By Danielle Cole
What is in our psychology that is so fragile it breaks down? What are the elements that begin and sustain an unraveling? Sometimes a cause can be pinpointed but more often not. And even an obvious experience, like war, provides a multitude of individual responses. Some soldiers return severely traumatized and others return relatively unscathed. Apocalypse Now provides great examples of how war can unravel an individual’s moral sensibility.
Near the beginning of the film a huge piece of foreshadowing occurs when General Corman says to Willard, “Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational. Between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes…” This sets good vs. evil as one of the major themes of the film. When Willard finds himself on the French plantation in close quarters with Roxanne Sarrault, she speaks of her soldier husband and how she said to him, “There are two of you, don’t you see? One that kills and one that loves.” She reports her soldier’s reply: “I don’t know if I’m an animal or a god” which surmises Willard’s experience and his thoughts about Kurtz as well. Willard is elevated by being given a special, classified mission (to be god-like) and yet this mission is to kill another solider (both god- and animal-like). Along his journey down the river he forms opinions about Kurtz and has trouble seeing him only as the nuisance his commanding offers do. His definitions of good and evil loosen a bit.
The theme of good vs. evil can also be viewed as a battle between forces of destruction and creation. Kurtz rides this line and it depends whose eyes we are viewing him through. The exposition we receive from the photojournalist outlines the creative, inspirational force of Kurtz. When Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound, the photojournalist says of the people, “These are all his (Kurtz’s) children. Hell man, out here we’re all his children.” A nod back to that earlier foreshadowing of the temptation to become God. The photojournalist sees him as a good, creative force. He describes Kurtz as “a poet warrior in the classic sense,” and then quotes Kurtz—only the lines actually belong to the Rudyard Kipling poem If, “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…” He also quotes from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock when he says, “I should be a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
These two poems seem to be talking about where one’s place is. If describes what one must do to be “a man.” T.S. Eliot’s wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the “progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Additionally, he revered past literary works and wrote about the present in bleak terms. Prufrock in particular, describes the night as “…a patient etherized upon a table,” also the setting contains, “half-deserted streets” and “one-night cheap hotels.” These two poems and poets are appropriate choices to voice the dissatisfaction of Kurtz. He is trying to figure out how to be “a man” while being discontented with the present and seeing it as bleak.
It is an interesting moment when the photojournalist refers to Kurtz as “a poet warrior.” There is at no point any original poetry coming from Kurtz. He is merely repeating the lines of others. Using his interpretation of the lines in what he probably feels is a creative, purposeful way to increase some sort of consciousness, but because Kurtz’s actions have become destructive his recitation of poetry has no hope of adding anything creative to the world around him.
There is much of this utilization of euphemistic language as an act of minimization in the military as well. Such as violent premeditations being called “a mission,” “an offensive,” or the way the order of Kurtz’s murder is called “termination of his command.” Kurtz himself plays with this euphemistic minimization when he asks Willard if he is an assassin and then states, “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” What they are talking about is ending Kurtz’s life which has come to have no meaning to the military since he has gone rogue. We learn Kurtz no longer sees meaning in his own life because of the terrible horror he has witnessed.
What it seems Kurtz is grasping for is a return to a sense of pride. To be able to follow orders bravely and with a clear head. He lost that ability along the way and begins to see judgment as an enemy. He tells Willard about inoculating the children only for them to have their arms chopped off and states, with reverence for the cadres who did it, “You have to have men who are moral and who at the same time are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feelings, without passion, without judgment…without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” The judgment it seems Kurtz is talking about is a sense of personal morality, which one must surrender, at least partially, as a soldier. Having a moral judgment about an order to commit a heinous crime creates a mental schism that is hard to contend with. When an element of free will is taken from an individual, it is easier for a destructive force to ensue. In order to kill, one must detach from his or her emotions since it is emotion that is often the first cue. We know we are doing something wrong because it just does not feel right. It seems Kurtz has made an attempt to detach but was not quite able to. He acted aggressively towards others, felt the full force of his emotions and was just not able to take it. He resigned to being killed by Willard so that his pain could cease. So that he could stop reliving the horror of his own memories.
Apocalypse Now shows how the atrocities and injustices of war can turn a decorated Colonel into a fragmented man. It is a frightening, disheartening portrayal, in part, because of the very real nature of it. This fragmentation happens to men and women in war. And even those among us who are not, and will not be, soldiers can relate because we each have been in situations where our morals come into question. Where we must think about what we believe and why we believe what we do. This can leave us feeling ungrounded if a clear answer does not surface. In war, these situations occur frequently and ferociously. As was so brilliantly and succinctly stated by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879, “War is hell.”
Danielle Cole is a Philadelphia-based occasional philosopher who practices psychotherapy in the suburbs. She loves films of all kinds, especially those with protracted scenes of everyday life and any art that has a personal vision.
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