Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ritual in Apocalypse Now

This is one of a number of old posts on Apocalypse Now (which I've listed at the end of the post). I've collected them into a single downloadable PDF: Apocalypse Now: Working Papers.
Now that I’ve come to terms with the film’s ending, I’ve seen a pattern in Apocalypse Now that’s been staring me in the face the whole time. The pattern is that of a rite of passage as described by Arnold van Gennep and Emile Durkheim. The final sacrifice of the caribao is part of this pattern, but only part. The pattern, in fact, governs the whole film.

First, let’s consider ritual pattern (using prose I’ve lifted from one of my essays on Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues). Then we can follow it through Apocalypse Now and conclude, symmetrically, with more prose lifted from that Sita essay.

Ritual Pattern

The pattern I have in mind are an abstraction from structures anthropologists have found in rituals around the world. Here’s how I characterized that structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (find downloadable PDF here):
In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim's “states of the moral person.” They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage. The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms.
As a simple example, consider the bride’s role in the now standard Christian wedding ceremony, a ceremony in which she will loose the surname she was born with and assume her husband’s surname, thereby changing her social identity. She enters the church with a veil over her face. She is thus faceless; symbolically, she has no social identity and is now separated from the secular world. Accompanied by her father, she walks to the altar where she is met by the groom; she is in a transitional state. She and the groom exchange vows and the priest pronounces them to be married. Now that she has her new social identity, and a new name, the veil can be lifted and the new woman can be incorporated into society in that new identity.

This ritual is a relatively short, but anthropologists have recorded rituals that last for hours and days and even longer. Adolescent initiation rites, for example, can last for months. There is an initial rite of separation where the young men, shall we say, are stripped on their ordinary identity. They may have to wear special dress and have special markings on their bodies. They may be given a different name as well. Once they have thus been separated from society, they’ll go live in some other place reserved for them and they’ll be taught things needful to be an adult man in their society. This process can easily last several months and may involve arduous physical tasks or a vision quest. During this period their friends and family may well treat them as being dead, which they are, socially. They are in transition, without an identity in their society. Once the proper things have been done another ceremony will be performed and the young men will be given new names, perhaps new body make-up, and will be incorporated into society as adults.

What’s important about the ritual pattern is not how elaborate it is, or how long it takes for the full ritual to run to completion. What’s important is the pattern itself: separation, transition, and incorporation. That’s the pattern we’re going to look for in Apocalypse Now.

Cambodian Transit

The ritual pattern we’re looking for isn’t presented as such in the film. To be sure, the caribao sacrifice is presented as a ritual, but, as I’ve indicated above, it’s only part of the ritual pattern. Rather, we must, in the time-honored fashion of literary and film critics, interpret events in the film as though they were ritual events.

In the interpretation I am proposing the sampan massacre scene marks the separation ritual and the combination of the Willard’s assassination of Kurtz and the caribao sacrifice mark the incorporation ritual. The period in between is one of transition, or liminality as it is often called.

The sampan massacre is the first time we see Willard and crew actively involved in killing. We know that Willard has killed before, at least six people, he informs us in voiceover. We don’t know about any of the others, but none of them seem like gung-ho military types, though the Chief is very much by-the-book. The killing was accidental and unnecessary, but now they’re in it.

Further, this is the point in the film where Willard and the Chief come actively into conflict. There’d been tension between them before, but now tension flares into conflict. Willard has his mission and his orders, but they are secret. The Chief and his crew don’t know where they’re going or why.

When the Chief stops the sampan and orders a search he was simply following standard practice. Willard orders him to continue, but he contravenes Willard. Disaster. When, again, the Chief orders Chef to bring wounded woman aboard so they could take her to medical help, he’s simply following procedure. Now Willard contravenes him by shooting the woman.

The secret mission has now taken over. We’re now in no man’s land. This sequence is followed by the Do Lung bridge sequence. Once they’ve gone beyond the bridge they’re out of Vietnam and into Cambodia, where, officially, they cannot be. Lance is on acid and Willard’s mistaken for a commanding officer. Nothing makes sense in this world. As Coppola said in his commentary, “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.”

Three men are killed, Clean, the Chief, and Chef. Clean and the Chief were killed by faceless warriors firing guns (Clean) or tossing spears (the Chief) from the shore, while Chef was decapitated by Kurtz. We meet, however briefly, an officer, Capt. Colby, who’d been sent to kill Kurtz but who had become on of his “children.” Lance becomes immersed in his own imaginative reconstruction of the world, wearing face paint, an arrow rig on his head, and, in time, he too became one of Kurtz’s children. Willard did not become one of Kurtz’s children, but he did become his prisoner, spending time in a cage; thus signifying that he was under Kurtz’s control. Kurtz let him out of the cage and brought him into the inner sanctum of Kurtz’s compound where he became Kurtz’s confidant.

Coppola thought of this section as a regression into the deep historical past. Whatever. The point is simply that this is a very different world from even that of Vietnam from Saigon up the river to the sampan massacre. This is a liminal world, and a world beyond the scope of the US military.

The killing of Kurtz taken together with the caribao sacrifice then becomes an incorporation ritual. Lance participates in one; Willard in the other. When Willard appears before the villagers they bow down before him and lay down their weapons, as he’d himself done with his machete. Willard has now become incorporated into this jungle society in a new status, that of its leader, replacing Kurtz.

Of course, he doesn’t stay there in that capacity. Rather, he takes Lance by the hand, leads him back to the boat, and they shove off, unimpeded by the villagers. Coppola has thus indulged in a little flim-flammery. The society into which Willard is newly accepted is not the one he left when he took the boat beyond the Do Lung bridge. The society from which they’d departed, we see nothing of that at the end. We can only assume that Lance and Willard go back to Saigon and . . . and live happily ever after?

From the beginning of the film up through the sampan massacre events take place under the aegis of US military authority. That defines the secular world of the ritual process. Once into Cambodia that authority ceases – though Willard is still, nominally, following orders. As the Chief tells him when they depart from the Do Lung bridge, “You’re on your own.” Now Willard, and the others as well, is in a marginal world, a liminal zone. Three die, while two of them undergo a rite of incorporation, allowing to return once again to the secular world.

Ritual for Us, in Us

What matters ultimately, of course, is what happens in the minds of the audience, for the characters on the screen aren’t real. That’s where the real ritual is, in us. About that we know, alas, very little.

I note, however – and here I’m cribbing some more prose from that Sita essay – we could see the experience of watching Apocalypse Now as itself a ritual experience, especially if one sees it in a theatre, preferably an old-time movie palace. Here you go to a building purpose built for movie watching, and you meet other people there who have come for the same thing you did: to watch Apocalypse Now. Once you’ve entered the building you’ve separated yourself from the mundane world and begun the transition to the magical world of Movieland. First you buy your ticket (that is, make an offering to the gods); then, perhaps, you buy some popcorn and a soda, whatever. You may hang out in the lobby a bit while chatting with your friends, whatever. But, when the time comes, you enter the theatre proper, take a seat, and watch the movie. You are now in a transition zone; your mind has withdrawn its attention from the mundane world and is given over to consuming the flickering images on the screen and the sounds coming from the speakers. This goes on for 90, 100, 120 minutes or more, and then you exit the theatre and become, once again, incorporated into mundane life. If the movie was a good one, you will be in a different mood from when you went in; you will have been transformed, you’ll stand a little straighter, you walk will be a bit firmer, if only for a few hours.

And so we have a ritual sequence – Saigon to sampan massacre, Cambodian transit, double-sacrifice to back on the river – within another ritual structure – home or wherever to lobby, the film in the theater proper, lobby back to home. The questions we must now ask, if not even attempt an answer, are: How is it that we, each of us in our own hearts and minds, enact the film? How do we take those sights and sounds into our selves so that, as they inhabit us, we inhabit them?

And, once that has happened, what is it in us that breaks during the killing of the people on the sampan? What becomes stilled when Willard shoots the woman? And so on through a series of further questions, which you may formulate for yourself, or not. As you please.

We don’t know how to answer those questions, not in any deep way. But, at least, we can analyze and describe the film that provokes them.


For what it’s worth, I note that two scenes critical to the ritual sequence, the sampan mascre, and the final sacrifice, weren’t in the original script. They were added in the process of shooting the film. These two scenes frame the transitional phase as, respectively, the rite of separation and the rite of incorporation; as such, there could be no ritual structure without them.

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Earlier posts about Apocalypse Now:


  1. Made me think of "díberg" (ritual brigandage)

    Richard Sharpe wrote a very nice introduction on the satellites diaboli (men of evil) some years ago that kicked of further research.

    ‘Hiberno-Latin laicus, Irish láech, and the devil’s men’, Ériu 30 (1979), 75–92.

  2. I always found myself uncomfortable with the rites of passage. A sort of can't live with it can't live without it.

    I studied history alongside ethnology. Its descriptive use in ethnology always left me with the feeling that it had a tendency to present things in a rather a rigid frame that when you did the contextual detail seemed far more fluid.

    I used history to 'defamiliarize' the concept.

    Term used in 20th century poetics. Not familiar with the subject, on first glance it looks potentially useful to a degree. If only to look at the subject in an unfamiliar way, some slight initial overlap at least.