Apocalypse Now: The End of the River
With a famously troubled production, and Marlon Brando just as infamously difficult on set, how did Francis Ford Coppola manage to sculpt cinema's greatest villain?
Marlon Brando’s Kurtz’s thin arm extends commandingly from a murky shadow, his eyes that of an apparition shining far in his bony head as he nods with grotesque jerks. His body emerges from that darkness pitiful and appalling, the animated image of death carved from old ivory, skin dark and shimmering bronze. He opens his mouth wide as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. Then his voice, more present than himself, speaks from the shadow: we can scarcely imagine these remnants of a man doing all of the things he’s accused of. But his voice – disconnected from his deflated body – streams forth and illuminates the impenetrable darkness of the room.
He is Icarus drowning in the swollen river. His melted wax wings and scorched ego struggle against the vengeful current. Like a fallen Titan, Kurtz trembles under his own weight. What do you do when you look into your own soul and find nothing but darkness? When there are no green flashing exit signs to find your way out? You rot.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is less a film that has been carefully crafted but hammered together, beaten and bullied into its final form. Playing like a half-remembered recollection of Joseph Conrad’s journey in Heart of Darkness rather than a straight adaptation. It skins the story alive, gnawing at whatever fat is left on its frail bones - a complete cannibalisation of the original text - and uses the jagged carcass as a container for the madness of the Vietnam War. As Conrad’s Marlow becomes Martin Sheen’s Willard, sent on a mission upriver to assassinate Brando’s Kurtz, the tangle of trees and flora swallows up any semblance of a horizon. Bathed in a perpetually orange, lambent sky (sizzling from both heat and napalm), Willard’s lonely desolation feels at first absurd against the howling sorrow and beastly, savage sigh of the jungle. Though, as Willard chugs along the river towards Kurtz’s compound, a mysterious aura is built up around him in both Willard's and our own fragile imagination: the result of a war he has no control over. For Willard, at first, a job is a job, and – really – how many of us actually understand the purpose of our work beyond the paycheck and simple routine? But further and further down the river, closer and closer to the darkest corners of his soul, Willard begins to question if Kurtz, who has become “enlightened” and abandoned his superiors, may not be insane. Or, as he later puts it, if "what is often called ‘ruthless’ . . . may, in many circumstances, be only clarity".
The whole movie builds to Kurtz’s introduction. And as Willard and Kurtz come finally face-to-face, the film exhales. Where once the bushes shook, where the grass swayed it now stands still, with scenes so slow they border on worship. Brando strikes a figure halfway between a man and a God, the still centre of darkness. Struggling blindly with himself, alone in the wilderness, his soul looked within itself and had gone mad. On the river, Willard encountered, as Conrad wrote, “the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
Right from the beginning, the Admirals talk about Kurtz as if talking about a ghost: “I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.” It is as if they are already talking about a memory of Kurtz. And in a sense, he is, wherein Willard’s journey upriver to physically kill him is a mere formality. But what Willard finds instead, amidst this carnival of savagery, is himself, separate from any mission or purpose. He glimpses what Kurtz had already been staring down – flying Icarian too close to the heat of a certain truth about man and nature – that he is unable to sustain that life of exhausting emptiness, succumbing to the temptation of "forgotten and brutal instincts" after he deserted his society.
“Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”
This is the abstract concept of war at large. What happens when that war moves inward? What does it mean to be a “great” man, Nietzsche wondered? Kurtz became impervious to morality, and this brought him closer to a God than man, reaching out to the divine, to be beyond good and evil. Yet this brutality unravels a possible paradise: everywhere ripped and torn corpses are piled up. His “haven” is a sort of Dante’s circle, a world where glory and madness feed off each other and are perhaps one and the same (though the same could be said of the war itself). And so, his death comes inevitably, with the sacredness of a sacrifice, a slaughter juxtaposed with the butchering of a bull. And Willard floats off back downriver, in an ending that is uncertain, but perfectly so. Back to the moral anarchy of his own destiny. The horror, indeed.