Critical Contrast – The Horror (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This is the second part of Critical Contrast’s look into “The Horror” topic. To read part one click here.

In the first part of Critical Contrast we looked at Heart of Darkness, because when someone told me that the internet’s favourite thing was 19th century prose about the Belgium Ivory trade, I failed to recognise it as sarcasm. But what we’ve done is lain the groundwork for something a little more well known.


1979’s “Apocalypse Now” directed by Francis Ford Coppola, transported Heart’s core themes to the height of the Vietnam war, fusing the story of mankind’s capacity for savagery  (both on an individual and societal basis) with its own cynical critique of one of the US military’s more protracted cock ups. It’s one of the greatest war films ever made, and its twisted mix of 60’s psychedelia and moral ambiguity would go onto define Nam as we know it.

Thanks to Apocalypse Now, everyone knows what Nam was like, even if you weren’t there man. Choppers fly across a burnt orange sky, pumping out Wagner and spraying fiery death on the humid jungles below, as American GIs squat in a purple haze of acid and shellshock, asking the point of it all. From The Deer Hunter to The Simpsons, I wouldn’t be surprised if the financial cost of Nam had been entirely offset by its box office returns.

But it’s not the setting that separates it from the novel- it’s the change in medium that demands the most. As a boarder, multi sensory medium, Apocalypse Now has the need for a consistent pace that Heart of Darkness can ignore in favour of a contemplative, focused exploration of its subject matter and morose, uneasy tone. So in the change from novella to film what is lost, what is preserved, and what is ultimately gained?

Once again there will be spoilers, and if your just jumping in, you’ll have a better time keeping up if you check in here first.

Now then, let’s have some music to confuse the article’s thumbnail image again!

Apocalypse Now

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“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!”
Colonel Walter E Kurtz

The film opens with Marlow’s counterpart, Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), in a similar state to how we left Marlow in the novella- a man who has seen too much. Willard’s past experiences have made him a detached, cynical individual, and unable to return to civilian life, he’s back in Vietnam to locate a rogue American officer; Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

Unlike in Heart, the US military (and thus the viewer) are aware of Kurtz’s unsound methods and rise to godhood amongst the natives from the get go, and firmly believe that Kurtz has gone insane. They want him dealt with quickly and quietly- “terminated with extreme prejudice.”

His mission a secret, Willard joins a Navy Patrol boat commanded by Chief (Albert Hall), and crewed by Lance (Sam Bottoms), Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Mr Clean (Laurence Fishburne), and together begin their journey up the Nung river into neutral Cambodia, Kurtz’s last known location.

The film is again narrated by its protagonist, and sticks to the novella’s sequence of events and their theming; the first half concerning civilisation’s capacity for barbarity before concentrating on Kurtz’s personnel descent.

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However, Apocalypse Now disposes of Heart’s frame narrative, sacrificing Marlow’s character and making Willard more of a cipher. The frame narrative would be too clunky and disjointed for cinematic pacing, but its disposal also allows for an expanded cast list, who provide variety and flavour to the film’s events. “Rock ‘n’ rollers with one foot in their graves”, Lance, Chef and Mr Clean reflect the 60s timeline; the era of free love, drugs and Jimi Hendrix, and unlike the detached Willard, they are still invested in their world around them, and are able to comment and reflect on the film’s events, updated from the novella to fit the film’s critique of the Vietnam War.

The first two acts of the film are littered with examples of the American military’s disregard for the Vietnamese, both their northern enemies and their southern allies. This is best illustrated through Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a larger than life character who cares about surfing, his men, and little else.

Introduced to us recognising the bravery of a Vietnamese man holding his guts in with a bowl, he is distracted by Lance (a famous surfer), leaving the man to die. After a rather involved chat with Lance in the middle of a burning village, he is convinced to decimate another village in the film’s most iconic scene- the helicopter attack to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” so that he and Lance can go surfing. Much like Marlow’s adventures in “the gloomy circle of some Inferno,”  these events imply the US military’s indifference to the natives who they have come to “liberate.”

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From here the crew continue their journey up river, consisting of a number of episodic encounters connected by Willard’s narration; Chef and Willard encounter a tiger in the jungle whilst looking for mangos, the crew witness a USO show featuring the playboy bunnies overrun by sex starved GIs, and Chief insists on a routine inspection of a small boat, paranoia leading to the Vietnamese owner’s deaths.

In the Interim, Willard attempts to reconcile the Colonel Kurtz he has been sent to kill with the man depicted in the dossiers he reads throughout the journey. Much like Marlow, he begins to admire the Colonel from afar.

They say that if you remember the 60s you weren’t really there, and Apocalypse Now takes this idea of hallucinogenic uncertainty and twists it as we follow the crew’s descent into humanity’s evil nature. This twisted mix of period music and bad trip ambiguity is a major part of the film’s interpretation of the novella’s tense, mysterious prose.

Apocalypse Now relies heavily on its chiaroscuro lighting, eerie electro ambient music, and groundbreaking stereo sound design to replicate the feeling of the novella, and whilst each technique is used throughout the film, they are best illustrated when the shaken crew reach the Do Lung bridge towards the end of act 2, shown here:

The video is quiet, not the best quality, and the image is flipped because copyright, but the it gets the point across.

The scene’s lighting creates ambiguity in its darkness, and the flashes of harsh, white light stops the viewer’s eyes adjusting, forcing them to rely on the harsh soundscape of the battlefield and Carmine Coppola’s ghostly score- its circus like melody unnervingly farcical when compared to what little of the warzone can be made out in silhouette. When these are gone, the audience is drawn in completely to the sound of the dying man in the dark, and the slow, dispassionate horror of its execution. Its haunting and evocative and strange, and like Lance, stumbling high as a kite through its entirety, it’s like we have felt everything but learnt nothing, and we emerge, deeply unsettled and uncertain. Dark, eerie, and unknowable- like Heart of Darkness at its strongest.

The next day, Lance attracts an unseen enemy’s attention, and Clean is killed. Further down the river the natives attack again, and Chief is impaled with a spear, mirroring the death of the helmsmen in the novella. This leaves Willard, Chef, and an increasingly withdrawn Lance to find Kurtz’ base.

After meeting a near identical rendition of Heart’s Russian (this time an American photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper), Willard is captured, Chef beheaded, and Lance is drawn into the ranks of Kurtz’s native army, as we finally meet the man himself, who speaks personally to Willard for the rest of the film.

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Famously, Coppola had envisaged a lean, powerful Kurtz; an imposing physical presence. What he got was a fat Marlon Brando who hadn’t learned any of his lines. The script was rewritten, and Coppola downplayed Brando’s weight by dressing him in black, photographing only his face, and having a taller, not fat actor double for him.

The final effect however is spectacular. Even upon finally meeting Kurtz he is obscured to us. Wreathed in shadow spouting disjointed soliloquies of pain and suffering, we never get a true feeling for him, with only the highly unreliable photojournalist providing a sense of purpose to his actions. Like his physical presence, Kurtz’s character is more ambiguous and nuanced than in the novella; conflicted and prone to rambling. He’s seen terrible things, and the film suggests the inner struggles of a man wants an end to the horrors of war by any means necessary, no matter how savage his methods.

In the below video, we see Kurtz trying to reconcile the ideas of savagery and control, whilst demonstrating that he’s too far gone to truly recognise either:

Ultimately, Willard decides to complete his mission and assassinate Kurtz with a machete whilst his army ceremonially slaughters a water buffalo. With his dying breath, Kurtz once again utters the iconic line:

” ‘The horror! The horror!’ “

seeing their leader is dead, the army of natives bow down to Willard, and allow him to take Lance by the hand and lead him back to the boat, and they leave as the screen fades to black to Kurtz’s final words. A chipper ending that embodies the film’s greatest strengths- its ambiguity.

As a novella, Heart’s prose remained the same throughout Marlow’s journey into darkness, but Apocalypse Now uses its multi sensory medium not only to tell us of this descent, but to show it, to hear it, and to feel it. The film goes from bright, sweeping vistas to claustrophobic interiors shrouded in darkness, and as the visuals grow darker, the soundtrack goes from immersive but unobtrusive, to commanding and surreal. Unlike Marlow in the novella, we don’t see the detached Willard and surfer Lance again- no return from their ordeal. Its left to the audience to decide if they returned for some much needed RnR, or if they succumbed to the savage methods afforded to them away from society’s checks. A society where the old send the young to drop fire on a dehumanized enemy and die for a cause they don’t understand.

And they had to listen to Surfin Bird.

Next time we tie off this run of CC with Spec Ops: The Line, and see how our charming set of themes fare when taken out of the hands of novelists and directors, and into the uncertain, culpable hands of the players.

Then I might do something a bit less heavy.

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