Coppola’s classic is considered by some to be the greatest war film of all time
A great cliché about war states that it brings out the best and worst in humanity. War results in a situation where the rules are thrown out, safeguards are dropped, and the extremes are allowed into the mainstream since “war is a continuation of politics by other means” as Clausewitz said long ago. Cruelty, treachery, kindness, heroism, are all amplified and become more prominent on this horrific stage. The Arab word “Jihad” is quite poignant when it comes to matters of war since it refers to both an internal and external struggle. And it’s precisely the essence of this dual-front battle that makes Apocalypse Now more than just a great war movie.
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Vietnam War setting serves as the external struggle and the backdrop to the more important battle, the one inside the soul.
Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) represents the inner struggle of the soul. A very talented and intelligent man, the tragedy of the war shakes the philosophical underpinning of his being and makes him reevaluate his entire existence. This reflection leads him to strip his identity old identity away and build a new one better suited to his new self. Yet his movement from the old to the new isn’t complete and the arrival of Captain (Marting Sheen) only reinforces the conflict within him. Coppola’s ambiguity nevertheless suggests that Kurtz is cognizant of the purpose behind Willard’s visit and blesses his own liquidation by his hands. Kurtz’s approval of his own slaughter demonstrates that he himself has no control over his own self even while he serves as a God-King over a tribe of hill natives who quake in fear of him. Therefore his elimination is seen not only as necessary, but as a release from the torment that he is going through.
Conrad’s novella was an attack on the brutality of European colonialism and Coppola merely substituted the Americans in place of them in his work. Is the assertion then that far away foreign wars are madness? It certainly seems that way.
John McCain and Col. Kurtz
Often derided by far-right types as a Manchurian Candidate, presidential hopeful John McCain shares with Col. Kurtz his megalomania. McCain has publicly stated that the “War on Terror” could last 100 years and has lashed out and threatened Russia over Georgia. A hawk’s hawk, McCain holds the belief that the USA is entitled to overthrow any regime it sees fit to overthrow. Like Kurtz, McCain has a loyal and fanatical base upon which to draw should the need arise. Yet McCain lacks Kurtz’s intellectualism and reflection. Kurtz’s ending words were “the horror, the horror”, which succinctly described his mental state and his attitude towards the violence in his midst. Does McCain ever reflect on what kinds of horrors he will unleash should he follow his words on foreign policy? In short, is Kurtz a more decent man than McCain, or has McCain not traveled as far into the jungle as Kurtz in order to come to the latter’s conclusion?
Coppola Reflects on Apocalypse Now 30 Years Later
Here are a few quotes from director Coppola on his masterwork:
The hardest thing in movie-making is to replace an actor. I’ve done it only once or twice. Harvey is a wonderful actor, totally different in approach and style to Martin. But given what I felt the character had to convey, I was convinced that he was wrong for what I wanted to do. There’d be many roles perhaps in which I would replace Martin with Harvey, as they are both wonderful actors and good people. It was a judgment call. It was difficult, but I do not think I was wrong. Something I am very grateful for is that this difficult moment did not cost me Harvey’s friendship – which shows what a fine and generous person he is, as well as a dedicated actor.
I spent several days with Marlon discussing the themes of the film and the specifics of the role of Kurtz (whom Brando had asked to rename Leighly). Marlon repeatedly resisted the idea that we could do the sequence in a manner following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I was proposing. He said adapting the novella wouldn’t work and came up with all sorts of thoughts, some relevant, some not, about which way we should go.
So I just sat patiently, worried though I was, listening and discussing many things with him, recording them and studying them later. Finally, after more than a week of this (I only had three weeks of his time), he showed up and I was shocked: he had shaved his head, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. I knew that meant he had come around to doing the role more like the novella, which he had always insisted wouldn’t work. I said: “But Marlon, you said it wouldn’t work to do it like Heart of Darkness – you said you had read it and thought it wouldn’t work.” And he said: “I lied.” He had only read it for the first time that night. From that moment, we went into high gear and did what we could.