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Film/DVD review -  “Apocalypse Now” Thirty Years On

By Gerry Fitzpatrick

29 March 2010


In this look at this award winning film, I attempt to argue for a particular reading concerning its political meaning as well as a significance that its producers may not have intended. This involves taking the reader through the development of the film from its beginnings in the 1960s to its re-release on DVD in 2001 and its after life today. This article is also concerned with the films problematic ending and what it means to continue the story of the film and to go beyond it.

The various versions referred to are as follows:

The Psychedelic Soldier by John Milnius first set of ideas outlined in the 1962-1969
The first draft of the Milnius’ script by Francis Ford Coppola when the film was re-titled in 1975
The film following the addition of Michael’s Herr’s narration in late 1978
The 1979 70mm theatre release attended by the writer in London in December 1979 also on DVD
The VHS videotape release in the early 1980s and the television version of the film.
The re-issued version known as Apocalypse Now Redux theatre and DVD release 2001.

Other Relevant Material: 

Hearts of Darkness: A Film Makers Apocalypse Eleanor Coppola 1991 

First Kill - Dutch documentary featuring Michael Herr on war psychosis:

Vietnam: a Television History - series by WGBH Boston DVD:

The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers:

Looking back now on certain innovative films of the 1970s – beginning with Little Big Man, Patton and Diary of A Mad Housewife (all 1970), to Scorsese’s Alice (1974) continuing on through to Pakula’s Parallax View (1974) and Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975), the award winning documentary Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple (1976), Altman’s 3 Women (1977), Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), and finally to The China Syndrome and Apocalypse Now (both 1979). Although this list is not exhaustive it was clear that the radical impulse of these films was very individual. It did not put down roots or establish a school or a tradition (however small) of liberal-radical filmmaking. 

These films in their own way marked the break up of the political and cultural consensus in the United States and the decline of America’s own born again free market imperial ideology. The key event that led to that break up was the American War in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now revisits that crisis and takes up the widespread idea that the war could have been won if the military and Special Forces were allowed to do their job without government interference. ‘Mr Kurtz’ of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness therefore becomes ‘Colonel Kurtz of Special Forces’ and his trade is not in ivory but the extermination of the Vietnamese. There was of course more 19th Century pathos in Conrad’s story, but Milnius’s man-o-war is bristling with weaponry as it goes to imperialisms’ high noon.

The voyage up river that Willard undertakes can’t be done in reality in Vietnam as it is only possible to travel up the Mekong delta deeper into the South Vietnamese countryside – there is no route up river to Cambodia. The terrain also is very different - the delta is mostly rice fields. But Willard’s journey up river is not like Conrad’s to discover ‘darkness’ but to try and understand what happened in that darkness and then act on that knowledge.

Very few films using ensnared ‘participant observers’ succeed, or make it to the screen or are then able to draw in the viewer or audience to the point where the viewer can empathise with the ethical questions being acted out. Films such as All quiet on the Western Front (1930) about a young German soldier in WW I who despite doubts about the war continues to fight because of his commitment to his friends shows devastatingly how his humanity is slowly extinguished and that there was no honour in his death. In The Long Day’s Dying (1968) a paratrooper (David Hemmings) is led to believe that his specialist training would help him survive combat but not its politics. ‘I have the skill!!’ he shouts hopelessly from the void of exploding shells, as he realises too late that his unit has been used as bait to trap the Germans. Similarly, the lead protagonist of Munich (2005) Avner (Eric Bana) is at first honoured to be chosen to lead an Israeli assassination team. We then follow the terrorist group and share their thoughts as they realise that the military and political value of their actions have become dubious and only they and the families of those they have murdered will have to live with the consequences as their own government denies responsibility for their actions.

In its form and in its content Apocalypse Now became part of the American internal ethical struggle between those who were for and those were against the war in Vietnam. In former times socially engaged artists and writers delivered such insights in different mediums. Byron’s play Sardanapolis or Géricault's romantic tableau The Raft of The Medusa being the best examples that come to mind. These romantic and revolutionary classics share with Apocalypse Now the desire of their makers to fix the troubled image for the purpose of a new ethics. Coppola and his Zoetrope team reveal their ethical intentions dramatically and artistically. Therefore Apocalypse Now as a production deliberately contains the emerging warrior-veteran-as-he-man story that would in time dominate Hollywood action films in the Regan years. Looking at the development of the film over time shows its meaning and effect were changed from one that endorses Regan and Heston’s Hollywood to one that radically undermines it. 

Had the film not confronted the action film to the degree it did, then the ending of Apocalypse Now would have been unproblematic and the destruction of Kurtz’s Compound would not feel so wrong. The searing images of destruction also provokes a tremendous sadness in the viewers’ mind as the shocking, blazing nightmare of the War is seen to continue and the possibility of a new beginning without war, is brutally destroyed. Not ending the picture this way and taking a public stand against this interpretation and not including it in subsequent DVD releases Francis Ford Coppola is still intervening to control the meaning of the film years after it was made.

Capitalism: A Hollywood Love Story

Just as it had been the Second World War that had cleared the way for American political and cultural ascendancy. The role of Hollywood culture in particular had been crucial in disseminating free market ideas and helped maintain their political dominance. So it is not surprising to find that the Chairman of America’s Federal Bank Alan Greenspan’s core beliefs were formed not by economists but by the writings and films of Ayn Rand. Best known for her film The Fountainhead (1949) based on her own 1943 novel. This and her next ‘philosophical’ novel – Atlas Shrugged (1957) feature a capitalist Moses trying to find a free market Promised Land. The enemies to be fought in getting to that Promised Land were of course government interference in the markets and the taxes needed to run a Welfare State. Atlas Shrugged was the required reading for the business elite and the Wall Street admirals commanding the battle ships that fought against modern government and government regulation.  We have now seen what Ayn Rand’s capitalist nirvana looks like – with its fountainhead architects’ affordable homes that make people homeless and its business ‘leaders’ now freed of all government control, who have just bankrupted the world economy.

Imperialism: The Hollywood Rescue Plan

Just as Ayn Rand and Greenspan thought that the economy would work best without political interference so the Generals and the pro-military lobby opposed ‘political control’ of the military and War spending. This view of the war was put forward at the time in The Green Beret (1968) John Wayne’s Hollywood rescue plan to help prop up Lyndon Johnston’s already divided government. 

Beginnings: Putting The War In The Picture

Walking along East 77th Street in Los Angles late one afternoon a young student noticed that an unusual film was about to be shown at the cities’ Little Theatre cinema. He bought a ticket and joined the three other people who were there for an experience that would change his life. The student was Francis Ford Coppola and the film was Eisenstein’s Ten Days That Shook The World. For just one of the results of that experience we must fast-forward fifteen or so years to another little theatre in Islington north London in the late 1970s. It’s the late show and about thirty people are watching The Godfather II. On the screen is Michael Corleone (Al Pachino) sitting in a train compartment, his silk suit shining as he looks out of the window at the ink black night – his body guard and assassin sitting down beside him.

Suddenly, a young black man who had been sitting in an aisle seat a few rows in front of me gets up and rushes past. Startled, I say, “Hey man! Where are you going?” “I’m getting out”, he said, “the ceiling is falling down”, he then gestured with his head to where he had been sitting. Sure enough there were small pieces of masonry laying there, the biggest being about the size of a fist.  And just as I was wondering why I had not heard these pieces fall – another piece, fell – only this time it was seven feet long and everybody heard it and made for the exits.  But just as each audience member reached the back of the theatre they turned and looked up at the screen once again. Were they hoping that there would be no more falls of masonry and that they could resume their seats? Or were they satisfied that if they were going to have a last experience on Earth – this would be it? Just then the softly spoken manager arrived and meekly offered refunds to those present – most of them were still watching the screen. When they realised that the film was about to be stopped the shouts went up: “No!! No!!, run the film!!, run the film!!” The manager declined and we all, very reluctantly, queued for our money back.

But we shouldn’t just put this behaviour down to the actions of movie fanatic’s – where they would rather the management ran their favourite film – than run for their lives. No, this also had to do with the extraordinary atmosphere that Coppola and his production team had managed to create in Godfather II with its spooky lighting, excellent set design, to say nothing of the script and the performances given by Robert De Niro, Al Pachino, Robert Duval and Lee Strasbourg (who plays the Jewish gangster Roth). All this had managed to – literally, re-captivate an audience once again. 

And yet Coppola has made it very clear when interviewed that he thought his time directing the Godfather and Godfather II was, “a horrible experience”, “I hated movies about gangsters – I wanted to be a personal auteur filmmaker”.  Coppola, George Lucas and John Milnius had formed American Zoetrope in 1969 to help realise their own film about Vietnam that would become Apocalypse Now. One year later with Zoetrope facing bankruptcy Lucas had begged Coppola to take the job as writer and director on the Godfather. The result was that Coppola with the success of The Godfather pictures was put in a commanding position to finally help Zoetrope bring Apocalypse Now to the screen.

The Aesthetic and Political Problem That Orson Welles in The End Did Not Confront

The major aesthetic-political problem Coppola and Zoetrope confronted – one which Orson Welles in the end, did not confront: in any attempt to interpret and cinematically realise Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is that Conrad makes it explicitly clear that the narration is shocked and faltering, and is unable to explain what it is describing. Conrad’s conclusion was that the terror-slavery state of Leopold’s Congo (which Conrad saw at first hand) had defined a new and ‘immense darkness’ that fatally blanketed all modern human endeavour. Welles’ test footage from his first season at Hollywood’s RKO studios demonstrates how far he got before he decided to make Citizen Kane instead. Looking at the Welles’ test footage it is clear that Welles has the river, the boat and the narration – but little else.

How then could a more radical version of Conrad’s fatal narrative be developed? What would it look like, what would it sound like? The Zoetrope production team did deliver on the quality of the sound and the look of the film, both of which were of stunning brilliance. However, as Coppola was later to find out that he too could not aesthetically resolve the political tensions that the film had so vividly built up. But this, as we shall see, was for a different yet, inescapable reason. 

Arc Light at the Heart of Zoetrope

While working on Hearts of Darkness: A Film Makers Apocalypse - her own account of the making of Apocalypse Now, Eleanor Coppola asked her husband what he thought he was trying to achieve with the production, at one point Francis Coppola half joked that he was making the film ‘in the tradition of Irwin [disaster movie] Allen’. Certainly he could not be sure that the production would be completed and the film would become successful. Responding with low-grade humour was Coppola’s way of not taking for granted that he had survived against the odds in the past and may well do so again. The film did not become a byword for a disaster in movie making, (as Camino’s auteur project Heaven’s Gate had done) and Eleanor Coppola’s documentary did not become an account documenting a debacle, but another success against the odds. That success was achieved by pushing at and developing beyond what traditional forms of production had accomplished in the past. 

At the Cannes film festival Coppola introduced Apocalypse Now by saying, “my film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam”. For Coppola had not only relocated the film about a South East Asian War into the middle of another South East Asian War – the Philippines Army’s’ attempt to defeat secessionist rebels – he also relocated the film into the middle of a hurricane – which eventually destroyed the elaborate film sets (that included Colonel Kurtz’s compound). 

The worst thing that could have happened followed the worst thing that could have happened. Coppola sent the crew back to the US and rebuilt what had been destroyed by the hurricane. After restarting production Coppola continued shooting with Martin Sheen as Willard – who had replaced Harvey Keitel after Keitel’s version of Willard’s character proved unsatisfactory on the first shoot. But there would be problems here too.

On the set Sheen had been unwell; he had had time to rest after first suffering from heatstroke, but then he became more seriously ill and suffered a heart attack. Coppola tried to keep Sheen’s heart attack from the co-producers and once they did learn of what had happened they tried to shut down the production. Coppola when asked why he didn’t abandon the film at that point made it clear that he was also “financing the movie – so I couldn’t quit”. 

Writers 1: Milnius: The Red Rag To A Raging Bull

On the set Apocalypse Now may have felt like a bad disaster movie. In reality, the very traditional forms that Coppola was attempting to undermine were driving the production relentlessly forward. That traditional form was provided by John Milnius’s original script. And as legend has it, once Milnius had heard at film school that many had tried to adapt Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and that they all had failed; it was as he later recalled, ‘like a red rag to a bull’.

 With his script for Apocalypse Now Milnius produced the best of his hero-epics about heavily armed wanderer-he-men on a quest through a hostile landscape – whether that was the snow and mountains of Utah in Jeremiah Johnston (1972), the ‘urban jungle’ of San Francisco in Dirty Harry (1971), the searing heat of the Moroccan desert in The Wind and the Lion (1975). 
It is therefore not surprising that Milnius was able to transform his view of the story of Heart of Darkness into to a warrior-assassin quest to track and eliminate his victim.

Scene by Scene

In the 1975 version of the script we can find the strong influence of the man who wrote the key lines for Dirty Harry:

Kilgore leans out; pulls the gun in tight -- takes
careful aim and the Cong is BLASTED flat into the paddy.
Kilgore leans back, opens the bolt, ejecting the spent
cartridge out the door. He hands Weatherby back
into the copter.


The gaudy rifle passed by him.

That's 27, sir.

Anyone got a card?

Somebody hands Willard the deck. He takes a card and
flips it out of the copter, never lifting his gaze from

-Willard throwing a ‘death card’ from Kilgore’s helicopter? - No wonder Coppola engaged Harvey Kietel to play Willard. The early replacement of Kietel was Coppola’s first decision that changed the character and emphasis of the film. The more Coppola and his team worked on the action with Sheen, the more Willard’s character is seen to be different from the Willard of Milnius’s original script. The crucial question is how different? Certainly, different enough for Willard to yell at Killgore, ‘Goddamit!! Don’t you think it’s a bit risky for R&R?’ (1979 70mm version) or was the scene really about having Willard treat Kilgore on the beach with Animal House high jinx and run off with Kilgore’s surfboard? (1975 script, 2001 Redux version). 

It is of course the former not the latter that works.  The film at its early stage of development can be seen going in the direction of films like Winchester ’73 where a firearm is a lead character. Coppola did not use the above scene for the simple reason it is saying that the film is a Western in Vietnam. Coppola however is much more subtle, he makes the over the top action and behaviour more believable – not less believable, done for itself – to convince us that action was actually done in Vietnam and that it was wrong (more on this below).

 the smell -- that gasoline smell
 -- the whole hill -- it smelled
 like ...

He looks off nostalgically.

 You know, some day this war's
 gonna end..

 Yes, I know.

In the version that made it to the screen Coppola decided that that it would be Killgore who says ‘One day this war’s gonna end’ and walk off on an insane high. In another added scene to show the air cav’s ‘efficiency’ Killgore receives a bloodied child and its mother, who Killgore treats like a customer at a super market checkout – placing the baby on a helicopter and directing the mother to go with it. It’s just another ‘operation’; by adding this and the animal house’ scene (both included in 2001 Redux DVD) - the focus on the madness of Killgore and the War is lost. 

In the realised 1979 version, we next see Willard refusing to share a joint with the crew, seal himself off and change his water for whisky. We are now made more aware that Willard is a lone killer – as cold as they come – he is not a character conceived by Milnius’s alter ego: Hunter S. Thompson (in Milnius 1975 script it is Willard who offers the crew of the PBR a joint).

 However, it would be wrong to say there were no high times or comic mayhem by US troops in Vietnam – of course there were. Later we see a rival PBR crew try to set Willard’s patrol boat on fire. Coppola did not discard Milnius’s scene where Lance is seen absurdly water skiing behind the patrol boat as the Rolling Stones sing Satisfaction. This occurs after Killgore Beach in Milnius’s original script, but was placed earlier on in the later 1979 realisation; it links all three writers (Milnius, Coppola and Herr’s) contributions to an established theme of the film: American culture in Vietnam was the counter culture – the counter-culture-gone-rotten. 

Coppola had eliminated from the script what Willard was not. First casualty was Willard as a khaki clad Errol Flynn. The second was Willard as a lapsed B movie cowboy:

WILLARD [to one of the ‘Playmates’]
 Ma'am - I'd like to thank you for
 what you an' all your friends have
 done for us - I want you to know
 that me an' the men appreciate
 you coming all this way - riskin'
 your lives - living uncomfortably
 an' doing all you can to entertain
 us. I want you to know personally,
 Miss, that for the past few minutes
 you have made me feel at home.

Thankfully, Coppola did not shoot this scene or use this dialogue – just one of many minor decisions that had a significant effect on the meaning and impact of the film. In the realised (Redux DVD) version we see the playmates after their show who are – in contrast to their on stage selves – alienated, awkward and introspective. Coppola has Lance and Chef spend some time with the playmates trying hopelessly to maintain their fantasies of the girls. Lance attempts to be intimate with one of the playmates in a storeroom, the camera moves over the body of a soldier laying in the foreground, ‘that’, the girl says, ‘used to be someone’s son’ and begins to weep (Redux DVD). That was most definitely not how Milnius saw that scene. From these details we learn that the development of the film was not as straightforward as some have assumed. This is a look at the entrails of the film but we must not forget that it was Milnius who provided the beast: The Wagnerian air attack, Kilgore Beach, the Do Long Bridge scene, the B52 crashed and over grown with creepers and the approach to Kurtz’s compound: 

The CHORUS OF GROANS is unbearable. But it is not a hostile
chant; or a war chant, but rather the SOUND OF HUMAN
 It doesn't sound hostile --
 it sounds like they've seen us
 coming and it sounds like --
 I don't know, a funeral. I
 don't understand. (Milnius 1975 v.)

This is the first indication that Milnius gives us there could be another Willard and that his journey up river is not a standard adventure story. This winning streak is as good as the cards Milnius is holding - he seemed to have licked Conrad in finding a new Kurtz but can he hold out till the end? 

The Writers 2:  Mysticism Versus Ethics or The Herr of The Dog That Bit Them

You’d meet either an optimism that no violence could unconvince, or a cynicism that would eat itself empty every day and then turn hungry and malignant, on whatever it could bite – Michael Herr, Dispatches. 

Just as it was true that as the Godfather was being made, the studio and the crew drew attention from the people who were the subject of the movie and life began to imitate art. It is also true that Michael Herr’s Dispatches was being made ready for publication and was actually published while Apocalypse Now was being shot in South East Asia.

Michael Herr had spent some time 1967-1969 as a correspondent for Esquire magazine in Vietnam covering the War. He then spent five years leaving and returning to his notes about the War. When he completed and published his memoir Dispatches in 1977 he gave all the evidence that anyone would need to account for the loss of self worth and mental disintegration of the ordinary American soldier who experienced the War in Vietnam. The book is a series of recollections informed and shaped by Herr’s thoughts while rewriting. The central theme of the book that linked it directly to the Zoetrope production in the Philippines was Herr’s account of the War seen through ‘grunt’ subculture – a counter-culture gone rotten, as if you had, ‘fallen into some unusual East-West interface, a California corridor cut bought and burned deep into Asia.’ (p.42) 

We do not think it odd now that the music of Jimi Hendrix became the sound track to the formation of that corridor - to its cutting and to its burning into South east Asia, for those who passed through that corridor it was also a sound track for a journey into madness. Herr was there to Witness that connection being made for the first time in 1967: 

[Tim] Page [the photo journalist] took the record that was playing on the turntable off without asking anybody and put on Jimi Hendrix: long tense organic guitar line that made him shiver like frantic electric ecstasy was shooting up from the carpet through his spine straight to the old pleasure centre in his cream-cheese brain, shaking his head so that his hair waved all around him, Have You Ever Been Experienced? (p.36)

Later it would be played on cassette tapes made by, or sent to, the troops in the field. It would also become the soundtrack to how some of those soldier’s and the journalists that followed them, became lost in the war – killed, or injured both mentally and physically. In First Kill, a documentary that attempts to show how some Americans who went to Vietnam also made a journey into psychosis, Herr tells the interviewer that he found it difficult to see what was happening in Vietnam as real, which he admits made it easier to see what he saw as simply ‘material’. The events he encountered were of course not normal by any standard of human behaviour so the writing and the book records a series of mental shocks, as this new type of war took place around him. By bringing the best qualities of American story telling and journalism to these images they form, when taken together short scenes, a disturbing series of intense and suffocating mental ‘movies’:

Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ball breakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, ‘right here in-country.’ 

They couldn’t even tell for sure if he was from a friendly tribe or not, no markings on his arrows because his quiver was empty, like his pockets and his hands. The captain thought about it during the walk back, but we got to the camp he put it in his report, ‘One VC killed’ ; good for the unit, he said, not bad for the captain either. (p.58) 

We even had a small language for our fire: ‘discreet burst’, ‘probe’, ‘prime selection, ‘constructive load’, but I never saw it as various, just compulsive eruption, the Mad Minute for an hour. (p.59)

Similar elements (the nuclear option, the hill tribe and the indiscriminate and arbitrary nature of American fire power) were already in place while Apocalypse Now was in post-production that is before Herr was asked to become involved in the film. 

John Milnius had provided a voice over type narration for Willard, but Coppola decided not to use this, which left a whole in the film where Willard’s subconscious was supposed to be. This only became apparent after the film was previewed. Coppola then had a significant problem to solve – who could give Willard his inner voice, to help establish an even deeper character than the one Milnius or Coppola had envisaged? It was at this late stage that Herr was contacted and asked to provide a narration. His additions to the script appear to make the film seamless, complementing it and enhancing it by adding a third level – that of objective narrator. Herr transforms his recollections and gives them a new life and a new subjectivity –Willard’s. 

Scene by Scene

 In the opening of Apocalypse Now Willard wakes up from a nightmare to the living nightmare of the War in Vietnam. He tries to distract his mind by drowning it in alcohol and self-harm. He is called to duty and a mission that will mean him judging and executing a Green Beret Cornel one of his own kind an American Special Forces officer – Kurtz: 

I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet, weeks away and hundreds of miles away up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory; anymore than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine. 

There may never be a more compelling Dies Irae. 

Herr’s narration is much more effective and powerful than Conrad’s literary impressionism for the simple reason that Herr through Willard, is relating his own journey into psychosis. In First Kill Herr indicates to his Dutch interviewer the different phases of reaction and response that he felt. First, faced with the enormity of the extent of American fire power and seeing what it could do to a people and a landscape dominated by peasant farming, the first reaction is understandably of denial – that what you were experiencing ‘wasn’t real’. The second phase was a numbing effect that the intensity of the war instilled, which then brings forth a sense of confusion and mystical questioning that we see and hear so much of in Apocalypse Now (General Corman: Out there with these natives.. there is a temptation – to be God, Clean: This sure is a bizarre sight in the middle of this.. Willard: What did he [Kurtz] see here on that first tour? Chef: What is it, VC?) 

But the effect of Herr’s contribution is most strongly felt at the USO Playmate of the year extravaganza scene. As far back as 1975 Milnius and Coppola had already agreed on the basic shape of this episode – the PBR would stop to pick up some fuel Willard and the crew would attend the show that would break up in disarray. The effect appears to retain Milnius’s view of the action as anarchic comic mayhem but what we actually end up with is something much, much darker. This is underscored by Herr’s narration and as the playboy helicopter tries to lift off, dropping GIs as it goes, the pop music of easy virtue dies away and is replaced by the death and insanity riffs of Hendrix. Only then does Willard recognise the true significance of the scene:
                                WILLARD (v.o.)
Charley didn't get much USO. He was dug in too deep or
moving too fast.  His idea of great R&R was cold rice and 
a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, 
or victory.

But if the US mission in Vietnam was lacking in tenacity how could this be fixed? The narration continues: 
                              WILLARD (v.o.)
No wonder Kurtz put a weed up command's ass. 
The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns 
who were going to end up giving the whole circus away.

Interlude: Historical Background: What Were The Options?

By late 1967 the military strategy of Lyndon Johnston’s government was using a combination of conventional ground patrols and counter-insurgency methods in Cambodia and Laos to ‘search out and destroy’ the Vietminh guerrillas and their support structure. This involved the relocating or simply destroying traditional Vietnamese society and its hinterlands either by defoliants (agent orange) or aerial bombardment or both. By early 1968 and after the Tet offensive it became clear that these methods were simply not able to stop the Vietminh from continuing and increasing their activity.  Politically Tet caused those in the government who had once supported the War to question if it could be won. There was a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam and the extra troops that the military had requested were not sent (100,000 – 200,000) negotiations were then opened with the Hanoi government. This short period of the ‘bombing pause’ entered conservative and neo-conservative folklore as the ‘betrayal’ of the military in Vietnam. Even though the Nixon administration expanded the War into Laos and Cambodia and resumed the bombing the charge of ‘betrayal’ by Johnston and the Democrats grew in conservative and military circles as the publics and Congress’s opposition to the War increased (all funding for the war was stopped by Congress in 1974). After the War ended in 1975 this charge – a mere reflex, that the ‘military were stopped by their government from winning the War’ became the standard response to those who questioned the right of their own government to continue the War. Few asked the pro war party or got a satisfactory answer to the question ‘how could victory have been achieved in Vietnam’ – there were mostly two related responses -that the ferocity of the Vietminh could and should have been matched on the ground with more Special Forces type action and if that fails – to use nuclear weapons. The option to use nuclear weapons in the War had been considered by the Eisenhower-Nixon administration in aid of the French before the fall of Dien Bien Fu in 1954 and been rejected.

Special Forces had begun work in Vietnam in 1964 with project DELTA that was expanded into Laos and Cambodia in 1968 by Nixon as project GAMMA. But the ability to expand further was severely crippled by ‘The Green Beret Affair’ in 1969. When it was made public that Special Forces agents assassinated one of their own men, who was suspected of being a double agent. The subsequent trial of the assassins and the abandonment of the trial due to non-cooperation from the CIA caused a sensation. The option to expand Special Forces became ‘inoperable’. However, it was the press who were next blamed in this instance for ‘betraying’ the military – a charge that would grow following the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers a secret administration history of Americas’ involvement in Vietnam since WW II. This had a devastating effect (along with Watergate) on the Nixon administration’s officials attempt to increase expenditure for the war. Nixon then tried to politically isolate North Vietnam by pursuing a policy of Détente with China and the Soviet Union, this also failed. Cavalierly dismissing these very real political and military difficulties the pro-military lobby maintained the fantasy that all options could and should have been pursued – despite gathering opposition to Nixon and the war in Congress.  The way that the pro-military lobby could have regained the initiative was for the generals to take over the government. After Nixon’s Presidency was brought to an end by impeachment, the most likely pro military advocate White House Chief of Staff General Haig, was preoccupied with negotiating the transfer of power from Nixon to Gerald Ford. However, the myth that Special Forces were ‘not allowed to do their job’ was widespread, the men themselves who had been in these ‘elite’ units acquired a certain mystic aura as the ‘guys who could have won the war’. 

The Film Resumes and Takes Up The Options

With a divided government and a divided country over Vietnam it was not surprising that the American President Lyndon Johnston agreed to give John Wayne full military co-operation to make his tribute to Special Forces: The Green Beret (1968). It is a film that should be remembered as it argues via a journalist Beckworth (David Janssen) that the US military should not be in Vietnam, but by the end of the film the journalist gives up his doubts and joins John Wayne’s Special Forces in action. It was how the pro-war party wanted to see the war – that the press and the media, along with the anti-war movement were betraying and dishonouring the military. Therefore to understand America’s war in Vietnam or so they believed – was to understand the morality of the Green Beret – the airborne Special Forces and how and why they fought the war in Vietnam:

In the above excerpts we see the fanciful notion that the helicopters in Vietnam were simply used to ferry the troops to their Alamo like outposts and if back up was required – it was from a ‘war wagon’ in the sky and not from napalm or B52 air strikes. 

What Apocalypse Now does is to revisit The Green Beret after The Green Beret Affair and the knowledge of what the US Army actually became in Vietnam.  Willard’s search to find Kurtz is the counter argument to how the war was depicted in the Green Beret and similar veteran films: that the only people to blame for the loss of moral purpose of the military in Vietnam were the military themselves.  Unlike John Wayne’s film, Apocalypse Now gives more detail on options and strategy of Special Forces in Vietnam. Kurtz gives us the elite of the elite Special Forces view, on how the war was being fought: 

                                                WILLARD (v.o.)
Commitment and Counter Insurgency by Walter E. Kurtz. 
As long as our officers and tours of duty are limited to one
year  they will remain dilettantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. 
As long as cold beer, hot food and Rock ‘n’ Roll  and all the other 
amenities remain the expected norm or conduct of the war
will gain only impotence. We need fewer men and better – 
if they were permitted, this war could be won with a fourth
of our present  force.                            (Redux DVD only)

The narration continues:
          WILLARD (v.o.)
                                    Late summer-autumn 1968 : 
                  Kurtz's patrols in the highlands coming under frequent
ambush. The camp started falling apart...November: Kurtz orders
the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one
woman. Two of the men were Colonels in the South
Vietnamese army. Enemy activity in his old sector dropped
off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right
four people. The army tried one last time to bring him back
into the fold. And if he  pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. 
But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way, and they called
me in. They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumours and 
random intelligence, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew 
his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men
were playing hit and run all the  way into Cambodia. (1979 Version)

Kurtz’s own Special Forces war is then seen from the point of view of someone who had been a ‘Green Beret Affair’ Colonel: Willard reads the letter Kurtz sent to his son:

‘Dear son, 
I'm afraid that both you and your mother would have been
worried for not hearing from me  these past weeks. But my 
situation here has become a difficult one. I've been officially
accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four 
Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering and
accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed,
we acted, we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified.
They are in fact, under the circumstances of this conflict
quite completely insane.  In a war there are many moments for
compassion and tender action. There are many moments for 
ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless. But many
and many circumstances, the only clarity; seeing clearly 
what there is to be done and doing it directly
I would trust you to tell your mother what you choose about 
this letter. As for the charges, I'm unconcerned. I'm beyond 
their lying morality. And so I'´m beyond caring. (1979 Version)

What if Special Forces were not held back and were asked to expand the War and fight it this way? What if a Special Forces officer who had been involved in the Green Beret Affair just ignored the scandal, the court case, the press, the government - everything and carried on? Coppola takes us on a journey to find such a Special Forces Officer: Kurtz. This places the film right back into the debate about what could have been done to win the American War in Vietnam. 

Herr’s above narration was a masterstroke as it fixes the action of the film at just the right balance between outward behaviour and inner trauma. Dispatches, was required reading for those working on the Zoetrope production; the more work that was done on the film, the more Zoetrope were unwittingly working towards Herr’s ‘but it did happen’ approach. What then would Coppola have Willard do when he found Kurtz?

Writers 3: Is my Script Burning? :  Coppola On Empire and War. 

Francis Ford Coppola had been involved in two war films before Apocalypse Now. Looking at his first major script – a very dry, black and white film about the French negotiations with the German Commander detailed to blow up Paris: Is Paris Burning (1966), you would have little indication that Coppola was the same man who could write the award winning screenplay for Patton (1970) which shows the unlovely life of the general as a man who keeps trying to connect to history but ends up feeling completely exterior to it; simply because that is his place in a democracy. In the now legendry-opening scene Coppola has a tiny Patton emerge up and onto a stage dominated by an enormous American Flag. In 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War America had become the new imperium, did we need Generals like Patton who thought that he was good for America the way Caesar was good for Rome? 
Near Breakdown in the Philippines 

Following Martin Sheen’s heart attack the Zoetrope production went into crisis. Coppola desperately tried to stop the studio from shutting the film down. He continued filming as much as he could. But as the weeks went by, opposition grew, Coppola then spent more time rewriting. 

After trying to make a film in the middle of a war and a hurricane Coppola then faced the task of rewriting the ending of the film. Before the halt in the shooting he had made important changes to the characters and the action, which he knew were major achievements. Among these was his decision to cast black actors as important members of the crew of the PBR: Albert Hall as Philips - the Chief and the then fourteen-year-old Larry Fishburne who played Clean. Their father and son relationship – under fire – is a central theme of the film. Coppola also has a political intent, which he reveals subtly and dramatically in the action:

Scene By Scene

In the realised version it is Clean (Larry Fishburne) that tries to order the fuel and is ignored and then rebuffed by a desk sergeant at the supply station. Willard intervenes to secure the fuel but still the supply sergeant prevaricates he isn’t happy being asked, even by an officer, to accede to a request of a Negro. Instantly Willard looses all patience with such pettiness, reaches out and grabs the desk sergeant pulling him over the desk – Willard repeats his request this time successfully. Coppola in having key Milnius characters and roles played by African-Americans radically changed the emphasis of the film; raising issues of the racism they faced and the disproportionate amount of dying they did.

In the Du Long Bridge scene Coppola cast The Roach and his gang also as Black Americans and has Willard ask them, ‘who is in charge here?’ the reply ‘aint you?’ not only means that Willard is not in charge of this last out post he is also not in charge of the underworld of death and madness that he leads the crew of the PBR into. Only Chief (Albert Hall) realises too late, that they will not be able to get back to safety. Coppola made a point of writing Philips revolt against Willard (You don’t know were the hell you are going; do you?! – do you??!!!). After Chief lies dying after being hit by a spear thrown by one of Kurtz’s tribesmen he literally grabs at Willard and seizes his last chance to end Willard and his mission before they are all killed by it. Willard is then forced to choose between his life and Philips’ – a cold illustration of the Black American’s soldier’s role in Vietnam.

But who really is ‘Willard’? When once asked Milnius had replied that Willard is Adam, Faust, Dante, Aeneas, Huckleberry Finn, Jesus Christ, the Ancient Mariner, Captain Ahab, Odysseus, Oedipus. Apart from Dante and Jesus Christ Milnius’s saw Willard as part of Classical mythology. Is he despite this someone who is more worried about getting someone else’s blood on his boots?


laying at Willard's feet -- the long spear through him,
bleeding onto Willard's boots. He looks up at Willard,
about to say something.

 A spear?

Slowly he pulls his boots from under Chief. They are
absolutely soaked in blood. He is stunned -- sits down
and begins to unlace the bloody boots, and take them off.

 Chief's dead.

Willard unlaces the other boot, and holds the bloody boot
in his hand. (Milnius 1975 Script only)

Willard’s journey may have had a classical shape but Sheen and Coppola had developed a highly complex character that would become a Special Forces ‘everyman’. 

Willard: Character Amalgamation 

Willard is a Special Forces everyman both as the right man for the job and as that right man who leaves the job. Coppola was immensely fortunate in having Martin Sheen work on the development and the formation of Willard’s character for all the aspects he portrays of American Special Forces intentions and operations in Vietnam. The American war by 1968 in terms of Special Forces had become a brutal counter insurgency operation that through its various programs (GAMMA, DELTA and Phoenix) began to effectively and systematically eliminate or neutralise all ‘stay behinds’ that is those working to unify the country. During the Tet offensive the Vietminh replied by eliminating all the pro-Saigon and pro-American Government officials in Hue some 1800 people (a separate article would be needed on the ethics of General Giap’s strategy in Hue and the War generally). By late 1968 all American units increased their indiscriminate killing of non-combatants. What was certain by early 1969 was that the pro-military lobby in the US were making the case to the new Nixon administration for an expansion of the war (a strategy that Johnson’s administration had rejected).  Organised secret units made up of American and highly trained irregular commandoes was to be part of that expansion.

 Following The Green Beret Affair in late 1969 and the highly publicised trial of Special Forces Colonel Robert Rheault who was responsible for GAMMA’s operations in Laos and Cambodia as well as the assassination of one of his own agents Thai Khac Chuyen who had been suspected of being a double agent, this option – of expanding American led Special Forces ended. Nixon then decided to instruct General Tieu train up South Vietnamese regulars into Special Forces units as part of the political program of Vietnamization of the war. Willard is then in pursuit of a former project GAMMA officer Kurtz as Rheault, that is if Rheault had decided to continue fighting and ignore his indictment ‘for murder’ as General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) so elegantly puts it about Kurtz in the film. But Coppola goes further than this and shows that the indiscriminate killing was also a fact of the widening US war in South East Asia and that this should not be forgotten. Some officers were mildly upbraided for this such as Lt William Calley and Captain Ernest Lou Medina but it was the shock to American public confidence in the War that Coppola wished to remind us of. This he chillingly achieves in the Sandpan incident all the occupants of which are indiscriminately killed – Willard Killing an injured woman as ‘his mission has priority’. It has often been said to anti-war activists, ‘what would you do in this situation’, or ‘you don’t know if you would pull the trigger or not’, Coppola takes up this line of reasoning and says OK he did it, he pulled the trigger,  ‘what type of hero is he now?’ 

We are of course well beyond heroism and as Willard approaches Kurtz, he considers that Kurtz maybe living the reality of guilt free killing and what it has done to him and it is doing to Willard (‘I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier’). Following the suppression of The Chief’s revolt, Willard finally is prepared to meet Kurtz and to become him.

The Four Endings of The Apocalypse 

When American Zoetrope had been formed John Milnius had already committed to paper his film fantasy The Psychedelic Soldier. He saw what would become Apocalypse Now as a Hunter-S-Thompson-California-on-the-Mekong-epic – not so much a film more a high school poem to drugs, guns, bombs and dope – the dope of the American Way, ‘the west is the best’ as the California group The Doors once sang. In the 1975 version of the script Milnius insists on the use of the Doors song Baby Light My Fire – it seemed an appropriate way to end the film – all guns (and joints) blazing:

Moonby lights a joint, and passes it respectfully to
Kurtz -- throughout the scene, the joint is passed from
man to man, ritualistically.

 Why did you come to ... my province.

                    …  We fight
       with ingenious machines and
 fire, like Gods, and for nothing.
 But I'll call in a major blotto
 airstrike tonight. We'll have
 ourselves a helluva airstrike
 tonight, a lightshow. How do
 you like The Doors': 'C'mon Baby
 Light My Fire...'

Willard shrugs.

 You've gone crazy.

 No. My thinking is clear.
 But my soul has gone mad.
(Milnius 1975 script only)

‘Moonby’ would eventually become ‘Photojournalist’ – played by Denis Hopper. Needless-to-say it was not necessary to use this dialogue when Hopper became part of the proceedings. The Milnius 1975 version continues - an Air strike is called in, the North Vietnamese attack and Kurtz blasts out Baby Light My Fire as the Compound is attacked:


The DOORS begin LIGHT MY FIRE , loud and overwhelming,
as illuminating flares light up the blackness.


of enormous loudspeakers protected behind spirals of
razor-sharp concertina wire. LIGHT MY FIRE is blasted
out to the enemy, poised to attack.


Cannibal-painted men in savage decorations wait. Bay-
onets are fixed. Men are stoned to acid, injecting
speed, sniffing cocaine, eating grass, smoking hashish
in water pipes. One looks up to the sky.


A rocket illuminates the sky, strobing, as in a 
psychedelic hallucination.


 Wow...                    (Milnius 1975 script only)

From this Milnius’s whole script appears to be a psychedelic hallucination brought on by reading too much New Journalism but it also set up Coppola for a fall.  Coppola had asked Milnius to put in ‘everything he could think of’ about seventy percent of which Coppola did use but the ending was a different matter.  Up to this point Coppola was able to work with Milnius script as something he could re-tune. But after having decided not to retain Milnius’s ‘macho’ ending Coppola faced two main problems, how could he continue to develop his own take on the dialogue and action – when there was no script to work from? Secondly, from what was retained of Milnius’ ending, how could its meaning be changed?

If it had not been a requirement of the Philippines government to blow up the sets, Coppola and Zoetrope could have decided to leave Kurtz’s compound as it was; as it is unmistakably an achievement in itself. Built from heavy adobe blocks and finely sculpted by local labour and modelled after the ancient Cambodian temple of Angkor. The face of the Goddess tower was based on a young local inhabitant who played part of Kurtz’s temple entourage. The destruction of the compound does not show any fighting (as Milnius script had specified) just mammoth explosions gothically photographed. Not directly connected to the action in this way it is marooned from the rest of the picture. After many viewers had expressed the view that this end credits sequence meant they were witnessing the air strike that Willard had called in on the Compound, Coppola decided to withdraw this ending. The film opened in the US in August  1979 and in London in December – without the destruction of Kurtz’s Compound and without credits (these were supplied in a booklet).  The destructive end credits sequence is known from the television and VHS versions. 

Deciding to disown this conclusion to the picture Coppola also disconnected this ending from the meanings it could have had. The first is that it is the American destruction of the natural beauty of Indo-China – the country and its people – most of whom did not die in any mystical-warrior-Special-Forces-combat, but in an intense (aerial) bombardment like this one. All of which can be heard in the stunning Zoetrope sounds-scape that accompanies the sequence with its Takamitsu like eastern percussion, ghost ancestor voices, giving way to the extreme-intense-death-and-insanity sounds of Hendrix – symbolising the rottenness of America’s ‘moral’ war in Indochina and what it will be remembered for: the sound of screaming babies as they are burned by napalm. 

Interlude2: Hopper And Coppola – Auteurs At War

F.F.Coppola (to D. Hopper): if you know your lines, then you can forget ‘em.
Hopper: …oh, I see – well that’s what I’ve been trying to do (laughs).
F.F. Coppola:  But it is not the same as if you never knew them…

Coppola & Hopper in Hearts of Darkness 

This famous exchange from Hearts of Darkness illustrates in miniature why Coppola was able to deliver on his highly complex and troubled project that had become Apocalypse Now. 

But the exchange and how it appears in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary, gives a false impression of Denis Hopper. It suggests that Hopper simply didn’t know what he was doing. 

In fact Hopper as a director had successfully completed his own a highly ambitious auteur project some five years earlier. A film about how movie making itself can become a fatal and dangerous ritual. Entitled The Last Movie (1971) the film is about how the process of movie making can lead to insanity and murder. The plot was again quite brilliant in conception and in execution: A movie production team arrives in a remote South American village (the original was filmed in Peru) and begin shooting a standard Western. The local villagers having never seen the process of movie making become curious; they see scenes were people enact shootouts, get killed and then get up again, only to repeat their own deaths again. Believing what they are seeing is a new form of supernatural process, the villagers form a cult based on the relationship between the camera and the actors – only their guns and bullets are real and their cameras are made of wood.  The film then is about how the movie production team mentally disintegrates, as they cannot stop what was once unreal becoming real. The parallels with the problems Zoetrope and Coppola were having in the Philippines on a real life Hollywood shoot are interesting and disturbing.

Hopper and his production team completed shooting The Last Movie successfully and Hopper had ‘final cut’.  However, as the film was about a film disrupting reality and then becoming a new reality and all this at its end is still a fictional drama Hopper, not surprisingly, had difficulty in ordering the material and managing the footage in the pre digital age – not because of any real or imagined bohemianism on or off the set (the Peruvian press had already managed outrage at the real life bohemianism before Hopper had begun filming) but because – as the art historian T.J. Clark has shown; ‘there is always a danger in depicting artistically the circumstances in which meanings are lost’ – and production which produces  ‘a loss of meaning altogether.’ 

Hopper had managed to find a solution to even this problem. At the very end of the movie the ultimate real-unreal drama – The Last Movie ends with the real life director Samuel Fuller interrupting the drama to call a halt to the film. Riding in as he does on a horseback, dressed in signature dark classes and Stetson he appears to be deliciously unaware of the battle that has just been fought out between reality and unreality.  However, Hopper’s friend and mentor Alejandro Jodorowsky persuaded Hopper that the commonly encountered danger of Modern Art that Clark had described was not a danger but an opportunity. 

Formal dislocation in the edit was then used to signify freedom from any requirement of necessity.  So the film was edited to show itself turning inside out and the story of the loss of meaning becomes an actual loss of meaning, as Hopper’s final cut simply can not be understood, as it switches back on itself and destroys the different registers of meaning and ambiguity that had been so carefully built up by Hopper and his team. A few critics thought that experiencing a film, that appears to destroy its own reason for existence – was an achievement in itself. Others thought it a waste of Hoppers’ and his teams’ talent and time. 

The Last Movie was rejected by its studio Universal for even limited distribution and was only shown in a few individual theatres; its abiding image is the real life director Sam Fuller arriving on his horse to announce the end of the film and as it turned out, any chance that Hopper would be allowed to direct again in the foreseeable future. Hopper even after the experience of The Last Movie considered it something of an achievement that he was able to free the film from any anchor to its reason or purpose for existing. Letting go of the anchor he hoped would let the film sail into new territory – instead, The Last Movie - an extremely laudable and intelligent project sank without trace.

 Hopper’s arrival on the set of Apocalypse Now, to play the Photojournalist – who is addicted to scenes of ritualistic violence, was appropriate, as he had become the character that Coppola wished him to play. But the famous exchange with Francis Coppola indicates the lessons that Coppola had learnt about how to make formal innovations and improvisations work and why retaining an anchor to the purpose of those innovations was an essential part of production.

 What Coppola meant by ‘learning your lines so you can forget them’ was that this would put Hopper and the other actors in a particular frame of mind to better improvise and to deliver more realistic dialogue in addition to the lines laid out in the script.

Coppola then was never at war with the form of film making itself; by the time of the Apocalypse Now shoot he was able to make informed choices about the management of the actors and the material of the production.  The scenes that Eleanor Coppola captured between Hopper and Francis Coppola were indicative of how Coppola was using an advanced technique to establish a specific atmosphere of heightened realism. So it is not surprising that Hopper found it difficult to accept that the lines written for him would help him add the additional element of his own true-life experience. And, as we then see, Hopper does provide highly characteristic lines that were used in the final cut. 

The Film Resumes: The Willard That Will Help Kurtz?

In allowing Hopper to develop an extraordinary tirade at the imprisoned Willard, Hopper adds much realism and depth to the insanity of Kurtz’s Compound: 

 I’m not going to help you – you’re going to help him…
 When it dies – will they say he was a kind man!!?’…
 Am I going to be the one that will set him straight? Look at me!! – Wrong! 

- YOU!!’

We then hear sounds depicting something monstrous approaching the PBR and Chef’s attempt to call in the air strike. We hear the sounds again, only this time much louder accompanying Kurtz’s foot falls as he approaches Willard with the head of Chef. There were air strikes – but not here not now. Willard is still captive, weak and exhausted and in no position to help Kurtz or himself. Kurtz was not ready to die, but as he watches Willard get stronger, he knows the end is near. Kurtz then speaks his last words to Willard. He attempts to justify the indiscriminate killing (‘and we must kill them, pig after pig cow after cow village after village’) and the way he has fought the war by saying it all began by witnessing an atrocity (the famous inoculated arms scene). 

The source of this story was a friend of John Milnius, the Infamous Fred Rexer – a gun obsessed Green Beret Special Forces officer – who liked to boast to the production team of his barehanded executions of Vietnamese village chiefs. Rexer’s story is based on Special Forces lore and the ludicrous idea that there was an unbridgeable gap between Special Forces capabilities and their opponents. But as Rexer also admits if there was a gap it could readily be put right with napalm: ‘Napalm is the answer to the grunts’ prayers’, this Rexer line was supposed to be spoken by Willard, Coppola did not use it. He had lost interest in Rexer after he had turned up to the post-production office with a loaded rifle and began pestering Coppola with his own ideas for a film about himself. 

Coppola is often asked if Kurtz was based on Tony Poe (Anthony Poshepny) the closest you could get to a Kurtz like figure who also worked for Special Forces in Laos and Cambodia. Poe admits committing a number of atrocities, which included dropping heads on enemy villages as part of his psychological warfare programme. But it is project GAMMA officer Colonel Robert Rheault that Coppola saw as Kurtz – the officer of the Green Beret Affair and the public scandal connected to it. GAMMA Special Forces agents operating in Laos such as Rexer, Poe and Rheault did not need someone else’s atrocities to perpetrate or justify their own. Kurtz confirms his insanity to Willard by imagining a gap between what American forces were not capable of, and what the North Vietnamese and the Vietminh were capable of. Not calling in, or ending the picture with the air strike – the way the imbalance would have traditionally been met in the field, was the right way to end the picture as it keeps the film on an intensely personal level. Kurtz who has become a demigod of death has just enough sanity left to acquiesce in his own termination. His last talk with Willard should be seen for what it really is: a speech from the dock – his last insane statements of self-justification. The final sequence begins by reworking Milnius’s ending by having the Doors return to the music that accompanied Willard’s nightmare that opened the film – only this time he is acting alone for as he says he ‘wasn’t in their army any more’. 

In the intelligence compound Willard had listened to Kurtz’s voice and his final ‘Special Forces’ solution to the War. Willard next encounters the same sentiment scrawled over Kurtz’s own documents – that continuing-winning the war means the dropping of the Bomb and the extermination of the Vietnamese. Willard’s journey up river was not to give into Kurtz’s siren call, but to silence the deadly voice that uttered it – the voice that called him and many others to continue the American cult-of-death-driven-by-madness in Vietnam. Kurtz voice rises up from the floor to say the war can only have one meaning: horror.

Willard sees that he is now looked upon as the new deity of death; his face begins to resemble Kurtz’s, will he remain and take his place? The image dissolves to the hill tribes’ caribou sacrifice, now seen for what it really is – a feast day celebration: Kurtz’s end signifying the end of the US war in Indochina. Willard then moves slowly through the temple, the Hill tribe try to confirm him as their new God. Poised to become Kurtz, Willard throws down his weapon – it clatters as it falls. Shortly followed by the noise of the hill tribe also disarming. 

Finding Lance Willard leaves behind a disarmed compound and returns to the PBR on the river. Lance razes up his head to feel the rain on his face. Willard turns off the voice of ‘Almighty’, no bombs fall on the compound – only rain. Slowly the boat moves away. Previous faces of Willard as exterminating angel appear and disappear. The helicopters return from Willard’s nightmare for one last haunting.  We hear Kurtz voice once more reminding us of the legacy of this War is only horror. The solitary face of the stone idol - the Goddess of Angkor remains. After it too, fades into the darkness, we hear only the heavy rain continuing to fall. 

Factuality and Surreality 

I have mentioned above how over time political meaning and emphasis of the film were changed. But it would be wrong to say that the more direct political aspects were a result of Coppola and Herr’s interventions. Milnius also gave us the French Planters episode and a version of the Playmates offstage. In both cases Coppola tried to develop and re-orientate their political meaning in a more radical direction.

While it is clear in the Redux 2001 DVD version that the later added scenes give us more to look at and to take pleasure in, it is also clear that they also rob the film of its pace and its ultimate impact. A good example is the added scene of Willard’s imprisonment by Kurtz. It shows Willard exhausted and asleep inside a metal storage container. Willard wakes up dazed and confused. Coppola and his technical team add to the effect by making Willard look as if he is trapped not in an awful place but by the light that surrounds him as if he were a transfixed Catholic in a Renaissance painters’ Purgatory. This is a serious and effective distraction for the viewer as we are stunned by the beauty of this image and have lost interest in its ethics. Kurtz (Brando) arrives to try and remedy the situation; he reads news and War analysis to Willard and becomes, unintentionally, comic (the effect is further enhanced by the young extras who behave like normal children and not as if they had just seen their brutal boss). The Kurtz that decapitated Chef in the previous scene simply doesn’t exist anymore. 

All the writers on Apocalypse Now were concerned with incidents that illustrate facts. In any serious fictional drama there must not be facts for their own sake or, art for it’s own sake if this is done the work becomes alienated from its own purpose. So Kurtz must always remain what he has become: a man addicted to killing an image that simply can’t be sustained if he is made to appear as a Pied Piper who likes to read back issues of Time. 

Coppola and his team had been successful in giving the film its own surreal form, which is the source of the films unity and its strength. 

But when a pretext is created for factuality to be given its due – as it was in a number of the scenes that were added to the Redux DVD they have an odd Alice In Wonder Land effect. The scene that most exemplifies this is the French Planters Tea Party.  The consequence of the facts that are made known to Willard at the French Planter’s table, are like the information that Kurtz reads to Willard from Time magazine – they make important information appear banal. 

Coppola did not include these scenes in the much shorter 1979 70mm version as the film has a much deeper impact as a work that tightly wraps its own form around itself. But who is the Willard that does not become Kurtz? If he is truly a Special Forces Everyman, who is he when he disarms the Compound? And what can he return to, when for him, his former life and what his country represented, ‘simply doesn’t exist anymore’? Here the film was so successful in making the audience want to know more about this new Willard and his new world, that no ending could possibly satisfy.

Apocalypse Now Thirty Years On

Had Coppola and Milnius stayed with their 1975 script in which Willard goes from sane to insane and back again on his return to the United States, then we would have had the same ending as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where De Niro’s character when asked what went wrong simply dismisses what happened in the film as a time he has moved on from. But we don’t move on from Apocalypse Now after we have seen it. It’s effects stay with us. When Killgore talks of the smell of napalm, that smell does not need to be in our noses, it is in our minds seared there – just like the image and noise of helicopter rotor blades churning up the air.

That helicopter sound is the heart of the film as it connects us to the reality of what these ungainly machines did in Vietnam. The films’ award winning sound mix also tells it’s own sophisticated and complex story which continues to insinuate itself into our consciousness. It was Milnius who suggested that Wagner’s Ryde of The Valkyries be used to accompany the air attack on the Vietnamese village. Coppola does not use it just as a sound track but as part of Kilgore’s psychological warfare. 

 In fact the sound mix is a-wash with Wagner’s musical techniques as each element of the story is given a theme or motif. So after Kilgore beach we hear an icy ghost march (drums and electronic sounds), forest murmurs (lower strings and bassoons) and the mission music, which we hear when Willard reads Kurtz’s dossier (solo flute). Things then start to get even more interesting as the boat approaches the Sandpan and we hear an electronic Morse signal tapped out (quoting Holst’s Mars: God of War) that warns of deadly ensnarement by Kurtz (a low threatening synthesised theme).  This also contains Willard’s rebirth theme (a slowly rising chromatic figure on synthesizer). After the Doors sing The End, the complex of emotions that Willard feels and our expectations (will Willard become the new Kurtz?) are depicted by a fugue on this powerful synthesizer. The threatening and ominous base notes of Kurtz’s theme recede and as Willard’s theme slowly gains prominence Kurtz is then depicted only by a low hollow discord, which leads into the sound of Willard throwing down his machete. For not only is it the end of Kurtz it is also the end of the war for the compound as they follow Willard’s example and disarm. And as Willard leads Lance away a redemption theme is heard. 

Apart from the Temple Theme (strings and a native flute) that we hear when Willard is recovering after Chef is killed and the sound of a gamelan that we hear when Willard first surveys the Kurtz Compound – these are the only South East Asian instruments used – no Vietnamese music is heard.

As the PBR drifts back down river the forest murmurs return, we hear the voice of Kurtz, then we hear only the rain. 

Changing Channels

The film was a hit with the film going public but the majority of critics came out against it preferring The Deer Hunter instead. Coppola’s ethical Catholicism did put him and the film in opposition to the new Republican pro war Regan right. Over time this changed and Apocalypse Now became ‘the Vietnam film’ as Sky Movies has rather grandly put it. But as I have tried to show, all the writers made political contributions to the film. Coppola’s direction of the French Planters scene tries to show the background to the War – that it was the American military that founded the Vietminh and the fact that it was rubber that caused the French to continue its brutal colonial occupation of Vietnam – just as it had caused the founding of the terror-slavery state in Conrad’s Congo. Apocalypse Now belongs to a very small group of rare works down the ages that tried to fix the troubled image for the purpose of a new ethics. 

The painting The Raft of the Medusa is also such a work and was understood in its day as opposing the return of a corrupt French ruling class and the Bourbon monarchy. The fact that we do not see the king and his ministers being run through in the picture is only of interest to those who prefer hack arguments to actual, radical cultural works. In any case to assume that this and similar works can’t belong to the world of posters, protest and radical activism would be a mistake – one is not the opposite of the other they are part of the same radical tradition. In what way then is Apocalypse Now radical? 

Had Welles went ahead with his film version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness it would have most probably been a failure for the simple reason that Welles was – in the late 1930s over half a century away from the events depicted in the story. Even if the film had been a success it would, by the 1970s have been ‘replied to’ by African filmmakers. Certainly by 1975 Conrad and the novel had already been strongly attacked by the African writer Chinua Achebe:

In this case what happened ‘outside the text’ is politically relevant to any assessment of what Conrad wrote about the Upper Congo. For whatever can be said or claimed about the texts’ meaning, its author was fully involved in opposing Leopold’s brutal Congo regime and succeeded along with Roger Casement’s Congo Reform Society in ending Leopold’s rule of the colony. The failure of the democratisation by Belgium of the Congo Free State and Britain’s manipulation of Casement’s Congo human rights Report – made Casement into a revolutionary. That Conrad did not join him in this is another one of the many things that Roger Casement must be blamed for. 

In 1975 when the Zoetrope production began, the historical situation could not have been more different. In Vietnam, Saigon had only just fallen to the North Vietnamese Army a few months before. Milnius and Coppola almost immediately prepared a new draft of the script that would contain all the basic elements of the later film except the beginning and the end. If Conrad had provided the narrative shape for the film what had been happening in America itself gave it its context and its content. The United States Congress had stopped all funding for the War just one year before.  The explanation put forward by the defeated military and military lobby – that if the press had kept their mouths, ears and eyes shut and let Special Forces do their job in secret – then the War could have been won. The one thing that the American military and the pro-war party could not stop was the Living Room War – the graphic brutality of the War on television night after night – in colour. No postproduction was needed to re-colour the footage or digitally paint on the blood. No re-enactment was necessary to see people in the rice fields being shot up by helicopters. No special effects team was necessary to set fire to Vietnamese Villages. And no blanks needed to be fired to show the massacre of the Vietnamese. 

That was the environment in which filming began so it is not a surprise to find that the most dramatic events that had happened and the way they were originally filmed by the television networks found their way into the film. This was so effective to such an extent that when Vietnam A television History (WGBH 1982) began their series they used the original news footage that had been quoted by Apocalypse Now to say that it had happened. But we don’t hear Wagner on the sound track; instead we hear Vietnamese drums setting the rhythm for an American guitar to follow:

In this series we see that it all did ‘happen here’ – we meet the real Special Forces the real Foreign Office Democrats who help set up the Vietminh in 1945, the real Vietnamese who did the fighting against the French at Dien Bien Fu, and the French who had with American support dropped the first napalm. We also hear of those American soldiers in Vietnam who would killed their own officers, and of the Special Forces officers who admitting their atrocities, became Veterans Against the War – which was the only place left for a ‘Captain Willard’ – who had refused to continue fighting the War – could go. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t need to show Martin Sheen as Captain Willard how to testify to Congress – someone else had already volunteered to do that:

And to show how effective he had been in Vietnam he had also brought his own film camera…



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