Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Director of Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Release year: 1979
Movie Analysis by: Ms. Swati Srivastava
“This is the
end, beautiful friend…
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again
These are the words that begin the journey that is “Apocalypse Now”. We hear the sound of the helicopter on the black screen. The movie opens with the scene of a beautiful jungle, pristine, full of life and green. And then comes the bomb, the napalm, the fire. Life as we have known it, is over, it is “The End”. So, if it is the end of life, then what remains to be seen, to be experienced? We watch alertly, the helicopters are dropping bombs, there is destruction all around, and then we see a beautiful face of a man but it is upside down. The man looks at some point beyond us, beyond life, he seems shell shocked, he seems lifeless. We continue to see the fire, the helicopters, the blades of the fan all super-imposed on his face. The man smokes a cigarette that seems to get its life from the fire of destruction around him, he is inhaling death itself. The man is alive but the man is dead...! We are being shown a window in his mind, in his memories, perhaps he is hallucinating or may be he is remembering and taking stock of his life the way a man does before he dies or after he dies…?
Aah, we understand. This is the end of life. And so we begin our journey through the afterlife, the dark region of the underworld through which the dead must pass. And the extreme close up of the man on the screen tells us it is with him that we must undertake this journey but his face is upside down. It tells us immediately that this is not an ordinary journey, this is not an ordinary man. And with him, we must journey in the unknown and who knows, what price our soul may have to pay for it.
On first glance, Apocalypse Now may look like a war movie or perhaps even a drama. To me, it felt like a thriller, a horror, an epic and even a movie that was beyond the usual confines of genre. What genre does a journey in the dark underworld fall into? We may have seen many many movies that describe the philosophy of life, but which film have we seen that is a poetry expressing the philosophy of soul’s death? Director Coppola may have told the DP Vittario Storaro that he was going to express war, not the glorious or high-moral kind, but the underbelly of the horror that it lives in. He may have said that the palette must create the colors of death and so this palette must be magnificent but also be horrific, spell bounding but also garishly evil, astounding but also heart-wrenching. And to say the DP succeeded would be an under-statement…! His palette is what made the movie spell binding and made the “descent into the underworld” magnificent...!
Recurrent Themes And Photographic Style:
v Almost always the sound preceded the visuals in the movie. In life, we rely most often on our ability to see, no such comfort in a war zone/ the underworld. It can be too dark or too unclear for us to trust our eyes alone, we must learn to use our ears and our intuition as well.
v Most films are carved out of light. Apocalypse Now is carved out of darkness. It absolutely signifies the journey we are taking as a journey into the heart of darkness. Extremely low light characterizes most of the film.
v Shadows are everywhere. Every character’s face is only half-lit. There are very few completely lit faces. As the journey goes on, this becomes more and more obvious and extreme. Nowhere is it more visible than the face of Captain Willard, “our alter-ego”. At the end of the movie, he is almost marked by a distinct division of light and shadow on his face. We, like him are half-God & half-animal, half good & half evil. The difference lies only in our choice.
v Extremely Saturated Colors. When it is red flames, they are deep red. When it is green trees, they are deep green. When it is black night, it is pitch black. When it is light on the bridges, they are garish and unbearable. The color palette is itself too much to take. They are too much to bear like the journey itself. But they are astounding and extremely well thought of.
v Usage of Fog. How else can a journey to hell be expressed? It is unclear and the confusion, depression and hallucination deepen the more we journey into the underworld of our souls.
v Extreme close up of people, especially the main protagonist, Willard. The characters in this journey are masked, or closed or hard to understand. To understand them better, we must go close, and even closer. Willard is us. We see his face, his eyes, his scars up, close and personal. We must feel what he feels. We must sweat when he sweats. We must cry out in pain & horror when he finally breaks. And we must emerge as he does.
v Placement of Willard on left side of the screen in all his interaction with Kurtz (and the dossier on Kurtz). Willard changes screen position and comes to the right side of the screen the moment he makes up his mind about Kurtz and decides to kill him.
v Extremely slow dissolves to the point of super-imposition. There are some great dissolves that express the narrative superbly. The images form layer upon layer upon layer where it becomes impossible to separate which journey ends where and everything becomes part of the same foggy hallucination/ memory imprint.
v Masked faces used literally and symbolically. Early on in the journey, Lance starts painting his face in a mask suggesting his spiritual transformation. Out of all the soldiers, he remains the most highly adaptive. Kurtz paints a mask on his face at the time he kills Chef, which shows us a very evil manifestation of his self. Willard does not paint his face in the same fashion, however he covers his face with the mud of the river before he goes to kill Kurtz. In this fashion, masks are symbolic of the darkness inside us that we hide behind in order to do evil.
As mentioned above, the movie begins with the upside face and the images imprinted on its memory. In the first few minutes of the movie, every single theme of the journey that is to follow is foreshadowed. First we see the trees and then the yellow fog, which precedes a napalm air strike. We see the face of a soldier, disillusioned and pained, cut away from the context of the world, he lies upside down & alien to his own life. For a soldier like him, it is war everywhere, even in the comfort of his own room. Thus, the blades of the fan remind him of a helicopter and the two merge together. He remembers the jungle and sees it in his memory. Although the jungle can be completely unknown and dangerous yet it is his only safe haven since he is not suitable for civilized society any more. We see the jungle being destroyed by helicopters. The soldier neither sleeps nor wakes, all alone in his room and his companions are his drink, his cigarette and his gun. All the while we are in his room, the fire rages on all his belongings including his wife’s photograph that he finally burns with his cigarette. He gets up and looks out of the window, the pattern of the blinds create a caged look on his face, he seems and sounds trapped in every way possible. And then as the beat of the music increases, he starts moving, dancing and doing martial arts. We see images that are out of this place, we see a temple of a deity, we see the soldier’s face covered in mud and we know that time and place are not of the usual worldly context in this journey. The soldier is tormented and possessed as he looks at himself in the mirror and tries to destroy his mirror image, his own self. He wraps himself in his own blood (reminding us of his face painted with mud that we saw moments earlier), he pours his drink on his face and ultimately breaks down & cries hysterically. The camera follows him, and allows us to watch as he descents into the depth of his own misery.
1 - Yellow Fog
2 - This Is The End
3 - All Themes
4 - Cigarrette And Fire
5 - Beginning And End Merge
6 - All In The Mind
7 - It Is All On Fire
8 - Caged
9 - Broken And Divided
Lighting is the key element in the film. Along with fogs and shadows. The general look of the film is dark and shadowy in keeping with the theme of war and the dark journey that the soldiers undertake therein. As the journey begins, the lights are still high, Willard begins his boat ride in dusk (Journey Begins) but as the journey gets deeper and deeper, the film gets darker, the shadows get pronounced and light is dimmed (Journey Deepens). The lighting of the film is highly representative of the perils of the war in the jungle as well as metaphorical journey that the soldiers undertake in the spiritual realm. The boat, aptly named “Erebus” (i.e. the dark region of the underworld through which the dead must pass before they reach Hades; the underworld itself), is not lit at all, yet is the only sanctuary in the deep jungle around (Ship Of Death). The lights are garish and painful to the eyes (Hells Fire) where as the blacks are so demanding that they are equally tiresome (Journey To Hell).
Some of the day light scenes are very high in contrast where the light is coming from the background and we need to squint our eyes to see the details in the foreground. It creates a realistic effect as if we are present during the scene. (Contrast In FG And BG)
Many of the war scenes including the Napalm strike with Kilgore seem practically lit for the time of the day. What makes them extra-ordinary is the use of heavy fog in different colors (Meeting In War). Fog is used extensively in the film representing the haze and the confusion of a seemingly endless war. (Fog And Smoke)
Along with fog, filters primarily muted orange/ sepia are used in the film. They tint this world in a never-ending dusk. They are used throughout the film albeit only intermittently in the first half to foreshadow the journey that lies ahead (filter, filter And DOF) and used copiously once we reach Kurtz’s compound to signify the twilight zone.(Devoid Of Earthly Colors, underworld Spectacular)
A very noteworthy element of lighting in the film is the continuous presence of shadows. When there is a light, there is some darkness and some shadow accompanying it. It is highly pronounced in the dossier on Kurtz. And although we meet Kurtz only near the end of the movie and he is represented as a hero through the readings in the dossier, every close up of the dossier is marked with a deep shadow almost cutting the image in half, Like everything else in the movie, we have a looming sense of what may happen when we finally meet Kurtz (shadow On Dossier, shadow On Dossier2).
Many scenes are shot night-for-night, also creating a realistic effect by using practical lights (Night For Night). There is hardly any lighting used in the boat also creating a very authentic situation (No Light, Faces In Boat). Some of the scenes are totally carved out of darkness to give a completely realistic effect but at the same time, taking us deeper and deeper into the depths of darkness from which there is no escape (Carved Out Of Darkness, carved Out Of Darkness2) For when escape comes in terms of light, it is as violent & harsh as the darkness preceding it, such as the lighting we see in our encounter on the Dulong Bridge, the last outpost of “civilization” before we enter the point of no return. (Hells Light)
Lighting almost vanishes once Willard reaches Kurtz’s outpost. Everything is dark and is in shadows, as Willard puts it, “It is the end of the river, alright!” (Final Journey) Kurtz is the ultimate shadow being and is lit similarly (Devil). And although Willard mimics the shadows on Kurtz in his last scene showing us how similar he is to the man he just killed (Willard Shadow), we are also given a hint of the possible light in his soul & on his being, in few of the images lit plainly and beautifully by white light (Light From Above, Light)
Colors in Apocalypse Now mirror the emotions and the journey itself. The movie begins with deeply saturated colors, putting us in a different realm of our imagination. The hues are very deep, almost reminding us that we are still on earth, still connected, and although in a war zone, we are possibly still alive as we can see these bright colors (This Is The End, Saturated Colors). As soon as we begin our journey, one of the first colors we encounter is the color of fog, it stays with us throughout the journey and by the end it is so thick that neither Willard nor we can see anything clearly any more (Multi Colored Fog, Fog And Haze). As we go further and deeper in the journey, the colors start getting muted. Some of the scenes are in sepia tone and give a representation of an altered reality (Sepia Tones And Unearthly Colors). This is the other world; the colors of this world are different. Even the fog is devoid of those rich colors that we are used to in the beginning (Fog Gets Deeper). When they finally reach Kurtz’s post, the colors are completely altered and the palette is in various shades of orange imitating the fires of hell. (Underworld Fire And Orange)
Interior And Exteriors:
The film mostly takes place inside the boat, which is the safe haven of the soldiers. The jungle around them is a metaphor for the savage and the animal side of human’s nature. Every time the soldier leave their boat and go in the “jungle”, something horrific or life altering happens that takes them one more step away from “home”. It is on the boat that Willard (& us) meets the crew for the first time and it is on the boat that they all die (with the exception of Lance). We come to recognize and accept Willard on the boat. We meet the various manifestations of the jungle and the war when we get off the boat such as Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, the tiger in the mango jungle, the total mayhem of the Dulong Bridge outpost and the final destination of Kurtz’s outpost. In the end, when Willard leaves the boat, we are unsure as to whether he will come back or if he will completely give in to the savagery just like his other-self Colonel Kurtz. After killing Kurtz, Willard is revered by the denizens of Kurtz's tribe, but instead of taking Kurtz's place he departs, suggesting that he may yet be capable of escaping the horror of war and he comes back to the safe haven of the boat which may this time take him back “home”. (Boat Is Comfort, Don’t Get Off The Boat)
Apocalypse Now is an unusual story. It is the story of war, which divides and splits people, not only with other people but within themselves. To know someone who is going through it, it is not good enough to watch them from a distance. We must go closer and watch every blink, every light, every shadow that crosses their faces, their eyes, their mouth. This is how people’s faces are captured and lit in the film. Especially Willard and Kurtz. They are highly similar individuals both torn apart by the war and the extreme demands that it has made on their spirit. When we see Willard for the first time, he is facing us upside down yet he is looking somewhere beyond the horizon, he has lost focus in his life and is perhaps searching for some kind of meaning to this madness and the horror around him (Intro To Willard). During the course of the entire film, we see that both the characters of Willard and Kurtz share many similarities in the way they are lit and are in contrast with other people in the film. Majority of the times, they are only lit on half-side of their faces while the other half is in complete shadow. This represents the deep divide and moral crisis their spirit is facing. It is to note that Kilgore, another very important character in the film is lit evenly. Although he wears a hat and generally doesn’t face the camera directly, his face is not marked by such deep shadows as the other two characters (One Close Up Kilgore). Kilgore, for better or worse, is stoic in what he is doing and even derives a certain sadistic pleasure in it. The lights on the face of Willard and Kurtz is so important that it cuts off the rest of their bodies, perhaps suggesting that the bodies of dead men are irrelevant and we should stay focused on their spirit and on the light / darkness of their soul. The similarities of lighting in these two characters can be seen in Half Dark And Half Light, Half Man Half Animal. At the same time, they can be contrasted in a way that although Kurtz is represented very harshly and has some very high key lighting coming from above his head such as in Ultimate Shadow Kurtz or Ultimate Shadow Kurtz2, such lighting is never used for Willard, who is presented more like a victim than a perpetrator of crime (Half Dark And Half Light). In fact, when we see Kurtz in his full horror as he has killed Chef and brings his head to torment Willard, he has actually painted a mask on his face suggesting that his self has darkened beyond recognition, in the face of war (Devil). It is at this moment, we hear Willard crying for God for the first time in the film. He still thinks there is a God that can help him and in the next scene when he wakes up, we see an amazing white light on his bare face completely distinguishing him from the evil and masked Kurtz (Light From Above)
The journey in the film is marked by slow camera movement. Most of the times the camera is stationed right on the boat, and we see what the soldiers, mostly Willard sees. Film has slow tracks, slow pans and generally slow movements. There is not much that is exciting about a slow journey through the jungle. An interesting tracking shot happens in the beginning of the movie when Willard gets the assignment of killing Kurtz. As the General is giving Willard his orders, camera slowly tracks over the food, and through this movement we explicitly see that no one is able to eat the food except for the man from CIA. He is not confused, nor tormented as the other men who are part of the same unclear war and are divided by the same conflicts of morality. He then utters his one and only sentence to Willard “Terminate with extreme prejudice...!” Most of the times, camera is positioned at a close up to Willard and we watch him breathing, sweating, looking at his dossier. Since camera position does not change often, we start living and breathing in the same environment as the other characters. They have no respite out of the situation they are in and we don’t either. There are few pronounced camera movements such as the one on Kilgore as he starts talking about Napalm. We always see him in full company of his soldiers but the camera marks a strong change when Kilgore starts talking about Napalm and the war, we start with seeing his whole team and the camera keeps tracking towards Kilgore, leaving out everyone else and ends on his one and only medium close up. This is pretty much how close we can get to this man (Kilgore Selection In Frame, One Close Up Kilgore). Another highly effective tracking shot is when Willard is in Kurtz compound and is hearing how divided Kurtz soul has become. Till this point, we have seen Willard on the left side of the screen in his every interaction with Kurtz (including his dossier). In this scene, we see one shot of Willard on the left, then as he contemplates his actions we see him in the center and in the next shot, as Willard makes up his mind about killing Kurtz, we see him at the right of the frame. Not only that, this is the first place when the camera tracks back and out of Willard’s close up and we see him looking at his hand preparing to kill Kurtz with his bare hand. It is a very powerful camera movement since for the first time, as Willard decides to kill without judgment a.k.a. Kurtz fashion, we are taken out from his frame of mind, from his memories, from his heart and given a chance to have a perspective of our own, apart from him. (Making His Decision About Kurtz, Making His Decision About Kurtz2, Making His Decision About Kurtz3, Making His Decision About Kurtz Track Out)
The lenses are used in accordance with the movie themes. Most of the times while dealing with Willard, extreme long lens is used with emphasis only on his face and his emotions allowing us to connect with him at every level (Flat Perspective, Extreme Close Up Willard). There were a few other scenes where the patrol boat is seen in extremely long lens and gives a very constricted feeling, as if there is nowhere to go and we feel as trapped in the journey as these soldiers (Telephoto). Some of the scenes are aerial shots that bring us back to the reality of the expanse of the jungle surrounding these soldiers (Aerial, Aerial2). Most of the scenes that portray actual war are shot with Wide Angle Lens giving a definite meaning to the devastation that occurs during such a time (Destruction In Wide Angle, DOF).
Another interesting thing that caught my attention was the ellipses caused by lights or their reflections as a result of using Anamorphic lenses. (AnamoprhicLens)
Angles, Composition and Framing:
It is Willard’s journey upriver. It is his mission. And from the first moment we see him, we are given an intimate close-up of his face and his life in his little hotel room. From that moment on, we identify with him and his thoughts, his narration becomes our narration and his view of the world around him is our view of the world as well. However, since we started the movie in medias res, we are not sure who Willard is and what should we expect of him. So, although he is our companion on this journey, we are unknown to each other. The relationship from us being a stranger to us being Willard’s other self has been handled extremely well by the cinematographer. We begin the journey with extreme close ups of Willard (Extreme Close Up Willard, Extreme Close Up Willard2). These give us a window of understanding in his mind and his thoughts. The camera generally frames Willard to the left of the screen with straight angles on him. Slowly, we start realizing how unique Willard’s character is in contrast with the other soldiers in this war, he judges, he has a conscience and he knows the war for the illusion it is. We also start realizing how isolated he is due to his conscience. Some of the compositions express this to us (Alone On The River). We also see Willard as brave and as a leader to his men such as one expressed in (Willard’s Character). The fact that he has now come to the end of the river where he (/ we) will have to make a decision about whether he wants to accept his status as a demi-God to the people of the tribe is expressed in a great composition (Willard Character From High, Willard Character From High2). By this time, we identify so much with Willard’s position and his mental status that when he is picked up by the people of the tribe and turned upside down, the camera mimics his angles for us. We have become one with Willard...! (Canted Frame With Willard). Willard’s desperate attempt to go towards light is captured in Crucified, his emergence as Kurtz alter-ego is captured in remergence and his similarity with a demi-God is expressed in the composition of scene Demi God.
Some of the other highly effective composition and framing shots are seen in the change in the river. The cinematography transforms the river from a broad, gleaming waterway to a dark, narrow stream overpowered by dense vegetation. (The River Narrows).
The striking thing about this movie is that it is highly expressive. There are almost no long conversations or discussions going on. Willard is trying to make sense about this world and has no answers himself. This is a war and no two people are speaking the same language. In this scenario, it is the composition, the framing and the angles of the cinematographer that guide us in understanding this world. There is a visceral reaction to the framing in (Underworld Body Burning In Fire). We realize this is truly the underworld, the dead man hanging by a rope with fire directly beneath him symbolize the eternal damnation of these people in hell along with the absolute absurdity of having a normal conversation such as the one the journalist is having with Willard in the same frame. What kind of living, breathing human beings can talk and behave in a normal fashion in such an atmosphere? Perhaps people with an altered sense of reality...!
Another fantastic example of the foreshadowing theme in the movie is (Share The Same Fate). Kurtz stands as a God in this altered world flanked on both sides by statues of Gods yet a bull is right in front of him. In a few moments, he and the bull would suffer the same fate…!
Unusual Shots or Techniques:
Although many scenes are unusual since the movie begin an unusual journey in the midst of an alien world, some of the scenes still stand out.
One of the most effective techniques used in the movie is the usage of very long dissolves. Many scenes are dissolved on each other until they become a montage of their own in one shot itself and say something completely distinct from their individual meaning. This was used in the beginning of the movie, in the middle when the journey enters the final realm and in the end again giving the seemingly untying themes a thematic unity.
Many times, the war is superimposed on Willard’s face as if he is living it & re-living it long after it has gone or perhaps long before it has happened...! (Slow Dissolves)
When the boat is finally entering the waters of Cambodia and we know that it is a point of no return for this boat and especially Willard, a few images are superimposed on each other to create a heightened sense of an altered reality. The boat is passing through the gates of the underworld and right in the center of all of this is Willard trying to look, listen and comprehend. (Slow Dissolve To Gates Of Hell1, Slow Dissolve To Gates Of Hell2, Slow Dissolve To Gates Of Hell3, Slow Dissolve To Gates Of Hell4, Slow Dissolve To Gates Of Hell5)
Another highly unusual shot worth mentioning is Visual Constancy Or Horror. When I saw this shot, I thought that if my eyes did not have visual constancy and did not fill in Willard’s body automatically, the body-less face in this scene would be part of the true horror genre...!
The end and the beginning of the movie are almost the same images. It leaves us questioning whether this journey was ever undertaken or was it just as the army Major said, “this mission does not –nor will it ever exist”. This was the underworld, these men are not alive, they live in an altered state of reality and carry the imprints of this reality in their soul. And although the movie ends with Kurtz words saying “the horror, the horror”, we have just seen Willard being given and refusing the choice of staying as a God in the underworld. He has chosen to return to the river for that not only brought him to this world but is his only way out as well. We see Willard first superimposed on the temple signifying his association with that place (Leaving But Imprinted On Memory) but then we see him half submerged in water, the mud on his face has been washed, and the same river is perhaps capable of washing his soul. There is light on his face and he has chosen to leave this dark underworld (Time To Cleanse In Water). While his boat goes towards some sort of light that is visible far away in the distance, we see the gates of the under-world once more (Return). We now see the beginning, middle and end merge again in the last image of Willard wrapped in mud super-imposed over the gates along with the napalm fire caused by Kilgore’s men (Beginning And End Merges) but the real Willard is gone and has left this part of himself behind. Whether he would chose to return to civilization we don’t know but the fact is that he only had one true choice through his entire journey, he could choose to stay in the underworld or leave. He chooses to leave allowing us to trust that perhaps it is possible to go back to the lightness of our soul even after it has journeyed to hell and beyond.