“Apocalypse Now Redux”: Lessons from the Heart of Darkness
Based on Joseph Conrad’s immortal book “The Heart of Darkness”, which shows the awful cruelty of colonialism and evil in the Congo Free State during the late 1800s.
Coppola adapts the novel to the Vietnam War movie. In all its gore, insanity and glory. A confusing and dark story just like America’s sad experience in the Vietnam War.
Captain Willard, played by a young Martin Sheen, is a CIA assassin sent to kill Colonel Kurtz, a Special Forces officer who has gone crazy in the jungle. Now thinking of himself as a God with his own private army. Along the way up the river to accomplish his mission he meets a lot of characters, misadventures, personal realizations of the war and tragedy. It’s a spellbinding journey, the further up the river, the further away they are from civilization. We see a slow devolution and a growing savagery of men as they get closer to their destination.
I grew up watching this movie as a teen, and was mainly interested in the action scenes. But now as an adult, rewatching this movie, you see new things and realize the depth and detail. Similar to re-reading an old classic book. Some of the most vivid scenes and characters show up in this movie. These are some that stick out to me (Spoiler alert here if you have not seen it).
- Probably one of the most famous war scenes. There is the famous mass helicopter attack by the Air Cavalry on this enemy controlled Vietnamese village set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. I still get pumped up by this song. That is how ingrained it has been on many of our brains.
Robert Duval plays the gung ho Air Cav commander. After he blows up a big chunk of the jungle with an air strike, he tells the story of how they bombed a hill for 12 hours. He goes on to famously state: “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning……That gasoline smell. The whole hill. It Smelled like…. Victory.” It reminds me of the old Roman Tacitus’s quote “They make a desert and call it peace.”
2. Night Bridge on the River, which was the last US Army outpost, touchpoint of the last place representative of so called civilization. A scene with absolute chaos and No one was in charge. A place where everything beyond was something of an uncontrolled frontier.
The War was “like this bridge. We build it every night, Charlie blows it up again. Just so the generals can say the roads open.” Sounds familiar, right? Kind of like the Afghanistan mess over the last 20 years?
3. As they pass the river, they run into a very well armed family of French plantation owners with their own private army. Not belonging to France anymore, but considering the place as their home as they have been settled in Indocina for 70 years. They are remnants of colonial Indochina. They are continually under siege but try to keep their legacy intact.
When questioned by the American captain on “how long can you possibly stay here?” He states that they will stay here forever. They will fight until they die as the place is their home. “This piece of earth, we keep it.” Of course, knowing history, we look at them like ghosts. Vestiges of a past that will disappear. We all know they will eventually be overrun by the Vietnamese. At the same time, I really sympathize with them. At least these French colonists are fighting for their land and their family. While the Americans are fighting for what? “For the biggest nothing in History.” It is hard to argue with that.
4. Coming to Colonel Kurtz’s kingdom and large camp of Montagnard Tribesmen. He runs into some American special forces soldiers who clearly have gone “native” and also probably crazy. Willard is surrounded by a mass of well armed men and lots of dead bodies and decapitated heads lying around. It’s a really creepy scene that shows how far humans can descend. If i am honest, as a stupid teen boy, I thought this would be the ultimate dream. Owning my own empire in the jungle. Being able to do whatever you want with no consequences. But of course, I grew up and realized you can make a pretty damn amazing life in the comfort of civilization.
5. Colonel Kurtz’s execution and slaughter by Willard with an ax set to The Doors song “This is the End.” A brutal scene, where Colonel Kurz played by Marlon Brando breathes out “The Horror. The Horror” in his last words.
Willard is looked at by the tribesman as the new king and god. It’s the moment of truth. Does he take over the kingdom or does he return to civilization? He redeems himself and humanity by bombing them all to remove the stain on civiilization (or at least he does in original version, in Redux version he just sails away).
It’s worth watching as there is a reason why it’s considered a Hollywood classic. The movie (and book “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad) exemplifies to me how quickly civilization can disappear if we let it. And how formerly normal people pushed to their limits will do anything to survive. In some cases, they may even thrive in chaotic situations. The question for all of us is when push comes to shove, and the veneer of civilization and laws disappear, do we turn to our better angels of nature or do we embrace our “heart of darkness?” We may all be tested here soon.