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Bangs and Whimpers

Apocalypse Now

directed by Francis Coppola

This spectacular film, long delayed and said to be 17 million dollars over its budget, ends in a welter of bathos that has to be seen to be believed, and that weighs down the whole work with its mournful freight of clutching, unappeasable ambition. But the film holds together well enough until it reaches its final muddle, and it has scenes and moments unequaled in recent European or American movies. Indeed, it has one long sequence so right and so powerful that it actually causes the confusion of the end, since it leaves Coppola with nothing to say. He cannot discover the promised “heart of darkness” in the murk of his conclusion, because he stumbled across it much earlier—earlier in the finished film and in the shooting—on a bright, noisy beach strewn with soldiers and helicopters, sheets of flame lighting up the background, as a plausible imitation of napalm devoured the jungle. He went on looking—writing, directing, editing—for the horror he had already found.

He seems almost to have known this. “The movie is a mess,” he wrote in a note addressed to himself.

A mess of continuity, of style—and most important, the ending neither works on an audience or philosophical level. Brando is a disappointment to audiences—the film reaches its highest level during the fucking helicopter battle.*

The note dates from May 1978, and can’t represent Coppola’s last thoughts on the subject. Certainly the style and the continuity of the film have been satisfactorily cleaned up. But he was right about the ending, about Brando, and about the helicopters.

Marlon Brando, vast, entirely bald, looking something like an outsize Kojak who has gone in for meditation, mumbling as only he knows how, plays Colonel Walter Kurtz, a Green Beret who has slipped over into Cambodia and taken the Vietnam war into his own hands. The army, borrowing a phrase from Joseph Conrad, decides that Kurtz’s methods are “unsound,” and sends Captain Willard, ably played by Martin Sheen, to kill him. We see Vietnam with Willard, and largely through his eyes, as he leaves Saigon and takes the long trip upriver to Kurtz.

Apocalypse Now is a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although there are no credits of any kind on the print being shown in New York and the program notes simply say the film was “written by John Milius and Francis Coppola.” Actually the movie is full of remarkably inventive translations of pieces of Conrad’s complicated tale, down to the French man-of-war “firing into a continent,” which becomes a formation of jets burning an empty tropical landscape. The quest for Kurtz lends suspense and direction to the film; the adaptation is not the problem, although a number of Conrad’s shakier assumptions about the life of savages do survive into the movie. The problem is the encouragement Conrad appears to have given to Coppola’s solemnity—the invitation, as it seems, to drag out every pretension he owned.

Kurtz, as the camera obtrusively informs us, has been dipping into The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance—prodded, no doubt, by Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. He has made himself priest and king of a Montagnard tribe, and like the grim figure who prowls through Frazer’s opening pages, he is awaiting his murderer. “I expected someone like you,” he says to Willard. “What did you expect?” Willard doesn’t answer—perhaps he took the Yeats course instead. When Willard kills Kurtz, the muffled slaughter is paralleled by the striking ritual sacrifice of a carabao (which mysteriously appears as a caribou in the program) in the courtyard of the temple where Kurtz hangs out. In his spare time, Kurtz continues his study of Eliot. “We are the hollow men,” he intones broodily, “we are the stuffed men…. Shape without form, shade without color….” I would love to think Kurtz is drawn to this poem by Coppola’s sense of humor. Its terse epigraph is, of course, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” But I am afraid the attraction is simply pedantry. Conrad said Kurtz was “hollow at the core,” and Eliot’s allusion has become an allusion to Eliot, meant to lend “tone” to the enterprise, and to contribute to the addled notion that the waste land, the end of the world, and the heart of darkness are all the same place really.

Kurtz mutters sentimentally about a gardenia plantation on the Ohio River, envies the discipline of Viet Cong cadres who hacked off the recently inoculated arms of a whole village’s children, and steps flatly in where Conrad feared to tread. “The horror,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “The horror. It is impossible to use words to say what is necessary to those who do not understand the horror.” Impossible, but worth a try anyway, Coppola feels. It’s hard to believe he will let Brando go on from here, but he does. And with every ponderous, poorly articulated addition, the language sinks deeper into circular nonsense. “Horror…has a face. Horror, and mortal terror, if they are not your friends, then they will become your enemies….” I don’t know how much of this was in John Milius’s original script—very little, I suspect—and how much was cooked up on location by Brando and Coppola. The two of them certainly seem bent on making the worst of a terrible situation.

Brando, a master of quirky, exaggerated convention and usually a wonderful mimic, plays the whole thing in his own voice and with depressing earnestness. Perhaps he thought Conrad was Shakespeare, although Brando was better in Shakespeare. He tilts his great head to the ceiling in a coy impersonation of a man thinking great thoughts, breathes heavily between sentences, hesitates significantly over every other word, and generally brings out the banality in every line. Coppola, meanwhile, shoots every frame as if he were in competition with Rembrandt, making poems out of flesh and darkness, so that Brando is seen vanishing into shadow, or with one eye looming through the gloom, or with artistic hands fluttering over his bald pate as he sprinkles it with water. Michael Herr’s narration, spoken by Martin Sheen, can usually be relied on to do its bit toward the disastrous effect. “It smelled of slow death in there,” Sheen says, “of malaria, nightmares. This really was the end of the river.”

What has happened? For more than half its length Apocalypse Now comes off as a well-conceived and only slightly rambling film, designed to represent the lure of Vietnam for Americans. Vietnam, for Captain Willard, is a nightmare that cannot be forgotten, admirably rendered in an opening sequence which mingles helicopter blades with rotating ceiling fans, the noises of the jungle with the noises of technology, and Willard’s state of mind with the state of that ravaged Asian country. For Willard, Vietnam destroys the very idea of home, of here and there. But for Kurtz, Vietnam does more. Kurtz was a distinguished career officer, headed for high places—“a general, maybe,” Willard thinks as he reads Kurtz’s dossier, “or chief of staff.” He made an early tour of Vietnam, and wrote an unheeded report. He then took a fierce airborne training course, at age thirty-eight, and went back to Vietnam, which had plainly become a challenge and a temptation. He mounted successful, unauthorized operations, but finally, it seems, fell in love with his own ruthlessness, and lost all sense of boundaries.

He represents what Mary McCarthy once called the metaphysical element in the American involvement in Vietnam. Not the unwillingness to admit defeat, and not the doctrinal attachment to our system of production and consumption which McCarthy herself identified as metaphysical, but the enormous charm of the inexhaustible enemy, an endless, heartless darkness where a madman could go looking for victory, never finding it, and never having to give up the search.

The trouble is, Coppola has already invented a commanding character who represents all this better than Kurtz does. Lieutenant-Colonel Kilgore, breezily and brilliantly played by Robert Duvall, is in charge of a cavalry regiment which has traded in its horses for helicopters. He wears an old-fashioned cavalry hat, as if he were in a western, and a dashing yellow foulard. He is a good officer, and cares for his men. His job is to lift Willard’s boat into the mouth of the river that leads to Kurtz. One of the possible spots for entry is held by the Viet Cong, but has a beach where the waves form a peak that is six feet high, and break in two directions at once. Kilgore, a surfing enthusiast, can’t wait to get there, and when told again that the point is held by the VC, shouts a sharp, clinching answer: “Charlie don’t surf.” What follows is the film’s high point.

Dark helicopters rise over a cluster of palm trees, menacing insects against a yellowish morning sky. They come in low over the ocean, black and ugly over the blue and white waves furling onto the beach. Kilgore has tapes of “The Ride of the Valkyries” blasting out over the landscape. “Wagner,” he says, laughing. “It scares them.” A bridge is blown up, houses tumble in flames, children are herded together in a neat village square—one child stays behind, and has to be rounded up, as if he were one of those lovable loners in a Disney cartoon. A woman throws a grenade into a helicopter which is trying to get a wounded American away. The soldiers land and machine-gun the village into submission. Kilgore, as Willard has already said, has “a weird light about him, you knew he would come out of this without a scratch”; and sure enough Kilgore is striding about, cheerfully talking, while everyone else is flat on the beach taking cover.

Kilgore sends two of his men out to try the surf, and we see them coasting in, as smoke drifts across the screen, and helicopters patrol the flimsy ruins. Jets then appear to finish off the raid, and zoom down to scorch a strip of jungle, which goes up like a refinery set on fire. It is at this point that Kilgore makes a remark which has already been much quoted. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” But what he says a moment later is less brittle, and more interesting. He describes an earlier napalm strike, which left no bodies, only a smell. “That gasoline smell,” he says, musing. “It smells like….” He hesitates, looking for a comparison. Then he finds it, and the glint in Duvall’s eyes here, and the firm, friendly smile on his amiable face suggest realms of craziness beyond anything Brando’s antics can muster, “…like victory.” He nods, pleased with his formulation: just what he meant to say.

What Coppola has pictured here is the casual everyday lunacy of the war in Vietnam, and the unearthly, overwhelming power of American hardware: guns, bombs, flares, jets, helicopters, beachcraft. Mary McCarthy wrote that “the technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.” Both the gap and the murderous obligation are everywhere in the film. When Willard is being briefed on the subject of Kurtz, the camera closes in on a large gleaming Sony tape recorder. The machine almost seems to take a bow, getting ready to receive an award, perhaps, on behalf of its versatile metallic family.

Even the surfing after the raid is not a bitter joke, but simply an impervious, irreducible bit of America brought to this strange place; like the T-bone steaks and the American beer which appear in another scene; like the sound of Mick Jagger over Saigon radio in yet another sequence, pounding out “Satisfaction” as a black teenaged sailor struts and twirls to the music, and a blond Californian tips his head back to catch the sun in a tin foil reflector, green jungle and brown river unrolling behind him. There is none of the good humor of Altman’s M*ASH, none of the grimness of Mike Nichols’s Catch-22. Or rather, grimness and good humor dissolve here into a horror which is ordinary, cheerful, quotidian. An officer briskly mops up a village while his mind is on other things: surfing, and a magical victory as remote as God.

Coppola knew what he had got, as his note suggests. But he didn’t know what to do with it, and the soundtrack, immediately after the helicopter raid, identifies the difficulty with startling accuracy. “If that was how Kilgore was fighting the war,” Willard says, “I couldn’t see what they had against Kurtz.” Kilgore is Kurtz, there is no further horror buried in the depths of a man’s soul or an alien country. The horror is out there on the surface, smiling, drinking, joking, getting on with the job. Kurtz is wherever the war is.

But Coppola doesn’t know when to stop, and he lets Willard continue into trouble, just as he lets Kurtz continue into bathos. “It wasn’t just insanity and murder,” Willard says, “there was enough of that to go around for everybody.” And with that phrase, the trap closes and the luminous moment has gone. Coppola has let himself in for a search for something worse than insanity and murder. What he might have done, perhaps, is to suggest that Kilgore’s lively craziness is quite different from a guilty, overwhelmed insanity which knows itself, and had Kurtz represent that. But he doesn’t. Kurtz instead becomes the name for a hyperbole that can’t be had, a bulky ghost lost in a forest of symbols, floundering among suggestions of romantic evil and primordial lusts.

There is something there, a sense of a condition beyond our power to name it, and when Willard, on his way to kill Kurtz, emerges red-eyed and mud-stained from a swamp, like a creature from an ancient, prehuman world, we glimpse, briefly, the film’s other subject: the absolutely unimaginable, caught by miracle in a camera. But this is not a political subject, it has nothing to do with Vietnam, and Coppola in any case can only hint at it, a faint touch of the authentic in a pile of maudlin fakery. Insanity and murder ought to be more than enough even for the most ambitious of moviemakers. They take up more than enough of our history and they were enough for Coppola, before he himself caught the smell of ever-receding victory.

  1. *

    Quoted in Notes, by Eleanor Coppola (Simon & Schuster, 1979).

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