Whirring helicopter blades slowly dissolve into the rotating ceiling fan of Capt. Willard’s Saigon apartment, as he drinks himself into oblivion. Lt. Col. Kilgore blasts Wagner from his infantry helicopters as they decimate a Viet Cong village. The mad genius, Col. Kurtz, sets himself up as a god, deep in the jungles of Cambodia.
These are but a few of the haunting images present in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a film not so much about the Vietnam War, but about war in general and the conflict for the souls of men; a conflict between rational and irrational, good and evil. What does it even mean to be a “good” man in the midst of such chaos?
Coppola’s film has been both praised for delivering a feverish and immersive account of the American experience in Vietnam, and lambasted for unfairly dwelling on the loss of American faith in its own righteousness, by focusing on atrocities. However, to become fixated on those political aspects of the film is to miss its grander accomplishments.
Coppola achieves something close to an Eisensteinian synthesis through the montage of images in the film; the meaning is made clear in the overall effect of the imagery, not in the specifics: madness is piled upon madness, reaching a fever pitch deep in the jungles of Cambodia, where realism seems to be abandoned for an expressionistic frenzy.
For this reason most viewers prefer the 1979 cut of the film to Coppola’s expanded 2001 Redux version, as the addition of more material seems to ground the film too much in the contemporaneous specificity of Vietnam, and waters down the more universal point to be made about the horrors of war and the absurdity of attempting to condemn a man for murder amongst such chaos.
Ultimately, viewing Apocalypse Now in dialogue with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novella it was based on, not only increases its literary pedigree, but also informs our understanding of the original rather than slavishly imitating it. Conrad and Coppola both question man’s moral fortitude when faced with the temptation to become like gods. As noted early in the film, we can never simply assume the victory of Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” against the temptation to claim the will to power. As Dennis Hopper’s delusional photojournalist notes, all we are left with is “Man as f***in’ pagan idolatry!”
The film leaves us to be the judges of the results, confronting the horror and mortal terror in the very soul of man: the true heart of darkness.