Apocalypse Now - Possessive Incompetence

Thoughts On: Apocalypse Now (Redux)

In a short run up to an exploration of Spring Breakers I want to talk about a couple of 70s classics. I'll be looking at this and then Taxi Driver (possibly something else) for the purpose of looking in on how films can represent an era and the future of cinema. So, without further ado, this quintessential war picture follows Captain Willard through a descent into existential reprieve and postmodern suspension as he journeys up river with the mission to terminate the reportedly insane Colonel Kurtz.

A quick note to begin with, I'm most familiar with the extended (redux) version of this film, it's thematically richer (though a little more chaotic with it's tonal inconsistency), so that's the focus here, but it shouldn't impact much in the way of the film's overall message. If you look at all war films, you can almost always lump them into one of two categories. You have the anti-war films and the pro-war films. The likes of Deer Hunter, All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths Of Glory are quite obviously anti-war. Inglorious Bastards, The Dirty Dozen and even Saving Private Ryan, however, aren't explicitly anti-war. The horrors presented in them may not make war seem pretty, but their tone is quite patriotic and pro-war. Apocalypse Now is the best example of a war film that can't be so easily defined. This is because it doesn't question the need for war, but the need for possession, control and authority - the spoils of war. This film is about imperialism and a quest for perceived power. The best way to sum this film up is to say it's Saving Private Ryan with sense. I don't speak down on Saving Private Ryan here, but the film's philosophical conflict is only ever hinted at, and whilst I don't think the film suffers from that, it does lack the ability to question itself. Both Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan feature a team of men being sent on a mission, through hell, for what are, when questioned, almost pointless, blindly moral, purposes. As said, Saving Private Ryan merely accepts the absurdity as ordered. Apocalypse Now however has the philosophical conflict consume the film as it does the characters. For this reason, when I first saw Apocalypse Now, I felt a little let down. The opening to the film is some of the greatest spectacle and wonder cinema has ever produced, how Coppola conceived and managed such chaos is beyond my imagination. But, with the first 30 minutes the film seems to promise escalating danger and combat. What you come to expect is a huge war, battle or siege on Kurtz's camp in the third act, but that is far from what you get. That can make the philosophical pondering and reading of T.S Eliot quite anti-climactic and, especially to someone versed in war films only with the likes of Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, you're probably going to consider the final act quite pretentious and boring. I've seen Apocalypse Now many times and seeing the first half I could easily say it's the best war film ever made. With the second half however, it almost stops being a war film and so to compare it with others would be pointless.

The second half of this film is actually much more comparable to Aguirre, Wrath Of God, (no, not just because they're going up river) Eraserhead or Taxi Driver. The tone and questions Aguirre, Eraserhead and Taxi Driver hold and force their main characters to face much better give a picture of this film than Platoon, Deer Hunter and most other war films. When you reach the end of Apocalypse Now and try to remember where 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning' and Wagner came from, you could easily think of another film. This, especially with the extended version, is intentional as Willard is passing through the numerous circles of hell. You're not supposed to recognise where you are and where you came from when you get deep enough. As a  result this film is a perfect visualisation of the famous Nietzsche quote that I won't exhaust - the one with the void. But, before we get into all of that, we need to start off with what the film is about. Apocalypse now is predominantly about imperialism and it's concern with societies and individuals respectively. With imperialism being colonising and taking over land, this film questions the very core symbol of control people hold - countries. The conflict Kurtz and Willard face comes from being pushed to the very edge of human capacity. By knowing true horror, Kurtz finds clarity. The immaterial authority of the army completely falls away from him, as well as his perception of self. This is where we can see the film almost mocking us. The opening act mystifies, excites, enthralls, leaves me in awe, but it does not reveal horror. The best example of this can be seen in Jarhead with the men screening this very film and cheering as the bullets fly and napalm is dropped. War is so easily sensationalised and if cinema teaches us anything it's that we cannot know war's true horrors. Kurtz, in the heat of what we may see as fun is forced into an existential void. By seeing the atrocities of war, he comes to be able to see the complete ineptitude of the army and authority in general. Willard too goes through this with the utter chaos concerning the playmates, lack of C.Os, law, order, sense that bombards him as he trawls his way up the river.

In short, the snail slithering, sliding, along a straight razor blade's edge is humanity - the army and its conduct throughout the Vietnam war. The utter incompetence of the army and soldiers that this film reflects is best portrayed with the journey into the trenches. When we think of Vietnam war films, we think of greenery, thick jungle, ditches, open warfare on a hillside. When we think of World War I or II films we think of trenches, uniforms, control. Coppola's use of trenches in Apocalypse Now allows him to juxtapose his films with those of the 30s, 40s and 50s and also his generation with those previous. If we look at a key WWI film, Paths Of Glory, we can see the utter regiment and control armies were assumed to have. They have the control to do the absurd, the insane, and get away with it. Compare the brilliant tracking shots following Col. Dax through the trenches, men standing to direct attention as he passes them to Willard wandering, stumbling across equally lost soldiers who can only follow apparent orders blindly. War films used to be formations, uniforms and control, steeped in bullets and bombs. That's a world apart from the kind of warfare Coppola puts on screen. By doing this he defines his characters--not just war as a concept--with anarchy or a postmodern sense of loss. Essentially, there's the mindless teens who shouldn't be anywhere nears guns and then there's those who have been mentality tortured into being able to put up a facade of control. It's Kurtz's recognition of this disorder that gives him nightmares of the snail making it across a razor blade - he simply can't believe how the world is getting away with being so disorganised and ruthless. This idea of a relaxed society is what also, in part, defines the generations of the 60s and 70s. Think of 40s and 50s and you think of suits, ties and fedoras. Think of the 60s and 70s and you get crazy hair, huge open collars, and blinding colours. The western world obviously changed a lot in 60s as anyone who's taken a history class will be able to tell you a lot better than me. Coppola, using his characters, not just the situation of war, explores this era of postmodern questioning.

Postmodernity, in a very general sense, tries to accept the chaos of the world without trying to define it. With a postmodern mindset as supplied by having everything he knows contradicted by witnessing pure horror and a lack of control in governing bodies, Kurtz sees all people as people, no hierarchy. And in a world without a concept of organisation, it can't be hard to see yourself as a God. This is linked to the idea of grown up. In the same way we grow to see our parents as people and our perception of 'adult' shifts, Kurtz almost matures beyond the idea of authority. Generals, colonels and the army has been levelled out to a group of people who simply don't know what they're doing to him. Kurtz, the perfect soldier, sees himself as a step above the army in the same way a teacher of a class of 6 year olds would. If you collapse a school system, all society, around that teacher and her class, well... you can imagine the power trip she'd endure. In fact, this is exactly what Willard goes through by getting up the river. The men around him, the soldiers he meets, the organisation that commands them, all fall flat on their face, then laugh as they pick themselves up, caked in mud, looking pretty ridiculous. In short, Willard loses all respect, leaving the only person who he believes to be on his level to be Kurtz himself. But, upon meeting him, Willard learns that Kurtz is nothing more than human and that the authority he holds is over nothing more than the mindless and insane. I mean, his biggest follower is the hippy journalist and... yeah... that doesn't look good. So, Willard finds the power, the authority, to kill Kurtz and abandon society. But, one thing remains--and that is the army. Kurtz and Willard abandon the army, they do not rise above it. What they do is the equivalent of walking away from an argument with a stupid person because they know they can't win. However, 'stupid' is what beats Kurtz. The army wins in the end. Despite Kurtz's transcendental experiences, he loses sight of himself. In the end he wants to 'go out like a soldier'. When the void stares back at Kurtz he's probably left wishing he hadn't assumed the power he found for himself. This is the choice Willard faces in the end of the film. He has no respect for the army, has defeated his only equal and stands before an army willing to bow at his feet. But he walks away. He refuses to assume power.

What Apocalypse Now explores is the unfathomable concept of control. In truth, people don't have much. But that we see ourselves as having manifests itself through the idea of organisations--countries. Kurtz and Willard alike take journeys towards being able gather the capacity and power to become imperialists--to start their own countries. We never know, but had Kurtz been consumed completely by the control he finds for himself, he could have continued to take over villages, chunks of land, build a bigger and bigger army made up of more competent soldier's that would help him win the war, and, who knows? Take over the country. Kurtz as a dictator could be capable of unthinkable anarchy. But, is that spin off you're dreaming of right now in any way feasible? In any way realistic? Is there any plane of verisimilitude big enough to allow such a thing to happen? This is the question that halts Kurtz's operations, that makes Willard walk away. In short, humanity is that snail and it makes it's trip across the razor blade daily--no sweat. Credit given where credit due, humanity deserves a round of applause. The message Kurtz, that the film, wants to give to the world - Kurtz to his son - is that people can do no better than to be themselves. Kurtz doesn't kill Willard for the hope that he will tell his son his story--no lies, no fabrication. He doesn't believe he is bad, evil, corrupt, but that he's found clarity. And if you can stretch your mind into the realm of postmodernism you could easily agree with him. By seeing authority as nothing more than a figment of our imaginations we can sympathise with Willard's and Kurtz's struggle alike. They face what we daren't - the void. But, with clarity comes the idea that it will all end, not with a bang but a whimper. If you aren't familiar with T.S Eliot's Hollow Men, you can read it here if you like. But to summarise roughly, Eliot sees the heartless and empty men of the world, it's leaders--the faceless and nameless organisations--as inevitably doomed. Eliot's poem is aimed towards the likes of the Kurtz character as presented in Joseph Condrad's Heart Of Darkness (which the film was adapted from) and explains why he's mentioned in the epigraph. Eliot, with the Hollow Men, shows imperialists and those who claim the title of God, to be corrupted and the inevitable cause of the sorry end to humanity if they are allowed to keep their power. Eliot probably sees ultimate power in the hands of God himself (herself? itself?) and so sees imperialism as a form of heresy or blasphemy as one is comparing themself to Him/Her/It.

To offer an alternative explanation in the guise of a film that doesn't rely on religious themes, it seems that any leaders can be considered Hollow Men. The more power you take on, the more hollow, the less human, you become. In short, by seeing yourself as God, by assuming you have control, you dehumanise yourself. Humans, as a species are inevitably going to cease to be one day. The most likely cause to this is through the expense of all our resources and environment. I'm not going to make any specific speculations as to the end of humanity though, merely point out the fact that, by natural law, all species rise, peak and inadvertently kill themselves. Just look at bacteria or yeast cells. If you contain a small population in a sample with a good supply of nutrients, they'll use it, steadily, then rapidly increasing their population. All the while they'll respire, producing CO2 or other toxic byproducts. With population increase comes pollution and ultimately death. Humanity's petri dish is Earth and we could be on that steep slope toward peaking in population and starting to kill ourselves off with our self-pollution. Morbidity slightly to the side, to have control inside this doomed system is to assume responsibility for that end. Whether it's under a country, government, monarchy, dictator, someone's going to have to be the last person to whimper. By transcending authority Kurtz's and Willard see this future and they feel this weight of responsibility. This is why they hit self-destruct. A bang before a whimper, if you'll have it. Apocalypse Now, along with a few  other 70s masterpieces really pushed the bounds of cinema in a way that no one has managed since. I know when talking about Adventures In Babysitting I made contradictory statements concerning the power of cinema--and I in no way retract anything I said. But, what I mean here is that Apocalypse Now represents a type of thinking that is not present in the zeitgeist of today. Cinema peaked in the 70s in terms of postmodernism and existentialism and has very quickly immatured. But, that's a talk for another time and another film.

All in all, Apocalypse Now cites the weight of responsibility, the capacity for any man to see himself as God and reject authority, but ultimately shows that to try and rule the world, one must face the self-destruct button. What it communicates is the irrevocable chaos in 'organised' systems, and how if we think things should change, we should first ask ourselves if we could change them. In short, could you, the snail, make it to the end of the razor blade alive?

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