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It's Judgment That Defeats Us

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | May 6, 2010 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | May 6, 2010 |

“We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” - Colonel Kurtz

Apocalypse Now is three hours of surreal spectacle wrapped up in the haunting question of how war can be reconciled with morality. Released in 1979, the first stirrings of the film’s script were written in 1967 before the Vietnam War even peaked, and filming began in the Philippines less than a year after the final American pull out from South Vietnam. Other films trickled out during the seventies and eighties, exploring the effect of war on men, on the disintegration of psyche under unimaginable tension and violence, but Apocalypse Now aimed at a different and more significant target. Those other meditations on hell sidestepped the issue of war in order to condemn it. Such films get the brutality, but miss the complexity. They condemn war without confronting the issue of what the hell to do if we end up in one anyway.

Coppola takes that extra step in Apocalypse Now, going beyond either glorifying heroes or mourning the horror to ask: given the horror, what do we do? That’s a question that leaves the film still resonating thirty years later, even to those for whom Vietnam was just the last chapter of their high school history text book.

The films takes its form from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not in a direct adaptation but in the framing. A little boat, winding its way up a river, farther and farther from civilization, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Violence occurs at every step, in diminishing elaboration. First there are helicopters, airstrikes then mere guns suffice, then arrows and spears, and finally nothing but a machete in a broken old temple. But the impulse is the same once the veneer is gradually stripped off, the same heart beating at the center of the malignancy.

There’s a sense of imbalance throughout the progression. A Western Culture of hotel rooms, porn, and surfing grafted onto the ancient draining of blood. Desk job white collar CIA suits give Willard his assignment, go kill Kurtz. And for what? Killing. Go kill someone for killing in the middle of a war. He broke the rules, which is the sort of statement that makes sense in peace and none in war. What is war but the ultimate breaking of all rules?

Kurtz gets it, up in his ancient temple, surrounded by hundreds of bodies, waging a war so unrelenting that even the enemies of his enemies are terrified of him. But he’s not a barbarian, not some bloodthirsty demagogue with a pyramid of skulls. That wouldn’t be a danger in need of an assassin. That would be a good general with a pile of medals so long as he didn’t make the six o’clock news. The problem with Kurtz is that he sees past the simple brutality into the existential problem. If civilization is order and rules while war is the contrary, how can civilized man fight war? The easy answer is that he can’t, that to descend into barbarity is to lose civilization but to cling to civilization is to lose to the barbarians at the gates.

But this terrible dichotomy is not so new. Coppola doesn’t commit the vanity of assuming that the psychotic break between civilization and war is some new thing stumbled upon by middle class Americans. It’s not Americans who betray Kurtz in the end, but his own native followers, freeing Willard to do the deed. They’re just as terrified of his revelation as the Americans.

What Kurtz has seen though is a way out, the unthinkable solution to the quandary. It’s the same one that the fascists and communists found in their own times before, and hundreds of others before them. If survival requires barbarity but being worth surviving requires civilization, then the answer is in an ideology that allows men to butcher other men and return home to their children with a clean conscience. “The will to do that,” Kurtz observes of an atrocity. Kurtz sees that it is not ethical for men to descend to barbarity, but not sustainable for them to retain their civilization. They must do both at the same time, they must have the will to maintain one’s mind in perfect dichotomy.

When Willard comes to Kurtz, the one thing that they speak of other than the war is Kurtz’s son. As it becomes clear that Kurtz wants to die at Willard’s hands, the real tragedy becomes exposed. Even though he can see what is necessary, he cannot manage the will himself. He cannot go home to his wife and child with the barbarity of the jungle compartmentalized away. It’s significant that the man they choose to send after Kurtz is one who has tried to go home and can’t, who has to return to the jungle because civilization is lost to him. He’s accompanied by kids who are defined by what their lives are back in civilization, banal and normal.

The film essentially leaves us hanging with a sense of unease. There are no right answers, not even any comfortable answers. Just the feeling that it’s all a house of cards.

“We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I thought: My God … the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men.” - Colonel Kurtz

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.