Brutality and Disillusionment in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
Individuals have the capacity for brutality and disillusionment in the desperate pursuit for power in human nature. Humanity has the potential to adopt methods of hypocrisy and dishonesty leading to an atavistic descent into brutality, or conversely discover a concealed truth, leading to disillusionment about the nature of humankind. This capability to transcend the limitations of individuals’ sensibilities is explored in both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, where both narratives explore the universal capacity for brutality and hypocrisy through Kurtz’s atavism, while the potential for disillusionment for these actions is expressed through Marlow and Willard’s journey into self-discovery and uncovering the lie of their civilisation. Conrad responds to King Leopold’s hypocrisy and atrocities committed in the Congo Free State, while Coppola re-contextualizes this in terms of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the US in the Vietnam War.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad originally establishes Kurtz as a perfect embodiment of European civilization, but who engages in an atavistic descent towards brutality in Africa, suggesting the universal capacity for brutality in mankind when the constraints of civilization are removed. Conrad describes Kurtz as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress,” as well as a “universal genius” with “higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose,” with polysyndeton and tricolon used to elevate his character, a perfect embodiment of civilization. Conrad also uses him as an Everyman, when he writes that “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” presenting Kurtz as a universal figure of European civilization. However, the fact that even Kurtz, in his pursuit for power in Africa, engages in euphemistic “unspeakable rites,” and “certain midnight dances”, with “skulls” surrounding his compound, reveals the universal capacity for brutality in human nature, emphasized through the links to connotations of cannibalism here. Conrad uses metaphor to reveal that Kurtz has “kicked himself loose of the earth,” becoming “an animated image of death carved out of old ivory,” suggesting through metaphor and the motif of ivory that he has become the thing that he has amassed in his greed, having disconnected himself from the constraints of civilisation. This responds to the greed of king Leopold, leading to the brutality seen in his Congo Free State, where hands and limbs of native Africans were cut off under his empire, unless they collected the desired amount of ivory. It was described as a “completely commercial enterprise,” involving such brutality, and Conrad responds to this context by using Kurtz to reveal this capacity for brutality in human nature. The metaphorical “darkness” and “wilderness,” representing all dark aspects of human nature, has “taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” Conrad uses diabolic imagery with personification and asyndeton to allude to a Faustian pact between Kurtz and the wilderness, as if the wilderness has completely transcended the limitations of his sensibilities, ultimately implying that underneath the facade of civilization, when societal constraints are removed in the “dark continent” of Africa, all that remains is brutality and “horror,” revealing this universal capacity for brutality in human nature.
In Apocalypse Now, Coppola also constructs Kurtz as an elevated figure of perfection, who engages in an atavistic descent, to further explore the capacity for brutality in human nature in every man. Coppola uses the recurring motif of the photo of a younger Kurtz to create a mythic presence around him, furthered by his status as “brilliant,” “outstanding in every way … humanitarian.” However, as in Heart of Darkness, we learn that this perfect embodiment of the US war effort in Vietnam has become someone acting “without any decent restraint,” Coppola picking up on the motif of restraint in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz’s methods have become “unsound,” emphasized through the mise en scene of his temple compound. The naked, dead bodies and severed heads strewn throughout the frame, hanging from trees, coupled with the diegetic sound of carrion flies buzzing, all create a sense of decay, with the wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life picking up the extremity of Kurtz’s brutal behavior. Coppola also shrouds Kurtz’s face in dark lighting when he says that “horror has a face,” suggesting that he is a representation of horror, savagery, brutality. This ultimately demonstrates the universal capacity for brutality, even in so called civilized individuals, as is the case in Heart of Darkness. In Apocalypse Now, however, Coppola reapplies this idea to the Cold War context, with the potential for an all out nuclear war and man-made apocalypse at the time reflecting this idea of man’s inherent brutality. The 1974 Watergate Scandal also revealed the capacity for greed and corruption even in people of power, reflecting Coppola’s depiction of this inherent atavism in human nature. The visual similarity of Kurtz and Willard at the closure of the film, Coppola giving Willard slick-backed hair, a muddy face and low angle shots all suggest the potentiality of Willard to replace Kurtz, and become this figure of evil. This therefore furthers this idea of inherent brutality, as Willard, who has shown restraint to the “jungle” throughout the film also has this capacity to descend into atavism.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad demonstrates Marlow’s disillusionment of the “philanthropic pretence” of empire, but reveals the ultimate inability to acknowledge this dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of empire. Conrad uses the journey metaphor into the “heart of darkness,” to discover the “flabby devil” of empire. On his journey he meets the Accountant, who Conrad uses as one of the Hollow Men of the novella, described as a “hair dresser’s dummy,” putting books in “apple-pie order” starkly contrasted to the suffering of the natives in the “grove of death”. Conrad describes the natives as a “gloomy circle of some Inferno,” with Hellish connotations in an allusion to Dante’s poem of damnation. One native even “tied a bit of white worsted round his neck,” as if Empire has a noose around the natives, reducing them to mere “black shapes.” Marlow’s use of irony suggests his disillusionment with these atrocities, labeling them “high and just proceedings,” having to “[turn] my back on that station … [to] keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life,” symbolically distracting himself from the truth, when he knows it deep down. This reflects the dominant contextual attitudes of the late 19th Century, believing in the “white man’s burden” of empire, “civilising the savages,” as symbolized through the beliefs of Marlow’s Aunt, who labels Marlow “one of the Workers,” with religious imagery emphasizing the sanctity of empire, (“an emissary of light … a lower sort of apostle.” However, Marlow recognizes the “insanity” of Empire, the personified “sordid farce acted in front of a sinister backcloth,” and its oxymoronic “faithless pilgrims,” revealing his disillusionment of imperial endeavors. However, Conrad uses fact that Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended in a response to the ignorance of European civilisation to these atrocities. Conrad is responding to contextual Western attitudes of the 19th Century, as symbolized through people like Marlow’s Aunt, the archetypal men on the boat, as well as the Intended, who believes Kurtz’s “goodness shone in every act” who do nothing about the hypocrisy and atrocities of empire, perpetuating the lie of civilization, suggesting that ultimately our civilization is unable to fully become disillusioned with “The horror! The horror!” that Kurtz’s story has expressed.
In Apocalypse Now, Coppola demonstrates Willard’s disillusionment at the absurdity, futility and senselessness of the US war effort, and redeems European civilization by admitting and acknowledging the dissatisfaction atrocities and hypocrisy of the US in the Vietnam war effort, in contrast to in Heart of Darkness. Throughout another journey metaphor like in Heart of Darkness, Willard observes the futility of war, especially in Kilgore’s attack of the armed village. Coppola’s use of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ soundtrack by Wagner, who has links to Hitler, has sinister connotations, juxtaposing the pinnacle of man’s creative ability with its destructive capabilities, attacking the innocence of white-costumed female teacher and children. This scene is rendered futile as Kilgore’s dramatic napalm attack ruins the surf he set out to enjoy, emphasizing the cost of ‘total war’ reworking the costs of empire in Heart of Darkness to the significance of the failures of the American war effort in Vietnam. Marlow begins to achieve a sense of disillusionment at the pointlessness of war, as he says after many point of view shots of his open, observant facial expression, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder, there was enough of that to go around for everyone.” This is furthered in the Do Long Bridge scene, where Coppola creates surreal, frenzied images of flames, coupled with a discordant and dissonant soundtrack, with bells accompanied with screams and back lighting, reducing figures to shadows. The strings of lights around the bridge resemble those of a fairground, and the Stygian images of grey water, with men swimming in this “arsehole of the world,” contribute to the overall Hellish atmosphere of the US war effort here. The Sisyphean task of constant rebuilding and destruction in an endless cycle, just so the “generals can say the road’s open,” suggests the need to present an image of control to the US public. Thus this scene picks up the hypocrisy and absurdity of the war effort, similar to Heart of Darkness, just applied to the Vietnam War. The Sampan Massacre, alluding to the My Lai Massacre, is a response to the growing disillusionment of the US public in its shameful conduct in the war, showing its costs, as mirrored in the “grove of death” in Heart of Darkness. The sudden cut to silence after wanton firing renders the scene very poignant, emphasizing the guilt and shame, reflected in the US public during the Vietnam war, witnessing scenes of destruction everyday on television.
Finally, the closure of the film symbolizes a salvaging of US innocence, as Willard symbolically leads the regressing, but innocent boy Lance away from the Montagnard army by the hand. He also does not become Kurtz, having understood the failures of the US war effort and his mission. Dramatically Coppola uses a constant stream of rain from before to after Kurtz is killed, purging the US conscience, admitting the hypocrisy, futility and absurdity of the US war effort, reflecting the growing disillusionment of the US public on the Vietnam War. Ultimately Coppola diametrically opposes the end of Heart of Darkness here, matching the growing disillusionment of the public, as Vietnam was a televised war, fully bringing out the truth, suggesting European society is ready now to accept the truth of their civilisation, in contrast to Heart of Darkness
The Moral Ambiguity of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now”
Marlon Brando gets no more than eighteen minutes of screen time in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but his performance goes down as one of the most legendary in cinematic history. His portrayal of the Colonel Kurtz painted a dark picture of a tribal leader gone mad. Similarly, Kurtz in the book “Heart of Darkness” has a mysterious aura around him, one that suggests ambition as well as malice. However, the most interesting thing about Kurtz is that most of the information we know about him is second-hand, and thus, for most of the book, his character is revealed by what others say about him. Looking at Kurtz’s parallel in the movie, there are some small but crucial differences that end up changing the viewer’s opinion of Marlow.
The very first mention of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” occurs when Marlow runs into the Company’s very well dressed chief accountant:
One day he remarked, without lifting his head, ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.’ On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, ‘He is a very remarkable person.’ Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together …’ He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in a great peace … He remained thoughtful for a moment. ‘When you see Mr. Kurtz’ he went on, ‘tell him from me that everything here’—he glanced at the deck—’ is very satisfactory. I don’t like to write to him—with those messengers of ours you never know who may get hold of your letter—at that Central Station.’ He stared at me for a moment with his mild, bulging eyes. ‘Oh, he will go far, very far,’ he began again. ‘He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above—the Council in Europe, you know—mean him to be.’(85-86)
From this, we learn several things. Kurtz, for one, is very highly regarded within the company, because of his ability to bring in massive amounts of ivory, more than all the other workers combined. But then how is this possible? Is he merely an excellent worker, a genius at collecting ivory? Or is there another illicit method that Kurtz is using to collect that much ivory. Given the shady history of the ivory trade, it is very likely that the Company knows about Kurtz’s illegitimate methods but chooses to ignore them for the sake of profit, casting doubt on both Kurtz’s and the Company’s intentions. This is further evidenced by the fact that the accountant states Kurtz’s future rise to senior management as a certainty rather than a possibility. This whole passage – which serves as an introduction to Kurtz’s character – has a creepy overtone to it, suggesting many things about Kurtz and the Company, but never stating them outright.
By contrast, when we look at “Apocalypse Now”, we see that Willard has taken on a specific mission to kill Colonel Kurtz. What this does is to turn the viewer more definitely against Kurtz, painting him as a villain rather than a mysterious character from the beginning of the film. Yet Willard does not see the need to “terminate with extreme prejudice” while the U.S itself is busy fighting a war in which millions of lives are senselessly lost. Why does the U.S want to devote so much time and energy fighting a colonel who, in the grand scheme of things, does not seem to have much impact on the overall outcome of the war? Willard, however, seems to doubt Kurtz’s evilness rather than search for it as Marlow does.
When Marlow travels to the Middle Station, he is uneasy meeting the Station Manager. He notices that the Manager is “obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness” (89). We can look at the Manager as a foil to Kurtz, who seems to have influence, even on those people he technically does not have command over. Marlow even goes so far as to think that the Manager does not deserve his position:
His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill … He had served three terms of three years out there … Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions is a kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted on a large scale—pompously. Jack ashore—with a difference—in externals only. This one could gather from his casual talk. He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man.(89)
However, when the time comes around to discussing Kurtz, the Manager gets anxious and restless. He wishes to travel down to the Inner Station to check on Kurtz, citing his importance to the company. The two people who know Kurtz so far seem to have an fixation, almost a reverence of Kurtz, speaking of him in high terms. But the sudden change in the Manager’s attitude and his nervousness about Kurtz’s condition makes us curious what is going on behind the scenes. Just a few pages later, however, we get a glimpse into the Manager’s true intentions: “As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, ‘take advantage of this unfortunate accident.’ One of the men was the manager”(92). Is the Manager merely a man, jealous of Kurtz’s success, or is there another ulterior motive? The Stations’ brickmaker, however, speaks of Kurtz as “a prodigy”(94), calling him “an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else.”(94). Finally, we overhear the Station manager and his uncle discussing Kurtz and his possibly growing influence, and how it threatens the Station Manager’s position: ‘It IS unpleasant,’ grunted the uncle. ‘He has asked the Administration to be sent there,’ said the other, ‘with the idea of showing what he could do; and I was instructed accordingly. Look at the influence that man must have. Is it not frightful?’ … ‘Yes,’ answered the manager; ‘he sent his assistant down the river with a note to me in these terms: “Clear this poor devil out of the country, and don’t bother sending more of that sort. I had rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me.” It was more than a year ago. Can you imagine such impudence!’ ‘Anything since then?’ asked the other hoarsely. ‘Ivory,’ jerked the nephew; ‘lots of it—prime sort—lots—most annoying, from him.’ ‘And with that?’ questioned the heavy rumble. ‘Invoice,’ was the reply fired out, so to speak. Then silence. They had been talking about Kurtz.(102)
Before Marlow meets Kurtz in person, he reads a report that Kurtz prepared for a philanthropic society, an essay that speaks of the importance of civilizing the supposed “savages” in Africa. Marlow is struck by the beauty of the writing and the persuasiveness of its arguments, and had it not been for the last scrawled note, “Exterminate all the brutes!”(128), Marlow would not have developed his followed ambivalence towards Kurtz: “It was very simple, and the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lighting in a serene sky”(128). It’s worth noting that it is at this time that we get the first glimpse of the dark side of Kurtz. Before this incident, all the information Marlow knew about Kurtz was secondhand – gleaning information from the way people acted and spoke about him. Before Marlow confronts Kurtz, he meets one more person, Kurtz’s personal assistant, described as a harlequin. He sings praises about Kurtz, claiming, “‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind’”(133). There are three main points of observation to take away from this. First, we can tell from the harlequin the type of character that Kurtz attracts: an offbeat, impressionable young man. Secondly, Kurtz is indeed the type of person to take advantage of such a person. Finally, the harlequin exposits on Kurtz’s secret: how does he get so much ivory? The truth is far more sinister than Marlow could have imagined – the harlequin states:
Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! (136)
So Kurtz has been illicitly forcing the people around him, including the Russian harlequin and the natives to give up their ivory under threat of death: “‘There’s a good lot of cartridges left even raided the country’, I said”(135).
The harlequin’s equivalent in “Apocalypse Now” would be the American photojournalist, unabashed and free in his worship of Kurtz. But there are some key differences: the harlequin is described as having a “beardless, boyish face”(131) and being dressed in loud and ostentatious colours, yet the photojournalist is middle-aged and dressed in drab clothing – someone who is not as impressionable as the harlequin. However, the main similarity between them is that they are both awestruck by Kurtz and his personality – they would do anything for him. We first encounter Kurtz in person more than four-fifths into the book, and the encounter is a memorable one: the whites carry Kurtz from his hut on a stretcher, and the harlequin warns Marlow that unless he says the right thing to Kurtz, everyone on the steamer will be killed. After Kurtz boards the steamer, Marlow hears him berating the Station Manager for attempting to interfere with his plans. The Manager’s response is to cite Kurtz’s unsound methods for obtaining ivory as a reason, but it is ambiguous whether the Manager truly cares about his methods or that Kurtz may be usurping his position. In “Apocalypse Now”, Kurtz is not shown on a stretcher as a handicapped individual, but rather as a tribal leader through the creative use of shadows. He is more hostile than his counterpart in the book, capturing and torturing Willard as well as decapitating Chef. However, he accepts that Willard has come to kill it and seems to not do much in order to prevent it.
Kurtz’s motives in both the book and the movie are difficult to decipher. On one hand, he is depicted as a power-crazed individual who lost his sanity. On the other, he sometimes looks like a normal, ambitious person who became disillusioned with the european system of morals, and attempted to create his own framework. First of all, he is disliked by many of the people Marlow meets earlier in the book – the Station Manager and his uncle plot to bring Kurtz down and wish that he would be defeated by the climate:
‘Hm’m. Just so,’ grunted the uncle. ‘Ah! my boy, trust to this—I say, trust to this.’ I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.(103)
Kurtz is portrayed as a mini-tyrant, a dying god to the natives. He both embodies the best of ideal European values – honesty, decisiveness, creativity – yet contradicts other elements. For example, his methods use absolute force to bring in the ivory, but he does not try to hide the fact and is perfectly forthright about what he does. This is what makes him so dangerous to the Company in “Heart of Darkness” as well as the U.S military in “Apocalypse Now”. He is doing exactly what the governing bodies are doing, but without hiding behind a mask of good intentions.
Instead of his earlier philanthropic ideals in “Heart of Darkness” in which he proposed that a “station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing”(104), Kurtz runs into the allure of power. He sets himself up as a god to the natives, and instead of attempting to civilize the natives, he dies believing that they should be exterminated. However, what makes him unusual is that he does not care what others think about his actions: he calls the manager “This noxious fool”(153). Similarly, Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” knows that he can make followers out of past enemies, just as he did with Colby, who was sent on an earlier mission identical to Willard’s. Colonel Kurtz is one of the enigmatic characters in all of literary history, and he is notable for being an anti-villain, a supposed villain who does not show all the typical traits of an antagonist. Even though “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” take different approaches to the same character, the core is the same: a man disillusioned by the allure of money and the hypocrisy of their governing body who decides to take matters into his hands.
Conrad, Joseph, and Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness ; And, the Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1997. Print.
Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Paramount Pictures, 1979. DVD.
Apocalypse Now – Cold War Perspectives
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now sustains a derogative perspective on the state of war and its corruptive influence. Set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, the action and narrative present the post-World War II era as a morally confused, hypocritical, and corrupt period, specifically as the film’s antagonist Colonel Kurtz illuminates moral subjectivity, and embodies the nihilistic and egocentric nature of war. Corruption is expressed through the metaphor of Benjamin Willard’s mission, which acts as a transformative quality for the characters; specifically as his crew revert to escapism and façades to elude their own guilt and ignorance, as expressed through the symbolism of masks. This film indicts the apparent hypocrisy of American democracy, as the war on communism is an infringement on their core value of freedom of speech, with paranoia and egocentrism being at the heart of America’s shallow perspective. While current systems of governance remain narcissistic in scope and the tension between Communism and Capitalism at large, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now will retain relevance in a world skewed by human vice.
Whilst actions in war are considered blurred, the immorality of war itself innately ensures corruption, however amplified by modern warfare and the conflict between Capitalism and Communism. This is expressed hyperbolically through the characterization of Kurtz, whose amoral and nihilistic perspective is erred by the true madness of war, from which “horror and moral terror [must be] your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared”, which will inherently alter all touched. Depicted as god-like and omniscient, his state of extreme pessimism and forced ignorance expresses the confining aspects of conflict and duty, and how toeing this line results in dehumanization and escapism, as Willard signifies in the following: “I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away” This is further expressed through the metaphor of Willard’s mission, wherein the rising action of the film is expressed through his journey towards humanities core barbarianism, and the role of masks as a symbolic crutch to destroy past moral machinations, as in the exposition he punches his reflection in the mirror, and in the climax wears mud as an illustration of his character’s transformation into Kurtz; taking part in “ruthless action” and “terminating with extreme prejudice” as ordered. The psychological ramifications of this is signified through the crew’s mental deterioration, wherein they similarly create a façade after reaching a “breaking point”, typically with face paint, and revert to drugs rather than Kurtz’s complete immorality to escape their reality, specifically as Chef “doesn’t care where (his soul) goes as long it ain’t here.” Evidently, the characters have been corrupted by their experiences and by the Machiavellian nature of morality (so to speak) in wartime.
As thus, true corruption finds standing through the hypocritical movements of the American’s and its allies during the Vietnam War, as US troops are shown to fire needlessly at will, with complete separation from their actions; illuminating a state of dehumanization and subjective ethics. This is expressed through the following: “… had a hill bombed, for 12 hours… We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like… victory” This illustrates the power of paranoia during the Cold War period, as Egocentrism stands large as a pivotal force in the ignorance of the soldiers, who treated the Vietnamese like animals they could fix with a “Band-Aid” after blowing up, and Vietnam as a frontier to battle Communism, rather than a country that should be entitled to the freedom of speech the American’s are praised for. This voices Coppola’s concern with Western Capitalism and its selective view, as its shallow nature is symbolized by the concerns of the American troupes, which tend to circle around women, music and “surfing the whole fucking place!” rather than the effects their actions will have. This remains as a core element of the film, as all actions undertaken by the cast are verbally downplayed, as Willard is “neither (a soldier nor an assassin). (He’s) an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill”, and as thus is perceived as a pawn with a corrupt objective, rather than personally corrupt. However this is disproven in the denouement, wherein he symbolically leaves Kurtz’s camp and breaks the radio, proving that war and its madness is a product of human choice, not duty.
Apocalypse Now expresses the power of subjectivity in inspiring conflict, from which forms a shallow-scope that incites moral confusion within society, which the characterization of Kurtz explores through the corruptive power of ignorant war and the threat of Communism in inspiring paranoia; thus breaking down the moral barriers in society and implicating hypocrisy within Democratic America, and in this breakage a removal of guilt and the truth of war’s horrors. Thus, Apocalypse Now retains voice due to the universal scope of war; whilst we are deluded with righteousness and our vices, it is apparent that war remains a prominent figure in our society, specifically as we continue to rage it in foreign countries aimlessly, and often in conflict to our supposed morals. Coppola’s note on the madness of war continues to remain relevant, so long as we continue to fight ‘the good fight.’
After the Bomb – a study into the mindset of the Cold War Era
After the chaos of the atomic bomb and the carnage of World War II, precedence was placed on government constructs to supply order to a tense climate, particularly in finding direction in a new ‘East versus West’ conflict. In John Le Carre’s mid-twentieth century novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the propagated glamorisation of the political-spy role acts as a foil to the bureaucratic, utilitarian characterisation of the Circus setting, wherein it’s façade projects an air of legitimacy to an ideologically confused populace. Thus political agency becomes an answer to the era’s stasis, as dialogue illuminates Leamas’ profession as an escape from the ennui and anxiety of a nuke-threatened existence. Similarly in Francis Coppola’s 1970s film Apocalypse Now, paranoia in the threat of Communism and the Bamboo Curtain incites the American soldiers’ sense of duty, as the military construct symbolically relies on violence to create a sense of power and security in an apathetic modern society. Contrastingly, whilst attempts to find purpose meet disillusioned success, the ephemeral questioning of America’s Democracy, particularly in the hypocritical Vietnam crusade, dissuades the legitimacy of the central government’s political direction and responsibility, as symbolised by Willard’s loss of innocence and journey towards immorality. Samuel Becket’s mid-Twentieth Century play Waiting for Godot supports this conception as well, as the titular religious question subverts the presence of salvation, from which the political paradigm loses sway in the face of spiritual and ideological emptiness. Thus, government polity cannot overturn a sense of powerlessness and anxiety in the post-bomb era.
As the nuclear-weapons race places universal desolation within threatening proximity, finding purpose and meaning is found in political agency. In Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, federal propaganda plays into this social vulnerability, wherein the glamorisation of the political-spy role is explored through the archetypically masculine depiction of Leamas as both emotionally and physically resilient, as illustrated in “remorseless” and “hard”. In an anxious climate still reeling from the morally questionable actions of WWII, a return to this traditional, conservative structure allows for the confronting truths of the modern era to be masked by “the same banality”, from which a sense of stability and order returns. Thus, delusion presents itself as a basis for which order can be found. This is expressed through the characterisation of the Circus setting as a foil to the glamorised federal construct, wherein the bureaucratic, utilitarian and often dehumanising nature of the institution, particularly in the portrayal of Leamas as an “ends and means” in the court scene, contrasts to the public’s sense of Western individualism as a moral basis. This represents the sense of loss experienced by the Cold-War populace, for which the repetition of “not knowing” underlines the social paradigms desperate search for legitimacy, order and meaning in an ideologically-confused setting, and its subsequent misplacement in the government polity. This is further expressed through dialogue, wherein Leamas’ profession acts as an escape from the ennui of a nuclear-threatened society as, ironically, the position gives him a sense of purpose and power despite the threat’s continued prevalence. This is illustrated in “…playing cowboys and Indians to brighten [his] rotten little life”.
Paranoia creates the same effect in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, wherein the social paradigm’s search for power in a vulnerable landscape incites America’s political involvement in Vietnam, specifically to curb the Bamboo Curtain and the threat of Communism in Asia. In order to supplant this ideological threat, the central government promotes the effort as an American responsibility; a military “mission”. This is illustrated through the overt enthusiasm of the soldiers, as in the helicopter scene, the link to Norse mythology’s death gods in the score’s title, Ride of the Valkyries, implies their “god-like” responsibility, as in this brutality they assume power and superiority over fear; thus the “love… of napalm” and “victory”, as inaction would mean the “nightmare” of “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor”. Subsequently, as like in the characterisation of the Circus, dehumanisation in the political “termination” of opposition expresses a level of universal distrust and anxiety, in which paranoia allows for disassociation to thrive. Symbolically, this presents nihilism and apathy as a new vital piece of modern order, as despite the subsequent anti-war protest, it is solder’s like Kurtz who embrace the “horror” as a bi-product of existential crises within modern warfare; brutality is needed to find purpose within vulnerability. This is further embodied by his desolate characterisation, “just wanting to go out like a soldier, standing up”, and “trying” to mean something in a disparate, Post-bomb world; thus promoting political agency as an escape from social anxiety.
Nevertheless, government systems fail in securing a sense of power within futility. Despite a deluded placement of legitimacy within government agency, innate suspicion and distrust breaks the bond between the politic body and the head, particularly as America’s involvement in Vietnam contrasts to its basis in Democracy. In Apocalypse Now, this idea is illuminated by Willard’s metaphoric journey down the river, which parallels Leamas’ road with the children in the car, and Waiting for Godot’s road-side, the mission symbolises life and direction. In particular, it represents the direction of the political agency; a journey into immorality and disassociation. This becomes evident in the merging of Kurtz’ and Willard’s voice in the reading of the letters, as their retreat into the “jungle” becomes a strong motif for their shared sense of innocence lost; their immorality leaves them dehumanised and creatures of political apathy. This is further apparent in the characterisation of the soldiers as wilfully brutal and disassociated from their actions, as they symbolically become an embodiment of the political perspective. This is expressed in “…had a hill bombed, for 12 hours… victory”. Thus a lack of constitute is signified, as the American political body’s ignorance of its own moral basis of freedom of expression, specifically in order to combat its own personal war against Communism, implies hypocrisy. Hence, this illegitimacy incurs the social paradigms protest and disillusionment. This inner conflict inspires futility; so long as collective bodies differ in a lost setting, order and purpose inevitably fail and anxiety persists in confusion.
This theme is further expressed in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, wherein political struggles are illuminated as inconsequential in the face of religious questioning. Its footing in Absurdism implies the era’s lack of meaning, and subsequently its political vendettas as absurd, as in the wake of the atomic bomb and the “hope deferred”, its actions are perceived as a response to the “something sick”; reactionary but lacking in meaning besides fear, likewise to America’s Vietnam efforts. As anxiety breeds its likeness, particularly in the motivations of the government polity, the process becomes a paradox. This is broached via the circular structure of the play, as the closing question, “well, shall we go?”, equates to a lack of social mobility and static, from which ideological questioning cannot salvage them. This is further explored by the characterisation of Pozzo as a side act, as whilst the power relationship between the two parties, in parallel to the ‘East versus West’ ideological struggle, offers a distraction from their desperate “wait”, their shared “loss of rights” implicates universal futility. Thus, anxiety stems from “nothingness” and the need to be the “thief… saved”, particularly as the Cold War populace “compares (themselves to Christ)”; their misdeeds are misinterpreted as sacrifice, for otherwise they would have no purpose in a disparate climate. Hence, to exist in the Post-bomb era is to “waste and pine”, as to accept a spiritual and ideological emptiness within the social consciousness is to fester in meaninglessness and cease to exist. Thus, whilst the government structure both succeeds and fails in feeding a sense of vitality to a vulnerable society through political agency, it is the deep-seated nature of the anxiety within the social consciousness that defeats the attempt.
While faith is often placed in government constructs to attain order and purpose within a lost environment, it is the wide-spread permeation of fear that cheapens the legitimacy of the agency. Whilst it succeeds in attributing purpose, both in the glamorisation of the spy-role in Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the sense of power inspired by duty in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it is delusion and social fear that founds it. Leamas symbolically escapes the ennui of vulnerability, as his profession allows a disassociation from ever-present powerlessness. Similarly, it is the military constructs own basis in fear and paranoia that allows for a god-like responsibility. Thus any order or purpose attained in government agency is illegitimate, as the soldiers symbolically embody the brutality of the politics, and in Becket’s Waiting for Godot, the Absurdist nature of the play parallels the absurdist nature of the society, particularly as the religious question erodes any baseless meaning within the political struggle. Thus, it is the root of the social anxiety, the atomic bomb itself, that recreates its own futility in paradox, as the social paradigm continues to search for meaning and direction in a lost, conflicted setting.
Rationalizing the Fear Within
Both The Things They Carried and Apocalypse Now explore the trauma of the Vietnam War and its influence on soldiers’ fears. Similar characters appear in both works, their identities crafted to represent different aspects of human nature. The protagonists, Captain Willard and Tim O’Brien, tell frame stories through their own points of view, giving the audience windows to the guilt and hollowness, death and savagery rife in war-torn Vietnam. Each finds himself suffocated by guilt, choking at an explanation for the endless, meaningless death and violence. Similarly, Chef, the private on Willard’s boat, and Curt Lemon of O’Brien’s platoon mirror each other with their immaturity, their carefree rambunctious behavior and their gruesome, avoidable deaths. With the protagonist of each story as its guide, the audience examines the degree to which fear and primal instincts consume the soldiers in the jungle. Fear in the hearts of men grows unhindered in each work, as both Willard and O’Brien strive to tell their stories as much as to placate their own fear of guilt and responsibility as to comment on the fear of others. The two works spin strikingly similar stories of insanity, guilt, and trauma, albeit through different media.Initially, the methods of storytelling employed by each protagonist seem to be completely dissimilar: Willard’s moves with the action, a first person account of the happenings as they take place, while O’Brien’s jumps around from being with the action to reflecting upon it twenty years later. However, taken from a different angle, Willard’s narration shows as much reflection on events and personal emotion as O’Brien’s. Both narrators are jaded by the action they have seen, displayed by the way each can instantly discern what sorts of people make his company. O’Brien analyzes each of his characters through descriptions of their belongings and habits, ultimately crafting a telling portrait of each man. Likewise, Willard introduces the crew of his ship by painting their identities with a broad brush: Lance, the young surfer, Chef, the down south saucier, etc. As they move from soldier to soldier, Willard and O’Brien create indelible images in the mind of the audience, colorful personas that command pity, sympathy, and loathing. Both Willard and O’Brien have difficulty understanding the enemy. When reading the dossier on Kurtz, Willard’s voiceover reveals his thoughts and emotions about Kurtz’s life and sudden, erratic decisions; in “Ambush,” O’Brien does the same when talking about the man he killed. O’Brien tries to imagine what the man’s life would have been like were it not for the grenade, and even gives an objective point of view and he hypothetically tells the story to his daughter. The blend of surmise and objectivity of O’Brien’s account in “Ambush” bears resemblance to Willard’s interactions with Kurtz. Like O’Brien, Willard attempts to put himself in Kurtz’s shoes, wondering if the thirst for action could turn him native and savage, as it did the colonel. Yet in each case, the protagonist falters when attempting to understand his enemy, and essentially makes the title “enemy” a misnomer. Illuminating one of the problems with the concept of war, both Willard and O’Brien sympathize with the men they are orders to kill and add difficulty to a simple task. The struggle to rationalize the act of killing is hardest for O’Brien, as the Vietnamese man was an innocent compared to the monster of Colonel Kurtz. Willard, on the other hand, sympathizes with Kurtz because he has taken the same path as his enemy, and feels the same potential for evil inside of himself. In both works, the frame story structure reveals the attempts of the protagonist to rationalize the horror around them.Fear, the impetus of survival, has a pronounced role in both Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried. Their machismo makes soldiers attempt to mask their fear, thereby allowing it to grow within them. Attempting to deny their fear makes soldiers act illogically, almost turning them “savage” in the end. As O’Brien describes in “The Dentist”, Curt Lemon insists on having a perfectly good tooth pulled because he fears ridicule by his peers and superiors so deeply. He had shamed himself by fainting during a routine military checkup and needed to reclaim his toughness by showing that he could withstand the pulling of a tooth, regardless of whether or not he needed that tooth to be pulled. Similarly, Lemon’s last action – playing catch with a hand grenade – illustrates the juxtaposition of war and camaraderie, the morbid fun in which the soldiers engage to sustain an illusion of safety. Just as Lemon’s inherent fear causes him to behave in insane ways, so does that of Chef, the saucier onboard Willard’s boat. Chef’s death at the hands of Kurtz’s savages takes place off screen, leading to a scene depicting his mangled corpse. Like Lemon’s death, Chef’s is brief and gruesome, and overshadows the rest of his life. Prior to his gruesome exit, Chef loses touch with reality on the river when he decides to look for fruit in the jungle. As Chef and Willard run off into enemy territory, risking their lives only to look for mangoes, they too submit their will to the illogical judgment of fear. The fear inside them, stoked by the savage passions of the jungle and the war around them, instills and Chef and Willard the desire for safety, the need to revert to familiar surroundings to assuage the trauma of Vietnam. The jungle’s wildness consumes them on this fruitless quest, and the two soldiers flee from a tiger. The tiger, like the grenade, presents a force of reckoning to the men. It destroys the illusion of safety created by temporary peace, the lull between bouts of combat. The tiger throws Chef and Willard back into ugly reality, and the men forget their mangoes back on the Me-Kong. Their fears, and those of all soldiers, eventually come down to one thing – the fear of death.As their fears deepen in the forests of Vietnam, all the man become less human. In O’Brien’s stories, ignorant actions reveal the savage nature some of the men have developed. Kiley blows his own toe off to get out of action, for instance, and Lee Strunk begs Jensen to spare his life regardless of their pact. Apocalypse Now delves much further into the evolution of fear, as Kurtz represents an embodiment of fear itself. Once an eloquent, highly respected war hero, Colonel Kurtz devolves into a mind irreparably twisted and contorted by fear and evil. Kurtz’s evil forces Willard to consider whether he himself has the capacity for the same. Though O’Brien’s stories posses nothing as cohesive as the fear consolidated in Kurtz, many of their characters embody similar traits. Azar, for example, exudes wholly mercenary qualities throughout much of his time, showing blatant disregard for the value of life before showing deference to Kiowa’s memory. In the end, both mental and physical survival depends on soldiers’ ability to sort out his fears. O’Brien does this via his writing, feeling that preserving the memories of fallen friends can alleviate his guilt. Willard, however, submits to his fears, fulfilling his duty and slaying the evil Kurtz. Exiting the colonel’s temple shirtless and sweating, chest heaving in the heat of the jungle and wild eyes flashing upon legions of native people, he resembles an idol. As he mutters the same last words Kurtz did – “The horror” – Willard shows how the experience has changed him. While O’Brien exorcized his fears by writing about them, Willard’s clearly remain.The war itself deserves credit for any similarities between these two works. War, as an institution, commands men to act against their nature. Men are not supposed to kill each other for reasons unknown, blow off their own toes to escape confrontation, or rip out their own good teeth. They are not supposed to mount severed human heads on posts or decimate a village so one man can surf. War makes them do these things. Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried look closely at how war contorts the mind of a soldier, amplifying his fears into insanity. Using similar characters and techniques, each work produces a unique image of what war did to soldiers in Vietnam.
The Use of Lighting in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now
Following the journey of a man traveling through a river on a mission to kill an insane Colonel Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now consist of very similar storylines. With many of the same quotes, character names, and symbols, there are numerous parallels between the two works. However, Apocalypse Now provides visual aspects of life on the river that Heart of Darkness cannot, such as set, lighting, sound effects and costumes. While he uses all of these cinematographic features along with other filmic elements, lighting is an aspect that is utilized throughout the entirety of the movie, providing a greater understanding of the effects of war. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now employs strategic lighting throughout the film in order to offer insight on the physical and emotional pain that drove soldiers to insanity during the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The opening scene of Coppola’s film depicts the Vietnam landscape as one of demolition and terror as the entire terrain is illuminated by enormous fires. While in some contexts fire can be a symbol of warmth and comfort, here it is used as a destruction tactic in war. The span of trees are mere shadows behind the intensity of the fire’s light, demonstrating the power that it has to affect a large space in a short time. With its harsh, orange glow, the fire gives off a sense of urgency. Even before showing any combat or dialogue, the film is able to portray the war as a highly disastrous time that would, undoubtedly, affect the lives of millions of soldiers.
Once the plot of the movie begins, Coppola uses lighting to establish Captain Willard’s mental state as one of post-traumatic stress and insanity. Willard is seen pacing, drinking, doing karate-like moves, and punching a mirror in a bedroom early on in the film. In each scene, the lights of the room are turned off and either the sunlight of the early morning or small lamps on all sides of Willard’s room light the set. When the sun is shining outside and the room is dark inside, Willard is usually in his bed, lying still. This gives the illusion that Willard’s world has temporarily stopped while the rest of the world continues with the day, especially since the room is still partially darkened. However, it seems that Willard is most active at night when the lamps are the source of light, further indicating his separation from reality. His karate motions are very mechanical and unnatural during these times, reflecting the artificial light of the lamps. The lamps also give a shadow to Willard’s body which portray him as even more eerie and insane as he looks more like a dark figure moving rather than a human being. These lighting strategies are very fitting for this scene as they help to shape a character that has been emotionally pained by the traumas of war in the past. While the main focus of these series of scenes is clearly Willard’s strange actions, the lighting aids the fact that Willard is in his own artificial world, oblivious to life outside of his room due to his past experiences with war.
Throughout the soldiers’ time on the boat, the lighting also adds a majestic tone to the storyline that contrasts with the foggy sky as the men progress through the river, emphasizing the cruel, ruthless nature of life on the river. In one scene, the American boat comes across a Vietnamese boat transporting vegetables and other goods. After the Vietnamese woman on the boat insists on guarding one barrel in the back of the boat, the American soldiers proceed to violently and mercilessly kill all of them to find out that she was only protecting a small puppy. Following this massacre, the American boat rides off into the distance with the setting sun in the background. After such a brutal attack, it seems ironic that this is the image that Coppola leaves with before fading out to a new scene. The light of the sunset reflects onto the water, leaving a peaceful image that contrasts with the incident that previously occurred. Coppola could have used this lighting mechanism to highlight that the Navy men on the Patrol Boat River are not thinking straight and that their reactions and tendencies are not matching with the tone of the war. This strategy also makes the killings seem even more savage when they are looked at side-by-side with the serene picture of the fading sun. Moreover, a similar incident occurs when the PBR is attacked by natives along the shore of the river. In this scene, however, the boat is blinded by fog surrounding the river. This overcast, hazy lighting represents chaos and confusion as the arrows fire aimlessly at the PBR and the soldiers shoot mindlessly into the forest. It reiterates the idea that life on the river is seemingly senseless as the soldiers are literally and figuratively blind to the world outside their boat as seen through the cloudy shootings. After this attack, though, Chief, an American soldier and captain of the Patrol Boat River dies. Following the painful death of being struck in the chest with spear, Chief’s body is laid in the river as another setting sun brightens the background. While this sunset seems a little bit more fitting as the soldiers are putting one of their own to rest, it still highly contrasts the vicious nature of the killing and the physical pain brought upon the soldiers. The use of lighting in these sunsets is effective because it not only establishes the irony and puzzlement that war has on the soldiers, but also emphasizes the cruel deaths that many of them encounter.
The complete darkness (save for some torches and string lights) that the men faces at the Do Lung Bridge is representative of the ominous and foreboding events that they will soon experience on the island. Throughout the entire journey on the river, the lighting becomes increasingly dimmer until this moment of utter darkness, stressing the progressive danger and insanity that the Vietnam War brings. At this point in the film, the American Navy men are everything from crazy to inhuman to dead, and the darkness is a perfect representation of this descent from reality into savagery. Since they have not yet reached the final destination of island of severed heads, dangling bodies, and the insane Colonel Kurtz, there are string lights and fires still guiding the way. However, the soldiers are still mostly shadows during the scene, foreshadowing the confusion of what is to come of the final stop on the voyage. They are, literally, in the dark about the real mission of the journey – Captain Willard knows that he is on a mission to kill Kurtz, but he doesn’t quite know what to expect once he reaches him, as depicted through the actual darkness on the bridge.
Once Willard reaches Kurtz, the insane captain that has been dominating the natives on an island in Vietnam, it is evident that he is also shaped by the lighting features that the film uses. Kurtz’s face is never fully illuminated – he is always in some sort of shadow that covers half of his bald head. This, however, differs from Willard who is always more completely covered in the shadows of something during his talks with Kurtz. This emphasizes that, at this point, Kurtz may be more sane than Willard – he feels like he has some purpose to ruling the natives while Willard is aimlessly killing a man with whom he has never had an interaction. The lighting scheme and plot climaxes as Willard slaughters Kurtz in a scene of complete shadows with a dim light in the background. This depicts the most psychotic part of the film as the lack of light suggests no way out of the insanity that the war has now brought upon Willard.
Apocalypse Now would not depict the Vietnam War as accurately and horrifically without the use of light features. It aids in understanding everything from chaos to pain to irony throughout the entire film and helps to demonstrate how the characters’ mental states progress during the journey, ultimately proving the insanity that war brings upon soldiers who are placed in the middle of it.
Perspectives in Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War: One War, Many Stories
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, shows American MACV-SOG Captain Benjamin Willard’s journey in terminating rogue U.S. colonel Walter Kurtz. Bao Ninh’s 1993 novel The Sorrow of War is a fictional account of the life of a North Vietnamese soldier named Kien, which details his life before, during and after the war. While Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War are both accounts of the Vietnam War, they are told from the perspectives of opposing sides of the conflict, thus differ drastically in their representations of the war, specifically in regards to their portrayal of the Vietnamese population and military, the experiences and successes of both country’s militaries, and how the two countries portray women.
The Sorrow of War, being about a North Vietnamese soldier, is told from the perspective of the the North Vietnamese side of the war, and because of this, it naturally portrays the people and military of this region differently than the United States typically does. The novel in no way suggests that the people of North Vietnam are in any way inferior, less advanced or less intellectual than those in the West, namely the United States, but rather does the opposite. The Vietnamese characters in The Sorrow of War are presented as complex, intellectual individuals living in an advanced society. Complicated relationships between characters such as Kien and Phuong, as well as descriptions of their educational experiences prove this. In addition, the North Vietnamese military is portrayed as powerful and successful in the novel, which references the “momentous day of total victory…” in which they captured Saigon and claimed victory in the Vietnam War (Ninh, 100). The American military is clearly represented as the defeated in the war, as mentions of them “running for their lives from Phuoc An…” illustrate their collapse and inferiority.
The same cannot be said for Apocalypse Now, which presents the people of Vietnam as a savage, barbaric, uncivilized population. The film is a blatant example of Edward Said’s description of Orientalism, with the United States misrepresenting Vietnam as an inferior and less advanced country both intellectually and technologically. When early in the movie, helicopters wipe out a Viet-Cong controlled village in a merciless airstrike and Lieutenant Kilgore mutters “bunch of savages” under his breath, the tone is set early that the people of Northern Vietnam are to be viewed as inferior and less advanced as the Americans. The helicopters themselves had “death from above” printed on the noses, propagating this ideology. Throughout the course of the movie, the Vietnamese people that are shown are spoken for and dominated by the Americans. Later in the film, when Captain Willard’s boat stops to investigate a small boat of Vietnamese travelers, the crew argue with each other over whether or not to search the Vietnamese, who remain silent and powerless. The parent-child relationship between the United States and the Orient that Western media has historically produced is most evident in this scene, which is representative of two parents arguing over disciplining their child.
Not only does Apocalypse Now present the Vietnamese people as inferior savages, but the film presents the Vietnam War and the American experience in it much differently than The Sorrow of War does. Unlike the novel’s narrative of a victorious North Vietnam and a dominant North Vietnamese military, the film barely shows Vietnamese soldiers, and in doing so portrays the war as easy for the Americans. Scenes of soldiers surfing in between fighting, singing and cooking at night, and GI Lance‘s remark that the war “is better than Disneyland” all attest to this, creating a narrative that the United States was not troubled by the Vietnamese forces, and that the real conflict was internal, with the United States fighting itself.
Another comparison that can be made between Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War is how the two portray women, with the film representing women in a starkly different light than the novel. The female role in Apocalypse Now is simply entertainment for men. The only women in the film are Playboy models, objectified and admired for their physical attributes by American male soldiers. Contrastly, women in The Sorrow of War are seen as strong, intellectual, independent and oftentimes dominant characters. Phuong, Kien’s lover from before the war, is the dominant partner in their relationship. Sexually, Phuong does not submit to Kien, but rather pressures him, and eventually, Phuong is the one who terminates their relationship, asserting that “We (her and Kien) won’t see each other ever again” (Ninh, 145). Later in the novel during a description of Kien’s experiences in the war, a female guide named Hoa proves again the strength that women in the novel embody. Her heroism in helping Kien escape from American soldiers by killing an attack dog is a “magnificent portrait of courage” consistent with Bao Ninh’s portrayal of the woman in The Sorrow of War (Ninh, 190).
While Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War are drastically different portrayals of the Vietnam War, there are similarities that can be drawn from the two texts. This was one war, and The United States and Vietnam shared many of the same experiences. The soldiers of both sides endured many of the same gruesome realities of war, as scenes of hanging bodies riddling the trees along Captain Willard’s route to Colonel Kurtz, and descriptions of Kien’s comrade Quang’s belly being torn open, “…his intestines pouring out…all his bones seeming to be smashed” illustrate the ghastliness of the Vietnam War (Ninh, 94). Captain Willard and Kien share similar post-war traumas: waking in the night to visions of war, dreaming of battle and waking up expecting to be in the midst of it, or imagining enemy helicopters above, but “the whump-whump-whump of their rotor blades continues without the attack, and the helicopter image dissolves, and in its place a ceiling fan…” (Ninh, 46). As the soldiers in both Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War fill the lull between fighting with card games, guitar playing and banter, it is evident that the lived experiences of both parties were, to a degree, analogous.
Apocalypse Now and The Sorrow of War, portrayals of one war, show this war from two different perspectives, each country writing the narrative they want to be remembered. The United States, who inevitably lost the Vietnam War, barely ever shows Vietnamese soldiers in Apocalypse Now, and does not ever address how the war ended. Excluding Northern Vietnam from the story and focusing on conflict among Americans, American media is attempting to re-write the history of the war. Bao Ninh, however, makes sure to illustrate the strength, power, and success of the Vietnamese against the United States. He simultaneously interweaves personal narratives of characters to show the capabilities and personalities of the people of Northern Vietnam, combatting Western discourse about the Orient. If to be used to gain knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War, these two texts should be observed with an understanding of the intent of not only Francis Ford Coppola and Bao Ninh, but of the nations from which both identify with.