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"Apocalypse Now": A Journey to the Violent Self

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

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It's impossible to seriously tackle Apocalypse Now without taking into account its real-life shooting process. Full of excesses, improvisations, anguishes and descents to madness, Francis Ford Coppola's own journey as a filmmaker is essential to better understand the legacy of this work.

Without fear of exaggeration, this is perhaps the only film whose search for answers genuinely transcended fiction while still leaving us engaged, even far from the fantasy of makeup, special effects, and editing.

Apocalypse Now was supposed to be "a comedy and a terrifying psychological horror story" with George Lucas in the director's chair. Just imagine that. That movie would be pure entertainment, with an effective and interesting script about the Vietnam War.

However, when everyone began to peek at the edge of the abyss, the idea of ​​adapting the novella Heart Of Darkness in the tense and socially boiling framework of the Vietnam War suddenly began to seem shallow or insufficient for the relevance of the historic moment.

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Coppola understood that his role as a producer would not be enough, so he decided to also assume the roles of screenwriter and director. At first, he made the mistake of starting production without a concrete action plan. He underestimated the questions. He tried to ignore the relevance of the subject and decided to concentrate on the "gun show".

That lasted a few days. In the middle of filming, he started to understand the magnitude of what he was doing. That realization would cost him millions of dollars, several pounds and a great portion of his health and soul as a filmmaker.

The descent into madness was made behind and in front of the cameras. The Philippines jungle was, as expected, hostile. A civil war was raging in the middle of the shooting. The actors, especially Brando, Hopper, and Sheen, spent days—with an especially intense energy that at times became animosity--discussing with Coppola about the best way to play the characters. The ending was practically written and rewritten on the fly, and Coppola never shook off the feeling of not having being able to achieve what he was looking to do.

Makes sense. Something as overwhelming as violence in human nature doesn't allow a simple "The End."

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But it was not in spite but THANKS to this, that Apocalypse Now became the quintessential film about the destructive nature of war. Where gems such as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan concentrated on a sufficiently dense level (human emotions) to value them beyond just their entertainment load, Apocalypse Now really sunk into the blood-splattered mud. It focused its narration on the gaze of their protagonists rather than in the explosions. It's the closest thing to a philosophical cinematic study about the violent nature of the human being. The road to darkness is not a straight glowing line, but one full of anguish and bewilderment.

Apocalypse Now begins by showing absolute uncertainty. The Doors’ The End starts playing while a beautiful palm treeline is slow-mo razed by the destructive fire of war. We understand that we are upside down. We're at the end of what, perhaps with beautiful naivety, we call humanity. We're at a time where destruction and chaos have taken control and the characters in this story are dealing with that finality whose eternal condition (there's no variation to another state, death is everywhere but doesn't quite reach our living protagonists) is terrifying.

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When we first see Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), he's already rewired and addicted to the jungle. Willard hears helicopter's blades everywhere. Half-naked, sweaty and bloody from some self-inflicted wound, Willard is still trying to deal with the fact of not feeling part of anything. When he was in the jungle, he wanted to go home. When he returned home, he turned his wife away and his world became claustrophobic. The "rush" of the vast jungle-shaped chasm in Vietnam, won over the tranquility of his daily life.

Then, the briefing. While Willard isn't exactly the best example of perfect mind shape for a military mission (does that even exist?), he's not even close to being on the worst side of the spectrum. Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is totally immersed in the dark, believing himself a demigod of an army of Montagnards, entrenched in an outpost in Cambodia.

With that setting, colonizing racism as one of the engines of human violence is immediately denounced in the film. Kurtz commands a village of indigenous people. The military who are giving Willard the briefing even cites Lincoln's "best angels of our nature", as if to reveal his supposed PC nature in this regard.

When Willard is deployed, one of the first persons to make an appearance is Coppola himself, in the form of a meta-cameo. He plays a documentary director who tells newly arrived soldiers to not look at the camera and focus on "looking heroic and strong". This is Coppola understanding, and almost apologizing for the inevitable exploitation that comes with making a film about a tragedy as real and final as the Vietnam War.

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The specific plan of the Willard mission is to meet with a 4-men crew of a river patrol boat, and, helped by an airborne division, reach the Nùng River, which will take them to Kurtz.

A boat trip. A road trip with no joy to the heart of madness and darkness. It's impossible not to see the analogy of the River Styx in Greek mythology. The boat that moves between the world of the living and the kingdom of Hades.

And so begins this epic that, undoubtedly, has elements of Greek mythology everywhere. In addition to the procession in the boat, there are sirens (the Playboy playmates who must flee by helicopter when the male hormones are unleashed) that detonate the most basic impulse of men, a cyclops (Kilgore and his love for surfing, napalm and Wagner) that must be fooled, and, at the end of the journey, a creature that we still don't know if it's a minotaur or certainly Hades himself.

The boat's crew displays the soldier's most human facets: Chief is disciplined and methodical. Clean is an innocent child sucked by the horror of war. Chef and Lance desperately seek pleasure and a home-feel with rock n 'roll, food and psychedelic drugs. And in the center of everything, there's Willard, which seems to be perfectly in the center between sanity and madness.

As the boat approaches its destination, everyone changes. Chief starts to rebel. Mr. Clean lets paranoia dominate his innocence. Chef has a clash with nature — a tiger attacks him when he, naively, is gathering mangoes — when he tries to evade reality. Lance is completely immersed in drug escapism. Willard, little by little, begins to be even more cynical. He even starts admiring Kurtz.

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In the search for answers, Apocalypse Now also makes a trip to the origins of civilization. Every stop on Willard and his boatmen's journey is a step back in time. In the beginning, there's rock n ‘roll and surf. Then, in the French plantation, we're already a couple of centuries away, with a family that is reluctant to abandon their colonialist ego. The final stop is obviously of an aboriginal nature, where a grotesque ritual where a water buffalo is brutally killed by machete blows, has a ceremonial and religious connotation.

Have we always been like this? Or is modernity the culprit of the war scale on which we seem to be trapped? Apocalypse Now doesn't give a unique answer. It can't. That would reduce the complexity of the human shadow to an effective twist of a script.

But for the cynical, it's easy to see the inevitability of our own destruction on the film's ending. Willard has reached the end of the road. He has encountered the final threat. The outcome couldn't be darker: His partner is beheaded. After a period of confinement, Kurtz practically asks Willard to kill him.

“You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us”.

However, the final encounter with Kurtz is revealing. Kurtz is a creature completely absorbed by war and violence, and from that prism, he has rationalized his reality.

The referent of Kurtz throughout his whole life has been the horrors of war. And from that context, he has understood that the best way to move forward is to have no judgment.

Kurtz wants to die. But he wants to die violently, fighting another human being. Amid the madness, he wants to be consistent. “You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me he tells Willard, before releasing him.

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The fate of Kurtz is tragic. Willard assumes his role as an assassin and fulfills his mission. Kurtz, agonizing, is only able to repeat "the horror ... the horror". We don't know if it's regret after noticing something better in the hereafter or, being more cynical, the conviction that violence is an inherent part of human beings, no matter the existential level.

In the end, the only thing that Apocalypse Now makes clear is that trying to explore the violent nature is an equally absurd and necessary act.

“You Americans... you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history!” Says de Marais. “They train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it is obscene,” says Kurtz. “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500, says Willard about his missioon.”

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And although Willard certainly fulfilled his mission of killing Kurtz, that happened only because it was precisely what Kurtz wanted. Nothing else changed. The war went on. It never ended. It just mutated into something else. There are no major answers.

And that's fine. The search will always be more important than the answer. Apocalypse Now portrays this idea on three levels of reality: that of its fictional characters, that of its filmmaker and that of the real human beings on which this warlike story in Vietnam is based.

Eleanor Coppola put it perfectly in the documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, while trying to understand everything that happened in the most chaotic months of her life: Understanding our violent nature is a journey to self that is all about risking. Risking sanity, risking answer.

And as futile as it may be, that eternal search for answers is the only way to ensure our humanity.

Apocalypse Now: Movie Details

Title: Apocalypse Now

Release Year: 1979

Director(s): Francis Ford Coppola

Writer(s): John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola

Actors: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen a.o.

© 2021 Sam Shepards

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