Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019) has been lovingly re-edited and beautifully restored to its former glory. With a 4K restoration from the original negative and remastered sound, the truth is, it looks and sounds better than it ever did, which will inevitably attract a new generation of viewers. I took my sons to see it recently and then invited my girlfriend along for a second viewing the following week.
ANFC is the ultimate “road” or journey movie, the end of which leaves the protagonist, Army Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), swirling in an existential vortex of no return. To the extent that the film ushers the viewer into a similar, if imaginative, space, it represents filmmaking at its most audacious and responsible. It’s audacious because like its source piece – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, 1899 – it shines a penetrating light on those nagging, not-so-little issues we love to avoid at all cost, namely, death, its inescapability, and the unrelenting angst it generates. It’s responsible because it owns up to death and brings us face-to-face with human freedom and the responsibility that falls on our frail shoulders at the moment of decision.
Among other things, the film serves as a sober reminder of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, not to mention the difficulty of living where we are in the twilight hours between day and night, between life and death. And while this doesn’t seem like particularly good or uplifting news, it would be much worse, as Kierkegaard might say, to wake up at the end of your life only to find that your ladder is against the wrong building, that you’ve never faced the fundamental, paradoxical truth of life: that in order to live, one must die. In other words, the many ways death visits us throughout life are what we might call “limit” or “gateway” experiences, experiences that take us to the end of ourselves and our ability to rationally explain everything and make complete sense of it all.
To the extent we recognize such times as portals of opportunity, they have the potential to alter one’s core values, one’s overall perspective on life. For example, at the end of one’s life, when final death knocks on your door, not many people wish they had made more money, climbed another rung on the corporate ladder, or spent more time at the office. At the limit of existence, where life meets death, everything changes and nothing remains the same. At that point, it’s the importance of family connections and close friendships that matter the most. But whether or not we rise to that truth and let it in is our choice, and ours alone.
The experience of war in general, and combat in particular, are perhaps the most potent examples of “limit” experiences because when actual, physical death is delivered to your doorstep on a regular basis, when you feel its cold breath on your neck and see the maimed and twisted bodies of your comrades-in-arms, it brands you in a way that changes you forever. The fact that Coppola saw fit to transpose Conrad’s novella from the Belgian Congo ivory trade at the end of the last century, to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, was a stroke of genius that breathed new life into the story and brought it up to date with a relevance that still holds true after 120 years.
Conrad’s short story is narrated by a seaman named Charles Marlow who recounts his harrowing journey up the Congo river to find and bring back an employee of the Belgian Ivory Trading Company (named Kurtz) who has effectively cut himself off from all communication with the outside world. As Marlow and his motley crew draw closer to their destination, they draw nearer to the heart of darkness. What they find is a darkness in the human heart as deep and as impenetrable as the jungle that surrounds them. With horror, they discover the lengths humans are willing to go to protect themselves from the dread that grips all of us in the face of human freedom. When they finally arrive, Marlow and his men find out the shocking truth that Kurtz has, in fact, set himself up as a veritable god among the tribal people he rules with brute savagery.
Coppola’s film adaptation follows a similar narrative trajectory that sees Martin Sheen in the role of Marlow and Marlon Brando as Kurtz, the former sent on a covert Army operation up the Nùng river to locate, and in this case, neutralize the latter. This is the basic structure of the film which serves as a particular frame used by Coppola to explore the universal themes and issues at work in the book, namely, the journey of the self and the decisions that confront us in the face of the darkness outside and inside of us.
In the opening sequence of ANFC, we hear the psychedelic sound of The Doors and the voice of Jim Morrison singing “The End” – a paradoxical and potent harbinger of what’s to come. And with the whir of a ceiling fan commingled with the sound of helicopters overhead, the viewer is ushered into a surrealistic, cinematic space that sets the tone for the entire film. As the scene fades we find Capt. Willard in a cramped Saigon apartment waiting for a mission, something that will give structure to his unstable and chaotic life as a returning combat veteran and special operations officer. Even though his faith in the Army is severely compromised, the military is all Willard really knows.
At this stage, all he wants is something to do, something that will bring a sense of equilibrium and order to his upside-down world. But when he’s told that his mission is to locate a rogue U.S. Army Col. (Walter E. Kurtz) and “terminate his command … with extreme prejudice”, Willard begins a downward spiral into a yawning existential abyss where anything meaningful or permanent left in his world erodes away like sandcastles against high tide. The journey upriver then tracks that spiral into his own heart where he is taken to the end of himself and to the brink of human freedom where infinite responsibility asserts itself in the moment of decision.
By the time Willard gets a boat, a crew, and his Air Calvary escort to the mouth of the river, one is struck by the fact that whatever rules do exist, military or otherwise, they’re made to serve the individual or otherwise fit the extreme circumstances of the moment. The further upriver Willard and his men travel, the fewer and more fragile the rules become until they disappear altogether when the crew crosses from Vietnam into Cambodia. It’s there they encounter Kurtz’s mini-empire and the tribal people he holds in thrall. When Willard finally meets Kurtz in the flesh, he finds a brilliant but tormented individual; and in a telling moment of tortured self-reflection, Kurtz waxes poetic about a snail making an impossible journey up the sharp edge of a razor blade.
As a window into the significance of the film, I think what this scene means is that in the extremity of life’s circumstances, Kurtz had come face-to-face with the horror of human freedom and the darkness of temptation crouching in the shadows of his own heart; that is when radical responsibility came into view, and the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil began to fade over the existential horizon. And it is in this precarious space of freedom, with nothing stable to hang onto and nowhere to turn for answers, that absolute responsibility calls us to respond. But instead of responding to the call with courage, Kurtz recoiled from it in fear, lost his footing, and fell headlong into the abyss of self-absorption and fear where the self attempts to establish itself in itself, by itself and for itself.
On my reading, “the horror” that Kurtz utters at the end of both the book and the film, involves the realization that all social mores, laws, and ethical codes of conduct are man-made, finite, and flawed. Since there is no “God’s-eye view” from which to judge or arbitrate between right and wrong, it follows there is no ground on which to ethically stand. For Kurtz and others, then, if there is no ground then everything is up for grabs, anything goes, and nothing really matters except creating your own meaning. But because choices never happen in a vacuum, one must inevitably bear the moral consequences of those choices. In the end, Kurtz felt the full weight of his decisions and bore the consequences.
Reflecting on Kurtz’s final words (“the horror”) Joseph Conrad’s protagonist recognizes three important things: 1. That “the horror” “was an expression of some sort of belief … it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth.” 2. That this belief had a very different orientation and trajectory than his own. Indeed, Marlow concluded that while Kurtz “had stepped over the edge … I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot.” Lastly, and significantly 3., he recognized that while Kurtz, for all intents and purposes, had a sound and sane mind, his soul was lost in corruption and madness.
While it may be true that Capt. Willard was rendered appropriately silent at the end of the film, there is little doubt he too understood that eternity is brought to bear in the moment of decision, where life meets death on the razor’s edge between human freedom and responsibility. Birthed as it is in the heart of freedom, with no absolute backing from the gods, the responsibility and decisions that must follow always cut both ways, and always cut deep.