In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola unleashed a film that reshaped the view of the American Vietnam war. The film was heralded as an epic of modern film. However, is it truly an epic or is that term become a widely used word for great works of cinema? Does Apocalypse Now contain the epic criteria of religion, a journey, a vast setting, a sense of supernatural and other key factors?
The journey in Apocalypse Now is Captain Benjamin Willard’s mission to assassinate Army Colonel Walter Kurtz. The former Green Beret has deserted his command and now leads a rogue army of commandos and Montagnard, the indigenous people of the central highlands of Vietnam(Human Rights Watch). This film is also a journey into the darkness of the human soul. As Willard travels up the river he spends most of his time reading the Army’s dossier on the rogue Kurtz who has been deemed insane after his use of “unsound methods.” Willard tries to understand the actions of Kurtz, and as the film progresses, Willard experiences more and more of the absurdities and immorality of war that lead him to understand the villainous Kurtz. His understanding comes with his own decent into near madness. After he senselessly kills a peasant woman on a sampan Willard states, “It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie— and the more I saw of them the more I hated lies.” These words sound as though they were uttered by the insane Kurtz.
The setting for Apocalypse Now is the fictional Nung River(Milks). Most of the film takes place on a Navy river patrol boat (PBR) with a four-man crew. The captain, Chief, a military man who follows protocol to a “T”and feels personally responsible for the fate of his crew. He blames Willard for the predicament that they find themselves in. Clean is a seventeen-year-old mechanic from the South Bronx. He is symbolic of the young men that fought in Vietnam that were ignorant to the ways of war and only waste time waiting to end their service careers. Chef, a saucier from New Orleans, who emphatically does not want to be in this strange land and Lance, a California surfer, make up the rest of the crew. Lance and Chef’s use of drugs and placement in the primitive jungle help them withdraw from the war around them as the film proceeds(Milks). This is symbolic of how many of the drafted youth felt in Vietnam.
The film begins in the Greek tradition of en medias res. It opens with captain Willard in an alcohol induced depressive state in a hotel room in Saigon in 1968. He already completed one tour of duty in Vietnam only to return home and be miserable with the confines of civilization. He states, “I was discharged from the army four years ago. I went home, wasted some time, bought a Mustang Mach 1, drove it a week. Then I re-upped for another tour. No, everything I love is here.” He has been irrecoverably changed by the war. He feels that the jungle is the only place he belongs and he cannot wait to get back in action, “Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger.”
The film does not follow all the guidelines of an Epic in the Greek sense. In the beginning, Willard does not invoke the muses and the only religion is the Montagnards belief in Kurtz as a god. The film contains no epic lists and the film is not divided into twenty-four books. The only division in the film could be seen in the different episodes the crew faces traveling up river. The first is the rendevous with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, commander of the Air Ninth Calvary. Then, the tiger attack in the jungle, the U.S. supply depot complete with Playboy Playmates, the French rubber plantation, the small sampan, and the ancient temple where Kurtz resides. Each event adds to the mayhem of the journey and creates a darker mood for the film.
The narrator and protagonist of the film is...