A haunting, hypnotic descent into the lunacy of a “civilised war”.
Francis Ford Coppola didn’t seek to just retell the story of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, he sought to adapt it in the truest sense. To change the setting and story in such a way as to not just retell it, but comment on it. European colonialism is traded for American interventionism in such a way that begs examination of both their similarities and their differences.
Both the Vietnam War and the production of the film itself make for fitting mirrors and parallels to the ambitious, arrogant, overstretched colonial endeavours explored in “Heart of Darkness”. The premise of both “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” is essentially the same, and both chart a character’s journey down a river where they episodically encounter increasing madness as time itself seems to turn back (more clear in the Redux cut of the film, with the inclusion of the French plantation sequence), climaxing in the protagonist’s encounter with the enigmatic and seemingly traitorous Kurtz.
“Apocalypse Now” is more specific, singular, and linear than “Heart of Darkness”. Where “Heart of Darkness” questions the act of interpretation itself, not just in the context of the social system being questioned (colonialism), “Apocalypse Now” specifically questions warfare. Interventionism makes for the social system being questioned, but “Apocalypse Now” is more specifically focused on war, conflict, and violence, where “Heart of Darkness” reached for broader observations on all human nature. This is not a criticism at all, just a clarification of how I interpreted the differing focuses of the works. Indeed, taking a more singular and specific focus worked exceptionally well for “Apocalypse Now”, as it captured a specific event, time period, and cultural zeitgeist extremely well, whereas “Heart of Darkness” deliberately avoids committing to its specific context.
To that end, I think the Redux cut of the film is absolutely superior to the theatrical cut. The theatrical cut is paced very well in the conventional sense. It moves along nicely, it keeps one entertained, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The Redux cut drones on and on, it takes frequent narrative diversions, it ruminates on its themes more meditatively and slowly, it doesn’t build to the climax in a direct way. It functions like the peculiar, complicated prose of “Heart of Darkness” in putting the viewer through an uncomfortable, difficult experience, mirroring the mindset of the characters.
The French plantation sequence alone makes the Redux cut worthwhile, for how it clarifies the themes of the film (the relative thematic opaqueness of the theatrical cut is not a good thing when the film is clearly committed to a more specific statement than “Heart of Darkness”), making the journey down the river as a journey backwards through time direction more explicit (Coppola describes the scene as a “ghostly afterview” of the past), and for how its character development, as it finally provides very clear intellectual validation of Willard’s concerns about the war.
The hypocrisy of an “ethical war”, a “civilised war”, the ability to somehow present the brutal savagery of warfare as entertaining or wholesome is certainly enough to push both Willard and Kurtz to their mental limits, but fighting a war without even aiming to win it is the true crucible that breaks them. The meeting with the Lieutenant General suggests it, the French plantation scene explicitly remarks upon it, the audience’s assumed knowledge of the war plays into it, but it’s Kilgore’s iconic attack sequence that best communicates the lunacy of a war fought aimlessly, without clear commitment to victory.
Kurtz subverts this insanity through his hatred of lies and hypocrisy, but his journey backwards through time into quasi-religious ceremony and wanton brutality doesn’t exactly make for a resounding counterargument. His efforts could be construed as making a broader point about human nature, which Willard himself subverts through rejecting Kurtz’ solution and committing to journeying back, but the expansion of the film’s thematic scope into a broader point on human nature instead of a more specific point on warfare dilutes the ultimate impact of the film.
While I wish the ending committed to a statement more in-line with the bulk of the film’s concerns, the film is still a stunningly brilliant achievement, a masterful work of cinema. I give it four and a half surfboards, and a water buffalo.