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.
It’s not the only Star Wars connection in this scene, though. Toward the end of the briefing, G.D. Spradlin as General Corman says:
There’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Emphasis, of course, on “the dark side.” And in fact the connection goes much deeper than these two superficial examples. At an early stage, the projected director of Apocalypse Now had been George Lucas, not Francis Coppola. According to Peter Cowie’s The Apocalypse Now Book,
He planned to shoot it like a documentary, up in the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, working quickly and economically on 16mm. His friend and business partner, Gary Kurtz, even flew to the Philippines in search of suitable locations.
(Hmmm…Gary Kurtz…another superficial connection there….)
Lucas ultimately decided to make another movie first: American Graffiti, the success of which gave him massive commercial clout. But even so, he couldn’t sell studios on a Vietnam movie, so, says Kurtz,
He asked himself the question, ‘What is it about Apocalypse that I am really interested in making?’ It was the story of how a small group of people, the Vietnamese, could possibly withstand the entire might of the US ranged against them, and in the end come out victorious. What does that say about the human spirit? And since it was not possible for him to make Apocalypse, he transformed that story and set it in a galaxy long ago and far away. So Star Wars is George’s version of Apocalypse Now, rewritten in an other-worldly context. The rebels in Star Wars are the Vietnamese, and the Empire is the United States.
So on second thought maybe it’s entirely appropriate that Harrison Ford is in both movies, and in a way his presence just adds to the quiet surrealism of the whole briefing scene, with its closeups of giant shrimp, roast beef, and Budweiser cans. Lurking around the edges the whole time is Jerry Ziesmer, the assistant director of Apocalypse Now, who plays a character listed in the credits as simply “Civilian” — presumably an intelligence agent of some kind, perhaps South Vietnamese, since he looks vaguely Asian. This would give him the most significant Asian role in the movie, though mostly he just hangs around looking glassy-eyed and — if you’ll excuse my use of the term — inscrutable. He only gets one line, toward the end of the scene, but it is a doozy, and granted him immediate cinematic immortality:
Terminate — with extreme prejudice.
It may seem odd that there is so little Asian presence in a movie set in Vietnam, but it should be remembered that Apocalypse Now is really about the American experience in Vietnam — and I think that many of the Americans who were there didn’t actually know much about the people they were theoretically fighting for. Which was part of the problem.
But of all the strange things in this scene, perhaps the strangest is the looming presence of the enigma at the heart of this story: Colonel Kurtz, a.k.a. Marlon Brando. We see his photo and hear his voice in rambling monologues about “slithering along the edge of a straight razor” and “when the assassins accuse the assassin.” This is what seduces Willard, who takes the mission because he now has questions he must answer about Kurtz, what he is doing out there in the jungle, and how he got to be the way he is.
I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him.