Commentary Magazine

Coppola's Folly

T.S. Eliot, in the very first of his Selected Essays, wrote: “The difference between art and the event is always absolute.” One might have thought that the author of Apocalypse Now—who has taken “The Waste Land” and its notes as his bedside book, who has drawn the whole concept of his plot from the epigraph of “The Hollow Men” (“Mistah Kurtz—he dead”), and whose own “Colonel Kurtz” quotes Eliot with singular portentousness at the film’s climax—would have given this proposition some consideration. He has not. Eliot also wrote: “The emotion of art is impersonal,” and “The progress of an artist is . . . a continual extinction of personality.” Francis Coppola has evidently not considered these propositions either.

Unable to resist the impulse to address and instruct the spectators of his movie, Coppola writes in a special introduction to the press booklet distributed to critics at advance screenings:

The process of making the film became very much like the story of the film. I found that many of the ideas and images with which I was working as a film director began to coincide with the realities of my own life, and that I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis.

In support of this contention, Coppola offers episodes (with pictures) from the making of the movie. On May 19, 1976, Typhoon Olga hits Subic Bay in the Philippines, destroying over a million dollars worth of sets and equipment and forcing evacuation of cast and crew to Manila. In July, after costly delays, new sets are built on high ground because of the rainy season now under way. In March 1977, actor Martin Sheen (Willard) is hospitalized as a result of heat exhaustion.

We also know from the journal published by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, that Francis was “going through the most intense struggle to write his way to the end of the script and understand himself on the way”; that he “could end up being wiped out financially and owe millions”; that “like Kurtz now, he felt the exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything” ($18 million dollars to be exact); that Sheen had not had heat prostration but a heart attack; that Coppola had “a sort of nervous breakdown”; that he “has said that he is the Willard character [after being Kurtz for a time], and when Marty [Sheen] was close to death Francis [Coppola] collapsed, too. He said he [Coppola] was as near to death as he has ever experienced. He said he could see reality receding down a dark tunnel and he was totally scared that he wouldn’t get back.” We also learn that Coppola’s marriage disintegrated under the strain of making the film, that he left his wife for another woman, but that the marriage was finally saved.

For all his apparent attachment to T.S. Eliot, then, Coppola is clearly one of the most self-absorbed, self-dramatizing artists since the high tide of the Romantic movement. And in Apocalypse Now he has produced the most eagerly awaited movie since Gone With the Wind. Hailed again and again while still being shot as the “Film of the Decade,” it also—and quite without precedent—shared the top prize at the last Cannes Film Festival while still only a “Work in Progress.” After a special preview of this same Work in Progress last spring in Los Angeles, spectators were besought to help Coppola find the right ending for the film (four separate endings, all shot, being then still under consideration). News magazines devoted special stories to both the preview and, later, to the still unsolved problem of the film’s conclusion. Finally, on the eve of the film’s opening, in an exquisite agony of indecision, still unable to separate himself from his work, Coppola made the startling announcement that it would be released with not one but two endings, one for the 70mm. version (calling for special equipment), another for the 35mm. version (with wider distribution).

In my experience, movies, before release, have often had two endings, five endings, no endings. After release and their normal theatrical runs, they have been altered for the simpler-minded audiences of television. “R” rated films, after a first go-round, have been sanitized on re-release for the “PG” market. But I have never known of a motion picture to be released in first run with two different endings. If for this alone, Apocalypse Now has made cinema history.


Now the movie. There are no titles or credits. The opening image is of a palm-tree jungle, fronds stirring gently in the breeze. After some minutes a faint whit-whit-whit is heard, so tentative it might be birds. It fades away, then recurs, stronger now: the sound of military helicopters. Two aircraft flit dimly across the camera field and disappear, then two more. Without our ever having had a clear view of the helicopters, we see the jungle suddenly burst into flame, and upside down, superimposed on the left side of the screen, appears the face of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), his blue eyes luminous.

As at many points in the movie, the superimposed images hold the screen for a long time, altering only very slowly. All this is beautifully photographed and composed. The images come in a slow succession of dissolves. An old-fashioned tropical-style ceiling fan rotating overhead in an unknown room. The palm-tree jungle again. The flames of napalm. Willard’s eyes. Helicopters dimly flitting past. Now the face right side up. Willard reclining. A bottle of Martell Cordon Bleu on the bedside table of a hotel room. Beside the bottle a service 45 automatic. The overhead fan rotating. With Willard’s face upside down once again, we begin to hear a “voice over,” Willard’s voice telling of his past. He did an earlier tour of duty in Vietnam as an airborne officer on assignment with the CIA, then returned home to find that war had made him incapable of resuming his earlier life, and is now back in Vietnam, awaiting another special assignment.

In the first fully dramatized scene, we see Willard in his hotel room, drinking, neurotically agitated. He smashes a mirror with his bare fist, cutting his hand. Blood flows. He wipes it on his face. In the next scene, shot with great ponderousness (Coppola has called his movie a “film opera”), Willard receives his mission from General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) and aide Lukas (Harrison Ford). A Special Forces Colonel named Kurtz, in command of a Montagnard unit harassing Vietcong and North Vietnamese in the back country, appears to be waging a private war. Formerly a model officer, he has gone “out of control,” answers to no authority, seems in fact to have gone mad. The decision has been made to “terminate Kurtz with extreme prejudice.” Willard has his assignment: he is to proceed up-river in a navy patrol boat into Cambodia and assassinate Kurtz.


Most of the movie concentrates on the story of Willard’s progress upstream. His first military encounter is with elements of the army’s crack First Air Cavalry Division commanded by Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who mounts a spectacular attack on a point in the river held by “Charlie.” The sound of the helicopters drowns out half the dialogue, but one has the impression that Kilgore—of an extraordinary callousness regarding suffering and death inflicted on “gooks”—has chosen this particular point to attack because it is an excellent place to indulge his passion for surfing. The prime victims of this American lightning assault are shown to be children in a schoolyard, innocent tots at play. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” says Kilgore after the attack. “It smells like victory.” Willard, rather sane now for a man who was smashing his bare hands into mirrors not long before, says to himself: “If that’s the way Kilgore fought the war, I wondered what they had against Kurtz. It couldn’t be just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around.” And again: “Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”

The next episode is Willard’s attendance at a surrealistic riverside USO show, with scantily clad ladies forced to evacuate in their helicopters when U.S. soldiers storm the stage. Farther upstream, the patrol boat stops a sampan to search for weapons. One of the navy crewmen has an attack of nerves and machineguns the sampan hysterically, men, women, and children. There is only one survivor, a woman, wounded. Willard (succumbing to the pitilessness he was just condemning?) finishes her off.

The next military post they reach is an American-held bridge which is blown up by the VC every night, rebuilt by U.S. troops every day. There seems to be no commanding officer. All the while, as they continue upstream, Willard is reading over Kurtz’s file, how he graduated third in his class at West Point, wrote a master’s dissertation at Harvard on the Philippine insurrection, as a young field officer seemed destined for the army’s highest commands—and now this. The patrol boat is attacked from the shore by Communist forces and one of the four crew members is killed by gunfire. It is next attacked by a savage tribe, and a second crew member is killed, this time by a spear through the chest.

We now enter the kingdom ruled over by Colonel Kurtz. An armada of awesome, painted primitives in boats. A set reminiscent of Angkor Wat. A horde of tribesmen armed with both spears and automatic weapons. Heads on stakes. We now also come upon the film’s most brilliant character: a half-crazed, spaced-out, hippie combat photographer electrifyingly played (in a film in which the acting is otherwise undistinguished) by Dennis Hopper. “Wait till you meet Kurtz,” he cries with a manic intensity that brings the film alive with a jolt. “The man’s clear in his mind! But his soul is mad!. . .”

Willard is then taken directly to Kurtz in his temple, but when we finally meet the mad colonel he still remains very mysterious, shot in some of the deepest shadow effects since the death of the tenebrosist painter Georges de la Tour. Kurtz has by his bedside (titles ostentatiously visible): Goethe, the Bible, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Jessie K. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. When Kurtz speaks—later, but still largely in the shadows—he quotes some of the most familiar lines from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men. . . .” When he converses in unmetered prose, he talks of “the stench of lies” and says, “Horror and mortal terror are your friends.” He tells what seems to be a turning-point story. One day his men inoculated all the children in a village against polio. Hours later, when the men were called back to the village, they found the enemy had hacked off all the little inoculated arms. Kurtz did not recoil but was inspired by this example: “If I had ten divisions of those men, able to use their primordial instinct to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment . . . ,” he says. The idea of atonement is not absent, however. “You have a right to kill me,” Kurtz tells Willard, “but no right to judge me.” Willard begins to feel that Kurtz is yearning for death, thinks he would rather “go out standing up, like a soldier” than as “some broken, wasted, rag-ass renegade.”

When, finally, Willard kills Kurtz, the tribesmen sink to their knees in homage to their new chief and god, and for a moment it seems that Willard may replace the man he has just assassinated. But he pushes aside this mad temptation, makes his way through the tribesmen to his boat, and with his one remaining crewman, creeps eerily out onto the river and begins his return voyage to “the world,” civilization.

This is the end of the film in the 70mm. version. The other ending, to be released in the 35mm. version, has Willard call in an air strike after assassinating Kurtz, consuming—as by the flames of hell itself—Kurtz’s camp, his tribe, and all wickedness associated therewith. Coppola, I am told, refers to this version as the “Mom-and-apple-pie” ending.


What is one to make of this ambitious, grandiose work, still incomplete in many ways, produced in such a state of romantic angst by its author, whose stated goals were nothing less than to exorcise the demon of Vietnam and to investigate the “moral issues behind all wars”?

The first thing to say is that the film is sumptuously shot and photographed, which, coupled with its evident seriousness and fearless disregard of the usual “commercial values,” was probably enough to carry with it many of the country’s leading film critics. But to say that a film is sumptuously directed is not to say it is well directed, that its directorial style is appropriate to its story. Of course, in Francis Coppola, author of The Godfather, we are dealing with a director of extraordinary gifts in the realistic cinema. In the symbolic, expressionistic cinema, which is where Apocalypse Now belongs, his gifts are less impressive. In its intellectual substance, Apocalypse Now suggests the work of a twenty-year-old film-school student, who, brought up on the conventional realism and pseudo-realism of Hollywood and TV, has just breathlessly discovered modernism. Although not twenty years old but nearing forty, Coppola piled into T.S. Eliot and The Golden Bough as if he were the first person who had ever read them, and this gives his film an unmistakably sophomoric, not to say semi-educated, quality.

That Coppola should not be sophisticated in literary matters is less surprising, however, than that he should, apparently, know so little of the history of his own art, the cinema. His wife has described him sitting at a new editing machine, running the film’s opening sequence, “dissolving” images from three video screens and projecting them simultaneously onto one main monitor. “It was amazing. Three layers of image. It was spatial. Francis says it changes the whole editing ball game. . . . I got a rush, standing there, contemplating the possibilities.” But although working with video equipment no doubt greatly speeds up editing mechanics, the ability to show simultaneous superimposed images was one of the very first things the cinema discovered it could do that the stage could not. In the form of “lap dissolves” (or simply “dissolves”), with one image gradually replacing another on the screen to indicate a shift in time or place between two sequences, it was universal in filmmaking until the late 50’s. Then, when Stanley Kubrick, in Paths of Glory, shot a whole movie without a single dissolve, with one straight cut after another hammering the audience throughout the entire film, a shock wave went through the international film world, and for two decades now motion pictures have been in the Age of the Straight Cut. Now Coppola has rediscovered the technique of superimposed images, the old lap dissolve. Motion pictures are as subject to cyclical fashions as any art, and no doubt it was bound to happen sooner or later. But it is hardly breaking new ground.


Form aside, what about the way this majestic film deals with the “moral issues behind all wars”? What does it tell us about war? First of all, we must remember that long before The Godfather, Coppola won an Academy Award for co-authoring the screenplay of Patton—made and released well before the Tet offensive of 1968. I confess I have my suspicions about a man who, while his country is engaged in a war which maintains a minimal level of acceptability, writes a work showing a renowned military commander in a heroic light but, when the winds of public opinion shift, decides to investigate the moral issues behind “all” wars. I think, for all his chest beating, that this man is simply a chameleon, changing his color with the times.

In any event, I don’t see that Apocalypse Now deals at all with the moral issues behind wars. Those issues are most commonly of two sorts: (1) the fundamental pacifist question, put forth at such length by Tolstoy: is any military victory in any war worth its cost in blood?; (2) more specifically: is the particular war (in this case Vietnam) worth its price? By the simple fact that Apocalypse Now shows Americans in Vietnam engaged in actions of callous or perverted cruelty, and their adversaries doing nothing wicked at all (although Kurtz does tell his “inoculated arms” story), the film forfeits any claim to illuminating either of the moral questions involved. All it does is range itself in the camp of those who opposed the American role in Vietnam but who had—and have—no comment to make about the Communist side (to which, as the victor, Tolstoy’s question is more properly addressed than to the Americans).

To the extent that Apocalypse Now has anything at all to say about war, it is in the tradition of Goya’s astonishing series of etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra: the simple depiction of the horrors of war. (I wonder if it is irrelevant to mention that the brutal hangings and executions by firing squad portrayed by Goya were being carried out against his fellow Spaniards by apostles of a New Order: the French under Napoleon. Coppola has chosen to show only the horrors perpetrated against others by his fellow Americans.) But to whom is this message that war is horrible addressed? Not, surely, to the American public at large which is hardly in a mood to glorify and glamorize war. One has the feeling that in making Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola, co-author of Patton, was engaged in a pitiable exercise in self-instruction.

It is perhaps worth noting that in the Soviet Union—where Coppola presented his film to great acclaim at the Moscow Film Festival—the Literaturnaya Gazeta had little difficulty in reaching an interpretation. “The meaning of the movie is quite clear. The war in Vietnam was an immoral criminal adventure of the militarists in Washington.” The film’s main protagonists, it wrote, are “officers from the army and intelligence service of America. From start to finish they are killers, maniacs: they sadistically torture, execute, and hang defenseless peasants, women, and old people.” The article affirmed with assurance that the Pentagon and the Hollywood “bosses” had tried to prevent the film from being made.


The scenario of Apocalypse Now, of course, is drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and, it must be said, follows the story line of the novel rather more carefully than is usually the case when great novels are “adapted” for the screen. There are changes: Captain Willard (as the character based on Conrad’s Marlow is called) is sent to kill Kurtz (as the character is called both in the novel and the film), whereas Marlow hears about him for the first time while on his way upstream (and certainly doesn’t murder him); Willard is a war psychopath to begin with—which rather limits the distance he has to fall—whereas Marlow is quite civilized.

But a surprising amount of significant detail has been retained. Kurtz had been destined for the top before this madness came upon him. Willard is fascinated, yearns to meet him. The voyage is hazardous. The black helmsman is killed with a spear. Gradually Willard becomes aware of the terrible thought (Conrad’s words), “The mind of man is capable of anything.” There are the heads on stakes, the “unspeakable rites,” the celebrated lines: “The horror! The horror!” In Willard’s mind, as in Marlow’s, there grows a dark complicity and finally even an identification with Kurtz.

Interestingly, the film’s most vibrant character, the war-groupie photographer played by Dennis Hopper (he is given no name), is drawn almost in toto from the novel, where the corresponding character also plays a key role. In Conrad he is a half-mad young Russian adventurer (also given no name) who has fallen under Kurtz’s spell, and it is through him—encountered before Kurtz—that we learn whatever we are to learn of Kurtz’s abominations. The historical transposition is implausibly successful. Line after line of Hopper’s ecstatic rantings come virtually unchanged from the mouth of the bizarrely dressed, agitated young Russian: “You don’t talk with that man—you listen to him. . . . He enlarged my mind. . . . He has enlarged my mind. . . . He made me see things—things. . . . He could be very terrible. . . . He wanted to shoot me, too, one day. . . . You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, No!” From the young Russian, crazed with the glamor of adventure, to the combat groupie, “high” on the war, the language hardly needed to be changed at all.

An unavoidable problem in evaluating Apocalypse Now is the appropriateness of Conrad’s tale as a vehicle for a demonstration of the horrors of war. Heart of Darkness, after all, is the study of a gradual reversion to savagery, But war is organized cruelty from the start. There is no way around it. In war it doesn’t take years in the “bush” or months of slow travel on a jungle steamer to strip off the veneer of civilization. In combat it is gone in minutes. But it is when we come into the presence of Kurtz himself, inhabited now—thanks to Coppola’s erudition—by the spirits of T.S. Eliot, Sir James Frazer, and Jessie K. Weston (not to mention Marlon Brando), that the film runs into real trouble.

I have already described the scenes. Kurtz in deep shadow for the most part. The Frazer and Weston volumes at his bedside. Kurtz intoning quotations from T.S. Eliot. Some dark rumblings about the right to kill, the right to judge. Painted on the temple wall outside, the giant words “apocalypse now.” Willard’s killing of Kurtz. The savage tribe kneeling in homage to the new god-king. Willard hesitating: is he to replace Kurtz? Then his departure for civilization.

Now anyone with even a cursory knowledge of modern poetry knows that the epigraph of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (“Mistah Kurtz—he dead”) comes from Heart of Darkness, and that the notes to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which Eliot complained “have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself”) pay tribute to Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. Although Coppola can hardly have flattered himself that he was seeing dazzlingly fresh new correlations then, he no doubt thought himself on safe ground in assuming that the various works, symbolically at least, told a common story, and that a coherent work of art could be created by wrapping them all up together. But the fact that Eliot successfully integrated a fragment of Conrad into his own work, which he simultaneously acknowledged to be “profoundly influenced” by the opus of Frazer, does not mean that the whole of The Golden Bough can be dumped right into the climactic scene of Heart of Darkness.

One of Frazer’s cherished beliefs was that societies in early stages of psychic development had “divine kings” on whose vitality the well-being of the society, and of nature, was thought to depend. When this god-king’s powers began to fail him, he had to be slain and replaced with a more vigorous successor, to insure the healthy survival of the society and the continuing round of nature’s miracles. There was no notion of wrongdoing, or guilt, or punishment in this. It was a ritual, according to Frazer, dedicated entirely to survival, hope, life. Heart of Darkness, in direct contrast, is about the opposite process—a reversion to barbarism, a terrifying night journey from civilization into savagery and evil.

Those who know little of the making of motion pictures might be surprised to hear that Coppola and his crew set off into the jungles of the Philippines on what was to become a $31-million movie without a finished script, already in a dither of uncertainty about the ending. Coppola apparently first thought he would find the ending, in torment, “within himself,” or that it would somehow emerge from the very process of making the movie. He next thought, enraptured, that the ending might emerge from Marlon Brando’s improvisations. But when Coppola wrote scenes based on these improvisations, Brando didn’t like them. He refused to act them, wouldn’t come to the set. Possibly the worst prima donna in the cinema today, Brando was finally coaxed into working again (photographer Vittorio Storaro had made some “strange light and smoke”). He improvised again. They shot it. Coppola rewrote it. Brando improvised, Coppola rewrote. They shot. They improvised, rewrote, shot, improvised, rewrote, shot. Thus was finally filmed a crucial, climactic scene for the “Film of the Decade.”

But which exalted personage was to determine the ending of this movie? Conrad? Frazer? Eliot? Jessie Weston? Marlon Brando? Mom? Film-makers are often accused of not being sufficiently respectful of their sources, but Coppola was all too respectful. The trouble was that his august sources wouldn’t agree. The problem was never really solved. Conrad won on points, as it were. But Frazer finished strong as well. Far, far too strong for purposes of clarity and coherence.


In sum, Apocalypse Now is a film that went colossally wrong, from the egotism of its director, his juvenile megalomania, the callowness of his ideas, and the weakness of his intellectual equipment. At the center of a failed dramatic work is sometimes a simple fallacy (sometimes a flaw in the author’s character) which, once it announces itself, corrupts the entire undertaking. I am tempted to think that in the case of Apocalypse Now it is Coppola’s notion that his practical and artistic problems in merely making a movie were the full equivalent of the voyage into terror and darkness experienced by men who kill and are killed in war. In his most shaming statement about his film, Coppola said he wanted to make the audience aware of the Vietnam war’s “sensuousness.” I can only say that this sensuousness must be deliciously apparent to a movie director far from the deadly blast of incoming artillery fire, sitting cozily in front of his new editing machine, finding ever more beautiful images to dissolve.


Notes, Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $9.95.

These are presumably the same bosses who, according to the Soviet press, are so intent on blacklisting Jane Fonda. Yet when the California State Senate failed to confirm Miss Fonda’s appointment to a political post on the California Arts Council and her friends ran a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times angrily denouncing the Senate vote as a “resurrection of the specter of McCarthyism,” leading executives from five of the six major Hollywood studios appended their names to the advertisement. For her role in the yet-to-be released The Electric Horseman, Miss Fonda has just been paid $1.5 million by Columbia Pictures.

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