What does it mean to be patriotic in modern wars? How are we to justify our involvement and actions when there doesn’t appear to be a clear motive for why we went to war? What is the true benefit of the “glories” of war? These are some of the questions asked in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
The 1979 film follows the inner dialogue and harrowing mission of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. The film opens with Willard in a chaotic place emotionally. He has been back in Vietnam a week and is experiencing the effects of shell shock. He is in a state of paranoia and instability, but through his inner turmoil and alcohol-induced psychosis, Willard knows one thing and one thing only — he wants a mission.
And so, his wish is granted. Captain Willard is handed a top-secret mission, one that essentially won’t exist in the books. He is tasked with retrieving Special Forces legend Colonel Kurtz, a renegade leader with a cult following of indigenous peoples of Vietnam villages and his own Special Forces troops.
While the mission may sound simple, it is an arduous trek up the treacherous Vietnamese river systems up to the point of the mission of assassinating Colonel Kurtz. Along the way, Willard must travel with a ragtag team of river patrolmen and encounter near-death experiences at every corner while meeting strange people all conveying different messages about the war.
Perhaps none stick out quite so much as Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Kilgore — a man that engages on missions for capturing land purely for the purposes of having good surfing water and plays “Ride of the Valkyries” from his attack helicopters while he rains lead down on unsuspecting Vietnamese. Kilgore is, in essence, America. He is big, loud, brassy and assumes he is justified in all of his actions. Kilgore stands up while mortar fire rains down around him and barks orders at his men to surf while bullets from the enemies riddle the water near them. Kilgore is the crescendo of every bold, heart-pounding classical song. He embodies “Ride of the Valkyries” and the absurdity of wartime bravado. Kilgore brings a cartoonish masculinity and bravery that makes you wonder if you’re watching a comedy.
But Kilgore’s time in the film is limited, and soon the viewer is returned to the ugliness of the Vietnam War and the atrocities justified by wartime bylaws.
Continuously pressing forward toward the infamous Kurtz, Willard moves further into Vietnam, and as he does so, he seems to pass into the seven circles of Dante’s inferno, each ring uglier and more disorganized than the last.
Inevitably, Willard finds his Kurtz. But he is not at all the man mythologized by military legend or his extensive career write-up in mission documents. Instead, Kurtz is a fragmented man that rambles about big ambiguous topics while offering half solutions with no realistic conclusions. Even with his clear disengagement from reality, Kurtz is still brutal in his actions, severing the head of one of Willard’s crewman and tossing it on Willard’s lap.
Ultimately, Willard is able to get the drop on Kurtz during a ceremony where a live cow is filmed being sacrificed for a ritual. But Willard does not break through to get to Kurtz, rather, Kurtz knows he himself is scattered and has to die and thereby allows himself to be vulnerable to Willard’s attack — dying by a machete the same way the cow did during a ritual, all the while Kurtz murmurs “the horror, the horror” under his breath while he dies.
Willard emerges into the humid night air and walks through Kurtz’s village followers who now worship Willard as their de facto leader. But Willard is not Kurtz; he is a soldier, a cog in a machine bent on conquest, and he knows it. So, Willard leaves.
He heads back down on the now-weathered vessel he started his journey on, back into the treacherous waters he may die in, toward his base because he is just that — a soldier on a mission unaware of exactly why he is in this foreign land perpetrating crimes under the false pretenses and protections of democracy. For the audience, he brings to question what exactly heroism in war is, and how much of the patriotism we hear about is no more than justified atrocities under the guise of patriotic action.
Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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