May Issue 2013
Hearts of War
Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie, was filmed with a director and studio house nearing bankruptcy, a script that was almost non-existent and a cast that was perpetually on drugs or in a state of inebriation. But out of the “chaos,” the word Martin Sheen used to describe working on the set of the film, arose a cinematic masterpiece that is repeatedly cited in the critic’s top film lists decades later for its cinematography and themes of war, civilisation and savagery, hypocrisy and supposed insanity.
Set in Vietnam and Cambodia, and only a few years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 that is etched in the American consciousness, the film was heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel about the colonial exploits of a different empire.
The opening scene of the Cambodian jungle in flames with aerial bombardment from helicopters as The Door’s ‘The End’ plays is iconic, and there are many iconic scenes in Apocalypse Now. The spinning wings of the helicopter dissolve into the wings of a fan in a dank hotel room in Saigon as we are introduced to Willard (Martin Sheen), a deeply troubled war veteran, wasting away in a foreign land. Unable to resume a normal life in America, he is desperately anticipating his next mission.
The assignment comes in the form of former sergeant Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly qualified and intelligent military person who turned against and broke off from the US Army. Kurtz has allegedly gone insane and is now a god-like figure, worshipped by a cult of locals and wanted for the murder of four Vietnamese intelligence agents. General Corman (G.D Spradlin) explains, “He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.” In an audiotape recording of Kurtz’s voice that Willard is made to listen to by the senior officers, Kurtz questions the hypocrisy of the war and generals, “What do you call it, when the assassin uses the assassin?” Willard’s mission is to terminate Kurtz.
He sets into the Cambodian jungle with four other soldiers who long for home, finding escapism in drugs as Willard finds it in alcohol. As they move further upstream the river into the heart of the Cambodian jungle, the heart of the war and into the darkness of their own hearts, the plot gets increasingly absurd. There is a sense that the soldiers do not necessarily know what they’re doing exactly and why, and yet they move around a foreign land as if they own it, leaving a trail of destruction in their path as they mow down entire villages, people and animals on a command.
The absurdity of the war is exemplified by the darkly comical and callous Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who plays Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on full volume while bombarding a village. Minutes after the chaotic battle scene, Kilgore discusses ideal waves for surfing, ordering his men to surf despite still being in the midst of a battle.
Willard reflects, “I wondered what they had against Kurt. It wasn’t just insanity or murder. There was enough of that to go around.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.