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In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola unleashed a film that reshaped the view of the American Vietnam war. The film was heralded as an epic of modern film. However, is it truly an epic or is that term become a widely used word for great works of cinema? Does Apocalypse Now contain the epic criteria of religion, a journey, a vast setting, a sense of supernatural and other key factors? The journey in Apocalypse Now is Captain Benjamin Willard’s mission to assassinate Army Colonel Walter Kurtz.
The former Green Beret has deserted his command and now leads a rogue army of commandos and Montagnard, the indigenous people of the central highlands of Vietnam(Human Rights Watch). This film is also a journey into the darkness of the human soul. As Willard travels up the river he spends most of his time reading the Army’s dossier on the rogue Kurtz who has been deemed insane after his use of “unsound methods. ” Willard tries to understand the actions of Kurtz, and as the film progresses, Willard experiences more and more of the absurdities and immorality of war that lead him to understand the villainous Kurtz.
His understanding comes with his own decent into near madness. After he senselessly kills a peasant woman on a sampan Willard states, “It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie— and the more I saw of them the more I hated lies.
” These words sound as though they were uttered by the insane Kurtz. The setting for Apocalypse Now is the fictional Nung River(Milks). Most of the film takes place on a Navy river patrol boat (PBR) with a four-man crew.
The captain, Chief, a military man who follows protocol to a “T”and feels personally responsible for the fate of his crew. He blames Willard for the predicament that they find themselves in. Clean is a seventeen-year-old mechanic from the South Bronx. He is symbolic of the young men that fought in Vietnam that were ignorant to the ways of war and only waste time waiting to end their service careers. Chef, a saucier from New Orleans, who emphatically does not want to be in this strange land and Lance, a California surfer, make up the rest of the crew. Lance and Chef’s use of rugs and placement in the primitive jungle help them withdraw from the war around them as the film proceeds(Milks). This is symbolic of how many of the drafted youth felt in Vietnam. The film begins in the Greek tradition of en medias res. It opens with captain Willard in an alcohol induced depressive state in a hotel room in Saigon in 1968. He already completed one tour of duty in Vietnam only to return home and be miserable with the confines of civilization. He states, “I was discharged from the army four years ago. I went home, wasted some time, bought a Mustang Mach 1, drove it a week. Then I re-upped for another tour. No, everything I love is here. ”
He has been irrecoverably changed by the war. He feels that the jungle is the only place he belongs and he cannot wait to get back in action, “Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger. ” The film does not follow all the guidelines of an Epic in the Greek sense. In the beginning, Willard does not invoke the muses and the only religion is the Montagnards belief in Kurtz as a god. The film contains no epic lists and the film is not divided into twenty-four books.
The only division in the film could be seen in the different episodes the crew faces traveling up river. The first is the rendevous with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, commander of the Air Ninth Calvary. Then, the tiger attack in the jungle, the U. S. supply depot complete with Playboy Playmates, the French rubber plantation, the small sampan, and the ancient temple where Kurtz resides. Each event adds to the mayhem of the journey and creates a darker mood for the film. The narrator and protagonist of the film is Captain Willard. However, he is not the epic hero because he does not meet the criteria.
He is male, and he does have a task to complete, but that is about his only heroic characteristics. First, in terms of strength, he does not possess outstanding physical strength, nor is he mentally strong. As a character is quite passive, everything he does is influenced by someone, or something else. When he takes the mission he says, “What the hell else was I gonna do? ” On the PBR, he withdraws himself from the actions of the crew, and spends most of his time studying the file on Kurtz, trying to get into the mind of his target. This only puts him in a more detached state.
At Kurtz’s compound he is swayed by the teachings of Kurtz and makes the audience ponder if he will indeed carry out his mission, or join Kurtz’s group. Lance, as well as the last assassin sent to kill Kurtz, did just that. Willard confesses “It was the strangest thing — I don’t know that I can explain it. Two of my men dead and all I could think of was whether Kurtz was dead too. That’s all I wanted: to see Kurtz, to hear Kurtz. ” Kurtz actually helps make that decision for him. Kurtz is weary of his life as a demigod and is expecting, and actually welcoming his death. You came up my river — in that small boat. So simple. I always thought the final justice would come from the sky, like we did. You are the final justice, aren’t you? ” In one episode, on a sampan, a small fishing boat, Willard shows his true moral state. When Clean opens fire killing several civilians in a botched search of the boat, Chief decides to take the lone survivor, a peasant woman, to a military base for medical attention. Willard, thinking only of his mission, kills the woman so that she will not impede his journey to assassinate Kurtz.
This event causes the rest of the crew to turn on him and cast a dark shadow over Willard. When Chef asks, “When you kill cong, don’t you feel something? ” Willard responds, “Sure, recoil… I feel the recoil of my rifle. ” This statement alone solidifies the fact that Willard is not a fundamentally good soul. The supernatural is an important element in any Epic. In Apocalypse Now, the supernatural pertains more to a detachment from reality than to a ghost, miraculous events, or the common notion of the supernatural. In this sense, the film is rife with the supernatural.
First Kilgore’s calvary, the surfing calvary charge into battle listening to the “Ride of the Valkyries. ” Kilgore boasts, “We’ll come in low, out of the rising sun, and about a mile out, we’ll put on the music… Yeah, I use Wagner – scares the hell out of the slopes! My boys love it! ” The music and the surfing are completely out of place in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam. However, this is just the first stop on the tour of mass mayhem. Later in the film, the PBR comes across the remains of a rubber plantation. This is a plantation run by the de Marais family, a hold over from the French colonization of Indochina.
In the middle of a war zone, a family is trying to hold onto a piece of property in a country in which they are not natives. Several of their family members have given their lives for that property and they believe they have just as much as a claim to it than anyone else. Even when a family member makes a symbolic gesture that makes a statement about America’s involvement in Vietnam and cracks an egg, which represents Indochina, lets the egg white run out and exclaims, “White goes, yellow stays! ” The symbolism is poignantly blunt. It is surreal that they even attempt to keep their property.
Also, they try to maintain their heritage in speaking French and having a tradition plantation life without interference from the outside world. The scene, including the burial of Clean is rife with symbolism and detachment from reality. The boat heads further up river and reaches an outpost where American forces are testing Einstein’s theory of insanity. Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. ”(Moncur) Each night the Viet Cong bomb a bridge and each day the G. I. s rebuild it.
All of the soldiers at this base are either scared or confused, those that are not, are high on drugs. The colored flares and tracer rounds add to the effects of the psychedelic drugs and the whole theater of battle is in total chaos. Finally, Kurtz’s compound is the scene of total lack of reality. Rotting corpses hang from the tress, and heads litter the ancient temple. The scene is surreal. A burnt out photo journalist exclaims how great Kurtz is, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem around him. The man himself is a larger than life omnipotent character.
He remains in the shadows for almost every scene and quotes poetry from T. S. Eliot. He is the all powerful in this land even though he is gone over the edge mentally, spiritually, and physically. He is supernatural. The film as a whole doesn’t fit the standards of an epic in the Greek tradition. However, it is an awesome tale of a man’s journey into the physical unknown of a strange land that forces him to search inside himself for some form of morality in the difficult circumstances of war. Willard is a stranger in a strange land, even to himself.
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