The aerial attack sequence, set to the tune of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” is one for which Apocalypse Now is justly famous. In a way it is the emotional high point of the movie; it is certainly the most adrenalized scene, the one time we get a glimpse into the other side of war — the exciting part — and start to understand what makes a gung-ho lunatic like Kilgore tick.
Kilgore refers to the music as “Psy War Op,” or psychological warfare operations. I have written before about the military use of music, but in that case it was for torture; this is more a form of intimidation. “Ride of the Valkyries” is stirring, aggressive, and very Western; you can imagine how it might be a little scary in this context. And the fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer adds a whole other layer, a minor-key overtone.
Combined with the visual (literal) pyrotechnics, it makes for pretty exciting cinema. Once the action starts, this scene is not unlike the Death Star attack in Star Wars, except that these are (admittedly heavily armed) peasant farmers who are being shot at, not Imperial Stormtroopers. It’s horrible too, of course. In a matter of minutes a peaceful-looking village where children are playing is turned into a theater of carnage. Minutes after that, Kilgore has his troops on the ground and orders his designated surfers to change. Here is a man who brings new meaning to the phrase “work hard, play hard.”
This is where Apocalypse Now really turns into a war movie. The action and insanity come hard and fast; the boat hits the beach and is instantly surrounded by copters, boats, soldiers, and bedraggled civilians. An amphibious vehicle crawls up out of the water and topples a building. Then we hear a voice saying “Don’t look at the camera”; the shot pans and there is Francis Coppola himself, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis, playing a TV crew.
Out of all this chaos emerges a larger-than-life figure: Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore, commanding officer of the Air Cavalry unit that is supposed to escort Willard and his crew to the Nung River. IMDB says that Duvall is only 5′ 8½”, but in this context, he seems to be about 8 feet tall; that’s acting, I guess, and Duvall is certainly a Master Thespian. (Synchronicity alert: After writing that last sentence, I took a lunch break, during which I read the following in an Esquire profile of Danny DeVito: “This man is a giant. He wasn’t born that way. That’s why they call it acting.”)
In this scene Willard begins his trip upriver and we meet the crew of the boat, who will be his companions (and ours) for the rest of the journey. As with Sheen/Willard, the overlap between the actors and the characters is significant. This can be attributed to careful casting, but also, I think, to the fact that these actors spent much, much longer in a single role than is customary for a movie. A few thoughts on each:
Mr. Clean (Larry Fishburne)
Fishburne, often credited as Laurence, went on to have a long and distinguished career including the Matrix movies and the chronically underrated Deep Cover. But when he began his role as Mr. Clean, he was a youth of 14 (by the time filming was completed, he was 17, Clean’s stated age in the movie). In Hearts of Darkness, Fishburne says:
I think what it was that was me that was Clean was just that I was a kid. And that’s I think what my role is about, I mean, it’s about the kids who were over there…who didn’t know anything about anything.
To wit, there is also a clip in HoD of young Larry, circa 1976, sharing his thoughts about the war:
The whole thing is really fun. I mean the war is fun, shit. You can do anything you want to, that’s why Vietnam must have been so much fun for the guys that were out there.
Although he is a gifted thespian, I don’t know if Fishburne is acting in Apocalypse Now so much as honestly reacting to what’s going on around him. Making this surreal, endless movie in the Philippines with a cast and crew of adults can’t have been much less bizarre for him than fighting in Vietnam would have been… though it was at least somewhat less dangerous.
One of the stranger meta-moments in Apocalypse Now occurs 10 minutes in, after Willard has been roused out of bed, cleaned up, and brought by helicopter to receive his mission. He opens the door to a trailer and there stands…Han Solo. His hair is cut short and he’s wearing glasses and fatigues, but it’s him all right.
It’s a strange twist of history that while Apocalypse Now and Star Wars both began shooting in March 1976, Apocalypse would not be released until two years after Star Wars. Francis Coppola had no way of knowing that by the time his movie came out, Harrison Ford would be instantly recognizable to pretty much everyone on Earth as a roguish space mercenary. If he had, he might have gone a different route; Ford’s appearance adds a slightly discordant note, bringing us temporarily out of the illusion and reminding us that we’re watching a movie.
For its first four minutes, Apocalypse Now is basically a music video for The Doors’ “The End” — possibly, though this is impossible to calculate or verify, the most expensive music video ever made. For a stretch nothing seems to be happening; we get static shots of a peaceful jungle, the only movement that of leaves swaying in the breeze. At :25 a military helicopter flies through the frame from left to right and some colored smoke appears, gradually intensifying until, at 1:15, Jim Morrison’s voice comes in and the jungle explodes into flame. And so it begins.
The first human face we see is Martin Sheen’s (or is it Captain Willard’s? — more on that later), upside-down, superimposed over what’s left of the jungle as flames leap and flare. The implication is clear: His head is in the jungle, and the jungle is on fire. His body, however, is in a hotel room in Saigon, and that is the first word spoken in Apocalypse Now: “Saigon,” says Sheen/Willard in voiceover at 4:20. “Shit. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle.”