The Horror... The Horror...
There is a scene in Apocalypse Now where two boats confront each other in a Vietnamese river. One is filled with local civilians and other has soldiers of American military. Despite the protagonist Captain Willard’s advice the soldiers search the civilian boat. The camera moves from the soldiers to the civilians meticulously showing how tense both the parties are. A soldier reaches for a box to inspect it, suddenly a civilian woman in the boat runs towards the box propelling the soldiers to shoot the civilians. Later it is found that there was a small puppy in the box, and the shooting was absurd. The woman is still alive, she moves a little. The boat pilot orders the soldiers to take the woman in the boat as they can save her – maybe there is regret in his heart and he wants to compensate by saving her. Captain Willard shoots the woman, with total lack of emotions, and coldly tells to the boat pilot “I told you not to stop the boat”. The film proceeds with no further explanation. And there cannot be an explanation. This was one of the most powerful scenes in the film. What image are we to gather of Captain Willard? (a disoriented military veteran who after spending three years in Vietnam has lacked all faith in human life, and is not able to connect with the society again). He knows to his guts that what all is going on is absurd, and checking a boat full of civilians in the midst of war will result only in chaos. The civilians were innocent, the soldiers were not cruel enough to kill them, but it happened. Maybe Willard shot the woman to spare her the horror of being the only person alive when all her companions were dead. I could never tell. Apocalypse Now is filled with such remarkable moments.
Captain Willard is played by Martin Sheen who genuinely looks detached throughout the film. The premise of the film is based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was partly based on Conrad’s experience as steam paddleboat captain in Africa. Though there have been a number of plot modifications, the movie is faithful to the novel as it goes far beyond the war and reaches into the darkness of the human heart, a darkness lurking in even the most civilized of men.
Going through this film is indeed a visual experience matched by very few films made on war. I was amazed by the way sound of approaching helicopters was used. It was so much in synch with the images that it could have worked as a background score. As far as the cinematography is concerned, it is well-known that Coppola was inspired by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) . Like Herzog, Coppola also intended to give an authentic experience to the viewer; as if, not only the unaware soldiers but the viewer too is aboard the boat bound for the deadliest place on earth.
A renegade Captain Kurtz, one of Army’s most decorated soldiers, has set up a secret abode and has established a Warlord like image among tribesmen. His whereabouts are unknown. Captain Willard’s mission is to find and terminate him. What follows is a journey to find Kurtz. Along the way Captain Willard and his crew encounter number of interesting characters and situations with American intervention in Vietnam as a backdrop. As the journey deepens, Willard grows obsessive towards Kurtz. He has been told that Kurtz has gone insane, operates with unsound methods, and is feared by both Vietnamese and Americans. Willard knows that he has to find him, but he is unaware of what he will do once he reaches there. Nevertheless, he continues upstream with only one desire: “to confront him”. The film remarkably creates the same feeling of anticipation in the viewer as well.
After voyaging through various military outposts, Willard and his crew reach a bridge which is the last American outpost in Vietnam. The bridge also marks the last traces of a world known to Willard, the last traces of an assumed sane civilization, beyond which lays chaos and darkness – beyond which “there is only Kurtz”. The journey towards Kurtz is so breathtakingly depicted, including the scene in which the boat passes through the natives and enters Kurtz’s world, I was weak-kneed with admiration. More than terminating Kurtz, the film concentrates on Kurtz’s discovery and his resulting madness. Marlon Brando as Kurtz is presented only in half-lit shots, with his voice doing the trick. Called a warrior-poet, he speaks to Willard about the discoveries he has made and that no one, not even his son can understand him. “I have not seen a man so ripped apart than Kurtz” tells Willard in voiceover. To make conclusions from Kurtz’s speech is difficult. Of what I have understood from it: there is a fine line between sanity and insanity, order and chaos, light and darkness, and the horror is that this line can get erased, more so at the time of war.
Kurtz is also seen reading T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow man”, a copy of The Golden Bough is also shown in one scene; he also chops off the head of one soldier and puts in Willard’s lap, a photojournalist (played by Dennis Hopper) worships him to the point of mania. All the scenes featuring Kurtz can have debatable interpretations. What a viewer can be sure about is that Kurtz is clearly insane, and Willard kills him. But what remains in end is something that cannot be killed by anyone – the discovery of a reality we are not happy to discover, but after going through war is inevitable to deny. The closure of Apocalypse Now is one of the most haunting climaxes I have ever seen. I first watched this film when I was in college. I certainly did not understand it then. But yesterday night after watching the film when I lay down in my bed, I was not sure whether I have finally understood it, but Kurtz’s last words were still echoing in my head: “The horror…the horror…”