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 insanity by exposing the dual nature of his personality prior to and following combat when he says, “Kurtz was one of the most outstanding officers this nation has ever produced, he was brilliant, he was outstanding in every way.
And he was a good man, too… he joined the Special Forces, and after that his ideas, methods became unsound. ” This interpretation of Kurtz suggests that he was, prior to combat, a man who the army held in high esteem for being a model citizen, however, it is proposed that the forces from the field of battle caused his “methods” to become “unsound. ” What is particularly mystifying about Kurtz at this juncture in the film is our ambiguous understanding of what his “methods” are and how exactly they have become “unsound. This gives the audience and Willard the impression that the military is concealing information regarding the extent to which Kurtz’s psyche has been driven to insanity by the horrors of war, leaving us and Willard with a sense of anxiety regarding the daunting task of meeting Kurtz. While at this juncture of the film, the film’s audience has only been exposed to Willard, who in contrast to Kurtz, has only been prematurely transformed by the horrors of war.
The impending depiction of Willard’s crew presents a collective naivety concerning the horrors of war which illustrates a contrast between those who have not yet been rattled from their domesticated perceptions of morality and human nature, and Willard, who has been acquainted to such horrors. Initially, Willard’s crew appears distant from the horrors of war, which the film illustrates through the perspective of Captain Willard. Willard provides the audience with his preliminary impression of his crew when he says, “The crew were mostly just kids. Rock’n rollers with one foot in their graves.
The machinist, the one they called chef was from new Orleans. He was wrapped to tight for Vietnam. Lance on the forward 50s was a famous surfer from the beaches south of LA…to look at him you wouldn’t believe he fired a weapon in his life. ” In his illustration of his crew, Willard describes his crew as “kids” and “rock’n rollers” who are “wrapped to tight for Vietnam. ” All of the characteristics Willard uses to describe the demeanor of his crew suggest that they do not possess the inherent savage instincts to survive the psychological traumas of war.
However, as plot and the crew’s journey down the river progresses it becomes apparent that the crew’s savage instincts exist, but have not yet been accessed through the domesticated sense of morality through which society has instilled in them. 1960s American culture is referenced on several occasions throughout the film to demonstrate how societal values distract the crew, and humanity, from their primordial savage instincts. However, the crew’s lone moment of direct exposure to society in the film, ironically, does not domesticate their savage instincts but agitates them.
The crew’s journey down the river, which has been dominated by horror and violence, is interrupted by a scene in which playmates entertain their sexual fantasies. In this scene, hoards of soldiers fawn over playmates that tantalizingly gyrate their most sexually arousing body parts. The soldiers reaction to these movements illustrates how man, when deprived of his most basic inborn drives, reverts to his most primordial behaviors.
While this scene is a mere reflection of primitive sexual drives, and not the violent and savage drives that are applicable to war, it serves to illustrate how man’s repressed instincts can be released in extreme ways when they are aroused from dormancy. This scene also manages to obfuscate the distinction between society’s sense of morality and man’s primordial instincts, as in this instance civilized society supplies the soldier’s with a form of entertainment that whisks up their primordial sexual desires.
At this juncture in the film, it becomes hard to distinguish the domesticated sense of morality that is embodied in modern society, with the oppressed savagery that permeates the film’s depiction of war because the film merges the two. With that said, it seems that the film is suggesting that man’s savagery in wartime is a reflection of primordial survival instincts which are seldom exercised in the context of modern societal boundaries that instill in us a sense of morality, causing us to reject our inherent desires to express our savagery.
The film reflects this psychological tension through the Willard, and his crew’s descent into madness, through which it is suggested that madness occurs when man is conflicted between his subconscious instincts and his domesticated, contrived sense of responsibility. The scene where the tension is most palpable transpires when the crew is approaching the boarder to Cambodia. As the boat approaches the bridge, Lance announces that he has taken LSD, and the scene’s subsequent sequence takes on a surreal, almost hellish circus feel that seems to reflect the experience of Lance’s acid trip.
In this scene, the surreal imagery coupled with the fact that there does not appear to be any visible enemy disorients Willard and his crew, further illustrating the extent to which Willard’s crew has descent into madness and insanity as a consequence of the war’s horror and savagery. While the scene’s imagery is enough to evoke a sense of confusion and disorder amongst the film’s audience, Willard’s conversation with a solider ashore confirms the audience’s impression of the scene’s chaotic depiction of war.
Upon seeing one solider, Willard inquires, “Who’s the commanding officer here,” from which the unnamed solider responds, “ain’t you. ” The scene’s absence of a commanding officer, surreal cinematographic depiction of war, and the nonexistence of any observable opponent all suggest that war is not fought to protect political agendas. However, war is a medium through which man can release the suppressed subconscious primordial savage instincts which, in domesticated society, are shunned and considered inappropriate by gilded institutions of decorum.
This notion that war provokes our inclination to savagery arouses questions of morality on the basis of how domesticated society perceives behavior in wartime. In the final sequences of the film, Willard and the remaining members of the crew reach Kurtz and the civilization he has created in the heart of the jungle. Upon arriving it is clear, from the perspective of any refined person that would not approve of the mutilation of other people, that Kurtz has established a society which functions on the savagery and, what civilized people would call, the insanity of the human subconscious.
When Willard is finally introduced to Kurtz, the transformation of his appearance appears to reflect his psychological transformation into insanity. Although it appears, without reproach, that Kurtz has gone insane, his conversation with Willard leaves him, and the audience, with the impression that Kurtz is still coherent and capable of reason, and therefore is not insane. Kurtz examines the relationship between our contrived sense of morality and man’s inclination towards savagery in war when he asserts, “it’s impossible for words to describe…what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means.
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. Because its judgment that defeats us. ” In this quote, Kurtz suggests that “those” from the civilized world cannot understand why humans behave with savagery because they have never been exposed to the “horror” which pervades war.
While this is not a fresh concept in the film, Kurtz contributes the notion that the force that smothers our savage instincts in civilized society is our fear of “judgment,” which Kurtz argues is abandoned in wartime because our fear of death overrides our fear of “judgment” and compels our savage instincts to ensure our survival. In the final scene of the film, Willard kills Kurtz in a sacrificial scene which suggests that he has come to terms with his primitive instincts, which throughout the film were in conflict with his contrived sense of morality.
After killing Kurtz, Willard is accepted by the members of the civilization that Kurtz as the heir to his thrown, however, Willard appears to decline their offer suggesting that he has brought his suppressed savage instincts to his consciousness, and is no longer psychologically conflicted or ashamed of his internal human desires. Throughout the film, Willard’s existential perspective provides the film’s audience with a vivid depiction of the horror and savagery that characterizes war.
From the beginning of the film, it is evident that Willard’s psychological perspective has been altered by his earlier tour of Vietnam, and stands in contrast to the naivety of his crew who have had virtually no experience in the war. Willard’s perspective contrasted with this crew’s perspective coupled with their metaphorical descent down the river of insanity offers the film’s audience multiple perspectives, all of which reflect the various stages of a person’s descent into savagery and insanity.
As Willard and his crew venture down the river in pursuit of Kurtz, Coppola incorporates surrealist cinematography to illustrate the crew’s psychological descent into madness and insanity. While the film initially appears to be an expose of how the horrors of war convert men from civil to savage, causing them to lose all sense of sanity. A closer inspection of the film, suggests that war does not convert man into a barbarian, but war reflects the inherent savagery that exists in man as a survival mechanism, and is only released from its dormancy when man is placed under extreme conditions such as war.
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