This section contains 5,080 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by David Everett Whillock
SOURCE: "Narrative Structure in Apocalypse Now," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 225-37.
In the following essay, Whillock explores how Coppola set up oppositions in environment, characters, and story-motifs, and used mediators to bridge the opposites.
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
It smells like victory.
Major Kilgore in Apocalypse Now
When Francis Ford Coppola made public his decision to produce and direct Apocalypse Now in 1975, there were only a few films that depicted the Vietnam conflict in any direct way. While The Boys of Company C and Go Tell the Spartans were released before Apocalypse Now, The Green Berets was the only film in release that directly treated America's involvement in combat during the Vietnam conflict. Because of Coppola's past cinematic success in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), anticipation for a definitive film about the Vietnam war was high in both cinematic and historical circles. However, because of the film's lengthy production process (four years), Apocalypse Now was the last of several films released in the middle and late 1970's.
Films that focused on Vietnam in the 1970's for the most part investigated how the conflict affected the returning veteran and his placement or displacement in American society. Only two films released in the 1970's, Go Tell the Spartans and The Boys of Company C, placed their characters in combat situations. Gilbert Adair in his book Vietnam on Film considers these two films as opportunistic in the wake of the pre-release publicity of Apocalypse Now:
While neither The Boys of Company C nor Go Tell the Spartans is absolutely devoid of interest, they are what one might call "quickies"; if not B movies then resolutely A minus, whose existence seem motivated solely by opportunism … inspired by the hope of cashing in on the much delayed Apocalypse Now.1
Apocalypse Now made its public debut at the 1979 International Cannes Film Festival in France. The film entered as a "work in progress," and shared the top picture honor. the Palme d'Or, with the West German film The Tin Drum. John Simon wrote in the National Review that one reason Coppola's film was so long in production was that an ending to the film was not easily conceived.2 At Cannes, Coppola had hoped to resolve the indecision which had led him to film three different endings. Yet Coppola presented an ending at Cannes that he later dropped for the American release.3 On October 3, 1979, the decision was made by United Artists to release the film nationwide after a two-month marketing trial in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. Apocalypse Now met with mixed critical response but was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture, direction, adapted screenplay, supporting actor, cinematography, art direction, and sound. The film won two Oscars: sound and cinematography. Apocalypse Now remains a controversial film in two regards: its adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness and its surrealistic depiction of the Vietnam war.
Three Points of Analysis
Methodological foundations for critical analysis have become commonplace in contemporary academic criticism. The importance of any method is underscored by film scholar Bill Nichols when he writes that "methodologies are a tool to aid the writer and reader in understanding the world: [that is] how things relate, or better, how relationships function."4 In the following investigation of Apocalypse Now, a narrative structural analysis based on the theories of Lévi-Strauss will focus on these functional relationships.5 This analysis will be developed through three narrative elements: 1) the environment portrayed in the film; 2) the characters; and 3) the story motifs. The environment of the film consists of the physical setting and the cultural background of the opposing societies caught in the conflict: Vietnam and the United States. The analysis of the characters is concerned with both major and minor characters and their relationships to each other as well as their function(s) within the story. In contrast, the story-motifs will investigate those elements of the plot that underscore binary demarcations that are found not only in dialogue and narration, but in action as well.
The analysis of each element is achieved through the identification and discussion of each "constituent unit" (which Lévi-Strauss has termed "binary bundles of relations") and how such binary opposition within the story are resolved. The resolution, according to Lévi-Strauss, is dependent upon a mediator.6 A mediator is any element within the story that facilitates the resolution of the binary opposition.
The resolution, achieved through the mediating device, is the transformation of the opposing binary units into a closer relationship. As the mediating device "permutates" (transforms) the binary opposition toward a more middle position, the characteristics of each binary unit will become less distinctive. The resolution of the narrative takes place once the transformation of opposition is complete.
Using this method Lévi-Strauss allows the film scholar to view the Vietnam war film as an entity in itself and separate from the American war films of the past. The justification and method of war found in World War II films, for example, are clearly seen as righteous. However, the Vietnam war film does not present these elements in such a biased manner. In fact, the justification for the war is at issue in these films. By using Lévi-Strauss we are compelled to explore both sides of the equation. By resolving the contradictions found in the narratives through the mediator, the viewer comes closer to his/her own resolution of the war.
In Apocalypse Now, the basic constituent unit found in the environment is that of the binary opposition between controlled/uncontrolled. Lévi-Strauss defines such binary opposition as Culture/Nature. By extension of Lévi-Strauss' formula for the structure of myth, the relationship of the oppositions would thus be: nature is to culture as uncontrolled environment is to controlled environment. The opposition between the uncontrolled environment and controlled environment in Apocalypse Now is more specifically exemplified as city/jungle.
The environmental conflict is introduced in the first sequence of Apocalypse Now. Willard's alcoholic opening nightmare is of a peaceful lush green jungle immediately bursting into an apocalyptic red explosion of napalm as an air attack is in progress. He awakes from this nightmare only to be confronted with the realization that he is "only in Saigon." As he approaches the window, the camera reveals Saigon as an ordered and modern city. Concrete buildings, modern domestic vehicles, and paved streets assure Willard that he is not in the jungles of Vietnam. Willard laments his position by expressing his knowledge that every day he remains in the city he gets "weaker," while every day that "Charlie squats in the jungle," Charlie gets stronger. (This strong/weak opposition becomes a significant point later with the confrontation between Kurtz and Willard.)
There are five separate physical settings that deserve attention in this analysis. They are: 1) the combination of Saigon and intelligence headquarters at Nha Trang; 2) the battle for the Vietcong village at Vin Drin Drop; 3) the episodic experiences of the journey up the Nung River; 4) the last American outpost at Do Lung Bridge; and 5) Kurtz's fortress near Nu Mong Ba in Cambodia.
These environments represent permutations (transformations) between the binary oppositions of controlled and uncontrolled. As Willard's mission up the Nung River takes him through these environments, the opposition between controlled and uncontrolled moves closer to resolution. An analysis of each environment will clarify their function in the transformation.
Saigon and Nha Trang. Saigon and intelligence headquarters at Nha Trang are the most controlled environments in Apocalypse Now. The Mayor's request over the radio that off-base American soldiers not hang their laundry in the street windows informs the audience that the city government of Saigon has a strong control of the city's internal affairs while there exists a force of United States soldiers to control "outside" problems that might come into the city from the jungle. The COMSAC headquarters at Nha Trang is also a highly controlled environment because of its need for security from "outside" intruders. As Willard enters the perimeter of the headquarters, he is carefully checked and signs a security sheet to be allowed to enter. Once inside the headquarters, the controlled environment is maintained through Army regularity as he is met by a Major who informs Willard that he may "stand at ease." (This maintenance of discipline within the Army system begins to dissolve as Willard moves further away from Saigon and Nha Trang.)
Battle for Vin Drin Drop. Once Willard receives his mission, he is taken to Major Kilgore who is currently involved with "mopping up" an attack on a Vietcong strong hold. The contrast between the ordered life of both Saigon and Nha Trang, and the chaos of battle is evident in this sequence. (The oppositions between Culture and Nature are particularly exemplified by buildings: a burned-out French church standing among the bamboo structures of the village huts.)
The next morning Kilgore and his Air Ninth Cavalry attack the village at Vin Drin Drop. This Vietcong village also underscores the differences between the controlled environment of a "hot" society (culture) as compared to a "cold" society (nature). The village is physically in opposition to Saigon. There are no concrete buildings in this village and the streets are dirt paths into the surrounding jungle. However, there is an internal order in this village. As the attack begins, a grade school is in session. The guard on duty sounds the alarm and the children are removed in an orderly fashion. The soldiers that defend this village are trying to protect themselves against "outsiders" from the air, not the jungle. Indeed, the jungle for this village is friendly as its density protects the defending soldiers.
The war machines in these separate environments are also indicative of the binary oppositions between the film's presentation of nature and culture. The American war machine, which depends upon the notion of "replaceable parts," is in direct opposition to the village war machine, which is made up of old machine guns and vehicles that are for the most part not replaceable. In light of such a differential, the Vietcong village is quickly destroyed, as the village war machine is no match for the American. The Vietcong run into the jungle to be protected by its dense cover, while Major Kilgore radios in a napalm strike from Air Force jets. Militarily, there is no equality within the binary opposition of modern war machines/antiquated war machines.
Nung River. The Nung River is the mediating environment between the opposition of controlled/uncontrolled environment. The importance of the river as a linking device is echoed by Willard when he states that the Nung River "snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz." The river touches both the controlled environment of the city (culture) and the uncontrolled environment of the jungle (nature). The river remains a kind of fulcrum that balances the extremes of culture and nature (controlled/uncontrolled environments). This is exemplified when Chef, one of the characters in the boat, wants to go ashore into the jungle to gather mangos. While in the jungle, he and Willard are surprised by a tiger. After the incident Chef exerts his preference for a more controlled environment by expressing that he must remember never to "get off the boat." This preference is echoed by Willard who suggests that one should never get off the boat unless he is willing to go "all of the way." In fact, he reminds us that Kurtz got off the boat and is now fully indoctrinated into the uncontrolled environment of the nature opposition. Willard's point becomes important to the narrative when he leaves the boat to assassinate Kurtz.
The river as mediator can be illustrated by comparing the city (culture) to the jungle (nature). As discussed earlier, the opposition found in the environments of Apocalypse Now is Saigon (city) and Kurtz's compound (jungle). The Nung River, because of its relation between that of Saigon and Kurtz's compound, is a mediator between the two. The Nung River carries Willard's boat from Saigon, yet it also carries the boat back. Thus the river is both of Saigon (culture) and of Kurtz's compound (nature). As a result, the river's function in Apocalypse Now is that of a mediating device.
Aptly, the closer the river gets to Kurtz and the further from Saigon, the less control there is over the environment. While Willard is on the river, the opposition between nature and culture becomes pronounced when a Vietnamese sampan is stopped by the American boat to search for smuggled weapons. The orderly search is suddenly ripped apart by an over-anxious crew member who kills the family on board because of a sudden movement by one of the family members to protect a hidden puppy. The death of the members aboard the junk is a turning point on the river. From that point on, the river is no longer a symbol for safety. This is underscored by the events at Do Lung Bridge on the Nung River.
Do Lung Bridge. This bridge, we are told, is the last American outpost before Cambodia. Willard and his crew arrive during a phantasmagoric night battle to destroy the bridge. A controlled environment does not exist here. As the boat arrives, American soldiers at the bridge jump into the river begging the crew to take them back to civilization. Willard is met by a dispatcher who is also anxious to leave, telling Willard he is in the "armpit of the world." When Willard tries to locate the commanding officer at the outpost, he is met with remarkably unstructured methods of warfare. There is neither order nor a commanding officer; there is only chaos and death.
As the crew leaves the bridge and gets closer to Kurtz, the environment has transformed from culture to nature. The boat passes burned villages and wrecked war machines as they move upstream. Half of a fuselage and stabilizer of a crashed B-52 stick out of the river, symbolizing the loss of control that the American war machine has over the jungle. In fact, the symbolic fulcrum represented by the river slowly dissolves as the boat goes deeper into the jungle. With the death of two crew members (one by a Vietcong bullet, and one by a native spear), the boat itself is no longer safe.
Kurtz's fortress. Willard and the remaining two crew members arrive at Kurtz's fortress to find that the Colonel has gone insane. The bodies of dead North Vietnamese, Vietcong, and Cambodians-are left decaying in the jungle heat. In contrast to the environment in Saigon, cultural control is missing. There is no rank among Kurtz's army, no distinction between the native Montagnards and the invading Americans with Kurtz. In the fortress there are no streets nor buildings. Only the Buddhist temple serves as a protection from the jungle. Kurtz's army sleeps in the open leaving the jungle to control the outer perimeters of the compound.
The resolution between controlled environment and uncontrolled environment is represented by the Nung River. The "balance" of the story begins to shift toward the jungle and its uncontrolled environment after the Do Lung Bridge. Equilibrium is restored only after the death of Kurtz when Willard leaves the uncontrolled environment and makes his way back down the river toward Saigon.
In this fashion, the river connects both the controlled and uncontrolled environments of the narrative. Willard uses the river to travel to and from both environments. The extreme end of the uncontrolled environment in the binary relationship no longer exists at the end of the film; however, neither does the controlled environment. Willard's experience has led him (and the audience) to conclude that there is no controlled environment. Recall how the battle of Vin Drin Drop revealed a madness of a distinct method without real control. At the Do Lung Bridge, both method and control are absent.
The resolution of the binary environments is one of several within the story. Lévi-Strauss argued that to analyze a myth all such bundles of relations must be investigated before stating whether there is a resolution within the myth (narrative) or not. The oppositions between characters may give further insight into the question of resolution within Apocalypse Now.
While there are several constituent units found among the characters of Apocalypse Now, two units in particular deserve attention in this analysis: first, the binary opposition between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz, and second, the binary opposition between two minor characters, Lance and Chef.
Generals/Kurtz. The central binary opposition in Apocalypse Now is that between the Generals of the United States Army and Colonel Kurtz. The generals have decided that Kurtz's methods are unsound and his command must be terminated. In an intercepted taped message, Kurtz says that the Vietcong are animals that are not threatened by the orderly, methodical form of combat orchestrated by the controlled environment of the generals. Thus, Kurtz must be annihilated. The Generals tell Willard that Kurtz has taken the war into his own hands and is operating in an un-orderly, non-methodical war "without any human decency at all."
Kurtz is full of contradictions himself. He views the war through the binary oppositions of purity of will versus corruption of will. The answer for Kurtz lies in the dialectic existence of life and death (also to be discussed as a thematic opposition under story-motif). Kurtz's view of the war is in direct contrast with the Generals' view. The Generals want a war with rules and moral decency, while Kurtz feels that the war cannot be fought without the strength of the primordial instincts of survival, no matter what the moral cost. The opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is placed in the dichotomy of method/no method of war. Willard is sent by the Generals to resolve the conflict that exists between them. The conflict is resolved for the Generals by the assassination of Kurtz.
Willard serves as a distinct function in this conflict. Like the Nung River in the constituent unit of controlled/uncontrolled environment, Willard plays a mediator in the opposition between the characters of Kurtz and the Generals. The character of Willard is the mediator because of his centered position in the continuum between the Generals and Kurtz. Lévi-Strauss would see Willard as mediator because of his "position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character." This is exemplified by Willard's indecision about the mission. While he agrees to take the mission, Willard describes his concern over killing an American and fellow officer. However, Willard also recalls killing "six people close enough to blow their last breath in [his] face." The audience realizes that he is not necessarily of the "orderly decent humanitarian world" that was described by the General at Nha Trang. The experience of the Vietnam war has changed him. He is no longer a cultural being, yet his resistance to killing Kurtz implies that he is equally not of the "evil" world that the Generals have proclaimed Kurtz to be a part of. Thus, Willard is ideologically in the middle, binding the two points of view together.
As a true mediator, Willard resolves the conflict between the Generals and Kurtz. He solves the Generals' problem by killing Kurtz. However, he also resolves a problem for Kurtz. Kurtz wanted his view of the war presented to his son. After killing Kurtz. Willard takes the position paper written by Kurtz to give to Kurtz's son. With the paper in hand, Willard exits the compound leaving both Kurtz and the Generals behind. After his mission is complete, his orders are to call in an air strike to destroy Kurtz's headquarters. Instead, he shuts off the radio, the only representative of culture left in the film, and begins his journey back down the river. Even in one ending of the film when an airstrike does destroy the compound, the viewer is left with the impression that it was not Willard who called it in.
Chef/Lance. A particular relationship between two crew members of the boat is also indicative of the binary oppositions between nature and culture in Apocalypse Now. The crew members Chef and Lance are representatives of culture and nature respectively. Chef is a New Orleans Saucier who represents, through his profession, a high cultural role. Chef was raised to become a professional chef. He has, in essence, a pedigree. He was trained through his early life to become a specialist in sauces and was preparing to study in France when he was drafted. The cultural side of Chef is also underscored by his desire not to kill. This is illustrated when the boat detains the Sampan on the river to search for weapons. When a sudden move on board the junk begins the carnage, it is Chef who does not shoot his weapon even though he is directly in danger.
At the other end of the continuum is Lance, a secondary character who represents nature. He is a professional surfer. Instead of transforming a raw material into something for use, as Chef does, Lance becomes part of that which he uses. The natural wave of the ocean is his tool and it remains untransformed for Lance's use. His name alone underscores a natural image (a lance is a native weapon used by Kurtz's warriors). Another strong indication of Lance's function in this opposition is found in Lance's behavior going up the river. The closer the boat gets to Kurtz's compound the more Lance takes on the look of a native. By the time the crew reaches the compound, Lance has adopted their dress. Because Lance has accepted this existence, he is spared the cruel death that awaits Chef.
The function for Willard as secondary-character mediator is a simple one. He is neither a part of Lance's nature nor of Chef's culture. Willard's mediating role between Lance and Chef is developed early in the journey up the river. It is Willard who goes with Chef to gather mangos, and it is Lance who accompanies Willard at Do Lung Bridge. More important, after the other crew members are killed, the three remaining characters become representatives of the binary oppositions that exist in the narrative. The boat thus becomes a microcosm for the larger conflict.
In this structural analysis, the binary oppositions of the characters as represented by the Generals and Kurtz exemplify the extreme binary opposition of the continuum between nature and culture, and other characters (Chef and Lance) represent a closer relationship between nature and culture. The permutation between the binary characters occurs through the continuum of relations between other "closer" characters. With Willard as mediator, the two extreme oppositions between Nature and Culture come closer together. Resolution occurs when Willard kills Kurtz and takes Kurtz's position paper back with him. Neither extreme triumphs over the other as Willard mediates a compromise in this element of the narrative.
The resolution of character and environmental conflicts has, overall, a direct influence on the outcome of the story. However, more subtle conflicts also give the story a depth of meaning. These subtle recurrences of binary oppositions, the story-motifs, give the narrative an internal structure which allows the more obvious conflicts of characters and environment a progression toward resolution through their mediating devices. It is these subtle conflicts within the story that support the major "spine" or focus of the story.
One binary opposition is foremost between two elements of the story-motif that supports the characters and environment of Apocalypse Now. This conflict is found in the story-motif of method of war/no method of war.
The underlying theme of Apocalypse Now is Kurtz's unsound method of warfare versus the General's sound method of war. Kurtz finds war an immoral event that should be fought without judgment and with moral terror. Kurtz's method has in essence become unsound because the war for Kurtz is not the "conventional war" fought by the Generals of a cultured nation.
Kurtz emphasizes this lack of morality in the Vietnam war when he tells Willard of his experience in the Special Forces. Kurtz was assigned to inoculate the children of a village for polio. After the forces inoculated the children and left, the Vietcong chopped the inoculated arms off of the children to stop the infestation of the American serum (cultural medicine). What Kurtz found so ingenious is the purity of will that it took to achieve such an act. He says, "it was as though a diamond bullet went into the center of my forehead and I realized that it was this kind of purity of will that would win the war. If I had ten divisions of men with that kind of will, I knew I could win." For Kurtz, an Army of men without human compassion would win the war. To the Generals this was no method for fighting a "humanitarian war." While Apocalypse Now does not exemplify the type of war the generals or Kurtz embrace, a permutation (transformation) of the story-motif between the binary oppositions of the General's method of war and Kurtz's no-method of war is represented in the film's presentation of the battles of Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge.
The battle of Vin Drin Drop and the Do Lung Bridge are permutations that are indicative of the developing resolution between the two extremes of Culture (method) and Nature (no-method). In Apocalypse Now the permutations of the story-motif, represented as method/no-method of war, resolve the conflict between binary oppositions. By bringing together both binary oppositions in the two battles (Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge) the extreme oppositions are placed closer together in the continuum. Thus, resolution takes place between the two extremes in the story-motif of Apocalypse Now.
To discuss the resolutions found in Apocalypse Now, we must break the narrative into three specific elements: transformation, opposition, and mediation. The transformation that occurs in Apocalypse Now is Willard's decision to bring Kurtz's story back with him after he has killed Kurtz. Willard's decision metaphorically offers the audience a way out of Vietnam. Through the process of the film the audience has an opportunity to view the war as a confusing conflict between the General's ideal method of war and Kurtz's non-method. Through Willard's mission up the Nung River, the horror of war is presented as the insanity of both methods. The audience becomes a witness to war and will hopefully understand its futility.
The binary opposition between the Generals and Kurtz is one of many in Apocalypse Now. While that particular constituent unit is the focus of the narrative, there are other binary units that have an indirect relationship to the General's/Kurtz opposition and which affect the outcome of the resolution that occurs between the central characters. Using the three levels of analysis (environment, characters, and story-motif) and the major binary opposition of nature/culture, we can chart several examples of constituent units found in the narrative within each level. These binary demarcations can be illustrated through the following series of antinomies.
|The United States||Vietnam|
|"Hot Society"||"Cold Society"|
|Method of War||No-method of war|
|Modern Machinery of War||Antiquated Machinery of War|
|Corruption of Will||Purity of Will|
With this list there is evidence that Apocalypse Now is structured by binary oppositions. However, according to Lévi-Strauss the function of the narrative is to resolve the binary oppositions. In Apocalypse Now there are several oppositions resolved through the permutations achieved by the mediators. As developed through the preceding analysis of environment, characters, and story motifs, the constituent units of Saigon/Kurtz's compound, the Generals/Kurtz, and method of war/no-method of war are transformed and resolved through mediating devices. The binary opposition between the major characters of the Generals/Kurtz is resolved through Willard; the environment opposition is resolved by the Nung River; and through the mediating device of the events on the Nung River (battles of Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge), the binary opposition in the story motif of method/no method of war is resolved.
The permutations leading to the resolution of method/no method of the war and between that of culture/nature in the analysis of environment are dependent upon Vin Drin Drop and Do Lung Bridge. As battles, these locations are a midpoint between the General's idealistic viewpoint of the war and Kurtz's lack of "sound method" for waging war. As geographical locations they are of special importance in the transformation from the ordered city of Saigon and the unordered jungles of Kurtz's compound. Whereas the permutations and resolution between culture/nature in the analysis of characters is developed through the mediating device of Willard, Willard remains a fulcrum between the major character opposition of Chef/Lance.
One of the most important underlying story-motifs, as expressed by method/no method, is exemplified as corruption of will/purity of will. This "theme" in Apocalypse Now is the "unpronounced" conflict in the method/no method opposition. This binary opposition is finally resolved through Willard's assassination of Kurtz.
What special insights, then, does this analysis give us? The development of the Vietnam war in our culture has taken on mythic proportions. Media representations of the Vietnam war give us an opportunity to investigate our social fabric and help understand the war and its effects on our culture. These representations also allow our culture to articulate interpretations of a historical event through narrative forms to new members of our society. Through the narrative structure of Apocalypse Now our cultural contradictions may be played out on the screen and through a cinematic resolution we may come to terms with our own doubts and confusion about the war America lost.
1. Gilbert Adair, Vietnam on Film (London: Proteus Publishers, 1981): 114.
2. John Simon, "Apocalypse Without End," in Mass Media and the Popular Arts, Fredric Rissover and David Birch, eds., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981): p. 444. There were three separate versions of the ending in Apocalypse Now. For this analysis the ending used in the theatrical release 35 millimeter version will be used. This ending portrays Willard leaving Kurtz's headquarters safely with a subsequent airstrike on the headquarters after Willard departs.
3. Eleanor Coppola chronicles the development and the production of Apocalypse Now in her book Notes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).
4. Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 1.
5. Using Lévi-Strauss' formula, the application of the opposition between nature/culture and uncontrolled environment/controlled environment is possible. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Volume I, Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963): 228.
6. Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Volume 1: 226-228.
This section contains 5,080 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)