Apocalypse Now (1979)
In Apocalypse Now‘s combat scenes we are given a fragmented, disjointed view which Coppola used to communicate the true nature of the Vietnam war and every modern war. Coppola commented, in a brochure released with the first screenings, that ‘The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. . . . I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars.’1 In the now famous battle scene where the Air Cavalry attack a Vietcong position while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries Coppola achieves that which he set out to, namely the horror, madness, sensuousness and moral dilemma of Vietnam. The choice of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is interesting as it serves an important function in the film. The music is majestic, composed and a symbol of both heroism and riding into hell itself. The music also represents by an association with Wagner a hatred of Jews and a recent enemy of America’s Germany – the use of music associated with Germany the Americans are superimposed into the position of the traditional enemy in War films. The music basically represents both heroism and dubious moral justifications. The soldiers are heroic riding into hell, but they are here for a rather poorly justified reason. The horror of the war is indicated in the smashing of helicopter fire into the Vietcong town, the strafing of machine gun fire into the village. The madness is indicated in the personal motivation in attack; the search for a good surfing position. The insanity is also indicated by bounty for making a good shot; a large case of beer. While the helicopters are in the air, and the music remains, the editing ensures a decent level of spatial continuity is maintained, we are regularly allowed to see the helicopters in formation and every attack is shown with a corresponding target, conflict and resolution of that conflict. When the helicopters sit down we lose a sense of spatial continuity, the camera circles around a wounded victim intimating a panicked soldiers swirling terrified head filling with nerves at the sight of blood and guts. Another interesting feature in communicating the sensory confusion is when the American bombers drop napalm on a line of trees the sound waivers and drops out of existence relating the deafening madness that is modern warfare. In this battle scene we see Coppola’s aims communicated by his use of music, shot selection and composition. Marsha Kinder explains that Apocalypse Now
‘illuminates the madness and horror of the Americans who experienced it. No matter how good or how strong, everyone who was touched by that war had a change in consciousness. Not only the fighting men, but also those who experienced the war second-hand through accounts by veterans, through television coverage, and now through seeing Apocalypse Now.‘2
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness communicated a lost sense of rebirth (I will do a full side by side textual analysis of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now later on in the year) and Coppola’s film also seems to communicate this. The change, or rebirth, of those who experienced Vietnam isn’t a heroic one that is portrayed after a tour of combat in many WWII films and even Westerns, it is a loss of self, a crisis and destruction of all things held to be honourable. Even returning home is impossible as Captain Benjamin L. Willard remarks “home… I knew it just didn’t exist any more”. Coppola, in Apocalypse Now, is explaining that every aspect of American culture has been infected by the loss of faith and loss of self because it journeyed into a heart of darkness either through the medium of television or through active combat.
1Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 12-20 p. 13.
2Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, p. 14.