“Sell the house. Sell the car. Sell the kids. I’m never coming back.”
Willard, Kurtz and Coppola: Going Native
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now displays violence in the most extreme case: war. One could argue the justifiable means for this violence but the main culprit of this violence is political. American capitalism is at the root for both the violence of war and the violence of the individuals portrayed in the film. The similarities between both the film and Coppola himself as a director are best shown through the manipulation of politics and greed as a means for a measure of success. The theory of capitalism allows these characters free reign over their respective arenas. As a result, rampant violence and atrocious crimes are committed without any sense of repercussion. Apocalypse Now is thus consciously or unconsciously reflecting the state of American politics through the gross state of violence and accumulation of wealth in these two sects of American life. When considering this film as an American classic by critics and moviegoers alike, the question that remains is why is this regarded as such? Is Apocalypse Now a film famous for its cinematography, sound, acting or its content? Perhaps the agenda of the American hero displayed through Martin Sheen’s character Benjamin Willard in Apocalypse Now and Francis Ford Coppola in his directorial defeat in this film exemplifies the characteristics of an American hero and fulfillment of the American dream which furthermore allow the reader to idealize the violence and capitalist agenda of the movie to propel these sects of society.
War films are unarguably pervasive throughout American culture. However, narrowing down the reasons why these films are so popular becomes the true question. Are these films idolized because we as a culture are fascinated by the lure of money, power and violence? Could there be something else to the hold these films have over our society? Perhaps they represent the ideal, a way around the classic ventures for gaining power. They present a rebel assertion to the basic ideal of American success and subvert this vision into a new American dream derived from violence and the basic components of American greed and capitalism. This type of illegal and legal means towards success seem alluring but the truth becomes apparent based on the vivid deterioration seen in this film, most clearly in Kurtz and Willard in Apocalypse Now. The realization of the cost of power and money through the use of brute violence is perhaps not worth the sacrifice these men are willing to take. Once the facts of what in necessary to sustain this illegal source of power is learned, it is not so coveted. If this is so, and true at the end of this film then why are they still idealized in popular culture?
Both Colonel Walter Kurtz and Captain Benjamin Willard are men who seem to be fairly indifferent to their plights. Kurtz in his present condition would rather not be involved with the orders of the military at all and as far as Benjamin is concerned he is merely a pawn for the army by the time he completes his mission. However, at the end of their respective roles these two men end up more disillusioned and different than the men we saw at the beginning, this is because of their rare ability or circumstance to see inside the vehicle of violence. These men are desensitized to a point and deeply disturbed at another. They must suppress what they have learned to survive but the possibility of this task is unclear to both the character and the viewer. What is clear is the relationship between these two characters as they are thrust into capitalistic ventures that they are not prepared to understand and thus fall victim to its logic.
American capitalism is defined as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market” (Merriam-Webster). Capitalism exists as a system that requires rigid uniformity and command at the top tier and then a trickle down effect of individuals in the middle to enforce the command from the top to the very bottom levels of society. Money and investments are privatized so that politicians are working more for corporations than they are for the good of the people and as a result the general population is not regarded as highly as a unit but rather for what the individual can make and thus do for the corporation or government as a whole.
“The fact that the principal “resource” involved was man himself, that he was an entity of a specific nature with specific capacities and requirements, was given the most superficial attention, if any. Man was regarded simply as one of the factors of production, along with the land, forests, or mines” (Rand 1).
It is reasonable to assume that if America is a capitalist nation, that it regards its population as workers and thus rungs in the latter of a market economy. With this in mind, we must relate this to how the military figures into this equation. If even the population of America is considered to be mere agents to capital, then it is reasonable to argue that the same government views all endeavors and peoples as a vehicle towards capital. As a result, the indifference of America’s leaders towards their own population manifests itself in the violence we see in Apocalypse Now against the entire Vietnamese population and the expense of American life. The greed and power of the American capitalist system is what places both Willard and Kurtz in the situations they find themselves in. They are unable to rebel successfully because the government is too powerful for them to exist without the tension of capitalism, Kurtz is ultimately killed and sacrificed to escape permanently from his knowledge of this world’s horrors and Willard sacrifices his sanity and conscious to live through his journey down the river.
All aspects of military and military engagements display these characteristics of American capitalism almost to the letter. For example, at the open of the film we see Martin Sheen’s character, a man clearly unable to live life in a normal setting from our first onscreen encounter with him in the very beginning of the film. A man, who in any other world would be considered sick and unfit for responsibility, is willingly pushed into a mission which at its very core, is pure American capitalism. It is a mission to save the power of the government. When Marlon Brando’s character, Kurtz, successfully goes off the beaten trail to complete his mission he is considered a war criminal. However, we later learn that he has gone insane; the government in this beginning scene does not know the full situation and is thus not completely certain of this fact when his death is ordered. What the leaders we see informing Willard know of for certain is that they have a highly decorated military man who was not following orders, but was still achieving the goal of the military engagement. This becomes unacceptable and the mission to kill Kurtz is put into motion through Willard, a man who seems completely unable to complete the task ahead of him and yet somehow accomplishes the goal at the sake of his own sanity.
“Saigon…shit; I’m still only in Saigon … Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission…getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I look around the walls moved in a little tighter” (Coppola).
Willard, in a voiceover which leads the viewer to understand that these thoughts are happening in hindsight for our protagonist, clearly mark his instability and confusion for any aspect of life that does not spring from a source of violence. Violence is what he understands and what he has come to expect and yet the extreme violence he encounters is even worse than what he had expected, thus solidifying the power of the capital seeking government to which he is a pawn for. As a result, living a normal life in a room with four walls frightens him as much as warfare would frighten a civilian. “Coppola presents Vietnam as a nightmare extension of American society where only a marginal individual may preserve the American ideal” (Hellman 438). The director takes his protagonist Willard on a maddening journey through the jungle that as the film progresses changes his perceptions entirely of himself and the world that has been created for him. Perhaps the “nightmare” Coppola has created is actually something that has always existed but has merely manifested the effects through warfare, this being capitalism and the violence that results from the greed and power of the system. Without the extreme need for power and money, the violence we see in this film would not be necessary.
The first scene with Willard in the hotel room in Saigon presents a man who immediately seems unhinged at best acting out by screaming, crying and flailing about his room drunk. We hear through voice-over of his past and current struggles; which stem directly from his first tour in Vietnam. We know he is an assassin of some variety but the specifics are never divulged directly. What is essential to understanding this scene is the torture that this man already experiences even before the action and true story of the film unfolds.
“Moving through the room in T’ai Chi Chuan figures, he steps up the mirror, looks at himself, and smashes the glass with his fist. This was not exactly in the script: Coppola had wanted Sheen to look in the mirror, as “a way of focusing him on himself, to bring out the personality by creating a sense of vanity.” And, as Coppola is quick to explain, ‘that’s what he punched: his vanity’” (Hansen 123).
Martin Sheen as Captain Willard punches the mirror because vanity is not even an option in this setting. Personal opinion of oneself has no place in a film about war and furthermore in a film about the inherent madness associated with war. The character of Willard has no acceptance of the personal self except for the greater good of the war effort. His personal self is in shambles so instead of recuperating he rededicates himself to the military in a feeble attempt to feel anything.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another” (Coppola).
However, in this attempt, Willard discovers worse atrocities than he had encountered before which leave him in a state that is completely disconnected from the sect he had rejoined in this beginning scene. Rather than reporting his location in the last scene of the film, Willard turns off the radio on the boat, symbolizing his rededication perhaps to the world rather than the world of American politics and the brute force that is synonymous with the system of capitalism he is now separating himself from.
As the plot carries on Willard becomes more disenfranchised with the war as he sees Colonel Kilgore attack a village for the pure sake of the surf. Rather than take a safe route, Kilgore seeks the excitement of the attack and the prospect of good surf. What Willard begins to realize from this encounter is actually his state of confusion and what he still does not know. Willard begins to understand the fact that he knows nothing compared to what he thought he did. He does not know how deep the war goes, how terrible it is, and how unnecessary the actions are, even though he thought it was as terrible as it could get at the films open in the Saigon hotel room. There are men surfing and drinking beer while their fellow soldiers are dying.
“These scenes are grotesque and bizarre, violations of decorum, out of place in a war film and by extension out of place in war itself which is a serious business. At a superficial level Coppola is aware of this and is using the fact that they don’t fit to characterize the folly of this particular war. But, why don’t they fit? Each scene ends with an identical tag. When Kilgore’s men resist his order to go out and surf, fearing the enemy, he screams, “Charlie doesn’t surf!” … these tags illustrate the often made point, the recognition of which places Willard in a positive light, namely, that war is about soldiering” (Steier 118)
This is an extreme form of indulgence but what stands out in this scene is Willard. His silence and his close up shots highlight his disapproval for what is happening around him. This disapproval allows the viewer to visually see that Willard is one of the good guys; he does not fall in line with the likes of Kilgore. This wartime decadence we see, and that Willard begins to detest, is a manifestation of the atrocities that are committed by the orders of the government, to kill and to win. Power is the driving force and as such there are certain liberties taken to compensate the mind and body for the unspeakable acts committed, here surfing fits the bill. "Someday this war's gonna end". That'd be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren't looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I'd been back there, and I knew that it just didn't exist anymore” (Coppola). Willard, speaking from the future, is articulating the fact that home will never exist for these young men again after what they have experienced. They will never be able to acclimate back into American culture after they have invaded the façade of American life by witnessing first hand the sins of their government abroad and then realizing these same manifestations on American soil.
Another form of the gross political force and capitalist influences of this film are that the production and effects of the film make it is easy for the fact that the film is based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to be lost on the viewer. However, this fact is an important one to remember when viewing the film, especially in relation to capitalism. “Heart of Darkness” is about England’s tactics for power and colonialism throughout its reign. The text chronicles one man’s struggle to understand the need for colonialism and how and why he feels like an outsider among the other soldiers stationed in Africa to colonize under the same guise as he is. In this context then, the connection between Willard and Marlow of “Heart of Darkness” are fairly apparent and clear cut. Not only are these connections between warfare and colonization overt forms of power and wealth but also the connections between what Marlow and Willard discover from their respective assignments.
“While the journey downriver in Apocalypse Now adopts parallel development in “Heart of Darkness” of the protagonist’s growing repulsion from his society and increasing attraction to Kurtz, this pattern is once again specifically presented” (Hellman 433).
The underbelly of capitalism is what these two men find and neither text offers a conclusion or an answer to the troubles that colonization and/or capitalism present for them and for society in general. The simple fact that Coppola chose to base his film on such a classic novel of colonialism speaks to his intentions for the film itself.
“The river journey in “Apocalypse Now” is full of allusions to southern California … with the major episodes of this trip through Vietnam centering around the surfing, rock music, go-go dancing, and drug-taking associated with the west coast culture of the time. As a result, the river journey drawn from the “Heart of Darkness” takes the detective and viewer, not through Vietnam as a separate culture, but through Vietnam as the resisting object of hallucinatory self-projection of the American culture” (Hellman 431).
The comparison to southern California in the jungle of Vietnam underlines the pervasiveness the capitalistic culture. The fact that a world away there still exits elements of laid back American culture actually defines for the viewer how pervasive the corruption of the war actually is. For Willard, the war is certainly self-destructive for society but his character is also self-destructive in its nature which exemplifies his participation in these actions and is what makes his final rejection of this society all the more impactful. He, like the river journey, is inescapable in the sense that he is unable to remove himself from his own destructive self and he is also unable to remove himself from the cycle of war that he has been placed into. Bringing American culture to Vietnam is supposed to help the men feel like they are at home and thus reinforcing the home ideal rather than an ideal of the new culture. However, presenting American ideals in this way actually subvert them and allow characters like Willard to become disgusted with the animalistic actions of his peers.
Concrete examples of the decadence of capitalism transported to wartime arenas are exhibited in two key scenes. The first being the air conditioned, lavish trailer scene in the beginning of the film in which Willard receives his orders. The trailer is decorated like a home or expensive office and almost entirely transports the viewer into a suburban American home anywhere in the United States. He is given his orders in this place where decadence is an understatement even in the “uncivilized” jungles of south East Asia.
“Willard in the Vietnam setting becomes traumatized by the apparent decadence of his society and so searchers for the grail of its lost purposeful idealism. Kurtz represents that idealism and finally the horrific self- awareness of its hollowness” (Hellmann 431).
The decadence described is the inordinate amount of money and resources wasted on making men of wealth and good standing comfortable when the real issues like fighting a humane war are left on the back burner. The second example of this decadence is the scene in which the Playboy Playmates are flown in for a USO show. Yes, these shows are offered as a morale booster and yet our protagonist is left with a feeling of weakness and annoyance. This is an unwelcome stop for him on the way to complete his mission. A fellow service man even attempts to charge extra for gas and cigarettes until he learns that the men requesting the items necessary for war are needed by Willard, only then are the items released. It is curious that the items needed for survival are withheld here when the lavish pleasure and comfortable accommodations are given out freely, even in this time of anxiety and panic. It is interesting that there is such a level of decadence among the near destitute scenes on the riverboat.
“After leaving the USO show where he has seen profiteering and dehumanized sex … he [Willard] comments in voice-over: ‘” The war has being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away” “ (Hellman 434).
As the viewer can see as the story progresses, Willard is becoming more distant than he already was and if possible, more jaded and confused. The further he goes into the jungle the more deceit, murder, crime, violence, and pure decadence can be seen in different ways. It is only once he reaches Kurtz at the end of the film is the ultimate version of this madness revealed; Although Kurtz’s madness may spring from the same form of madness Willard himself is beginning to fall victim to.
Just as Willard is becoming more confused by the things he sees, there is evidence to suggest that perhaps there are others like him. For example, Captain Colby was instructed to perform the same mission as Willard but was unable to do so. Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that like Willard, Colby became more and more sympathetic to the unrestrained actions of Kurtz. While his methods are not exactly sound, there is a desirable quality about them in that Kurtz is operating outside of the law to get things done efficiently. “Willard’s quest … becomes an investigation of not just corrupted American reality but of the American view of its ideal self” (Hellman 432). Like Kurtz, Willard’s quest shifts towards justice and the film hints at Willard’s wavering attitude towards whether it is moral to kill Kurtz for doing something so many others are doing, i.e. being a war criminal.
How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this difference to me, but it did. Shit... charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? (Coppola)
Willard’s indifference to the mission adds to the speculation that he may not be as committed to the mission once he learns of Kurtz’s methods for taking action. However, once he sees the compound this thought changes, not just because of the heinous condition of the compound but the depths of insanity Kurtz’s level of knowledge and understanding of the world of war entails
Kurtz’s atrocious lifestyle in Cambodia has become lavish in its penchant for killing and torture. What makes Kurtz a war criminal is not his fondness for killing though. We see through Kilgore that killing for the sake of the kill is not considered a war crime in this war. What makes Kurtz so unfavorable to those who order his death is the fact that he is insane because of what the military has forced him to do. Kurtz does not commit these crimes out of his own insanity but rather a learned state of insanity to cope with what he has been forced to do by those who know wish him dead. “The film succeeds in forcing us to experience the horror of the war and to acknowledge our own complicity in it, but it fails to illuminate the nature of Kurtz’s horror” (Kinder 13). His inability to handle the actions necessary in this war scar his humanity and in way proves Willard’s humanity as well because of their mutual understanding of each other. Both Willard and Kurtz are truly understood by no one and yet it seems that there is a certain level of understanding between these two men that set them apart from the other characters in the film. Capitalism and American politics relate to this mutual relationship in the sense that Kurtz was a compliant member of this political machine before he started his tour in Vietnam. Willard embodies this theory though his ultimate killing of Kurtz, he is saving a man who needs to be saved from himself. Willard does not kill Kurtz because he has been ordered to. Kurtz is killed because it is what is best for Kurtz himself.
Kurtz: Are you an assassin?
Willard: No, I’m a solider.
Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy for grocery clerks to collect the price. (Coppola).
The film does not give a strong enough sense that we are supposed to view Kurtz as a villain or a criminal. Willard’s sympathy with Kurtz through his dossier and from the dozens of heinous crimes he sees and takes part in during his journey allows him to align himself, even momentarily, with Kurtz thus making the film sympathetic to the character of Kurtz even if this was not Coppola’s intention.
“Although Coppola succeeds in creating an overpowering sensuous experience of the war’s madness – perhaps better than any previous war films – he confuses the moral issues, perhaps because of his drive to personalize the material. In identifying so strongly with Kurtz, he distorts the issue of power and upsets the delicate balance between the Conrad story and the subject of Vietnam” (Kinder 13).
Where Coppola’s visual representation of war is a testimony to his talent and cinematography skills his plot and structure fail in representing the inner turmoil of war in a way, which is clear to the viewer who is at fault for these actions and the resulting destructive emotions of the characters he has created.
Willard, after killing Kurtz realizes what he has just done, that he has killed someone who he very easily could have turned into himself. Since Willard has realized in fact how deep the atrocities of war goes as Kurtz did, he could have simply acted out in violence but instead we see him in shock. Perhaps Kurtz’s radio transmissions were his own shock, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream; that's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor... and surviving” (Coppola). Kurtz is drawing upon this image to imply his own pain, constantly hinging on the delicate balance between pain and safety. The worry of turning yourself into ruin is what ultimately kills him and is what ultimately pushes Willard into his state of intense shock and disconnectedness. “They were gonna make me a Major for this, and I wasn’t even in their fuckin’ Army anymore” (Coppola). Willard realizes the importance of what he has just done for his superiors but this fact does not matter to him anymore. The understanding for Willard is that he killed a man who was made insane by the men at the top who ordered his death, now he must deal with what he has done and has seen on the way to complete his mission. “"Never get out of the boat." Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin' all the way... Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin' program” (Coppola). Kurtz “got off the boat” in the sense that he no longer played the game of the military, he did what he saw fit and was right based on the situation, not what he was told to do. As a result, in the view of the leaders of the military he was killed for this. From the perspective of Kurtz and Willard, Kurtz was killed because he could no longer live with the knowledge that he had learned throughout his tour in Vietnam, and the implication is that eventually Willard will not be able to live with this knowledge either.
It is curious how the movie, which came out in 1979 just four years after the 1975 end date of the Vietnam war, was made on such a large scale taking extra time and resources to get the film into production and finally make its way to theaters. What becomes so interesting about this fact is the parallel between the capitalism and madness as a result of war that is depicted in the film and the similarities between widespread capitalism in relation to the director, Coppola himself.
“As a stunning example of a vampire capitalism, “Apocalypse Now” not only recapitulates the labor involved in producing spectacular acts of mass violence, but it also submerges Coppola’s cast and crew into the neocolonial power relations of Southeast Asia that organized the Vietnam War as well. Thus it is not only the well-know characters of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) in “Apocalypse Now” who go native and internalize the violence of Vietnam, but the film itself also restages a descent into primitiveness that marks its own peculiar version of the beating fantasy of Vietnam” (Chong 154).
While this does not tie directly into the characterization of the film, it does however allow the viewer to understand how deeply capitalism is tied to American culture. The connection between the characters can be made through the director himself. Coppola set out to make a film about the atrocities of war, while ironically doing the same thing to the people and tribes of the Philippines by exploiting their resources and tribes of natives with his ornate and arguably over-the-top production demands. A film that cost thirty-one million dollars to make should perhaps look more deeply into itself before placing any judgment on a highly controversial war deemed unnecessary by Americans of the 1960s and 1970s. I wonder if Coppola had enough to say to risk his fortune on a movie that so strongly parallels the troubled makings of the Vietnam War itself. Perhaps capitalism and greed are at the root of these problems, the only reason the Vietnam War eventually ended after years of wasted money and military presence was the fact that violence was involved in the war and not in the production of a film about the war itself.
Accounts of Coppola’s actions during the production of Apocalypse Now mirror those of the fictional characters Kurtz’s and Kilgore’s in the film, who are meant to resemble figures pushed to insanity from the constant threat of violence and the widespread inhumanity around them for the sake of freedom, i.e. money and power. Just as Kilgore acted for notoriety and privilege at the hands of American capitalism, so did Coppola.
“Coppola’s obsession with power is manifested in every scene. The director moves entire armies and hundreds of machines before our eyes. Temples are napalmed, helicopters and bridges are blown up at the whim and will of a single man who takes upon his shoulders the heroic responsibility of doing justice to the war, who manipulates all the power that thirty million dollars gives him. He is aware enough of this to cast himself as the newsreel director, but that doesn’t prevent him from doing the same things he makes fun of throughout the rest of the film” (Steier 122)
Coppola employs the same level of hypocrisy to create his work as the American government and military used to create and fuel the Vietnam War. The only difference is that Coppola is praised. While certainly Coppola did not kill thousands of innocent people as the War did, he did allow the same level of capitalistic greed that the American government allowed in their war effort in the making of his film. He allowed himself to go insane in search of a perfect ending to a story that has no perfect ending; there is no perfect ending in war. Coppola contests that, “This isn’t a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam” (Ebert). This vast statement embodies Coppola’s grand vision for his film but also the fact that his film is a machine not an art.
Coppola, Kurtz and Willard represent men driven to madness from the effects of greed and capitalism. While Coppola’s madness was temporary and came from his own personal greed for money and power, Kurtz’s and Willard’s are different in several aspects. Willard and Kurtz suffered at the hands of the injustices of the American government through their capitalistic venture in Vietnam. As a result, these two men were allowed to slip into madness at the hands of their own government for the sake of capitalism and colonialism. The spread of wealth is what is essential here, not the spread of humanity or democracy. Willard’s ending on the boat is open-ended and allows us to speculate his end. However, based on the end of his arguable counterpart, Kurtz, we know his end is not the American dream he left behind in the states before his first deployment. There is finality for Willard in the final scene that is not exactly optimistic, it seems just as insane and disconnected as Kurtz was and we can’t expect from the way Willard has been trained that he will end up any different. Perhaps the real reason these war films are so pervasive in American culture is because of the understanding that war is inhumane and yet unavoidable as a result of the system we have created.
Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis F. Coppola. United Artists, 1979. DVD.
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