Feature: Apocalypse Now at 40: how America ignores its own insanity

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Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic held a mirror to an America that drew thin lines between patriot and enemy; sane and insane; American and un-American. On its 40th anniversary, the U.S still struggles to see the darkness at its heart.

Opening with a burning Vietnamese jungle before fading to a drunk Martin Sheen, confused in the mind but still somehow America’s solution for stamping out traitor Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now asks us a very American question: what makes someone, or something, un-American?

Decorated and adored Special Forces officer Colonel Kurtz has gone AWOL. He has abandoned his duties to live in the jungle amongst the natives, giving them the craziest of orders as they worship at his feet. In essence he’s become an enemy of America and an enemy of democracy. A dictator. This perfect solider, groomed to become one of America’s best, has turned his back on the great nation and situated himself at the heart of America’s latest worst enemy: communist Vietnam.

Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is tasked with tracking down the Colonel and killing him. He is now an enemy of the state, accused of murder, and presumed insane. Now, the Americans may not be wrong in labelling Colonel Kurtz as insane, but they struggle to identify what may of caused the insanity in the first place. Is it the horrors of war? Is it the unforgiving surroundings of the jungle? Whatever it is, it is safe to assume that good ol’ American patriotism isn’t to blame. The straight and uniform career path of the Colonel was probably knocked off orbit by something else. Something… un-American.

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Blind to the horrors they’re exacting on the Vietnamese people (also enemies to the American way of life) the American army give Willard the order to “terminate with extreme prejudice”, a spiteful note indicative of American problem solving. If they aren’t with us, they’re against us and if they’re against us they must be stamped out.

So Willard heads out on his mission up the Mekong River. He is given a boat and a crew who aren’t allowed to know the objective, adding a secret to carry along with the duty of killing. The constant whir of choppers overhead like a monotonous tinnitus reminding him that he’s a long way from peace. The slaughter of civilians and the tearing down of their homes. Treating war like a sport you took part in on weekends. That damned smell of napalm in the morning! There are all weights on Willard’s already troubled mind.

Apocalypse Now spends a large period of time following the crew up the river. There’s a run in with a tiger, attacks from camouflaged natives, some canoodling with a couple of Playboy models. But there is one stretch of this journey at a French rubber plantation that seems to really make Willard question his motives and the motives of the American Army. The scene is notoriously long and arguably inconsequential. Characters eat and talk and eat and talk before finally reaching their destination, but for me it serves a purpose significant enough to change how the film articulates its politics.

Over dinner the owners of the plantation talk to Willard of how others see the world: how Vietnam sees the war, how the defeatist French now view war (“Why don’t you American’s learn from us- from our mistakes?”) and how we can reconcile with people we disagree with rather than fighting them. After minutes of this chat we are served a simple summation of American attitudes as opposed to foreign attitudes: “This is something you never understood, you Americans”.

America has never understood and still refuses to understand that there are other ways of communicating with the rest of the world. There is more than right and wrong, black and white, American and un-American. The world is not fought on binary ideologies. “There are two of you, don’t you see. One that kills and one that loves”. This lack of anything in between is something recognised by Francis Ford Coppola and explored interestingly through the eyes of a neutral force in Vietnam.

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When Willard finally makes it to Colonel Kurtz, accompanied by dozens of natives and a rather frantic American photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) we begin to see the cracks of the American psyche open wide to full blown horror. Decapitated heads decorate the jungle surroundings, spear-brandishing natives stand over the arriving crew, and Brando’s hunched, detached Colonel Kurtz slowly eases out of the dark to the shards of blood orange light. The idolised figure spends no time making friends. His insanity seems clear as day to outsiders looking in, though the photojournalist speaks of his genius like he’s some kind of deity.

His defence of the Colonel’s lack of clarity is like listening to a far right activist defend the actions of a white nationalist terrorist. “The Colonel is not crazy. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad”. Though extreme this is a far more rational way of perceiving such behaviour. When a school shooting is committed the conversation is around the sanity of the perpetrator rather than the things that led him to murder innocent people. As with the Colonel the minds of killers are often sound, but it is their ideologies that have been poisoned by a rhetoric that says a world different to yours is wrong.

America identifies these ills as a problem of insanity without realising they’re the cause of the insanity they wish to quell. With the continued occurrence of mass shootings in the U.S, America struggles to see that its own divisions and distinctions between “American” and “un-American” is something that breeds an insanity that they then claim to be un-American. What even is un-American? As far as I can see you’re only ever as un-American as you are American. Like a dog chasing its own tail, with American as the teeth, un-American as the tail and an eternity of missing the point as the rest of the dog.

The rise of the far right, increased violence, incel culture, Trumpism and rising tensions with foreign states are all a culmination of all that it means to be American. The contradictions involved in defending these happenings, along with the pursuit of doing the right thing is something that Apocalypse Now seems to understand perfectly. That there is maybe a place between condemning evils and being the greatest nation on earth (the latter being a delusional, unachievable fantasy) and that we should strive to recognise our own issues without conceding pride.

As Kurtz so aptly puts it “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” You can’t have it both ways, America.


Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut is showing at The Electric Cinema, Birmingham at the end of September.

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Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.