Apocalypse Now doesn’t work in the conventional story-telling way. It has little plot to speak of:
Willard gets orders to kill Kurtz; he travels up-river to Kurtz’s compound; he kills Kurtz. Things happen along the way.
That’s it. More or less. Sorta.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking the movie doesn’t have a tight structure. You don’t shoot one-and-half million feet of film, 280 hours worth, edit it down to 2 and a half hours — which is a really fierce cutting ratio — and come out with formless mush. Not if you’ve got half a brain and people with skilz.
Coppola had a full-brain head and people with mad skilz. The film has structure. Just not conventional structure.
So we’re going to have to do a bit of work to figure out what the structure is. And even then we’re only going to make a good guess, because these things are not well-understood. We don’t have the concepts or vocabulary needed to do the job.
Still, you have to start somewhere. And we’re going to start in the most pedestrian way possible, by listing the ‘chapters’ on the DVD and commenting on them. I’m not going for anything deep here. I just want to get a crude sense of how the film lays out over time, crude, but better than I can do by simply thinking it over.
Not counting the end credits, the film has been broken into 19 chapters – I’m talking about Apocalypse Now, not the Redux version, which is longer. I’ve listed them in order, using the names assigned to them, and then made a brief comment indicating what happens in the segment. I’ve also grouped them into five large-scale movements; I won’t call them acts, because that’s not what they are. I’ve done this mostly on an intuitive basis and on general principle, that there should be these larger-scale movements. That general principle may well be wrong. So I wouldn’t invest too much in these movements. But I find them convenient.
1. GETTING ORDERS
That’s it; Capt. Willard gets the order to assassinate Kurtz and meets the crew that’ll take him up-river to Kurtz’s compound in Cambodia. What kind of movie spends so much time in which very little happens? Not an action adventure flick.
Waiting in Saigon: The first seven and a half minutes is a montage in which Willard wakes up from a drunk. I’ll analyze this in a later post. In his commentary Coppola says this tells us about Willard’s character, which it does. Then MPs stick him in the shower to wake him up.
Intelligence Compound: We learn of Kurtz as Willard does, sitting around the lunch table with three sly and powerful men. They put roast beef and spicy shrimp on their lunch plates while listening to a recording in which Kurtz talks about snails walking along the edge of a straight razor. No one says anything explicit about killing Kurtz. Rather, Willard’s to “terminate the colonel’s command . . . with extreme prejudice.” Willard agrees the Kurtz is insane.
Willard Meets PBR Crew: Chief Phillips appears to be career military and runs a tight boat (PBR: Patrol Boat, River). The other three crewman are conscripts – “rock and rollers with one foot in their graves.” Chef is from New Orleans and is a chef. Lance is a surfer and acid head from Southern California. Clean is a kid from the South Bronx. Willard opens Kurtz’s dossier (“. . . . I couldn’t believe they wanted this man dead . . . “) while Clean boogies to the Stones and Lance water skies.
2. COWBOYS AT WAR
Depending on how you score it, this incident is borderline satire or satire proper. Colonel Kilgore struts around in a black cowboy hat and yellow bandana, looking for good waves to surf.
Search and Destroy: Willard, Chief and crew come ashore while Kilgore is mopping up. They pass a TV crew filming the action. The head of the crew (a Coppola cameo) urges them to keep on going, not to watch the camera crew. Kilgore places “death cards” on dead bodies, cards telling “Charlie” who did this.
Beach Party: Steaks around the campfire at night. Kilgore’s sitting on the ground, leaning back, and strumming his guitar. Willard’s voiceover: “They choppered in the T-bones and the beer and turned the LZ [landing zone?] into a beach party. The more they tried to make everything just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” And that seems to be what this whole movement is about, imposing American tropes and meanings on Vietnam. Except for Wagner; what’s American about that?
Helicopter Attack: This may be the best known scene in the movie: helicopter gunships coming on for the attack with “Ride of the Valkyrie” blaring on the loudspeakers, “scares the hell outa’ the slopes. My guys love it.” Watching the carnage below, Kilgore: “I want my wounded outa’ there to the hospital in 15 minutes. I want my men out.”
Kilgore Goes Surfing: As the helicopters come in to land, Kilgore’s admiring the surf with Lance. Later, after he’s landed, to one of his own men: “You either surf, or fight. Is that clear?” And so they surf. “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach.” Then we have the big napalm run, flames across the screen. And the best-known line from the film: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
3. ENGAGE THE ENEMY
For the first time in the film – perhaps the first time ever – the PBR crew engages the enemy. But not for Kurtz. We know, from earlier voiceover, that he’s killed at least six.
The Tiger in the Jungle: Willard voice over: “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone.” Chef gets off the boat to hunt for mangoes; Willard accompanies him. They’re attacked by a Tiger. See this post for a discussion of this scene.
Entertaining the Boys: USO show on the river, at night. Refuel with diesel fuel and Panama Red. Then it’s off to the show, bright lights, and hot chicks, Playboy bunnies no less – “Suzy Q.” The crowd gets out of hand and rushes the stage. The bunnies are loaded back into the chopper and it lifts off, trailing GIs from the landing skids. Voiceover: “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug-in too deep, or moving too fast. His idea of RnR was cold rice and a little rat meat.” As they continue upriver they’re buzzed by their own guys in another boat, who set their canopy on fire.
Kurtz Dossier: Willard reads through Kurtz’s dossier while Clean beats drumsticks on boat superstructure. “Kurtz orders the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one woman. Two of the men were colonels in the South Vietnamese army.” Afterward, enemy activies in Kurtz’s sector dropped to zero. Flashback to Willard’s original briefing. Willard: “How long’s that kid been on this boat?” Chief: “Seven months.” W: “He’s really specializing my balls.” Willard tells the Chief that they’re going into Cambodia. This mission doesn’t exist. A letter from Kurtz to his son: “My situation here has become a difficult one. I have been officially accused of murder by the Army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. . . . The charges are unjustified.” Lance puts on make-up. The crew’s on edge, tempers flare.
Sampan Massacre: The boat comes upon a sampan. The Chief orders Chef to inspect the boat. Chef resists, but finally goes. Nothing. A woman moves (we learn later, to protect a puppy). Clean opens fire on the sampan. Massacre. The woman’s still (just barely) alive. Chief orders the crew to bring her aboard so they can take her for medical attention. Willard asserts the priority of his mission and shoots her.
Lance takes the puppy with them.
This scene ends just over half-way through the film – an hour and 20 minutes in to a film that runs two and a half hours. Dramatically, this is the half-way point. I’ll examine this scene in a later post.
In his commentary Coppola remarks that, at this point, we loose touch with reality. From this point on we’re going back in time, ultimately thousands of years to human prehistory.
[And, as a practical matter, just to get through this post, I’m going to shorten my comments. Maybe I’ll flesh them out later. Maybe.]
Do Lung Bridge: The last occupied point on the river. It’s night, light, smoke. Lance is on acid. There’s a firefight going on, as there is every night. Roach launches a grenade into the night and kills a Vietnamese sniper. There’s no commander here. They pick up mail for the boat and continue on.
Mr. Clean’s Death: The crew reads letters from home. Lance compares the Vietnam to Disneyland. Willard learns that, six months before, Capt. Colby had been sent to kill Kurtz. He joined him instead. Clean listens to a tape from his month. They attacked from the forest by people unseen. They return fire, wildly. Clean is killed. Lance looks for the puppy.
Arrow Attack: Fog, thick white fog. Arrows come in. Lance breaks one, makes his “arrow through the head” rig. The Chief is speared through the chest. Lance prepares the body and floats it down the river. The continue on. Strange scenes of desolation along the shore. Willard tosses the dossier overboard, piece by piece.
Finally, the remaining three, Chef, Lance, and Willard reach Kurtz’s compound. End of journey.
Kurtz Compound: The move through ranks of canoes and make shore where they’re greeted by a photo-journalist who’s attached himself to Kurtz as an acolyte. Death all over; dead bodies hanging from trees. Severed heads on the ground. They see Capt. Colby, gone Kurtz. Kurtz is revered as a demi-god. Chef returns to the boat.
Interrogation: Rain. Lance and Willard go to find Kurtz. W voiceover: “... the place was full of bodies, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Cambodians. If I was still alive, it was because he wanted it that way.” Willard’s taken prisoner, Lance not. He just watches, smiling. Willard’s taken to Kurtz. Kurtz: “Are you an assassin?” W: “I’m a soldier.” K: “You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”
Chef Decapitated: Rain. Chef radios to call-in an air strike. Kurtz comes to Willard, who’s outdoors in a bird cage. Dumps Chef’s head in his lap. Next day Willard’s taken indoors to be with Kurtz. They talk. For days. Willard’s free, but he’s not going anywhere.
Caribao Sacrifice: K: “. . . I worry that my son, might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And, if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything.” Willard, who’s been on the boat, goes into the water, comes out, blacked up, and kills Kurtz with a machete while the villagers sacrifice a caribao (water buffalol). I’ve already written a post about this double act.
Ending: Kurtz emerges from the building. Starts down the steps toward the villagers, who kneel down before him. He tosses his machete away. The villagers drop their weapons in response. He finds Lance, takes him by the hand, and leads him back to the boat. They leave.
That, more or less, is a summary of what’s there. As for the logic behind it all, that’s a different matter. I’ll leave that for later posts. I will note two things here and now:
1. The opening montage prefigures the end, including shots from the scene where Willard kills Kurtz.
2. There’s a contrast to be felt between the sampan massacre that ends the first half and the double killing that ends the film.
That second point quite convinces me that, while Coppola may not have known what he was doing, going forward. In hindsight, yes, he knew. He knew how to get there.