Apocalypse Now: The Darkening Emotional Distress Behind War

by Viktoria Sapanovich

“In this war, things get confused out there—power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity…because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph” – General Corman, “Apocalypse Now” (1979), played by G. D. Spradlin. 

Many factors play important roles in influencing our lives, and this can span from our culture and how we have been raised, socioeconomic status, our material possessions, as well as the relationships and community around us. But more predominantly, we have factors such as politics which can shape our views and beliefs on regimes in society around us. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, “Apocalypse Now”, demonstrates the shadowy emotional distress behind the war, through its subthemes of the extinction of a nation’s ethics, coupled with the depiction of madness, insanity, and detachment as a result of political wars. 

An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novella, Francis Ford Coppola incorporates a similar storyline, encompassing the film around the Vietnam War, sending a soldier to execute a man of a threat to the military. The protagonist, Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), is sent by two army officials, Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) and General Corman (G.D. Spradlin), to terminate a man named Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a part of the Army Special Forces. The two men grow concerned about Kurtz’s status and operations, stating that he has supposedly become insane and now rules over his own troops, who he formed in neutral ground Cambodia. Kurtz poses as a “God” to this group of people, and this is the way in which he rules over them. The film follows the journey of Benjamin L. Willard and a group of men that travel with him to his destination while emphasizing the confusion, violence, and fear of the Vietnam War with each scene. 

When we think of morals and beliefs, we associate this in a positive light, and when reflecting on the film, distinct loss of these morals and beliefs begins to shine through, as part of the political aspects depicted. The film incorporates the ethics of surfing, provocative dancing by women, and the general association of drugs, that have been integrated into speech and scenes. In particular, looking at the introductory scene of the film, which displays a film crew and American journalists filming soldiers, death and all the surrounding airstrikes, essentially turning the war into means of crowd-pleasing entertainment for the public. As we reflect on this, we can say this is quite inhumane, turning the tragedy taking place and downgrading the importance of it, into entertainment. Simple values and morals of respect and dignity seem to lack here. Moreover, another scene in the film that strongly depicts the loss of a nation’s ethics, would be during the time where Willard and his crew make a stop at a military post, where an entertainment show was put on in the evening hours for all the men. The show consisted of playboy ladies dressed in cowboy apparel, performing rather provocative dances. While all the American soldiers hoot and yell over the women up on stage, the camera incorporates a shot of the Vietnamese villagers behaving very calmly and maturely, as they eat their rice, not being phased at all by the performers, in contrast to the soldiers. This is evident in the differing morals and ethics between the Vietnamese and Americans, showing just how foolish the soldiers had behaved during this scene in comparison. The scene concludes with almost all the men losing any restraint on themselves, and proceeded to climb onto the stage to harass the women while Willard is shown sitting back, with facial expression in disgust. This facial expression is yet another cue integrated into the scene to send a message of the loss of ethics, demonstrating how, in fact, filthy the soldiers were. In addition, further into the film, the audience is exposed to how Willard and his boat crew trade barrels of fuel in return of receiving pleasure by the playmates. Once again, this clearly demonstrates the degrading of values, of how these men give away precious fuel in the midst of war and a long journey ahead of them, when they need it most, to receive intimate attention from a woman. This essentially depicts their priorities at the time.  These women that are integrated into the film serve as a very important symbol to give across this message. From turning the war into means of entertainment to demonstrating the shallowness of the American soldiers when it comes to provocative entertainment, emphasizes the loss of a nation’s ethics, as well as serves to provide an interesting contract of these values to the Vietnamese, also further underlining the absurdity of them.  

As we get deeper into the psychology behind the war, the film perfectly depicts the emotional and psychological deterioration of the soldiers, as well as the protagonist himself, Willard. As Willard and his crew move further upriver, they begin to experience enhanced emotional detachment with themselves as well as reality and ultimately reach some sort of change to their persona. In various scenes, each crew member participates in this experience in their own way, with whatever they might have encountered during a specific scene. One crew member has an encounter with a tiger as he enters the jungle, which traumatizes him, leading to where he appears to no longer be himself. Following, he then slowly withdraws emotionally from the crew. Once a tragic death comes upon one of the crew members, another breaks down and experiences vast emotional distress, and so becomes an altered individual as a result. Face paint use became prominent as the film went deeper into their adventures, indicating a “change” of self as well. Ending with the protagonist, Willard, he also seems to become more obsessed with his target, Kurtz, as the voice-overs used to become more persistent and analytical of Kurtz’s life and background, perhaps going overboard. Willard continues to analyze Kurtz very deeply, almost trying to get into the head of this “evil genius”, as they called him.

Tying this all together, we can see the underlying psychological effects and the loss of precious ethics, that politics bring upon individuals and society. The Vietnam war consisted of the clash between two political beliefs, with North Vietnam being supportive of the communist regime, and the South being supportive of the democracy regime (Encyclopedia Britannia, 2016). The war between these two political systems depicts the casualties it brought upon, both death and psychological casualties in individuals throughout the duration of “Apocalypse Now”. Further back into history, we can evaluate and see that the Vietnam War can be considered as a chain reaction to the Cold War, that was once between the United States and the Soviet Union, both with differing political views on how to run a society. The tragic effects of these political battles are not only depicted in this film by the detachment and insanity of soldiers, but also the number of casualties it has brought in history. Innocent people have lost their lives, and these political fights have changed the lives of many. Thus, war films like “Apocalypse Now” are a great source of depicting how politics causes grief and insanity, as well as the deterioration of values and ethics. 

Francis Ford Coppola’s incorporation of various symbols in the film such as masks, fog, darkness and the river, all serve to additionally emphasize the psychological journey Willard and his crew go through. Masks can bring upon the message of changing one’s individuality. It can depict an alteration in persona or incorporation of a new identity in order to deal with the emotional trauma that war brings to these soldiers. During the opening scenes of the film, Willard is shown breaking the glass showing his self-reflection. This can be interpreted metaphorically as breaking his old persona. The voice-overs used during this scene further enhanced the understanding of why he is doing so, essentially underlining that his experiences in the military changed him as a man, for the worse. Towards the end of the film, numerous characters began to incorporate the use of face paint, as mentioned previously, to metaphorically camouflage into their “new” individuality. The intense fog coupled together with the river and many dark scenes serves a message to the audience of the characters swimming further into the abyss/darkness of war, swimming towards the terrifying unexpected. The fog also adds an additional meaning of confusion and estrangement from reality to the crew, and this is evident through the scenes in which they are floating through the river and they cannot see anything. The crew members get quiet and expect the unexpected. This causes a sense of fright, shown in their facial expressions, as well as overall confusion. This heavy use of fog puts the characters in a “vulnerable” state, which further portrays fear, also shown by the use of close-ups onto facial expressions. 

The cinematography was successful in this film, with the fusion of many extreme close-ups and regular close-ups, music to emphasize emotions and action build-up, eye-level shots, and many more. Extreme close-ups of character’s facial expressions allow for a deeper understanding and relation to emotions being emphasized, as discussed in class (Moura, 2016). This allowed for the audience to gain a greater understanding of what the character might be thinking in the situation and was incorporated very well. Music in certain scenes allowed for the build-up of action, whether the tempo would be fast and dramatic, or slow and suspenseful. Certain pieces of music also served as a symbolic approach in the film, such as the music female performers danced to. It symbolized the typical American style songs which served the soldiers a memory of home they so longed for. Eye-level shots were increasingly used as well, specifically in conversation, that gives the audience the feeling that they are seeing and understanding from the eyes of the character, as also examined in class (Moura, 2016). The fade-in and fade-out of scenes, especially in the opening parts of the film, made the beginning quite unique and enticing. With the use of these elements, some scenes overlapped each other, with one scene in the background showing the continuation of war, while having a faded image on top showing facial expressions and various actions. Furthermore, long shots and wide shots also played a vital role in the cinematography of “Apocalypse Now”. This was most often used in shots of the landscape, and flying military aircraft. They were used to portray the whole environment of the scene. Political objects were also integrated, such as the American flag and U.S military uniforms. In addition, the first half of the film heavily unified colorful cinema with the use of various colored smoke bombs that enhanced the picture, while the second half of the film transitioned into the heavy use of fog and darker-toned colors. Overall, the cinematography was integrated quite well within the film and did a fantastic job displaying environments and emotions, and the use of rich colors. 

Politics can shape who we are as individuals and our beliefs, but more predominately, shape our society and play a vital role in how a nation is run. The clash of different political views between nations has caused tragic impacts on individuals both physically and psychologically. Thus, taking Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, “Apocalypse Now”, and looking deeper into these factors, the film does a fantastic job in demonstrating the shadowy emotional distress behind war, through its subthemes of the deterioration of a nation’s ethics, coupled with the depiction of madness, insanity, and detachment as a result of political wars. 

Vietnam War. (n.d). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from               https://www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War
Francis Ford Coppola: Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved October 10, 2016, Retrieved from              http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000338/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
Dirks, T. (n.d.). Apocalypse Now (1979). Retrieved October 10, 2016, fromhttp://www.filmsite.org/apoc.html

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