Losing My Religion: Apocalypse Now

Losing My Religion: Apocalypse Now

Every Friday during Lent, we’ll be looking at a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question in his column Losing My Religion. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this sixth Friday of Lent, we’re looking into Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: Redux. As of this writing, it is currently available for streaming rental on Amazon.

“There is now way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.”

The early voiceover from Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) clues us in on just what it is he’s looking to accomplish by relating the narrative onscreen for us.

Confessions don’t come from clear consciences, after all.

Willard’s story in Apocalypse Now (and its director’s cut, Redux) centers on what would be his final mission in Vietnam. His first scenes in the film present a man completely at odds with himself, torn between a desire to never return to the battlefield or the homefront. Divorced from both his wife and, from what we can tell, any connection to his own humanity, Willard is holed up in a Saigon hotel room, seemingly on a self-destructive bender between missions. Drugs, booze, and isolation pen him in with nothing but his own thoughts.

And those thoughts are invaluable. Sheen delivers Willard’s voiceover narration with a convincing mixture of self-disgust and detachment. Those thoughts are properly contextualized as the perspective of a man attempting to maintain what little sanity an insane world’s conflict may have left him. Willard’s final mission for the military is to locate and assassinate an American colonel, Kurtz (Marlon Brando, in a signature role). Kurtz was accused of murdering suspected spies within his ranks, which, because he did so without military approval, makes him a criminal. That he did so during wartime, in an active warzone, matters not to those in charge. They are more concerned with the optics of a fugitive officer commanding a following of military personnel and Cambodian locals, well north of what is the “declared” warzone.

So, they turn to Willard—a man who by his own confessions, has personally killed six people he “knew about for sure,” implying that his actions have already caused the deaths of many more. Willard takes the mission and begins a journey up a river, constantly confronted by scenes and sights that make him question every step he takes toward that destination.

Coppola understands that his audience is made of people who have seen countless war films prior and are thus somewhat desensitized to the graphic imagery found within. So rather than outright challenge his audience with over-the-top gore, he takes a lighter touch. The “craziest” scenes found within Apocalypse Now are not of the carnage or violence, though there is plenty of both to be found.

 Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola  

Instead Coppola grounds the insanity of such pointless conflict in his and co-writer John Milius’ characters’ banal reactions to the same. Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall, in a series of fantastic scenes) picks his entry point to the river not based on intel, but on wave height, so he can watch a famous surfer traveling with Willard catch a ride after the battle. Kilgore also plays Wagner on their approach, as it’s his calling card and a piece of psychological warfare. Further into the northern territory, where the fighting is much more intense, the USO arranges for Playboy bunnies to put on a stage show. As they reach the northern edge of Vietnamese territory along the river, Willard and the boat’s crew transporting him come across a bridge that gets blown up and rebuilt seemingly weekly, just so both sides have a bragging moment when they either destroy or replace it.

All of these moments, not the depraved violence and death, make Willard question what he’s doing, going after Kurtz. Even after being directly challenged by French plantation owners as a surrogate for US foreign policy in the region (seen in the Redux cut), Willard takes a night with one of the owner’s daughters before continuing on his way, still unsure of the point in everything surrounding him. And he hates himself for it as much as he does anyone he encounters, for their indifference.

Willard carries blame for taking the crew up the river, and it weighs him down even to his final moments. That he begins to admire Kurtz by the time he arrives only makes his mission harder to bear. But it’s no less pressing on him to follow through. The bodies of previous servicemen sent upriver to take down Kurtz drive that home.

 Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola

Kurtz himself is a reflection of Willard, though the same conclusions with which Willard is currently wrestling have brought him closer to his fellow man rather than distancing—his musings, recorded and typewritten, talk of obscenity charges against servicemen who paint the word “fuck” on their warplanes, but are still expected to drop bombs and napalm on people they’ve never met. Kurtz has seen, firsthand, how truly obscene and absurd such conflict can be. And that he wants no part of it any longer, he sees himself branded a madman by those with power to command.

The captain finds an opening in the “kingdom’s” security one night and makes his move, stealthily, though an oncoming storm reveals his position to the audience in flashes of lightning. He is seemingly already covered in blood by his approach to Kurtz’s personal quarters.

Willard’s most direct, violent acts in the film see no voiceover, no omniscient comment from his conscience, as though a veteran has gone silent over his drink in a bar. His confession falls just short of absolving his guilty conscience, despite literally laying down his arms before fleeing the compound. Willard opts not to radio away a bombing run on the compound, simply running. The only voiceover following Willard’s departure from the camp are Kurtz’s last, haunting his every step into eternity:

“The horror…the horror!”

Check back next Friday, Good Friday, for the seventh and final entry in Losing My Religion: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.

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