Apocalypse Now: A Descent into Human Savagery
Apocalypse Now is a 1979 film set in the Vietnam war and was produced and directed by American film director Francis Ford Coppola and is a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The title Heart of Darkness, if used for the film, would appropriately chronicle Captain Benjamin L. Willard’s descent into the darkness of the human heart. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola uses Willard’s existential perspective to illustrate the horror, the savagery, and the psychological impact the war has on those who experience it. From the film’s onset, it is apparent that Captain Willard has been psychologically altered by his previous experiences with war. However, as he progresses on his mission to kill Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, an ex-member of the US Army Special Forces who has been deemed by the army as a traitor who has become psychologically insane as a result of the horrors of war, he is exposed to new horrors which further agitate his psychological instability. For most of the film, Willard travels the Nung River, the same river traveled by Kurtz, and this river provides the film with a flow that reflects the crew’s psychological transition from sane to insane. Coppola’s use of surrealism at various points in Willard’s journey aptly illustrates his descent into the savagery of the human heart. In the film, Willard’s existential perspective of Vietnam seems to present a world in which our savage instincts seem to take precedent over our domesticated sense of morality. On the surface, the film appears to suggest that morality is the product of environment, and that the civilized world is no longer accessible to those who are exposed, and therefore, converted morally and psychologically by the horrors of war. However, as the film progresses and Willard becomes more psychologically twisted by the horrors of war, it becomes apparent that war occurs as the result of modern society’s suppression of man’s inherent inclination towards survival mechanisms that are expressed through savagery and barbarity.
As the film begins we are introduced to the psychological experience of a Vietnam colonel who, while on deployment, grapples with the traumatic memories of violence, human savagery and immorality that have been etched in his mind from his time in combat. In this scene, the literal and metaphoric isolation that plagues Willard is palpable and illustrated by a layered shot in which Willard’s face and scenes of destruction from battle are simultaneously shown. This juxtaposing shot suggests that Willard has been psychologically altered by his experience in Vietnam to the degree that it has irreversibly transformed his conscious perspective of the world from one of human civility to human savagery. It is explicitly suggested in the scene that Willard’s perspective of humanity has been permanently altered by the horrors of war when he says “when I was there (home), all I could think about was getting back to the jungle (Vietnam).” This statement demonstrates that the potency of war’s inhuman nature has the ability to sequester man from the civil world that is governed by morality and order. Willard’s desire to get “back to the jungle” is satisfied when he is assigned the mission to find and kill officer Kurtz, a man whose preceding journey down the Nung River provides the sequential blueprint for Willard’s existential journey in which he discovers the truth about human nature and morality.
Although we do not see Kurtz until the final sequence of the film, his presence is palpable throughout Willard and his crew’s expedition down the Nung River. Coppola creates an allure around Kurtz in a sequence in which army officials describe to Willard the extent to which the war has manifested itself in the psychological transformation of Kurtz from a high ranking military official to, what they consider to be, insane. One army official details Kurtz’s psychological plummet into...
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