When I’d made my last post I thought I was done with Apocalypse Now. I was wrong. I received a bit of listserve email about the convention of the king’s two bodies, and thinking about that – it happened quickly – allowed me to reconfigure my sense of the film’s ending. The king, of course, is Kurtz / Willard. As for the two bodies, one of them dies, ostensibly Kurtz, but the other does not. But that other body is not Willard, not exactly. That’s where we must deal in myth logic: The King is dead. Long Live the King!
That’s where I start, with Coppola’s reconfiguring that bit of myth machinery. Then it’s back to lance logic and on to home and hearth, then, once more, the sacrifice. I conclude by asking whether or not the film stands up to the objections I raised in my first post in this series.
Good King, Bad King
Let’s start with Dan Philpott’s account of the trope of the king’s two bodies in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philososphy:
In his classic, The King's Two Bodies (1957), medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz describes a profound transformation in the concept of political authority over the course of the Middle Ages. The change began when the concept of the body of Christ evolved into a notion of two bodies — one, the corpus naturale, the consecrated host on the altar, the other, the corpus mysticum, the social body of the church with its attendant administrative structure. . . . Whereas the king's natural, mortal body would pass away with his death, he was also thought to have an enduring, supernatural one that could not be destroyed, even by assassination, for it represented the mystical dignity and justice of the body politic. The modern polity that emerged dominant in early modern Europe manifested the qualities of the collectivity that Kantorowicz described — a single, unified one, confined within territorial borders, possessing a single set of interests, ruled by an authority that was bundled into a single entity and held supremacy in advancing the interests of the polity.
The trope of the king’s two bodies, then, is about the fiction of an artificial person, the state, that persists beyond the life of any one head of state. As such it is indifferent to the question of whether or not a king is good or bad. It’s not about the existing ruler at all, it’s about this artificial being that persists through and from one ruler to the next. It is a doctrine of continuity.
But Coppola very much IS concerned about the difference between a GOOD king and a BAD one. For in his reworking of the doctrine, Kurtz is a bad king, while Willard is a good one. But the state, of course, is continuous from one to the next. That state can only be the United States of America. Both men are commissioned officers in the American Army. They are employed by the state and they come to represent it in Apocalypse Now. Kurtz is a figure for the rogue state that got into the War in Vietnam and Willard is a figure for the pragmatic state that got out.
Something like that.
In this reading it is important that both men be disillusioned. But Kurtz descends from disillusion into madness and continues to fight on, creating a society about himself, his children. Willard keeps his disillusionment front and center, but does follow orders, even if those orders were issued by four-star clowns, as he called them.
More Lance Logic
And he brings his last man back alive. That man is Lance, the acid-head surfer. Lance is the anti-heroic foil for everything that happens in Vietnam. That he is a surfer is not at all incidental to his role in them it. On the contrary, it is central.
He is the golden-haired nature boy extolled in surfer rock and all those cheesy SoCal beach movies. And he is admired by Col. Kilgore, the crazy chopper jockey who embodies a gung-ho military mentality that is as ultimately crazy as it is attractive. Kilgore works very hard at fighting the war as though it were sheer physical adventure and skill, like surfing. Hence the music (though not exactly surfer style) for the chopper attack. It’s a mentality that works hard at being oblivious to the killing. But, if the defenses should falter, as they did for Kurtz, then madness follows.
And Lance is, in effect, assimilated to Kilgore’s psychological defenses. Willard’s mission, orders and all, didn’t attract Kilgore’s attention until he’d learned that there was a star surfer on his team and that there were good waves at the point where Willard needed to be. Now he had a reason to help Willard, a reason having nothing to do with orders and the chain of command. As long as he could frame – to use a current term – the attack as surfer support, the mission was an attractive one because he could undertake it without, in effect, leaving home. Because home is surfin’ USA.
Crazy, yes? no? But as long as the defense holds . . .
Home on the Range
For Kurtz, his defense, whatever it was, snapped. But he was still very much concerned about home, for that is where his son was. And he wanted Willard to be sure that his son learned the truth about him. It’s telling that Dennis Hopper’s Photojournalist character referred to Kurtz’s followers as his children, which they were, in the logic of myth. That’s symbolic, mythic, but it’s also how real small-scale societies conceptualize the relationship between ruler and subjects. Heck, it’s how Elizabeth I of England referred to her subjects when explaining why she should not marry: “... every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks, of whom, so long as I am not deprived and God shall preserve me, you cannot charge me, without offense, to be destitute.”
Could we venture to assert that what pushed Kurtz over the edge was the attempt to reconcile war and home? Kilgore put a raft of technology between himself and the war and so was able to maintain a home fiction of campfire bonhomie in the evening and surfing in the morning. Kurtz had to face the killing, and so could no longer believe himself at home. Instead, he snapped and tried desperately create a home around himself in Cambodia, beyond the jurisdiction of the state that took him from his home, and his son.
For Willard, though, there is no home. We learn that in the opening montage:
Saigon . . . shit! . . . I’m still only in Saigon . . . [takes a swig] . . . Every time I think I’m going to wake up, back in the jungle. . . . When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. . . . I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce. When I was hear I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.
And that montage is framed by a suicide anthem by The Doors, a Southern California band that’s very different from the Beach Boys. He had no wife, no son, and no fetish about surfing on golden beaches.
He was thus perfect for the mission. He wasn’t going to be distracted by trying to pretend that it was something it wasn’t. And so he succeeded, though as much on his own terms as on the military’s. And his success was not only in killing Kurtz, but taking Lance out of Kurtz’s compound, alive. Lance, like Kurtz, but unlike Kilgore, had finally snapped under the tension of trying to remain himself, that is, to remain home, and trying to fight a hellish war. He went over to Kurtz’s side, became one of his children. And when the old king / father was killed, he followed the new king / father.
We presume that they made it out of the jungle alive, though the film doesn’t show that. For that is what the myth requires. The myth requires that we see Willard as a figure for the state, and surfer acid-head Lance as a figure for the citizenry and thus, for us, the audience. Just what America is it in which Lance is typical?
You Can’t Fight a War from Home
Do I believe all that? Yes, at least in potentia. It requires more conceptual apparatus and a bit more detail in the exposition, especially about Kurtz’s thoughts as revealed in his dossier and his comments to Willard. But I think it can be made to work, and to work well.
What needs conceptual work is the distinction between home and war and how the tension between the two can lead to madness. That’s about the inner structure of the self and its relation to the social group and to such abstract things as nations. That’s a lot and I’m not going to even attempt it here. But I will note three further details that are consistent with this pattern. And then, once more, I’ll take up the matter of the final sacrifice.
One, in his commentary Coppola talks about how Frederic Forrest, who played Chef, was having trouble getting his part. He had dinner with him where they discussed the problem:
“I don’t know Francis, I’m just not here. I’m not here; I’m somewhere else. I’m walking down the street in Beverley Hills with my girlfriend and I’m gonna’ go in and get a Coke and a hamburger.” And I said to him, “Freddie, that’s your character. Just keep thinkin’ that; just keep thinkin’ I’m not here. I’m not really here.” And he began to do that and that led to him ultimately discovering who he was.
So, we have an actor who built his character on the tension between being physically in Vietnam and psychologically at home. And this is one of the characters who didn’t make it out alive. More myth logic.
Clean is another of those characters who didn’t make it out alive. He was killed while listening to a tape his mother had sent him, from home, naturally. Clean was played by Laurence Fishburn. It was his real mother who recorded that tape. More myth logic, not to mention in-the-process improvisation.
Finally, there’s a sequence that was included in Apocalypse Now, Redux, but not in the original release. After Clean’s death, Willard and the rest come upon some expatriate French living on their rubber plantation. This IS their home, and it’s become a war zone. That’s where Clean is buried, and that’s where Willard has a pipe of opium and a romantic interlude with a young woman who’d lost her husband.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King!
And so we return, once again, to the double sacrifice that ends the film, the ending that allowed Coppola to convince himself that, yes, he had a complete, a viable, film.
Let us first note that Willard’s killing of Kurtz is a close killing, and intimate one. Willard doesn’t come upon some stranger in the jungle, identify him as Kurtz, and bang! kill him with a quick head shot without so much as “hello, how are ya, I’m gonna’ shoot you now.” No Willard lives with Kurtz in his compound for some undefined period of time, first as his prisoner, then as, well, his confidant. Willard comes to know this man he’s been ordered to kill, and Kurtz knows why Willard is here. Whatever this act is, it is not cold and distant, though it IS impersonal in the way that words spoken between actors in a drama are impersonal. At the same time, Lance has joined Kurtz’s ‘children.’ It’s almost as though Willard too could become part of the family.
But, of course, he doesn’t. Not even Kurtz wants that. As Willard’s preparing to leave the boat and do the killing, this is what we hear on the voiceover:
They were gonna’ make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their fuckin’ army any more. Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was out there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up. Not like some poor wasted rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from, anyway.
And so the double-sacrifice begins First we see Kurtz backlit in a doorway and a water buffalo descend the steps in front of him:
I don’t know whether that’s the buffalo that was actually sacrificed, but, for all practical purposes, it is. That shot establishes a connection between Kurtz’s (massive) body and the buffalo. It’s as though, in this myth-logical act, the water buffalo is a stand-in for the king’s mortal body, the one that dies.
We see that Kurtz / buffalo shot while Kurtz is asking Willard to tell his son the truth about his actions: “. . . 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.” The body will die, but the story, the word, survives it, assuming that Willard actually tells the tale (as he does so in the movie).
We never actually see Kurtz getting hacked to death. We see Willard take broad machete swings into the dark, where we can only assume they connect with Kurtz’s flesh. We see Kurtz wheel and fall in silhouette, and we see blood on his face and neck, but only briefly.
By contrast, the film, of course, is quite graphic about depicting the buffalo's sacrific, with a large cut through the neck and into the upper chest open to our view.
As the double action moves forward we see that Lance, like the rest of Kurtz’s children, is participating in the buffalo sacrifice. Here he is playing with some young children:
And here he is anointing the buffalo that’s about to be killed:
He is no mere spectator, he’s actively participating in this killing. And that – pending the use of proper conceptual machinery – gives these events an aura of parricide. As Kurtz and the buffalo are one, to kill the buffalo is to kill Kurtz. As Kurtz’s people are his children, and lance is one of them, it follows that, in (participating in the) killing the buffalo, he is killing his father. Yet that killing isn’t personal, individual, it’s collective.
And, in a sense, Willard’s killing of Kurtz is collective as well. Yes, he may have separated himself from the army, in his mind, but they haven’t kicked him out, otherwise they wouldn’t make him a major. But he’s also acting on our behalf – by “our” I mean the audience – he’s killing him for us, exorcising the Bad King, the Bad Father. The bad father who, nonetheless, wanted his son to understand his actions.
When the killing is done Willard leafs through the typescript Kurtz had been working on. He settles on this page:
“Drop the BomB! Exterminate Them All!” THE bomb can only be the atomic bomb. And ALL? All the Vietnamese? More? His own son as well, the one he wanted to know the truth?
And so Willard shows himself to the people. He drops his machete; they drop their weapons. He takes Lance by the hand and leads him back to the boat.
The King is dead! Long live the King!
It’s all trickery, myth-logic trickery. Continuity will be preserved, but just barely. Willard will return and become a major. Lance? Who knows? Maybe he becomes a homeless vet, and maybe he opens a gift shop on Newport Beach and raises a family.
How’s the Movie Stand-Up?
When I started on this intellectual adventure I had doubts about how good Apocalypse Now is. Very good? Yes. Beyond that?
At this point, frankly, I don’t much care to render a judgment. I don’t see how it would add to what I’ve said so far. On a scale of one to ten I knew that it was a least and eight. But do I now think it’s a ten, or even an eleven?
But when I had those doubts, I also raised some specific issues. First
... I worry that it’s too deeply enmeshed in a 60s acid trip sensibility to survive over the long haul.
Gone. Though I’ve said nothing on this point, I do think the trippy visuals have simply been absorbed into the cinematic woodwork thrown up in the last three or four decades. You don’t need to have been a 60s child to read them. Nor does the lack of a plot mean much; it’s just another way of making a film.
More substantially, and ethically, I observed:
The thing is, America’s gotten involved in three-going-on-four major wars since Vietnam: Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan (which has lasted longer than Vietnam), and we’re working on Libya. Somehow I feel that if Apocalypse Now is THAT great, then it should speak to these subsequent follies, for they’re grounded in the same need that kept us going back and going back in Vietnam, aa – as I argued in America’s National Psyche and the Fall of the Evil Empire.
I’m not sure Coppola got that far, though he may well have been headed in that direction. And that may have been why he had no real ending, but staged it as a double sacrifice, of the bull by the indigenes and of Kurtz by Willard. But that double sacrifice doesn’t quite lay out over the whole film and thus reveal the war to have been an exercise in magical thinking, an attempt to exorcise our own demons.
I’ve all but convinced myself that Coppola has come out clean on that one. The attempt to treat the war arena as though it were one’s family/home will, I suspect, cover it when the details have been worked out.
* * * * *
Earlier posts about Apocalypse Now:
- Apocalypse Now — too much then?
- Jungle Agency: Apocalypse 2
- Apocalypse 3: Finding Yourself Lost in the Jungle
- Apocalypse 4: Sacrifice, the Great Availability
- Apocalypse 5: Précis of the Whole
- Apocalypse 6: The Opening Montage
- Parallelism in Apocalypse Now: Lance Logic
- Apocalypse 8: Sampan Massacre
- Apocalypse The End