I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time yesterday, and was impressed by the depth of its’ exploration of morality, war, human-nature, and sanity. It may very well be among my all-time favorite movies, right in line with Fight Club, The Dark Knight, The Matrix, and Interstellar. Discussing the film with others however, I realized how easy it could be for the film to appear to be simply a bizarre, unrealistic war movie. Worse still, it’s packed with enough explosions at the beginning to trick the mind into expecting an action movie before letting down the primed adrenal glands in a truly infuriating fashion for the remainder of the two-hour story. The following is a summary of the story [PLOT SPOILERS], and an interpretation of its’ underlying message.
Apocalypse–noun: the complete, final destruction of the world; an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale. The film opens and closes on the same eerie, beautiful track by The Doors, The End. The end of what?
“The End” of the beginning plays over Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard, suffering a psychological breakdown, appearing very much as though some atavistic, primordial inner being is trying to break out of his skin. Through Willard’s own narration, the viewer learns that he has killed many people, and strangely, feels that he is wasting away–“becoming weaker”–as he sits idly in his hotel room. One wonders whether it is the Captain or the animal inside who is worried, and why becoming weaker is something to be concerned about. Here already is the first indicator of the underlying theme of the story, as a kind of Mr. Hyde takes over Sheen’s portrayal of a Vietnam veteran variant of Dr. Jekyll. The notion of the duality of man is much older than 1979, or the 1899 Africa familiar to Joseph Conrad, around which Apocalypse Now was written. Notions of humans transforming into beasts–Werewolves, for instance–are as old as man-kind itself. Indeed, Robert Eisler’s 1949 “Man into Wolf” thesis positing the animalistic tendencies of some of our primitive, primate ancestors, argues convincingly that a werewolf, historically, was nothing more than a human giving way to their chimpanzee instincts, that personality latent in the older parts of our brain that can turn humans into monsters. The unconvincing part of his thesis is the idea that it is only some sub-segment of mankind haunted by this wolfish ghost. Modern psychology, thanks mostly to Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, has shown that we all have a little bit of canine in us. “Homo Homini Lupus,” as the citizens of Rome (founded by wolf-children Remus and Romulus) might have said.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
We will examine the presumption that the wolf within us is “evil,” and the presumption that these two entities living within the same body is “insane,” a bit further into the movie.
The story truly begins–the call to adventure is heard–when Willard receives new orders. A special forces soldier named Kurtz, seemingly perfect not only as a soldier, but as a man, has gone rogue deep in the heart of the jungle. Accused of murdering several South-Vietnamese, Kurtz has embraced “unsound tactics,” going native, and even becoming a sort of deity among the natives. He is completely beyond the control of command, and so “his command must be terminated.” This awkward euphemism for “he must be assassinated” subtly peels back the first layer of another theme of the story, that of honesty.
The subject is truly opened up wide when Willard observed: “It’s a way we had over here of living with ourselves. We cut ’em in half with a machine gun and give ’em a Band Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.” Willard says this a while after reading a letter Kurtz had sent to his family, where Kurtz claims to be “beyond their timid, lying morality.”
What is it that makes their morality dishonest?
From their desks, the army bureaucrats seem to either not know or have forgotten what a soldier is called upon to do. A soldier’s job–his essence–is, as another famous Vietnam movie had it’s young trainees chant, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Wandering up the Nong river, Willard likened charging soldiers with murder to handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500. They call upon soldiers to win a war, but demonize as abhorrent and “unsound” the wolf a man has to become in order to fight that war with the strength necessary to win. For them, that side of human nature is inherently evil, as Robert Eisler claimed it to be, and expected their soldiers to fight against a brutal enemy with the dignity of men in peacetime. But in the chaotic reality of real combat, trying to behave in a moral manner will only get you killed. Murder–the initiating crime of Willard’s expedition up the Nong–is already the most universally immoral crime, and yet is also the heart of warfare. Fighting itself begins beyond the borders of peacetime morality, and attempting to win a war with the constraints of peacetime morality is like bringing a knife to a gun-fight.
There can be rules to warfare which, if followed by both sides, could theoretically restrict the overall cost of the conflict. These rules allow for crimes that are impermissible in peacetime, like killing, while restricting practices that, if allowed, would be mutually detrimental, like mutilation and torture. This is the default position that most soldiers and most people begin with, including Colonel Kurtz. But the ultimate goal of fighting in a war still must be to win, because all other moral notions humans have constructed over the centuries are justified by their effectiveness in generally preserving the quality and continuation of human life. If a moral rule goes against the imperative of self-preservation, than it is a dishonest, perverse morality. It becomes, in its’ treatment of the enemy, akin to the moralities of pity that Nietzche criticized through his whole life.
“…this depressing and contagious instinct stands against all those instincts which work for the preservation and enhancement of life: in the role of protector of the miserable, it is a prime agent in the promotion of decadence–pity persuades to extinction…Of course, one doesn’t say “extinction:” one says “the other world,” or “God,” or “the true life,” or Nirvana, salvation, blessedness…This innocent rhetoric, from the realm of religious-ethical balderdash, appears a good deal less innocent when one reflects upon the tendency that it conceals beneath sublime words: the tendency to destroy life.”
–Friederich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
More to the point, the morality of the army bureaucrats is dishonest about human nature, or at least not understanding of it. The men discussing Kurtz at the beginning do describe the “conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil,” but at the heart of their judgment of “good” and “evil” are notions of how a man ought to act in peace-time, and are not based on living and surviving in the chaos of combat. Their dishonesty then is also their dishonesty about the nature of what they are doing in Vietnam. Their euphemistic language about “terminating [Kurtz] from command” is a metaphor for their entire attitude towards the war, and allows them to live on in the delusion of their own moral superiority, that they themselves are not sinking so low as to become wolves, as they seek to kill Colonel Kurtz. Their morality and the code of euphemisms, procedure, and divided accountability allows them to be dishonest with themselves, and divorced from reality.
The manifestation of the “dark side” in Apocalypse Now is face paint. Four characters put on face-paint in the film: in order, one of the playboy bunnies, Lance, Kurtz, and Willard. While the first two were not transforming into ruthless killers, they were transforming themselves, and the face-paint reflected this. The bunny, in the helicopter, was tragically revealed to be a deep person with emotions and insecurities about herself, but with her Indian war-paint on, became a happy, sexualized piece of eye-candy for the soldiers. Lance’s application of camouflage face-paint coincided with his acid-drop, and subsequent detachment from the horror of the world of war we had been immersed in. Kurtz is only seen in facepaint–accompanied by a rather scary, warlike facial expression–as he deposits Chef’s decapitated head in Willard’s lap. And Willard only puts on facepaint–becoming the monster–immediately before he sets out to kill the Colonel.
Notice how he moves after he emerges from the water. Not only is his rise out of the water, looking around to the flash of lighting, a kind of baptism–a “rebirth”–but observe how he rises from his knees to his feet. The similarity to the stereotypical werewolf transformation, accompanied with background howls and the crash of thunder, is no doubt unintentional, but in the unintentionality of the similarity lies its’ truth. Something primal, vicious, and atavistic has awakened within him that allows him to attack the helpless, unarmed Kurtz the way that a wolf might attack helpless prey, just as the villagers cleanly cut to pieces the helpless water-buffalo. Even the way he moves is stealthy, more natural, and less self-conscious than in previous parts of the film.
Where most people are afraid of the darkness, Willard has become the darkness.
And speaking of darkness, there is an important point to be made about the filming technique used in the most iconic and the most central scene of the entire movie: Kurtz’ monologue, portrayed beautifully by Marlon Brando:
When Kurtz is dropping Chef’s head into Willard’s lap, painted and visaged as a warrior, it is night. When he is reading to Willard, surrounded by children, it is bright day. But for the most part, Kurtz lives in the half-light of his temple, and his face during the monologues, where he pours out his divided soul, is also divided by shadow. This dramatizes the scene (and also hides Brando’s unanticipated weight-gain he acquired before the filming of the movie), but it also highlights symbolically the very lesson Kurtz is elucidating. “Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends; if they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”
“I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember, I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized, like I was shot, like I was shot by a diamond, a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought ‘my god, the genius of that. The genius, the will to do that. Perfect. Genuine. Complete. Crystalline. Pure. Then I realized that they were stronger than we, because they could stand it. These were not monsters; these were men, trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love, but had the strength, the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment, without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”
And there it is, summed up and consolidated in one speech. Necessity calls upon the soldier to put aside morality in order to win. To survive. But being a good soldier is not the sole duty of a man; he must be a good citizen and a good father, as Kurtz’s own disintegrating family relations remind the viewer. A man must be able to put on the face paint, and must be able to take it off again, to transform into the wolf, and to return again to moral, human form. To those unbaptized in the hellish forge of combat, or the icy impartiality of nature where survival is hard-won and temporary, the existence of these two entities–the man and the wolf–in a single body appears to be the essence of irrationality, insanity, and of evil. Their existence inspires horror and moral terror in those around them. Kurtz was pursued because his methods appeared “irrational,” and “unsound,” incoherent as they were coming from two separate souls.
But the wolf in the man is a part of the man; an adaptation and an evolutionary addition, older than our conscious, “moral” selves, and an aspect we can turn to to assist in our own survival and in the survival of family, friends, and team-members. The condemnation of this aspect as evil is the heart of modern ethical theories, and constitutes a kind of “original sin.” Indeed, some scholars believe that Christian notions of original sin and this inner monster are identical, which William Golding alluded to as “the darkness of man’s heart” in The Lord of the Flies. It is this condemnation of man’s inner nature that Kurtz warns against when he says that “it’s judgment that defeats us.” In the jungle, defeat means death.
And so that which was brought to an end, what was apocalyptically destroyed, was the monochromatic man. “Apocalypse” because to the bureaucrat, to the lay civilian, and to the man who has known nothing but peace, this mortally strikes down idealized conceptions of rationality, sanity, and morality, at least as these expected of soldiers as though they were in time of peace. Might really does make right, even if the mighty are not always correct (this being a fine reason for even the mighty to support such things as free speech and the rule of law), and so we must be prepared to call upon the primordial, darker side of ourselves. Most importantly of all, it is the end of the lie that we are above and beyond the wolf.