“All plots tend to move deathward.”
______— Don DeLillo, White Noise
Endings are hard, as is well-documented in Hearts of Darkness, where we see Francis Coppola struggling to find some way to bring his project to a conclusion. In the original screenplay Apocalypse Now ended with a huge firefight that, in the context of what the movie had become, would have been completely incongruous. So Herr Coppola was left to concoct some way to wrap things up that would satisfy.
About the only thing that was never in doubt, it seems, is that Kurtz would die. This is the event toward which the entire movie has been building. It is the same event toward which every story builds, one way or another: yours, mine, and everybody we know’s. Deal with it.
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To backtrack a little: In the runup to the climax, everybody is preparing. The natives are in the preliminary stages of a ritual. Kurtz is brooding in his compound, gathering his thoughts, girding himself for the end he knows is coming. Willard is back at the boat getting his game face on; he paints himself with camouflage as the radio — i.e. the world he has left behind — clamors, unsuccessfully, for his attention.
They were going to make me a major for this. And I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore.
Francis Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, but for six minutes or so here, it’s Marlon Brando’s show. The movie is going to sink or swim on Brando’s portrayal of, as Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness,
A character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul — and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it — and is destroyed by them.
This is a tall order for an actor. Although in some respects Brando presented an obstacle that Coppola had to overcome to finish the movie, in another way Coppola was relying on Brando to get him out of the corner he’d painted himself into. Apocalypse Now had no real structured ending at this point, and after flailing about for awhile Coppola decided to just wing it, hoping that Brando would be so brilliant and charismatic that audiences would buy him as this grand, tragic figure.
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This Colonel Kurtz sure runs hot and cold. Yesterday he put Willard in a cage and dropped a severed head in his lap (several “giving head“ jokes suggest themselves, but I am above that). Today he has the captain brought inside and given rice and cigarettes, then reads aloud to him from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” (Though given the way it is staged, you might more accurately say that Kurtz is reading aloud to no one in particular, and Willard just happens to be there.)
Not much really happens in this scene, but it is noteworthy as the only time, I think ever, that Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper acted together…and even at that, they’re not exactly in the same room. According to one commentary track I listened to, their interaction here is not unlike their real relationship — Brando did not care for Hopper, actually did call him a “mutt” and throw things at him. This makes sense, because while they were both nuts, Brando was crazy in a much quieter and more elegant way, while Hopper was speedy and flamboyant. Also, I think Brando needed all the attention all the time, and having Hopper around would tend to detract from that. (However: When looking for images to accompany this post, I discovered that Brando had let Hopper photograph him, so maybe the preceding is all bullshit. Maybe at the end of the day they hung out together, like the wolf and the sheepdog in the cartoons.)
Hopper’s spiel here about fractions, dialectics, and Venus is a minor classic. It is completely loopy and yet makes perfect sense, and I have to believe it is mostly improvised — no one could write that, I don’t think. Having delivered it, he disappears, not to be seen or heard from again in this movie.
As I mentioned previously, a scene where the photojournalist is killed by Captain Colby was shot but not used in the movie, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think many people who saw Apocalypse Now sat around scratching their heads going “Gee, I wonder what happened to the Dennis Hopper character?”, just like no one asks what the hell Lance has been up to all this time. The whole ending is so dreamlike and bizarre that people can appear and disappear and it seems natural.
The Hopper character’s last words seem apropos here:
This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, jack!
So you think you’re having a bad day? Captain Willard has been locked in a cage barely big enough to stand up in, his only sustenance a ladle of water and a few puffs of cigarette provided by the nameless photojournalist. A hot and humid tropical day has given way to monsoon-style rains, and after a quick cut back to Chef at the boat, we find Willard slumped over, covered in mud, appearing to have abandoned all hope.
But that’s not the worst of it. From out of the darkness Kurtz appears, like a figure from some absurd nightmare, his giant bald head decorated with camouflage war paint. He drops Chef’s severed head into Willard’s lap, and I don’t care who you are, that’s going to freak you out a little bit. No wonder Willard loses his cool demeanor for the first time since the opening scene, screaming and thrashing around until he can finally get the head off him.
Why, you might ask, does Kurtz feel compelled to put Willard through this ordeal when he wants Willard to tell his tale, presumably putting the most favorable spin on it? I don’t exactly know, and I’m not sure FFC does either. Maybe he would say that Kurtz wants to test Willard, push him to the very edge of what he can take. Or maybe that Kurtz is, after all, crazy and dangerous, and not a man to be trifled with.
In any case, that’s some messed-up shit to pull on a guy, and the relationship between Kurtz and Willard — off to such a promising start — may now require some damage control. How will Kurtz win him back — read him some poetry or something?
These three minutes are pivotal for a couple of reasons. First of all because they get us over the two-hour mark — alert the media! The end is in sight!
Also, though, this monologue by Dennis Hopper serves to frame the whole movie. Willard’s real mission, we learn — his mission in the larger sense — is not to kill Kurtz, but to tell his story.
When it dies, man, when it dies, he dies…what are they going to say about him? Are they going to say he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bullshit, man! Am I going to be the one that’s going to set them straight? Look at me — wrong!
Some versions of the Apocalypse Now screenplay begin with a flash-forward to Willard talking with Kurtz’s wife, I believe in Marina Del Ray, California. In the end this rather literal framing device was abandoned in favor of a more ambiguous approach, where we are left to imagine that if Willard makes it back from Cambodia he may be able to explain a few things to Kurtz’s family, and perhaps to the world at large. (He could even write a book about it, and someone could option the book for a movie…Marlon Brando could play Kurtz….)
This scene also helps to illuminate why Francis Coppola was willing to put up with Dennis Hopper’s insanity to get him in the movie. Hopper is brilliant here, stalking the imprisoned Willard like a monkey taunting a caged lion, alternately scary, funny, angry, compassionate, incoherent, and eloquent. When he leans in to deliver that last line — “You!” — jabbing his finger and dropping his voice to a lower register, it’s hard not to get chills. A moment of silence, please, for the late Dennis Hopper, a one-of-a-kind, high-powered mutant whose like we shall not see again.
Almost two hours into Apocalypse Now, Willard is finally brought to meet Colonel Kurtz. After being herded into a dimly lit room that smells like “slow death…malaria…nightmares,” he hears a voice from out of the shadows.
“Where are you from, Willard?”
This is not just any voice. It is the voice of the Godfather, the voice that yelled for Stella, the voice that cried “I coulda been a contender.” It’s the voice of Marlon Brando: actor, Hollywood legend, force of nature.
At this historical remove, it seems impossible to imagine anyone other than Brando playing Colonel Kurtz. But right up to the last minute, there was a chance that he would bail; Coppola wanted more time to rewrite the ending, and Brando was threatening to take a powder and keep his million-dollar advance if the production was delayed. Contingency plans were made, and had things gone differently, Martin Sheen might have been playing these scenes opposite Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, or Robert DeNiro.
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This section, which might be called the “Prelude to Kurtz,” is made up of three smaller scenes:
The Dennis Hopper character walks Willard into the compound, where he sees Colby, the original assassin. Hopper was initially cast to play Colby, but given his condition, Coppola quickly figured out that he would not be convincing as a soldier. The part of Colby went instead to Scott Glenn, who in the released version of Apocalypse Now doesn’t even have a line. Deleted scenes in The Complete Dossier reveal that at one stage his role was quite a bit larger, including a scene where Colby kills the photojournalist and is in turn killed by Willard. As it is, he is more of an apparition than a character, but he does linger in the mind quite effectively.
There’s some great Dennis Hopper here, where he tries to explain in his semi-coherent way why, despite the evidence to the contrary all around them, Kurtz is not crazy.
The heads. You’re looking at the heads. I, uh…sometimes he goes too far. You know, he’s the first one to admit it!
This is where Apocalypse Now enters its final act, the confrontation with Kurtz. If you wanted to divide it into three acts, I guess that the first act would go from the beginning to after the aerial attack; the second act would be the journey upriver; and the third act would be from here to the end.
Initially, the mood is somber and ominous. We see lots of fires and skulls, then Willard destroys his dossier as the boat winds its way through tall trees and cliffs, reminding one of the passage from Heart of Darkness (the book) quoted in Hearts of Darkness (the movie):
Hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico.
In fact, from this point on, Apocalypse Now follows Heart of Darkness much more than it does the original screenplay. After the boat reaches what appears to be the end of the road (river) and drifts through a coterie of spooky, white-painted natives, a figure straight out of Conrad pops up out of the crowd:
I saw a white man under a hat like a cartwheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm…(he) began to shout, urging us to land. “We have been attacked,” screamed the manager. “I know — I know. It’s all right,” yelled back the other, as cheerful as you please. “Come along. It’s all right. I am glad.”
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One purpose that the French Plantation scene, had it not been cut, would have served would have been to put some space between the deaths of Clean and Chief. As it is they come one right after the other, fulfilling the Hollywood cliche that nonwhites must die first.
I hate to dwell on the subject, which I already discussed in Chapter 12, but the racial subtext here is not buried very deep. No one who is familiar with common American racial slurs can miss the irony in the fact that Chief is killed by a spear, and even he seems aware of it. From the way he croaks out “A spear!” just before he keels over, it’s almost as if the irony is killing him more than the weapon.
And of course Chief’s last action before succumbing is to try to strangle Willard, and you could argue that this is less personal than symbolic. In this schema Chief represents every person of color who’s ever been sold up or down the river, and Willard is every white man who’s ever sacrificed others for reasons that are unclear at best and nefarious at worst. Viewing it through this lens, it’s hard not to root a little for Chief to finish the job — and he probably would have, were he not losing blood so fast.
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