Apocalypse Now: Horrors of a Heart of Darkness

Paul Fischer
1.24.2015
Felicia Kornbluh


Apocalypse Now: Horrors of a Heart of Darkness


Apocalypse Now opens to destruction in the jungle of Vietnam, as Jim Morrison’s smooth definitive psychedelic rock song The End plays, a Captain Willard’s smoking head and torso are superimposed, letters are strewn on the nightstand, but sleeping now the soldier has disappeared into a haze of smoke and Cordon Bleu. The soft beating of a helicopter transitions to the fan in a squalid apartment with cheap blinds..
“Saigon. Shit.” This soldier dreams of the jungle, of returning to the pain he left behind. Director Francis Coppola is put in a dirty place between anti-war sentiment that can guarantee this film popularity, and the squelching  necessity to portray the US Army in a positive light. He does neither. But this is done brilliantly. The story is based on Heart of Darkness, and the struggle to find God in war is one that resonates with the violence and prejudice of that novel. Yet the mission is not to carry out this violence, but to stem the violence. In a special operations assignment a bloodthirsty American colonel must be terminated. The captain is accustomed to death, “but this time, it was an American, and an officer.”
The target, Kurtz, represents an American dream, and this is used to bring the film home to every American. Regardless of whether they are accomplished or flunky hippies, everyone has had a moment of desire to be this man. Watching the betrayal of the American dream is as captivating as it is intriguing.  The absurdity of an expensive flame-throwing tank being utilized against a village is emblematic of the entire war for American viewers. A bombed church shows the destruction of values too many Americans identify with themselves.
The war was presented as finished, won. Yet the soldiers cannot leave their boat. The countryside crawls with Vietcong. Even on the patrol boat, riverside attacks occur, and the soldiers are helpless, inadequate or improper firearms and little shielding give them virtually no choice but to simply speed onwards, deeper, losing a crew member in the process. Suspicion is a dominant theme in this film, a paranoia looms large. Deeper in the jungle, the remnants of a post-apocalyptic war machine lie in ruin. Yet apocalypse in a temporal or legitimate sense cannot come quickly enough for the soldiers.
By showing a soldier burning alive, as chopper machine guns mow down villagers, the film depicts the horror of war. It is hard to believe that these are the same that were just shortly before seventeen year old surfers. Captain Willard cannot imagine how Colonel Kurtz can be fighting a worse war than that already sanctioned by the US Military. Soldiers and officers alike consider the Vietnamese to be natives, with only nominal respect shown for the dead and wounded. Then the Captain executes an innocent civilian. The viewer is in shock. Good and bad are wrenched in the same way the American at home was betrayed with the announcement of My Lai and illegal incursions into Cambodia.
As the war had been a sick carnival, the soundtrack and cinematography collide corrosively. Soldiers smoke marijuana, officers drink. tripping on acid, they are welcomed to the “asshole of the world.” As they arrive to the colonel, the barbarity of the actions of the soldiers he defends with the barbarity of the land he has come to. Seeing the heart of Cambodia, corrupted like this golden child of America, who now sees violence as a genius, the viewer is brought into the heart of darkness. The apocalypse now written on Kurtz’s temple is a call to arms, but one that the viewer will never answer. The jungle and quiet crickets isolate the evil completely. We can only look on with horror.
The end of the river comes as the end of the war. Awaiting an airstrike, the Captain confronts this mad, evil genius. “It smelled like slow death” and in the center, was this man’s lair. Without a timeline the entire film, urgency suddenly becomes paramount. Complete the mission and return to the boat by 2200 hours, or everyone will become engulfed in the flames of napalm. The Colonel’s slow words betray this urgency, his psychopathic nature, already aware of the Captain’s intent to terminate his command.
“He dies when it dies,” the words of the Colonel’s brainwashed civilian photojournalist indicate the paralysis and uselessness of the situation. A prisoner now, the Captain wakes up with the head of a soldier in his lap. He breaks down into tears. The Colonel lullabies him with read poetry. With the behavioural instincts and natural barbarity of a cat, Colonel Kurtz eats raw garlic as he quotes Heart of Darkness, “I’ve seen horrors, horrors you have never seen… you have no right to judge me.” He has been gripped by the barbarity of the villagers and war alike. As the film begins, it ends, Jim Morrison sings, and the Captain mows Kurtz down with savage justice, in war paint his machete against the red of fire like the sword of Gabriel. The Colonel’s last words: “The horror. The horror.”

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