Writing About Film

Apocalypse Now, 1979Getting Lost on the Way to Cambodia

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Paper for Vietnam and the Cinema class, 1988


Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is nowhere near the moral affront that are such films as The Deer Hunter and The Green Berets. Despite Coppola’s hype of Apocalypse Now as “the ultimate Vietnam film,” it really has very little to do with Vietnam. Rather, Apocalypse Now is an experiment in sight and sound, a challenge to Coppola’s vision and his ability to transport the viewer away from his or her conventional world. For this reason, classifying the film with the “serious” movies exemplified by The Deer Hunter, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket seems inappropriate. The film’s obvious debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is merely part of its fiction, as it uses the trappings and “atmosphere” of Vietnam to heighten its cinematic impact. Most of all, Apocalypse Now is timeless, making no connection with any particular period of Vietnam, but merely appropriating the war’s chaotic and horrible surface attributes to create a high-tech fantasy quest. Michael Herr’s narration emerges as a parody — of itself, or worse, of film noir voiceovers — and has none of the freshness and honesty of Dispatches.

Further study of Apocalypse Now, and a closer look at its literary and cinematic comments, however, prompts some consideration of the film’s message. By temporarily ignoring the film’s mythological and literary borrowings, and instead concentrating on the specifics of its narrative, Coppola’s film makes a stab at anti-colonial rhetoric, or even a direct condemnation of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Starting from the opening scene’s image of U.S. choppers circling over a napalm-flaming forest, and proceeding through the journey from the air-conditioned U.S. Army trailer to the nightmarish temple of Kurtz’s Cambodia, Apocalypse Now denounces the morality of U.S. third-world intervention. Additionally, it questions America’s “liberal” ideology of spreading "civilization" to the earth’s four corners, positing the extremes of modern technology and uncivilized savagery, implying that neither is the answer. Ironically, then, the film uses the surface appearance of the Vietnam War to create a symbolic parallel with the actual war, thereby emerging not so much an anti-Vietnam film as an anti-imperialist one.

The USO show and Colonel Kilgore’s attack on the Vietcong village are highlights of Apocalypse Now’s anti-colonial, anti-technological ideology. In the latter scene, the helicopters, sent on their way with trumpet blasts, and preceded by the fascist bombast of Wagner, swoop into the peaceful hamlet. While ostensibly a means of providing a smooth send-off for Willard and his PBR, the attack is actually a result of Kilgore’s urge to secure the beach for surfing. This episode of vicious insanity highlights the most disgusting aspects of American complacency and decadence. Coppola shoots a good part of the ensuing slaughter as if from the villagers’ eyes, which is certainly a precedent in films of this genre: one would be hard-pressed to recall any other film on the war where parts of the battle were seen from the “enemy’s” eyes. At worst, the camera take no specific viewpoint, and floats over and above the action, never focusing on anyone or anything in particular. This rather effective camerawork is never used again, however, and, in general, Coppola avoids dealing with the Vietnamese and contents himself with disparaging the American side. For instance, no Vietnamese or Cambodian is ever portrayed as a particular individual, most of whom are shown in states of death, fear, or inscrutable savagery.

Coppola falters by romanticizing certain aspects of the Vietnamese and Cambodian peasant cultures to better contrast the evils of the U.S.’s technological onslaught. Apocalypse Now’s message is further muted through Coppola’s heavy-handed use of Heart of Darkness, the king-fisher myth (which was supposedly “discovered” halfway through filming), The Golden Bough, and other sources to carry the film’s final third. Through these departures, Coppola obscures the film’s anti-colonial tone and elevates it to grand-theme cinema. As a late-1970s production, Coppola could never have succeeded in blatantly condemning the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam, nor may he even have desired to. Coppola wanted to make a Vietnam-era epic, but he never decided what exactly he wished to say.

Apocalypse Now is jam-packed with exciting and frightening, often mystifying, special effects, and images of the horror (“The Horror”) of war. Careful examination of these images, however, reveals them as only that: images, without factual basis, presented for their visual and aural effect, but for the most part without a moral agenda. The film escapes more severe judgement only because of its meandering, as it never attempts to genuinely wrestle with the reality of Vietnam. For this reason, it escapes the harsh criticism of films such as The Deer Hunter or Platoon.

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