Apocalypse Now, by F.F. Coppola
- Length: 2593 words (7.4 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
In the beginning, it is the triumph of the Cowboys, that is to say, the triumph of US soldiers. Colonel Kilgore's US Cavalry arrives in helicopters, playing Wagner's Ride of the Walkyries. A lot of elements show their superiority : the number of soldiers, their military power and the music, all of which tend to indicate that Kilgore's men are sure of themselves.
Then, from the show scene onwards, the US gradually loses its superiority. In this scene there is a real opposition between Cowboys and Indians (several girls wear Indian clothes and cowboy clothes). From this moment, US civilization declines: the soldiers become wild when they see the girls, so much so that the girls have to escape. In fact, this scene emphasizes their cruelty, their violent behavior. Moreover, even if the show is organized for the US soldiers, the Vietnamese are present too, but behind a fencing.
At the end of the film, the US civilization is replaced by the Vietnamese civilization. We can see in the arrow scene that the boat master is killed by a spear and not by a firearm, this shows us that even with a spear, we can be killed. In Kurtz's village, we can see that even the photojournalist has turned Indian because he wears war paint on his face. What is striking is that Willard tries to understand the Vietnamese and finally admires them, this in particular shows the decline of US civilization. So we can conclude that the Vietnamese civilization (that is to say Indians) replace the US. As we can see in the village scene, before the helicopter attack, there is an atmosphere of calm, of peacefulness and harmony until the US soldiers arrive. As soon as the Americans are present, all is destroyed, exterminated and chaos, destruction, disorder prevail after the attack. This film insists on the fact that it is the Americans who are the barbarians. F.F Coppola used the comparison with the Cowboys and the Indians to make us realize that the Americans are the conquerors of the world because they always want power and the territory of the weakest nations.
At first sight, the two main characters appear completely different, but we soon realize that their lives are very linked.
By this contradiction and this confusion between the two men, Coppola wants to make us understand the paradoxes of war, but also the personality of each human being. Throughout the trip, Willard is studying Kurtz’s life, which he does not know yet. But he says clearly that there is no way to tell his story without telling his own. Even though he has become mad, Willard admires Colonel Kurtz. Before arriving into Kurtz‘s village, Willard feels his presence and he does not fear to confront him. The similarities and interdependence are most obvious at the end of the film in that Willard manages to build Kurtz’s life, he tries to understand him, and finally, he kills him.However, Willard is the only one who knows Kurtz’s real personality, which will survive, paradoxically, through Willard’s narrative.
As the plot unfolds, we can notice that the two characters have the same behavior. The fact that they both kill a fly very rapidly tends to show that they are both killers. Moreover, when they are in the cave, Kurtz stands aside. In the same way, Willard is never part of the boat’s crew. The scene in the cave reminds us of a philosopher (Kurtz) who teaches his disciple (Willard) how to think, how to live and, strangely enough, how to kill him as well. In fact, Kurtz is the one who best understands the absurdity of war and how to win it, too. Indeed, his freedom of mind allows him to win every battle. So, Willard must find the will, the «primordial instinct» to kill him.
The film is a philosophy in itself, it highlights the blurred limit between Good and Evil. It is like human nature, which is sometimes so difficult to seize, and capable of both the best and the worst. Finally, this compelling film shows the duality of man which is taken to the furthest point and also how dynamic human behavior can be. As the film unfolds, Francis Coppola refers to Greek Mythology, particularly with the Minotaur’s legend which relates the struggle of Theseus, an Athenian hero, versus the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s head and a human body.
In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard is given the mission to kill Colonel Kurtz, but he does not know what is in store for him. Indeed, throughout his trip, he gets information as to who and where Kurtz is (cf : bridge’s scene with the mail ). The more he knows him, the more he wants to confront him. As a result, he has to travel a lot on the river, as in a labyrinth. With the help of his crew, he manages to surmount difficult trials, as the tiger’s scene where they are confronted to savagery and darkness.
Thus, we can link this with the slaying of the Minotaur which is the keeper of a famous labyrinth.Theseus absolutely wants to kill this monster, even if it symbolizes wildness, danger because it is fed by human flesh.
Next, in an anguishing atmosphere, Willard arrives in Kurtz’s village : he reaches his goal (the end of the labyrinth). We discover how cruel Kurtz is with his kind of killing (the bodies hanging from trees, chopped-off heads...). In Kurtz’s lodge, where there is very few visible details (only the candle’s light), Coppola plays with the shadows and he makes us guess Captain Willard killing Kurtz with a machete.
As in Greek mythology, the monster is enclosed in his cave, and feeds on young humans, which shows his savagery. At the end, Theseus wins the bloody fight and succeeds in returning on his tracks, thanks to Ariadne’s thread. This is reminiscent of Willard’s comeback down the river. As a conclusion, Willard’s life undergoes an evolution in that in the beginning, he represents Good, then he looks like the Minotaur by his cruel side. So, humans always have something barbarous in their nature.
After the culture clash that the Vietnam War was, Coppola, as many other artists, wanted to express his point of view. He chose to create an assassin from the US Special Forces, representing good and the right way, who changes his mind and finally becomes what he hated first. Coppola develops the religion aspect of that clash in the whole film, from the early images to the very last ones, and even in the biblical title. Different beliefs are alluded to, but they are dealt with, and also judged, differently.
There are a lot of allusions to Greek mythology, as in the bridge scene where the river could be compared to the Styx, a river separating our world from Hell, in which the souls of the dead (the agonising GI’s) were ferried by Charon (Willard).
Besides, the bull’s sacrifice scene illustrates Kurtz’s village beliefs. The tribe is sacrificing the animal to placate their Gods’ wrath, to implore their Gods’ goodness. This is paganism.
The title of the film already announces a catastrophe. Throughout the film, Christianity is first seen as ridiculous, and then as « horror ». Most massacres are perpetrated by Christian soldiers ; the mass preached while they are killing shows a complete irony and at the end, Lance has written « God’s country » on his seat and he literally sits on it, another instance of irony.
Throughout the film, many Buddha faces are shown, sometimes hazy, sometimes clear, but always explicit and meaningful. Buddhism takes two different aspects, first Willard’s purpose and then the village particular culture. Each time we see a Buddha face, it’s either to smile on the Occident and its ignorance or to give Willard a goal.
Among Kurtz’s devotees, Buddhism looks special, they are protecting their village and their prophet, but still keeping the influence of Buddha’s teaching as in Kurtz’s poetry. At the beginning the General announces «a conflict between rational and irrational... between good and evil.» This is proved by Willard’s domination upon Kurtz, he kills him, but also by Willard’s transformation into Kurtz’s mind, which introduces an idea of circle in that in the end, the US headquarters are in need of someone to bring Willard back to good and rational as in the beginning for Kurtz. Actually, the end of the movie leads us to a new start.
Finally, we can infer that Coppola does not appreciate Christianity and Occident in that story and even he is supporting the Orient towards Occidental imperialism. The Occident is humbled and the Orient is praised, but everything is relative, in every Good there is a little of Evil and vice-versa. Willard is neither Good nor Evil neither a God nor a hero.
First of all, water in the film is a way of moving or playing, as we can see Lance and Colonel Kilgore surfing while US soldiers are fighting. In any case, water symbolizes life throughout the film. Indeed, after the arrow scene, "Chief", who is black, dies and a part of the crew put him slowly into the water. We can draw a parallel with the end of the film, when Willard's black head emerges from the river just before killing Kurtz. It is like a new birth for him: water purifies his mind in order to turn him into a savage man.
Having said that, we must refer to mythology to go deeper and deeper into Apocalypse Now. Watching the Bridge scene rings a bell; the GIs are agonizing in the water while Willard is standing in the boat. In fact, he stands for Charon and as a consequence, he is expected to ferry the soul of the dead (the GIs) on the Styx (the river), which is divided in five rivers (cf). Apparently, Willard knew his mission from the beginning as he said: "I was going to be ferried". Also, the river is a metaphor of Ariadne's Thread, which means that Willard will be able to return on his tracks alive after killing Colonel Kurtz.
The river carries another symbolism: time. Throughout the film the river gets smaller and smaller. At the beginning, it is wide and we have a sense of freedom, of breathing. When Willard sails up the river, he actually moves back into time, he comes back on Kurtz’s life, it is like an apprenticeship, an initiatory voyage.
Little by little, he learns about what Kurtz did before becoming mad (as the people at HQs said). At the beginning, Willard thinks only about his mission: the future, in fact. Then, when he is on the river, he thinks about Kurtz’ life: the past.
The closer he gets to Kurtz’s village, the more he realizes that Kurtz is an excellent soldier, who knows his job. This is why he really hesitates to kill Kurtz.
Finally, there is a link between water and civilization, water and savagery. The boat is a sort of protection from the jungle: the scene in which a tiger attacks Chef and Willard after they get out of the boat testifies that if they had no boat it would be impossible for them to reach Kurtz’s village. At the end of this scene, we are told: « Never get out of the f***ing boat. ». This precisely shows that the jungle represents a danger for the crew: it is actually the savage world. Moreover, in Kurtz’s village, we can see fog. This evokes the atmosphere in a sect: indeed, the tribe is too much absorbed by Kurtz’s command; it’s as if they were in jail, in a psychological jail. They cannot think, they are like primitive animals, in other words, they are empty of all thought. Descartes said:« I think therefore I am ». In fact, they are not because they don’t think. This also refers to savagery.
Willard and the rest of the crew leave civilization when they get off from the boat to go to the village. The question Kurtz asks Willard is significant: ''Are you far from the river?... —From the Ohio river, Sir?...'' Willard replies. He is actually asking Willard how far he is from civilization (how primitive he is  cf. The Apocalypse Now river as a snake). Here, the borders between civilization and savagery are very clear. Indeed, two worlds seem to confront each other : the way of thinking, the way they are dressed is totally different .Thus, the boat represents modern age, new technology (with the radio, etc.)
While Willard is on the boat, he learns about Kurtz’s life. In the same way, the deeper he goes on the river, the more his experience grows. As a matter of fact, the river stands for an apprenticeship in Apocalypse Now, for Willard as well as for the viewer. In other words, in the aftermath of this war film, we have grown in our minds.
The film Apocalypse Now, shot by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979, is a war film. Therefore, as in all films of this genre, a vast variety of arms is staged —the most sophisticated as the most simple. That is why we are going to present and analyze the evolution of these different weapons in the film, scene after scene.
First of all, the helicopter scene refers to the US Cavalry's domination with war helicopters, gatlin guns and bomber planes (napalm). Next, during the sampan attack there is a sharp contrast between the way the amateurs —the crew— use the machine guns in a frantic way while the professional —Willard—uses his own gun, coldly and efficiently.
Another aspect of weapons is the toy guns in the show scene. Indeed, there is a sharp contrast between the US soldiers' heavy weapons in the previous scenes and the girls' toy guns. Also, in the bridge scene the flares and the mortar (used to fire shells) show again American military dominance.
Then in the next two scenes we get an impression of retreat for the US, which is caused by the fact that the jungle people attack the boat's crew with bows and arrows. In the same way, in the final scene the bull is sacrificed with a machete in parallel with Kurtz’s death, when Willard kills him with this long knife.
To conclude, we can say that the weapon evolution is going backwards, because at the beginning the arms, such as the machine guns or the bomber planes, are more sophisticated than at the end, where the primitive arms prevail more and more, for example the arrows and the machete.
Moreover, we know that the film is a metaphor of the Vietnam war, so the principal subject is the US Army’s domination, which evolves with the weapons. Indeed, throughout the film, we can observe that the US soldiers are fewer and fewer because in the end only Willard and Lance are still alive.
As has already been said, we think that this similar evolution results from the fact that the more we go into the jungle’s heart the more we find primitive life. In the same way, we find increasingly simple arms.
Finally, Francis Ford Coppola said : «Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.» Indeed, this shows the terrible defeat of the US Army there.