Throughout the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola had been building towards a new threshold of film spectacle – and he found it in Apocalypse Now, one of the greatest war films ever made, one of the most spectacular films ever made, and such a high watermark in Coppola’s own body of his work that he would be haunted by it for the rest of his career. The insane trials and tribulations of its production have been documented in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which compiles her footage and diary entries detailing life on location in the Philippines, where the action was filmed. Even without this documentary, however, it’s immediately clear that Apocalypse Now must have utterly exhausted and eviscerated everybody involved in its production, since its scale and scope is almost unimaginable. As the 70s came to an end, and New Hollywood peaked, a unique situation emerged in which artier directors were given unprecedented access to funding, and a previously unimagined freedom over their work product. This produced a whole swathe of big-budget, insanely ambitious, box-office failures, including Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Robert Altman’s Popeye. Most of these films look pretty good now, but Apocalypse Now still remains as the only one amongst them where everything came together, making for a movie whose command of spectacle hasn’t really been rivalled since.
Part of the brilliance of Apocalypse Now lies in its premise, which is twofold. On the one hand, Coppola envisaged the film as a contemporary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which follows a narrator, Marlowe, as he recounts his trip deep into the heart of Africa to recover a German colonel who has gone rogue. In Coppola’s version, the main character is Captain Benjamin L. Willard, played by Martin Sheen, who is languishing in Saigon when he is taxed with a very unusual mission – to make his way upriver to an outpost in Cambodia that is currently being manned by Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Kurtz had a decorated and prestigious military career before he went rogue, and vanished into the jungle, beyond the last United States checkpoint. As a result, the American military doesn’t know much about his actions, beyond vague and alarming rumours that he has gathered an army of Cambodian locals under his command, and is preparing some kind of potentially anti-American action. By telling this story through the lens of Heart of Darkness, Coppola immediately establishes the Vietnam war as an imperial war, an ideological war and a strategy for maintaining American global hegemony, rather than a war that legitimately needed to be fought, or that genuinely needed US intervention.
The second way in which Coppola approaches the Vietnam War is as the most mediated war in world history, saturated with an unprecedented level of media access – often in real time, or close to real time – that makes “representing” it on the big screen remarkably difficult. This sense that the Vietnam War exceeds representation plays out, in the opening scenes, through the language of action cinema, as we first meet Willard performing many of the routines that would become familiar to fans of Arnie, Stallone and Van Damme – rubbing blood all over his face, adopting one kamikaze pose after another, reliving the most hysterical moments of the war, and eventually smashing his own reflection in his bathroom mirror, in an absurd act of macho self-destruction. Only a focus, or a mission, can recover Willard from the squalor and inertia of these opening scenes, which paint the action genre as an expression of the impotence of Vietnam, while also indicating Coppola is providing something considerably more experimental and unclassifiable than classical action cinema.
This cinematic vision kicks in as soon as Willard gets onto the river, with a crew that includes 3rd class Jay “Chef” Hicks, played by Frederic Forrest, Chief Petty Officer George Phillips, played by Albert Hall, Gunner’s mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson, played by Sam Bottoms and Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Tyrone Miller, played by Laurence Fishburne, credited here as Larry Fishburne. Most of the film follows these three men as they make their way along the river, starting with the vast expanses of the delta, and heading upstream as the banks gradually close in on each side, narrowing their passage. The constant movement of the boat, and the constant presence of helicopters, gives Coppola’s camera a new mobility, to the point where it seems to be in continuous motion, never able or willing to focus on a single image or scene for too long. While Coppola’s spectacular ambition here is clearly founded on the scale of the two Godfather films, this camera mobility also creates quite a new approach in his career. In both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, many of the scenes were still and quiet, while even the more dynamic scenes were overlaid with a stately stasis. Here, by contrast, there is no still or stable space, as the characters and events are continually thrown into turbulent and volatile motion, forcing Willard to improvise moment to moment.
This mobile and fluid space is accompanied by monolithic synth music, which imbues the whole film with a science fiction edge – and makes the Vietnam War seem as strange as science fiction during its most hallucinatory moments. In addition, Coppola draws heavily on the unearthly light of the tropics, which are compounded here by the reflections of the delta and river, and the constant helicopter strikes, all of which split the difference between day and night, producing a lurid colour palette that often anticipates the hyper-Technicolor of One From the Heart. At times, it seems like Coppola is trying to envisage a “new” colour scheme that departs as radically from natural colour as colour cinema itself departed from black-and-white cinema – colour so intense that it requires the particular trauma of the Vietnam War, and the crisis of representation it produced, to render its spectra fully visible.
In other words, Apocalypse Now is prescient that the Vietnam War has exhausted the capacity of American media to represent it, meaning that regular realism is not enough. Instead, Coppola presents the war as a new technological sublime, and a new threshold for cinematic spectacle, suffusing it with the same hyperreality that crept into The Godfather Part II – widescreen spectacle in which spectacle and reality have converged into a new hyperreality. The first sustained depiction of warfare sees Willard run onto a beach where his actions are “directed” by a television journalist played by Coppola himself, who performatively fuses the production of the film with the spectacular media apparatus it is both critiquing and trying to outdo. One of the recurring motifs in Coppola’s body of work are directorial surrogates, but here Coppola plays his own directorial surrogate, suggesting that with Apocalypse Now he achieved the vision he’d been searching for his whole career.
In lieu of a clear rationale for being in Vietnam, and a properly articulated ideology, these war scenes tend to fall back upon hyperbolised simulacra of American culture – surfing, waterskiing and flying in beers as local villages are doused with napalm. The first Lieutenant that Willard meets, Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, only decides to take a point at the mouth of the river because it has a good surfing break, and then forces Sam Bottoms to try out the waves before the attack has even ended. This scene is the first sustained combat that we see in Apocalypse Now, but there’s no real sense of the frontal engagement typical of older war films, or more conventional films about Vietnam. Nor is there much of a sense of war in the traditional sense either, as combat is displaced by a diffuse spectacular field in which military leadership consists of being able to coordinate mise-en-scenes and situate troops with the same dexterity as a film director, rather than any genuine military expertise.
The omniscient helicopters are at the epicentre of this technological sublime, and the locus of both Coppola’s auteurism and the self-styled auteurism of Kilgore, his first surrogate in the film. Time and again, Coppola fuses his camera with the thrill and terror of helicopter combat, most iconically during the attack on the mouth of the river, when Kilgore plays Richard Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” from a loudspeaker as his choppers close in on their target. This ushers in one of the most spectacular and sublime sequences ever filmed, from the unbearably beautiful rainbow of flares and explosions that rain down over the village, to the supersonic jets and napalm clusters, which resemble a war fought on another planet, or a war fought millennia in the future. During this scene, Coppola seems to have achieved a new threshold of spectacle that exceeds any older media, but also contains and anticipates any conceivable future media as well. After watching the sequence, it’s impossible to believe that Wagner’s piece was written for any other purpose than to accompany these images, even as the images themselves now, in retrospect, seem to leap forward to the language of digital gaming that has become so pervasive in our present time.
So intense is this spectacle that it ends up displacing the American homeland that it is meant to affirm, leading Willard to reflect that “I’d been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist any more.” Years later, Jean Baudrillard would suggest, provocatively, that the First Gulf War didn’t exist outside of the American media’s representations of it, but Coppola makes an even more outrageous claim here – that American itself doesn’t exist outside of its own representations of itself. Paradoxically, this means that America is most “real” when experienced from the spectacular distance of Vietnam, which is perhaps why Kurtz increasingly feels like the last remaining residue of America, meaning Willard can only travel “back” to American by continuing to travel upriver. As the journey progresses, the action lexicon of the opening scenes returns to articulate this fear that the reality of America, and American masculinity, has somehow been displaced by the images that it disseminates – the very images used to construct the hyperbole of action cinema in the first place. Many of these scenes could be straight out of Rambo, Commando, or any of the other classic action films that took place in surrogate versions of Vietnam – most memorably the one sustained scene when the men voluntarily leave the boat, encountering a tiger that sees Chet rip of his shirt, flex his muscles and scream inchoately, while Miller fires the machine gun manically in every possible direction, like an amalgam of all the Rambo films.
During these scenes, Coppola gradually suggests that the Vietnam War isn’t merely a matter of military conquest, or even ideological conversion, but a sustained attempt, on the part of the United States, to conquer a new global media sphere, and invest in the same global spectacle that preoccupied Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. As the boat gets further away from the delta, the surface of the river becomes a free-floating space of spectacle, an evolution of Lake Tahoe in The Godfather Part II. Perpetually poised upon this surface, Willard and his crew are always watching some sublime spectacle unfold, anticipating some sublime spectacle that is about to unfold, or finding that they are themselves the sublime object of an audience or gaze that can’t be fully formulated. Above and beyond military or ideological intervention, the Vietnam War here is an American claim to hyperreality, and to the global production of media images, which often makes Apocalypse Now seem one step away from being a ride, or a Disneyland attraction. At one point, a character actually asks whether there “could ever be a place like Disneyland in the war” – that is, whether Disneyland could ever live up to the war’s command of spectacle – while Coppola himself would go onto direct the short film Captain EO for the Star Wars ride at Disneyland, after creating a film in One From the Heart that often played more like a ride.
This convergence of cinema and fairground attraction culminates with the last manned outpost on the river, which looks like Coney Island gone haywire, collapsing any distinction between military combat and the spectacular apparatus erected around it. Ostensibly, this juncture represents a clear threshold between American control and Viet Cong control – the closest the film comes to a traditional sense of frontal combat, or trench warfare. Yet Coppola quickly suffuses this outpost with so many thresholds, spaces and sources of light that it quickly involutes into the amorphous, 360-degree threat now typical of a first-person shooter. This divests it of even the slightest semblance of a chain of command, as Willard picks up a brief message from an American soldier who quickly disappears back into the murk before he can properly question him, desperate to make his way back downriver. Beyond this border, the river narrows and dissolves into a panoply of dull fog and brightly coloured smoke, both of which fuse and mingle around sublime images – a helicopter stuck in a tree, an ancient temple looming along the bank – before swallowing them up again. Finally, Willard has arrived at the raw, undifferentiated medial flux from which the United States crafts its hyperreal hegemony. This coincides with the first part of the river that Americans don’t know first-hand, forcing them to fall back on their own medial projections.
Accordingly, when Willard’s boat finally emerges from the mist and fog, in the last stretch of the river before Kurtz’s headquarters, they seem to have retreated to a flattering American fantasy of socialist primitivism, or atavism, starting with a group of “natives” who fire on them with bows and arrows from amidst occult objects lining the banks. As Willard senses Kurtz’s presence, and his own growing “desire to confront him,” the screenplay diminishes, falling back on the inchoate action lexicon of the opening scenes, creating an eerie and pervasive silence once the boat finally arrives at Kurtz’s lurid compound. In The Godfather Part II, the emergence of this hyperreal image sphere created a new kind of bodily vulnerability, and a new possibility for exotic gore, from the Nevada senator who “discovered” a mutilated body in his bed, to the sacrificial scene that plays out in the backdrop of the nightclub where Michael first recognises Fredo’s betrayal. In Apocalypse Now, this occult sacrifice of bodies to a hyperreal image sphere culminates with our introduction to Kurtz, whose temple and precinct is adorned with body parts scattered everywhere, arranged by obscure ritualistic imperatives whose meaning is never elucidated.
In these final scenes of the film, Coppola presents Kurtz as the apex of this American investment in spectacle, surrounding him with one horrific tableaux after another that alternately testify to the need for the United States to command the “primitivism” of Vietnam, and the capacity of the United States to co-opt exotic and indigenous spectacles into their own hegemonic image machine. Only appearing for about twenty minutes, Kurtz plays less as a character in the conventional sense, and more as the madness that exists at the heart of the American spectacular enterprise – the same madness that Coppola embraced in creating the film, which his wife Eleanor documents in Hearts of Darkness. As a result, it is quite difficult to ever fully envisage Kurtz, who tends to be shot at oblique angles, in extreme close-ups and in the midst of ever-changing patterns of light and shade, while keeping mainly to the small area in the midst of the compound that he reserves as his home, whence he seems to radiate the atrocity around him rather than directly ordering it.
Of all the surrogate directors in Coppola’s oeuvre, Kurtz is the most intense – so intense that Coppola has spent the rest of his career trying to rival his convergence with Kurtz in the name of the directorial madness that ensues during the final moments of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, Kurtz speaks in long, rambling monologues, only occasionally acknowledging Willard’s existence, while recalling how he came to realise that the conviction of the Viet Cong, and of the communists, was ultimately greater than anything American soldiers could muster on behalf of capitalism. On the surface, it might look like Kurtz has simply capitulated to the greater ideological imperative of communism, but it gradually emerges that he has simply ceased operating at a military or ideological level, and has instead embraced the spectacular apparatus of the war as the only American weapon left in his arsenal – the command of spectacle, and the capacity to orchestrate and disseminate images of horror on a global scale, that the Viet Cong can’t deliver, despite their greater conviction, due their more limited access to monetary and technological resources.
This is the horror that Kurtz reiterates with his final words, which are then repeated by Willard at the end of the film – the horror of occupying the unimaginable and unbearable epicentre of the American effort to dominate a global media sphere by converging representation and reality into an Americanc hyperreality. According to this regime, there is no distinction, any more, between reality and representation – or at least between reality and American representation. Since this scheme insinuates itself into reality, it can no longer be directly represented either, at least not in the guise of the traditional “realism” that it has already partly conquered. Despite his necessity for this regime, it is best for the United States that Kurtz is made to appear peripheral, much as the film is unable to conclude with any “realistic” standoff between Kurtz and Willard, but instead has to resort to the most distended and diffuse spectacular field so far in order for Willard, and then the audience, to continue Kurtz’s mission of spectacle control. Rather than destroy Kurtz, Willard takes his vision back to American culture, and into the world of the audience, perhaps explaining why the film ends so abruptly after he repeats Kurtz’s final words – and why Coppola leaves out the final credits, suddenly situating “the horror” back in our world.
While the ending of Apocalypse Now is often criticised for being anticlimactic, I find it hard to see how it could “end” any other way. In fact, Coppola considers a more realistically satisfying ending, and then rejects it, in the form of a photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper, who is the only American living at Kurtz’s compound when Willard arrives. Devoid of a proper name, and so collapsed into his role as “realistic” media outlet, this photojournalist stands for the prospect of a more realistic or conventional ending – an ending in keeping with the “realism” disseminated by media depictions of Vietnam at the time. Yet this photojournalist continually fails to relay or remediate Kurtz in realistic terms, continually attempting to “explain” him to Willard, only to descend into involuted rambles that converge and exhaust establishment and counter-establishment rhetoric in the face of Kurtz’s propensity for spectacle, which either silences him, or reduces him to absurd farce.
By contrast, Willard doesn’t make any attempt to represent Kurtz, or to conceive of him in realistic terms, instead permitting himself to become a part of Kurtz’s spectacular world, until the rises, gilded, from the river, in the final scene, as if one of Kurtz’s temples, or disembodied limbs, has come to life to continue Kurtz’s project. During these final scenes, Coppola continuously fades in and out of the action, until the whole conclusion feels like one sustained fade, seamlessly transitioning between Kurtz, Willard and wherever we happen to be watching the film. In the end, these final moments of Apocalypse Now testify to a spectacular imperative that exceeds Coppola’s capacity to create it, but that incentivize him to commit his failure to screen more ambitiously than nearly any film made before or since. It makes sense, perhaps, that his next film, One From the Heart, would be a life-sized simulation of life, shot in its entirety on a sound stage, since Coppola here seems to be reaching the very limits of film as a reality-principle – refusing, ultimately, to provide us with an unmediated access to reality, or a surreal departure from reality, but a hyperreal reformulation of reality that accelerates the American media sphere it starts off critiquing.