He’s Crazy…Wait — Is He?
The journey up the river and deeper into the jungle is rewarding.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #29/100
Awards: Nominated for eight winning Sound and Cinematography.
The right space for a lesson to exist is on a continuum where it goes past being a challenge but stops before it becomes inscrutable. Movies that are too easy become labeled as hackneyed. On the other end, movies that are completely impenetrable are only liked by a certain few; a parade of avant garde and social conscious critics try to prop up the significance as it falls on deaf ears.
Apocalypse Now hits that right spot. I’m not sure I understand all of it, but I get enough of it for it to continue to roll around in my brain. The movie exposes our faulty concepts on the meaning of insanity and then goes on to try and figure out who really is acting “crazy.” By the end, and maybe even still, I’m so disoriented that I’m not sure I can tease that one out.
[QUICK STORY RECAP]
Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned with assassinating an officer gone rouge in Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz completed missions on his own accord killing double agents within his ranks without requesting permission. He is now in Cambodia where local tribes worship him as a god. To do this, Willard joins a river boat patrol. The occupants include Chief (Albert Hall), Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne), Chef (Frederic Forrest), and Lance (Sam Bottoms). As the crew heads further into the jungle, they experience more and more atrocities of war. Willard then begins to question himself on whether Kurtz is really such an enemy of the state.
The movie is a long one, but with scenes so diverse, I did not find it dragged at any moment. There are two versions: the original and “redux.” The Redux version (which is the one I ultimately watched) added an additional 49 minutes to the viewing time. From what I can tell, I don’t think it really matters which version you go with; the additional material added some neat points, but if you took them way you get the benefit of a faster story.
Crazy, Moral, And Protocol.
The core of this movie is an amalgamation of what is crazy, moral, and protocol. These three should align in harmony — we believe someone who is sane will also be moral because they follow protocol. Kurtz is someone who is on the wrong side of all three and the reason the army thinks he should be terminated with “extreme prejudice.” We begin the film feeling justified in this mission.
Coppola plays with us very early on with Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) character. He’s the most immoral person within the entire film directing missions within a framework to find good surfing locations. He relishes war, and he has no sense about the gravity of his actions. When speaking to Lance, he asks him how he likes it within the thick of an assault on a VC outpost. Lance, assuming he’s talking about the battle, says something to the effect of that its pretty hectic. Kilgore quickly yells “I’m talking about the waves, Lance!”
This leads Willard to this conclusion:
Willard: If that’s how Kilgore fought the war I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder, there was enough of that to go around for everyone.
Time to be Disoriented.
Thus begins are changing perspectives with everyone. Originally, Kurtz is the maniac, but he slowly becomes much more sane than everyone else. As we continue to learn more about him and his motives through Willard’s reading of the dossier, we realize that Kurtz was on to something.
He believed that the army was trying to fight an “ethical” war. He knew this would lead to a bunch of contradictions: war is never ethical, and by not fully committing to a goal because of political perceptions, it would lead to more hardships for everyone. His assassination of the double agents was a success in the war effort, it just wasn’t PC. Worse, it was not protocol.
“I am beyond their timid lying morality, and so I am beyond caring.” — a letter read by Willard from Kurtz.
What was the crime that Kurtz committed? It couldn’t have been murder: we just saw Kilgore rampage through civilians and everyone in between for no reason. It can’t be morality either: the film is full of questionable ethics. The only thing that separates Kurtz from his fellow interlopers is his willingness to go against protocol.
Hiding Behind Regulation.
There is a scene later in the film where Chief decides to investigate a civilian boat. It is protocol to search these boats for possible munitions that are being transported to the enemy. Willard thinks they should just continue on their mission. Chief refuses.
After pulling the boat over, Chef begins to search the containers. A woman moves too quickly when he approaches a certain barrel, so Mr. Clean (a very young Laurence Fishburne) guns down every person on the boat down. Chef finds out that she was hiding a puppy. There is one person still alive but wounded, and Chief wants to bring them on board to try and get them medical care. Willard shoots them dead.
How are we supposed to view this?
If you view it from a protocol point of view, Chief and Mr. Clean both did the “right” thing. Their mission is to investigate boats, and Mr. Clean acted with appropriate force when someone made a quick move. On the other hand, Willard killed a civilian in cold-blood.
But, what about the Kurtz view?
Chief, an invader of a foreign land, decides to initiate an interaction that didn’t need to happen. What right does he have to use the threat of force to search their property? Mr. Clean kills an entire boat of people, but only because someone moved quick? Then, with one person mortally wounded, they decide to show compassion then. Willard kills her to create expediency and get it over with; trying to do the right thing might actually cost more lives.
Who knows what’s right deep in the jungle.
What is Up is Down.
Finally meeting Kurtz is an electric experience. I was afraid that such a build up for someone would lead to a let down, but Marlon Brando plays it perfect. I’ve never seen someone act so….strange. Kurtz is completely unclassifiable and lives up perfectly to his billing as the antagonist in the movie.
Throughout the film, Willard becomes more and more like Kurtz — willing to do whatever to complete the mission. At first he is disgusted with his rouge target, but then begins to glorify him for his bone-crushingly rational set of morals. It’s hard to label him as crazy when you keep seeing how right he is.
The denouement of the film is very complicated with immense imagery and a layering of symbols. I’m not sure I could even appropriately describe my thoughts in relation to the rest of what I’ve written. What does occur is some victory of the human spirit, an escape from what looked like a choice between two pre-destined roads. Willard escapes, and he does so on his own terms.
What a ride.
I thought having to put these thoughts into concrete words would help me work through this film, but it only opened up more questions. There are so many scenes and interactions I left untouched that I wonder if I need to give this 3 hour movie another watch.
I commend Coppola; this is a masterpiece. Set at the perfect difficulty level, I’m still not ready to put it down. We all have Kurtz inside of ourselves, but thankfully we have Willard, too; we can forge our own path when needed.
Other People’s Takes:
- Coogs Review: “Apocalypse Now is an absolute masterpiece, a powerful look at the psychology of war and the dehumanising elements of it, alongside the hypocrisy inherent within war.”
- Escape into Reality: “One could watch this film for all the meanings that could be mined out of it. But its beauty transcends all those meanings.”
- Film Retrospective: “Apocalypse Now is the greatest war film ever in my opinion. It goes above and beyond on what a war film or even just what a film should do and the end product is quite something mesmerising.