Monday, December 3, 2012

Apocalypse Now (1979)

I held a film trivia game on Twitter and the prize for the winner is that he/she could pick the next topic for my blog (as long as it was film-related). Jessy Williams won the competition (you can read her pieces on Filmoria here), and she asked me to write about the best film I saw in November. That film would be Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. What follows is not a review, but rather my reflections on this haunting masterpiece. As a result, I will not be withholding spoilers. I should also stress that this post is about the original version of the film, not the 203-minute Redux version.

I am very surprised that what most people remember about this film is that quote from Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall): "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." While this quote is a very good one, the film does not deserve to be reduced to a petty platitude. I was a little apprehensive about seeing this film. I've never been a great fan of war films, and I was worried I would not understand a lot of the film because I would be unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre. By the end of the film, I realised two things: 1) That Apocalypse Now is by no means conventional, and 2) That it only uses the Vietnam War as its conduit to espouse truths about the human psyche. I think, in a traditional war film, the most pertinent issue is who wins and loses. Apocalypse Now is about the psychology and theatre of war, rather than the political ramifications of its outcome. 

The mind games begin before we even get a glimpse of warfare. At the start of the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with a mission. He must travel to the murky depths of the Cambodian jungle to find and kill Colonel Walter E. Kurtz of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a renegade who is believed to have gone insane and taken charge of a group of Montagnard troops in neutral Cambodia. It is certainly not easy to kill a man of your own country in a context as patriotically-charged as a war, and it is even more difficult when your target is someone as formidable as Kurtz. 

The tension reaches its peak when Willard arrives at Kurtz's outpost. Willard passes dead bodies and severed heads. They're strewn all about the place, but he's fairly desensitised after all he's been through in the past 24 hours. Kurtz lives in a dark temple where the flicker of candlelight casts a harsh glow over his face. We hear a voice-over from Willard's point of view, "It smelled like slow death in there—malaria, nightmares. This was the end of the river, alright." Kurtz may be a fearsome figure, but he is no idiot. He launches into a monologue whereby he tells Willard how wars are won. Kurtz explains that he became enamoured with the ruthlessness of the Viet Cong. He saw genius in the way they could kill without letting reason intervene. He was attracted to the idea of allowing primitive instincts to run their course. He concludes the monologue with "It's judgement that defeats us." Kurtz recites an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, and we then hear from Dennis Hopper who plays a charismatic photojournalist. He tells Willard that Kurtz is talking about dialectics—the deduction of truth from opinion, and separating things into black and white with no grey in between. He states, "...there's only love and hate, you either love somebody or you hate them." In the theatre of war, there is only room for moral absolutism. Killing people is certainly not pretty, but in this context, it's often necessary.

The film also says a lot about the hypocrisy of the U.S. soldiers. We see an air strike where the Americans pick off the Vietnamese civilians with the same glee a young boy feels when he discovers how to use a slingshot. There is something morally unsound about expending time and effort to killing one man (Kurtz) when you mercilessly dispose of so many innocents along the way—not to mention that your own troops are dropping off one by one. The shallow values of the Americans are illustrated on a few occasions, most notably during a scene where they visit a military supply post and watch a USO show featuring Playboy Playmates. The U.S. soldiers noisily fawn over the women, while the few visible Vietnamese villagers seem relatively nonchalant and calmly eat rice. There's a scene where one of the American soldiers is water-skiing to the tune of (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones. He is splashing water into the sampans of Vietnamese fishermen and knocking natives off their boats. Through this loud display of cockiness, the Americans seem to be making themselves at home. But making oneself at home is not the same as being at home, as evidenced by Willard's voice-over, "The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it."   

The psychological effects of war are evident in a scene where Chef (Frederic Forrest) enters the jungle and encounters a tiger. It's understandable that anyone would be frightened in this situation, but Chef isn't merely frightened. This experience mentally scars him, and he is a lot more mentally unstable from that point on. But it is the character of Willard who best illustrates how the human mind is warped by warfare and the horror of grisly sights. Willard is successful in killing Kurtz. The murder is quick and not theatrically emphatic. Kurtz's last words are "The horror...the horror." The Cambodian villagers make room for Willard to walk back to his boat. They fix their gazes on him and stare at him as though he were a demigod. This is the man who has slain their seemingly invincible deity. As Willard sails away with his fellow crewman, Lance, Kurtz's final words echo as we see Willard's transparent face. The film ends here, and we wonder if Willard will ever function as a sane man again. What began as a mission became an obsession, and while Kurtz may have been killed, we entertain the possibility that death is a better fate than living with horrific memories that are at once vivid and unrelenting. 

The last thing I'll say about this film is that Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is exquisite. As I was watching the film, it almost slipped my mind that it was about the Vietnam War, because war has rarely been depicted so beautifully. I especially love this scene where Lance deploys a purple smoke grenade. The splendour and vitality of the smoke is juxtaposed with the still and murky waters of the Nung River.


1 comment:

  1. I've watched this film recently and I agree with what you said about the hypocrisy of the American soldiers. I couldn't help but sympathise with the Vietnamese civilians who are having their cultures uprooted by foreign aggressors. I also loved the cinematography. It was gorgeous.