What to make of the whole movie?
That’s a tough one, and I’m going to punt. I’ve thought a great deal about The Whole Thing, but to pull off a discussion I’d have to ramp up the intellectual intensity to eleven or so. And I don’t have the energy for that, not on a warm summer night edging toward July.
So I’m just going to jot down some things I’ve been thinking about, some stray thoughts that needing rounding up and herding. But the herding will have to wait. Nor now, they’re strays.
Some Pretty Strange Stuff
Here’s a framing thought from Coppola’s commentary:
. . . this isn’t really a war film after all. This is something else. this is a journey into some kind of surreal weirdness, a journey into issues related to morality in modern time when we have the reach through our technology to amplify all of these evil instincts or negative instincts because ultimately we lie about what we’re doing. which was a central theme to Heart of Darkness.
So, though it takes place during war time and set in a war zone, it’s not really a war film. It’s “something else.” And that something else involves some “pretty same stuff,” as Coppola tells us about what happens beyond the Do Lung Bridge sequence:
If they were going to go on they were going to get into some pretty pretty strange stuff. And I, Francis, was gonna’ get into some pretty strange stuff, and I knew it. I wasn’t sure what that stuff was, but by this point the style of the movie, as happens on a project, you start the movie day one, you start shooting, and then together you discover things that you find interesting and then you say ‘Oh yeah, let’s do more of that, let’s do more of that. You know after 30 days you’ve kinda’ evolved the style.
Beyond the Godfather: Bring it on Home
In thinking about Apocalypse Now it’s useful to remind ourselves that, by this time, Coppola had made the first two Godfather films, films centered in a world outside The law. If there is a morality in that world, and there is, we can’t see it by noting fidelity to the law. We have to find it in people’s relationships with one another.
Apocalypse Now takes a different cut at the world, but morality’s still at issue. In the Godfather movies killing was an all but routine way of dealing with severe conflicts; it was also, of course, in contravention of the law. In Apocalypse Now killing was the core business, as it were, and it was explicitly authorized by the law. The story is about men assigned to kill other men, others defined as The Enemy.
We could argue, as I suggested at the end of my previous post, that the difference between our two lead killers, Willard and Kurtz, is that Kurtz went out on his own, cutting himself off from the authority of the USofA and constituting his own authority. Thus he fled to Cambodia and gathered his people, his “children” as The Photojournalist called them, around. Willard stayed tethered to the authority of the American state. That authority ordered him to kill Kurtz and he did so.
In this sense the movie is fundamentally conservative. The American state may be fighting an unjust and unnecessary war, and it may be fighting it incompetently (“The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away”), but Willard remains loyal to that state, and thereby, in effect, retains his sanity.
Yet, is that REALLY why he killed Kurtz? And if not for that reason, what reason? Once they’d crossed into Cambodia, was Willard really operating under the color of American authority? Or was he on his own?
That’s a tough one. If he really was on his own, then why didn’t he go nuts, like Kurtz? And if he wasn’t on his own, well, then what is there? A divine force? Despite all the commentary about myth and renewal . . . there’s no evidence within the film of a supernatural order. Coppola may have been giving us a myth, but he isn’t justifying the myth through supernatural reference.
Maybe he killed Kurtz to revenge Chef’s death. Maybe. But that’s a dangerous motive. Maybe he did it for Lance, so he could lead Lance away from that hell-hole and back to home. That’s beginning to make sense.
At one point in the commentary, near the end, Coppola referred to Lance as a “young innocent.” After he’d killed the King (Kurtz), Willard leads the innocent back to safety.
In myth logic.
Lance is the golden boy surfer. He never left California; but he was never there. He’s the hippie flower child who trips in the middle of the war: “Oh wow!” Nothing sticks to him. He goes with the flow. And when Kurtz directed the flow, Lance went with it.
And so Willard saves him. Out of loyalty? For what?
Civilization and Its Discontents
There’s the sacrifice of the water buffalo at the end.
How’s that advance the plot?
What plot? It doesn’t follow from anything in the Willard / Kurtz story nor is it preparatory to anything in the Willard / Kurtz story. It happens along side it.
And it is necessary, Coppola believes, to a satisfactory ending.
To signal that the killing of Kurtz is a sacrificial act?
That is, if it didn’t happen, we wouldn’t get the idea?
And perhaps the villagers wouldn’t have been ready to accept Willard as their new leader if they hadn’t also sacrificed the caribao.
Now that’s interesting. Perhaps, in myth logic, that is so. Perhaps. And perhaps they wouldn’t have been willing to lay down their weapons. In myth logic.
We’re getting warm.
Then there’s Kurtz. He’s ordered many men killed, in the military and on his own.
He killed Chef. Blood on his hands. Paint on his face.
And then he recites TS freakin’ Eliot. How’s THAT play against the water buffalo sacrifice?
Myth logic, myth logic. That’s how.
* * * * *
Earlier posts about Apocalypse Now: