacular cinematography, with many a blazing sunset as well as aerial footage of choppers flying across the sky caught on camera. Coppola’s camera, however, has no trouble backing away from the big picture action and warfare when needed to focus on the characters’ reactions to the chaos unfolding around them, as seen in the aforementioned close-ups of Kurtz and Willard.

“To live alone one must be either a beast or a god”, with Nietzsche adding that a third answer is “one must be both”.

It’s in these intense close-ups that the movie’s able to explore the “heart of darkness” that lurks within Kurtz, Willard, or potentially even us in the audience. More specifically, this “darkness” is conceived of as a wild animal lying beneath the surface of every civilized human being, clamoring to be released from the prison that is civilization and free to act as its instincts urge. The French woman (Aurore Clement) who Willard encounters, for example, tells him how her ex-husband once said “I don’t know if I’m an animal or a god” before saying she believes Willard is both. This recalls Aristotle’s claim - as summarized by Nietzsche - that “To live alone one must be either a beast or a god”, with Nietzsche adding that a third answer is “one must be both”. But while Nietzsche’s idea of “both” is a philosopher, Kurtz offers an alternative in the form of the perfect soldier: someone who is “moral” and capable of caring for their family and loved ones yet still able to use their “primordial instincts” to kill the enemy “without feeling, without passion, without judgement”. This last part is particularly important, he explains, “for it is judgement that defeats us.” When you live in the jungle - as Kurtz believes life itself to be - there is no room for self-doubt, second-guessing, or mercy: you either eat or are eaten.

This conflict between, as General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) puts it, “the rational and irrational, between good and evil” in “every human heart” ties into another running theme of duality, not just between Kurtz and Willard but between Kurtz’s private war and the official American effort in Vietnam. Kurtz, we are told by Willard’s superiors, is a monster whose methods are beyond the pale, but the conduct of the US forces suggests that the war they’re fighting is no less an exercise in savagery. After sitting through the comically overpowered helicopter assault, the casually resentful racism of our “heroes” towards North and South Vietnamese alike, and the senseless massacre of innocent passengers on a sampan boat (an incident inspired by the real-life mass murder of as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians by US soldiers at My Lai), we’re almost desensitized to the bloodied bodies hanging from trees around Kurtz’s lair. Indeed, one can even understand why Kurtz tells Willard that - though, being his enemy, he may have a right to kill him — he doesn’t have a right to judge him. When you look at it from a more basic, primitive level — and strip away the petty politics and ethical rationalizations - they’re two creatures of the same species fighting for dominance of the surrounding jungle, each determined to destroy the other yet one no more moral than the other.

By no means is Apocalypse Now an easy watch: the final cut runs three hours long and it’s a dark, unsparing story set against the backdrop of a brutal, immoral war. But out of this extended gaze into the abyss, Coppola is able to craft a towering, anti-war epic that remains as timely as ever and speaks to the potential for evil within all of us.


A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.

Apocalypse Now is playing at The Frida September 16th through 19th. Visit The Frida Cinema website to reserve tickets.

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#OffThePage is taking pitches via email and paying contributing writers. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román, who is now a featured writer at Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.


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