Filmsite Movie 

Review 100 Greatest 

Apocalypse Now (1979)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The next morning, Willard is found imprisoned and standing upright in a tiger cage. Surrounding the cage are other slaughtered bodies lying about (with the sound of buzzing flies). The prisoner is interrogated in a one-sided, convoluted conversation with the photojournalist who circles around the cage:

Why would a nice guy like you wanna kill a genius?...Do you know that the man really likes you? He likes you. He really likes you. But he's got something in mind for you. Aren't you curious about that?...There's something happening out here, man....I know something that you don't know. That's right, Jack. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. Oh, yeah. He's dying, I think. He hates all of this. He hates it, but the man's, uh. He reads poetry outloud, all right?...He likes you 'cause you're still alive. He's got plans for you. No, no, I'm not gonna help you. You're gonna help him, man...I mean, what are they gonna say, man, when he's gone, huh? 'Cause he dies when it dies, man. When it dies, he dies. What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bulls--t, man! Am I gonna be the one that's gonna set them straight? Look at me. Wrong! (Pointing with a jabbing index finger) You!

After eight hours of waiting on the boat, Chef calls in on the radio, and identifies himself as the "PBR Street Gang" to Almighty. A pair of feet ominously approach the tiger cage, where Willard is bound like an animal. During the rainy night, he looks up to witness the evil Kurtz's atrocities first hand - he sees Kurtz approach wearing camouflage paint on his face, illuminated by the light of the fire. The hungry and terrorized man is presented with Chef's grotesquely severed head in his lap. The scene fades to black.

Through a sun-lit opening in a new, walled-in prison enclosure, children (and bald-headed Kurtz) view Willard and wave their hands through the slit.

[Apocalypse Now Redux:

Kurtz' character is more fully revealed (both in the daylight and through his interactions) as he speaks to captive Willard in a metal shed. He more clearly explains his bizarre and renegade defection from the world (and society) and muses over the insanity of war. In a monologue, Kurtz quotes an actual lie-riddled, flag-waving, weekly Time news magazine article while surrounded by children. He unmasks deceit and disparity concerning the war while reading the American media's news magazine and its political assessments of the military situation in Vietnam:

"September 22, 1967, Volume 90, number 12. The War on the Horizon. The American people may find it hard to believe that the US is winning the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, one of the most exhaustive inquiries into the status of the conflict yet compiled offers considerable evidence that the weight of US power two-and-a-half years after the big buildup began is beginning to make itself felt. White House officials maintain the impact of that strength may bring the enemy to the point where he could simply be unable to continue fighting."

Is this familiar?

"Because Lyndon Johnson fears that the US public is in no mood to accept its optimistic conclusions, he may never permit the report to be released in full. Even so, he is sufficiently impressed with the findings and sufficiently anxious to make their conclusions known to permit experts who have been working on it to talk about it in general terms."

No date, Time Magazine.

He also mocks American intelligence operations:

"Sir Robert Thompson who led the victory over Communist guerrillas in Malaya is now a RAND Corporation consultant recently returned to Vietnam to sound out the situation for President Nixon. He told the president last week that things felt much better and smelled much better over there."

How do they smell to you, soldier? (He stands.) You'll be free. You'll be under guard. Read these at your leisure. Don't lose them. Don't try to escape. You'll be shot. We can talk of these things later.]

Willard is released from the metal cage and kept alive with water and rice by the mercy of his captor, for some purpose known only to Kurtz. While Willard recovers from his ordeal, the Colonel reads to him from T. S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men. [Eliot was inspired to write this poem by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.]

We are the hollow men.
We are the stuffed men leaning together at peace filled with straw.
Alas, our dried voices when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass, or a rat's feet over broken glass in a dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion.

The unglued photojournalist interjects his own pronouncements about dialectics during the reading, recalling the words of the French widow about duality. He reveals that he has reached his own personal end:

He's really out there...Do you know what the man's saying? Do you? This is dialectics. It's very simple dialectics. One through nine. No maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can't travel in space. You can't go out in space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions. What are you gonna land on? One-quarter? Three-eighths? What are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus, or something? That's dialectic physics, OK. Dialectic logic is, there's only love and hate. You either love somebody or you hate 'em...This is the way the f---ing world ends. Look at this f---ing shit we're in, man. Not with a bang. A whimper. And with a whimper, I'm f---ing splitting, Jack.

[His words are derived from the poem's famous last two lines that he has undoubtedly heard many times: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."]

In voice-over, Willard feels ambivalent about his mission's task, finding Kurtz brilliant but rambling and spiritually troubled - as the camera pretentiously pans across mythic texts in Kurtz's headquarters (The Holy Bible, From Ritual to Romance by Jesse L. Weston [this book inspired T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland"], and James Frazier's The Golden Bough):

On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I'd know what to do, but it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard. I was free, but he knew I wasn't going anywhere. He knew more about what I was gonna do than I did. If the generals back in Nha Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.

Kurtz speaks of the "horrors" that he has seen in the bloody conflict, and denies that Willard has any moral right to judge his actions or behavior:

I've seen the horrors, horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that - but you have no right to judge me.

Kurtz also believes that "moral terror" and "horror" are necessary to preserve civilization as he philosophizes with further pronouncements:

It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. 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.

Willard also listens to Kurtz - in a major monologue meditating on life and death - as he recalls a turning point in his life. It was an incident from his American Special Forces days a few years earlier (it "seems a thousand centuries ago") when Vietcong guerrillas came into a native village and hacked off the left arms of South Vietnamese children who had been inoculated against polio by his Special Forces:

I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We'd left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio. And this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn't say. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were, in a pile - a pile of little arms. And I remember, I...I...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 it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized - like I was shot, like I was shot with 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! And then I realized, they were stronger than me because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men -- trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts who have families, who have children, who are filled with love - that they 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.

Kurtz believes the atrocities revealed for him the moral strength and commitment of men who loved their families and could still act so monstrously "without judgment" - with a primordial instinct to kill. According to him, those revelations have accentuated the moral ambiguity of war and justified his rampage in Cambodia - a mass-murder and mutilation of the enemy "without judgment," to shorten the war. [The Killing Fields (1984) was also about the 'secret' war and bombing of Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge - that ultimately led to an internal bloodbath. Swimming to Cambodia (1987) was a semi-comic monologue by actor Spalding Grey, dealing - amongst other things - with his experiences as a bit player during the filming of The Killing Fields (1984).] Kurtz wants primitive men, similar to agent Willard on his mission, who can kill without judgment "because it's judgment that defeats us." The conventional war effort of Americans (with high-tech bombs and other machines and weapons of war, and a judgmental news media) will ultimately be defeated by triumphant opposition forces of primitives that are committed and determined.

The berserk Colonel tells Willard that his chief worry is that his son back home won't understand him after he has been assassinated, that he might judge his father's raids to be atrocities:

I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw. Because there's nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you - you will do this for me.

The scene shifts to preparations for a caribou sacrifice, even as Kurtz commands Willard to preserve the truth about him. (Lance blends in with the native peoples, with his face paint, loin-cloth, and half-naked body.) Willard has returned to the patrol boat, where the radio transmission from Almighty startles him (the radio's voice questions his next move: "This is Almighty standing by. How do you copy?")

Accepting the inevitable, Willard is poised to kill Kurtz as an act of mercy. In a climactic moral battle that rages within himself (in voice-over), he questions his own commanding officers. Though secretly identifying with and admiring Kurtz, Willard understands that he must perform his God-given duty as an officially-sanctioned assassin - who makes no judgments about his orders:

They were gonna make me a Major for this and I wasn't even in their f---in' army any more. Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up. Not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway.

He slips off the boat and approaches toward the sacrificial temple. Waiting in his temple headquarters, Kurtz allows Willard to carry out his sacrificial mission that night. Willard's head rises up out of the steamy primordial depths of filthy water as he begins (and ends) his quest, to seek out his prey for the slaughter - the imposing, bullish Kurtz. Lightning strobe effects and the frenzied rhythmic sounds of the Doors' The End accompany the stalking and slaying of Kurtz with a machete.

Come on, baby, take a chance with us
Come on, baby, take a chance with us
Come on, baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus tonight...

Kurtz is reading into a tape recorder in his quarters, faced sideways before the golden light of his inner sanctum.

We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won't allow them to write 'FUCK' on their airplanes because it's obscene.

He turns and permits his own sacrifice when he sees Willard approaching. It is a ritualistic slaughter, brilliantly cross-cut with the brutal sacrificial killing of a carabao/water buffalo by the natives as a ritualistic sacrifice to their gods. As he dies on the ground, Kurtz mutters a few final, dying words, accepting the evil present in the human soul:

The horror. The horror.

[Note: The words duplicated the last words in Joseph Conrad's story upon which the film was based, Heart of Darkness.]

The old king/chieftain of the people is sacrificed, in order for the land to become liberated. As Willard exits from the compound, his eye catches one of Kurtz' type-written documents, where he reads "Drop the Bomb - Exterminate Them All!' scrawled in red ink across one page. For a brief moment, he sits at Kurtz' desk, contemplating the opportunity to take the Colonel's place as a new god and king. As he emerges from the compound, the subservient villagers bow down or kneel to their new powerful god-like leader, and although he is tempted, Willard refuses to bask in their reverence and homage. After dropping the bloody machete, and with Kurtz' papers in hand, Willard is given a path through the awed, native throng. As he passes, they lay down their weapons to imitate him and follow his example (to renounce war), evidenced by the clanking, metallic sound of their machetes hitting the pavement.

[Note: This climactic scene has a surprising, uncanny resemblance to an unlikely film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). The hero, who has journeyed to a strange land, is worshipped by the local people after vanquishing their god-like leader and liberating them. The Wicked Witch of the East is eliminated, as are the Wizard and Kurtz - who are similarly bald, oppressive, and usually hidden from view).]

With his bloody mission accomplished, Willard guides stoned-out Lance to the patrol boat so that they can begin their return journey. They retreat in the gunboat as the natives close in on them on the banks. As they pull away, a cleansing hard rain begins to fall and static-filled radio transmissions from Almighty play on the soundtrack. Willard abruptly shuts off the radio (preventing an immediate airstrike?). During a series of slow dissolving images, Kurtz's last words are echoed again.

A. The film fades to black. [Note: the closing credits roll and are played silently against a solid-black background. These credits were added to the film's 35mm screenings.]

Two Other Treatments of the Ending and Credits:

B. In the 70mm version of the film (for its initial limited release), there were no opening titles or closing credits for the film (nothing but a one-line copyright notice at the end of the film) - printed credit booklets were issued to audiences, but this became impractical when the film was distributed more extensively.

C. Director Coppola fiddled over what would be the 'final cut' version of the 35mm film, so various editing and differing release versions were screened at showings in 1978 and 1979 - many with alternative endings that ultimately were not used. Many theatre-goers at the time recollect this alternative ending -- as Willard and Lance started downriver, the credits rolled over surrealistic (even psychedelic) explosions of the temple, Kurtz compound, and the burning jungle. (According to Coppola, this left-over footage made a good visual backdrop for the credits.) The Philippine government required the destruction of the Kurtz compound after filming ended - and this footage was used over the closing 35mm credits, but never became part of the 'final cut' (Part A above).

Were the explosions the result of an airstrike? [Note: the explosions recall one of Kurtz' type-written documents titled "Drop the Bomb - Exterminate Them All!']

[Apocalypse Now Redux: Conventional end credits are played at the film's conclusion - after the fade to black. Non-scrolling white text on a black background.]

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