Just one of those ends

Michael Wood

You have only to watch a few frames of Apocalypse Now, in either version, to realise you have caught a high point of American filmmaking. The lighting is wonderful, the editing precise and inventive. Individual shots are full of things to look at, large and small; you can feel the patient care behind every set-up. The actors, even the toughest, look frail and haunted, and the voice-over matches them: hard-boiled and shaky, as if the narrator of Double Indemnity had been bewildered by the jungle.

Of course the film gets bewildered too, and takes off on an extraordinary literary ramble from which it never returns and in which Francis Coppola and his team seem to have decided to do The Golden Bough as their Christmas pantomime. The confused ending weighs on the film but doesn’t wreck it, so we don’t need to hush up the confusion or pretend it isn’t confusion at all. Apocalypse Now is a great film, but a great film that gets lost, and the reasons for its getting lost are part of the film.

Introducing the film at Cannes in May 1979, Coppola said it wasn’t about Vietnam: it was Vietnam. By Vietnam he didn’t mean the country in South-East Asia, he meant what ‘Vietnam’ nearly always means in post-1970s American English: the historical moment when Americans met themselves in a foreign mirror and were frightened by what they saw. ‘We were in the jungle,’ Coppola went on. ‘There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment – and little by little we went insane.’ He is talking about shooting his film in the Philippines, but he also means every phrase to refer to the war as it came to play out in the favoured mythography. The continuing American blindness to Vietnam itself, in this and many other instances, notably Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), can be astonishing, but the myth also shows some genuine self-understanding. Apocalypse Now, in particular, is full of the sense that Americans exported whole chunks of their culture to Vietnam and discovered its horrible secret in the process: it doesn’t travel, and it may now be ruined for home use. ‘Some day this war is going to end,’ the gung-ho Colonel Kilgore played by Robert Duvall says in the film. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) later repeats the line, thinking how happy the young men travelling upriver with him will be when that day comes, and they can go home. ‘The trouble is,’ Willard adds, ‘I had been back there, and I knew it just didn’t exist any more.’ The phrase picks up old slogans from Thomas Wolfe (‘You can’t go home again’) and Scott Fitzgerald (‘“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried, incredulously. “Why, of course you can”’), but it also adds its own, Vietnam-nourished insight. Willard has changed, but home has changed too, transformed itself into an idea only other people can have.

Willard’s mission is to terminate the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a distinguished but now apparently crazy officer who has crossed into Cambodia and, along with a group of fierce and loyal Montagnards, is waging the war on his own terms. Well, not just the colonel’s command. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice’ is the lugubrious phrase used in the briefing scene, set in a general’s comfy quarters in Nha Trang. The general (G.D. Spradlin) appears to be more interested in lunch than in the mission he is ordering, and his aide de camp, a very youthful-looking Harrison Ford, doesn’t quite know whether to look sinister or sympathetic. He clears his throat a lot. A Vietnamese technician (Jerry Ziesmer) reverses the oriental stereotype by looking like an ordinary human being, and far less inscrutable than either of the other two. He plays a tape of Kurtz muttering about a snail on a razor’s edge, and complaining about the lies being told by the high command, which all sounds literary and petulant rather than mad or treasonable, but maybe literature and petulance are bad enough for the American Army, at least in the movies. Willard accepts his murderous mission, and is off on his long journey towards Kurtz, finally finding him in an extravagant temple ruin modelled on Angkor Wat.

‘And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,’ Marlow says of England in Heart of Darkness. The line survived into an early script for Apocalypse Now, although the new setting for the scene was Los Angeles. Marlow means that England used to be an edge of empire, as Africa has become. But the story he tells and the (none too subtle) imagery of the text suggest emphatically that England is still a dark place, that the heart of empire is as dark as, if not darker than its edges. This is a story which doesn’t spare the imperialists, although it does, as Chinua Achebe and others have said, completely lose the Africans as anything other than metaphors for what might happen to European souls, just as American mythology loses the Vietnamese as anything other than shadows in a psychodrama. Conrad’s Kurtz is the emissary of light who discovers the ancient darkness in himself – or in the less primitivist reading the novella also allows, discovers that within himself there is nothing at all, that he is entirely hollow, has no interior. His last words, ‘The horror! The horror!’ could refer to either condition, and to many other conditions as well. And if Coppola, speaking in Cannes, sounds as if he almost became Kurtz, this is not because he has fallen into the plot of his film. It is because Conrad intuited the precise structure of the damage any culture suffers when it learns that home is where the darkness is. The film was based on Heart of Darkness, but the making of it actually mimicked the story of the book. ‘Little by little we went insane.’

‘What do you think?’ Kilgore asks the Californian surfer Lance as their helicopter flies low over the ocean. ‘Wow, it’s really exciting, man,’ Lance says, assuming Kilgore is referring to the flight, or the ongoing raid. ‘No, no,’ Kilgore says impatiently. ‘The wave, the wave. It breaks both ways. Watch.’ He makes a gesture with his hands to accompany the wave as it breaks. Kilgore is a surfing enthusiast, a connoisseur of beaches. Later, a trio of Playboy bunnies is airlifted into a military outpost to entertain – or, as it seems, to torment – the troops. The joke is the same both times. This is the universal America, the place that goes wherever you go, along with the drugs and the music and the slang and the technology. But the point is not that surfing and travelling bunnies don’t belong in Vietnam, that their presence shows a failure of respect for the local culture (though it does do that: ‘Charlie don’t surf,’ is one of Kilgore’s, and the film’s, most memorable lines). After all, surfing and bunnies are probably among the most innocuous of colonial exports, and if Charlie don’t want to surf he don’t have to. Nor is the point entirely the destructive frivolity of the likes of Kilgore, who has erased a village and a swatch of forest in order to clear the beachhead for surfing. The point – not the one Coppola started with but the one the film finally displays – is the radical mindlessness of this adventure. No one knows why he is here, and no one even thinks to ask. ‘With us,’ Lionel Trilling once wrote, meaning Americans, ‘it is always a little too late for mind.’ I don’t believe this is true, but I do believe that thoughtful Americans fear it to be true, and Apocalypse Now is a brilliant instance of the fear made present. When American helicopters heave into view, Wagner blaring from their tapedecks, when the jungle goes up in sheets of flame, when a jeep explodes, when a bridge shatters, when the villagers die, we are witnessing not the folly of war, but the terrifying spectacle of power without a mind.

This sense of things is even clearer in the film’s magnificent opening sequence. The swishing sound of helicopter rotors is heard over a black screen. Then we see a stand of palm trees, ‘viewed through the veil of time or a dream’, as Coppola says in one of his notes. Helicopters cross in front of the trees occasionally, their blades swishing louder, then more faintly. We hear the sound of a very familiar guitar introduction – we shall recognise the song in a minute. Wisps of smoke drift up in front of the camera, and quite suddenly and in exact synchrony the trees all burst into flame, and Jim Morrison’s voice begins to sing the lyric of ‘The End’. No sign of any human cause or command anywhere. A random apocalypse. Just one of those ends.

Historically, the war had its reasons, and its thoughtful opponents, but in the film the very absence of politics and history so often held against Coppola pays off handsomely. This is a war which has lost whatever reasons it had, and with them the reasons for peace. When Robert Duvall as Kilgore makes his great speech about napalm (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’), he concludes by saying the smell is ‘like . . . victory’. But he hesitates before he says the last word, and nods with tight satisfaction when he has, as if he had found a term that wasn’t obvious, and that solved a problem. You have to be a long way from victory before you can be so content with the smell of it, and when Kilgore says the war is going to end, he means only that everything ends, sooner or later. The logic of not knowing why we are in Vietnam, to borrow a phrase from Norman Mailer, is that we shall scarcely know why we are anywhere, including home.

Apocalypse Now Redux contains a whole miniature film within the film, twenty-five or so restored minutes, in which Willard’s group comes across an isolated French plantation, and is invited to a lavish colonial dinner by a family who, apart from being French and settled in the jungle, would be entirely in their element in The Godfather. At one point, after a long family discussion of the consequences of Dien Bien Phu (the Army was betrayed by the politicians) and a heated argument about whether Mendès-France was a Communist or a socialist, Willard’s host (played by Christian Marquand, an old actor friend of Brando’s and the director of Candy) gives an eloquent explanation of why they must stay in this place where they are not wanted, where their time is plainly over. The place is ours, he says, we brought the rubber from Brazil and planted it. ‘We want to stay here, captain. We want to stay because it’s ours, it belongs to us. I mean, we fought for that. While you Americans are fighting for . . . the biggest nothing in history.’ This remark in this context – fine wines, fine linen, old furniture, a child reciting Baudelaire, a man playing an accordion, a venerable grandfather, a spectacular verandah view over the river – offers ‘another dimension’, as Coppola says. But it is another dimension of the insight we have already grasped. These old-world colonists may be historically in the wrong, but at least they know how to argue against history. When he is asked if he knows about Dien Bien Phu Willard nods sadly. He knows enough, probably. What he is learning is how little he has believed that history needed an argument, and when a French woman asks him if he will go home when the war is over, he says no.

There is a fabled long version of Apocalypse Now – almost six hours – which Peter Cowie reports on in his lively and compendious The Apocalypse Now Book, from which I have taken many of the quotations in this piece, although I also learned a lot from Eleanor Coppola’s Notes (1979), and from Fax Bahr’s documentary Hearts of Darkness (1992). Apocalypse Now Redux is not quite the long version. It adds (or restores) some fifty minutes to the version previously available, notably a scene where Willard playfully steals Kilgore’s surfboard, a scene where Willard and his companions meet up again with the Playboy bunnies, stranded in a rained out Medevac unit, and the plantation scene I’ve just described. It’s easy to see why Coppola would cut these sequences, although it must have been hard to take out the plantation because it looks so beautiful and works so well on its own terms. It even adds to the idea that the film’s journey upriver is a journey into the past: emotionally and ideologically, the French family is still living in the 1950s. But all these sequences require and rely on an active and humanly engaged Willard, rather than the numbed and passive receiver of wild experience that Willard is otherwise seen to be until, finally, he acts against Kurtz. Even when he shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman, he does it perfunctorily, to avoid delay. Momentary complications of his character, if they are not carried through, can only add to the film’s already slightly wandering air.

In the earlier version, skipping the theft of the surfboard, we cut straight from Kilgore’s thoughts about the war to Willard’s thoughts about Kilgore; Willard then asks the question that haunts the whole movie, and sets Coppola a challenge he (grandly) fails to meet. ‘If that’s how Kilgore fought the war,’ he thinks, ‘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.’ ‘They’ are the top American military who have sent Willard after Kurtz. If the American heart of darkness is in the joyous cowboy Kilgore, Kurtz looks like a noble American loner, the man who does things his own way, scarcely acquainted with darkness at all, except in the violence of his approach. In an early version of the script, Willard called for an air strike to destroy Kurtz and his whole set-up, thus delivering the irony of Americans wiping out an American not because of his goals, but because of his methods and his disobedience. ‘Are my methods unsound?’ Kurtz asks Willard in the finished movie. Willard, following Conrad very closely, murmurs: ‘I don’t see any method at all, sir.’ It’s true that between them Coppola and Marlon Brando, playing Kurtz, had by now thoroughly overdosed on the various brooding mysteries Conrad so helpfully provides, losing whatever storyline they had to sheer, contentless atmosphere. But the methods of Kurtz, as they have been evoked for us in the movie so far, are not unsound or non-existent, they are just unorthodox – that is, ‘unsound’ only in hierarchical Army lingo. The man who truly has no method, the man who is closest to Conrad’s Kurtz, is Kilgore, and the movie has found its notional end before it is halfway through.

The most interesting reflections on the Kurtz of the movie are not in the movie at all – not even in its longest version. They appear in a conversation between Brando and Coppola, reported by Peter Cowie, which took place before Brando flew to the Philippines. Here both men intelligently explore the possibilities of the character in a way they seem not to have been able to do on the set during shooting. Brando later made his usual boasts of laziness, of arranging to do as little work as possible, and the film as shot has him mingling a few moments of scary, personal invention with lots of expansive coasting – broad, theatrical gestures towards the idea of a personality. But in the conversation he was working, and thinking. Coppola says, ‘The man is mad, Marlon, I mean his madness is our madness,’ to which Brando replies:

I don’t think that he’s like Patton. I don’t think that he has that kind of madness or that kind of egotism or that kind of talent . . . it’s not the madness of Audie Murphy . . . The high command wants him to kill as many people as possible but they don’t want him to broadcast the fact. Instead of fighting it secretly behind closed doors, which is the way we fought the war in Cambodia . . . he feels that it should be known to the world. That there is nothing shameful in what he’s doing.

A little later Brando says: ‘It has to be clear that the reason’ Kurtz ‘must be killed is because he is not any more responsive.’ ‘He has lost control,’ Coppola says, and Brando replies: ‘It’s not necessarily that he lost control, it has to be more specific than that.’ ‘Marlon’s basic concept,’ Coppola wrote later, ‘was to present the American heartfelt position in a context that you realised was ridiculous.’ There is a vision here of the war’s double standard, which we glimpse near the beginning of the film when Willard is so coolly briefed as an assassin, but the vision found no further dramatic form. Nothing ‘more specific’ came up in the scenes with Brando, and Coppola switched the story.

He went back not only to Conrad, but to Conrad’s literary legacy and context, and he mixed in, as he later mentioned, memories of Werner’s Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), which in its imagining of extremity is not as far from Eliot and Sir James Frazer as you might think. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ has an epigraph from Conrad (‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’) and in the film Kurtz, not yet dead, reads from the poem. In the uncut version of the film, Peter Cowie tells us, Brando reads the whole poem. This is a great, time-twisting gag, worthy of Woody Allen. A resurrected fictional character, cued by a reference to himself in his earlier incarnation, picks up and reads a work by a real-life poet. Coppola now seems to have invented Conrad, Kurtz and Eliot, but the only real agent here is literature. By Kurtz’s bedside are Frazer’s Golden Bough and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, sourcebooks for The Waste Land – a poem with a river and plenty of death and darkness, and which also quotes Conrad. At one stage Eliot thought of using ‘The horror! The horror!’ as his epigraph for that work. The implication is that Kurtz sees himself as the king who must die so that kingship may live and the land be saved from its sickness. Willard has stumbled out of the 20th century and into a timeless zone of magic and sacrifice, and the viewer of the film is looking at a kind of scrapbook of Modernist themes: the godless world, the darkness of all hearts, the lure of the primitive, the hypocrisy and hollowness of so-called civilisation. Kurtz plays the scrapbook for all it’s worth, and Willard kills him, but no one displays the madness Coppola was after, or indeed any madness at all. Everything looks beautiful, and although Willard’s assumption of Kurtz’s hieratic appearance is certainly eerie, the overall effect is rather stately, as if the sheer respectability of the material had got everyone down.

Brando looks very bulky in the film, a huge, shaven, solid sculpture, but this is not the way he arrived in the Philippines. Coppola’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who knew Brando well because he shot Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), didn’t recognise him at first. ‘It was not the image of Paul . . . that I saw, but in his place a very nice, pale, gentle, middle-aged man – fat yet fragile – dressed in a canopy of light blue, with this thick cane.’ Nice, fat, fragile. I quote this description because this is the Brando we have mostly seen on screen since Apocalypse Now: in A Dry White Season (1989), for example, where he plays a South African lawyer with a heavy stylistic debt to Charles Laughton; in Don Juan DeMarco (1995), where he plays an amiable psychologist who gets to dance with Faye Dunaway; in The Score (2001), where he plays the fey and garrulous fence who sets Robert de Niro up with his criminal opportunities. There is something not only fragile but also sexually ambiguous about these figures, and all Brando’s biographers talk about his ability to imitate almost anyone, men and women. The characters Brando portrayed in his early films, from Julius Caesar (1953), say, to One-Eyed Jacks (1961), were full of rage; and rage, as late as his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994), was at the centre of Brando’s story about himself. Rage against his father, mainly, but also a more diffuse rage against the world. When his character in The Wild One (1954) is asked what he is rebelling against, he replies: ‘What have you got?’ This sounds like a wisecrack, but it became the entirely unironic slogan of a generation. Yet Brando hasn’t just calmed down, realising, as Patricia Bosworth hopefully puts it, ‘with the help of his therapist . . . how his family had been an incubator of psychological violence’. He knew that all along. What the late avatars suggest is that there was always a fragility inside or alongside the rage, and that that was part of his power. He looked like Stanley Kowalski and he was Stanley Kowalski; but he was Blanche Dubois as well. And quite apart from rage and fragility, there was always the suggestion that he might cross over into a distinctly unfragile version of the feminine. We don’t see this quality emerge unmistakably until he appears dressed as a gun-toting old lady with a funny Southern accent in The Missouri Breaks (1976), but the hint of androgyny was surely always there. This is some distance from Bosworth’s claim that the young Brando ‘presented the ordinary American guy to the public’. Unless of course the ordinary American guy is not what he seems.

Bosworth admires Brando’s performances in The Godfather and Last Tango, but she thinks ‘the peak’ of his career was On the Waterfront (1954) – a fairly melancholy assessment when you remember that that was only his sixth film, out of 39. ‘For the past thirty years,’ Bosworth says, ‘Brando has done little of consequence in film. That’s not just a waste, that’s a terrible loss.’ The time frame allows, just, for Brando’s terrific performance in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1968), which even Brando himself quite liked, as the devious and shabbily dandified Sir William Walker, a British agent conspiring to provoke all kinds of mischief in a Portuguese colony in the mid-19th century. The languid and impeccable English accent probably comes from Brando’s time shooting A Streetcar Named Desire, when he used to imitate Laurence Olivier for Vivien Leigh’s amusement.

But what is Bosworth’s take on this sorry career? Her work comes in the wake of Peter Manso’s massive biography (1994), of Brando’s autobiography, and a 1999 update of Richard Schickel’s 1991 book. She tells the story of the life efficiently – from rural Nebraska to mandarin Mulholland Drive, via New York and Tahiti – but doesn’t appear to have a particular angle on it. She has little to say about Brando’s politics, his support for the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, and she chooses not to go far into his family difficulties – his son’s shooting of his daughter’s lover, his daughter’s suicide – ‘since the focus of my book is on Brando’s work’.

Actually the focus of the book is Brando’s life with the works chronologically situated in it, and the closest we get to a new understanding of the career is in a quoted remark of Harold Clurman’s: ‘Yes, there is something in Marlon that resents acting, yet he cannot help but be an actor.’ It’s not just that Brando resents, and routinely trivialises, whenever he talks about it, the one thing he is really good at. In all except the most intense of his performances, when his resentment is in abeyance, what we see is an actor of enormous presence whose mind is not entirely on the job. This is not a squandering of talent; it is, in its way, an astonishing display of talent: look how little effort I need to make to be better than almost everyone else. More effort might produce a better performance and sometimes does. But not always, and in every case it ruins the sense of the virtuoso on holiday, the amateur shaming the professionals. Brando’s failures of seriousness are doubtless regrettable, but they are also a form of freedom, and they mean that his much-reiterated scorn of acting is not entirely a pose. So when Bosworth says she is ‘still trying to figure out why this singular artist lost his way’, we might suggest that he chose to lose his way, or chose too often just to stay off the road. Unless of course he followed some equivalent of the mysterious pattern which Bosworth attributes to Elia Kazan: ‘Originally, he’d wanted to be a writer; later he became a novelist.’ Can’t win ‘em all.