A review of “Apocalypse Now.”

Seldom do you, and hundreds of others in an audience, leave a film quietly, soundlessly. Seldom do you sit through a two-and-a-half hour film—about an hour longer than the average movie these days—in total silence. Seldom are you soothed, shattered, sucked into the screen from the quiet parting of the curtains to their equally quiet closing. And even then you stare screenward, wondering, Has it released me? Will it ever?

Francis Coppola wanted to make a film about Vietnam. He failed, and did much more. He transcended that controversial, ugly war to bare the heart of man. When Coppola claimed that his film was about morality, Hollywood scoffed. We shouldn’t. For that is what Apocalypse Now (a United Artists release) considers.

From the title we know what to expect. The word has entered our vocabulary by way of the Bible; all that it symbolizes in the book of Revelation is in its meaning here. It is the end—for American morality as Coppola has known it, for the will to righteousness, and to the myth of man’s growing goodness and humanitarian tendencies. It is the end for Willard, Kurtz, and those caught in this destruction, as well as for those real people for whom those characters stand. This film enters the heart of darkness: there the action occurs; there it stays.

The plot is relatively simple. Captain Benjamin Willard, played by the powerful Martin Sheen, asks for a new mission. He gets it. “For my sins,” he says, “they give me a new mission, and I would never want another one.” He must find Colonel Kurtz (who is brilliantly played by Marlon Brando), a renegade army officer. Kurtz is entrenched in the hills of Cambodia, at the time still off limits to the U.S. Willard must “terminate” the colonel’s command. The army considers Kurtz “insane, his methods unsound.”

Most of the action, then, focuses on Willard’s trip on a navy patrol boat through Vietnam into Cambodia. The river snakes sinuously through the ravaged countryside, becoming not only the scene of Willard’s trip into Cambodia, but the symbol of his journey face to face with evil—a worm boring into the dank hole of death. Despite the men in the boat whom he must take with him, he goes alone.

Willard stands apart from humanity. He is the only one who knows his mission, which is classified (if he fails or gets caught the army will deny their part in it; it does not exist, then, except in Willard’s mind). The captain alone sees the immorality of both sides—and, incidentally, of his own, as well. Yes, Kurtz kills indiscriminately, using whatever means he can to defeat the declared enemy. But so do others—for example, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who helps Willard get upriver. But Kilgore merely wants to surf; he kills villagers to clear the beaches of “the gooks.” Kurtz knows why he kills and it has driven him insane.

If the action focuses on Willard, the force comes from Kurtz. Although unseen throughout much of the film, his presence pervades the action. His voice. His brilliant career. His pain. His darkness, unleashed from his heart. Amoeba-like the darkness has overtaken and overcome him. Through Kurtz it reaches out to bring everyone into subservience. They must worship the darkness. They do.

At the end Kurtz is only darkness. Coppola reinforces this by the absence of light when the colonel is on the screen. His house is lit with pale candles, casting blackness everywhere. We see Kurtz in shadow, in silhouette; Willard stands full face. The colonel has lived so long with shadows that he cannot suffer the light. Or so Coppola seems to say. The shadows are the physical manifestation of the horror in which Kurtz lives.

He tells Willard that there are two choices with horror: you either make it your friend, or it overcomes you with fear. He has chosen the former; he knows what he has done. The colonel has, in effect, sold his soul to Satan. And he longs for death. When he dies, so, perhaps, will the darkness. This Willard understands. But, he explains, Kurtz wants to die “like a soldier,” not like a common criminal.

Coppola uses his medium well. Under his direction the photography becomes a well-honed writing style—beautiful, distinctive, yet one that does not call attention to itself but rather to the story. The juxtaposition of images and characters undergirds the themes. There sits Willard, isolated with his mission, studying Kurtz’s dossier. Behind him, Lance waterskis his way through Vietnam and Clean boogies to the sounds of Saigon rock.

Or look at Killer Kilgore, surfing fanatic, who, after destroying a village—to the sounds of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a truly brilliant conceit—demands that his men either surf or fight. When one of his men protests that it’s not safe to surf, Kilgore radios in a napalm bombing unit. Not safe? “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he explains. “There’s nothing like it.” Outside the circle of men stands Willard, watching.

The most potent juxtaposition of images comes near the end of the film with the death of Kurtz. Willard surprises him, killing him with a machete. As he slaughters him, the natives sacrifice a caribou—a religious ritual. Coppola caught a tribe of Ifugao Philippine aborigines in an actual ritual slaughter; the tribe played Kurtz’s Cambodian followers. Is this death to expiate the sins of the U.S. Army? Is Kurtz a sacrificial cow, being killed for all the Kilgores? Or is this only the death of a pathetic man who has broken with the norm of his society? Coppola supplies no answers.

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As Kurtz dies he whispers, “the horror, the horror.” Willard, leaving Cambodia, hears them again; we know that he will hear them always.

Life without light is a horror, a ritual slaughter of the spirit. Before someone can comprehend the light, he must face the darkness in his own heart. Coppola has brought this truth to the screen; we are all guilty. But do we really believe that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”? Look again.

Cheryl Forbes, editor of the publishing division of The Genesis Project, lives in New York City.

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