After all the noise and bad craziness of the Kilgore scenes, things quiet down a bit here as the boat begins moving upriver. Chief is piloting, presumably, as Clean, Lance, and Chef enjoy a smoke, while Willard retreats to his little hideaway to partake of his preferred intoxicant, good old alcohol.
For a moment things seem almost peaceful, but there is a sense of foreboding too. We are heading now into the heart of darkness, beginning the journey backward in time. We hear Chef saying:
I’m not here. I’m walking through the jungle looking for mangoes.
Which is an echo, apparently, of dialogue from the set, where the actors were going bonkers from being stuck in the Philippines for so long. In Hearts of Darkness Frederic Forrest says:
We felt like, after awhile, we really weren’t there. It was like you were in a dream or something…. We’d say to Francis, I’m not here Francis, I’m in Montana with Jack Nicholson. So they’d say “Where are you today, Freddie?” I’d be in Waco, I could be in Des Moines, wherever I wanted to be. And you would just go through your day — you weren’t in that place.
But instead of leaving it as a daydream, Chef decides to actually go look for mangoes, inspired no doubt by the vision he’s just had of making a mango cream pie and sharing it with Raquel Welch. Right off you can tell this is a mistake; Chef is the last person who ought to be heading off alone into the jungle, and perhaps sensing this, Willard opts to accompany him — maybe to make sure he comes back, maybe just for something to do; in the current state of things, this is what passes for a mission.
This is the one time in Apocalypse Now that we really get off deep into the woods, surrounded by giant trees and other vegetation, human figures dwarfed and obscured by nature run riot. Even before anything happens the atmosphere is ominous, and one wonders why Chef, usually so high-strung, seems so carefree; just high, maybe, single-minded in pursuit of mangoes. As Chef tells his tale — saucier training, navy cook school — we see Willard suddenly come alert. Something is out there in the jungle. There are some tense moments as we wonder if maybe this is an ambush, and then…
It’s sort of amazing to think how much trouble they went through to shoot this very short piece, where the tiger is visible for maybe 12 frames. In Hearts of Darkness Forrest describes how the tiger handler — who had lots of scars from various occupational misfortunes — would show up with a hungry cat on a leash, causing much discomfort to cast and crew. Even getting the tiger there seems to have been quite an adventure. From Eleanor Coppola’s Notes:
This morning Dennis told me the story about transporting the tiger on the airplane. He said that the passengers were in their seats when they put the tiger’s carrying box on the plane. They placed a chicken by the door of the box, but when they walked the tiger on, instead of taking the chicken and going into it, he jumped on top of the box and was staring down at the passengers. Everyone ran into the front compartment and locked the door. The pilot climbed out his window and just sat there, refusing to fly.
All that for a scene that’s over in the blink of an eye. But the tiger does carry an important symbolic weight, representing as it does the savagery, the implacable menace of the jungle. I can’t help but think, again, of Werner Herzog, who had his own struggles with the jungle during the making of Fitzcarraldo. In Burden of Dreams Herzog pontificates about the jungle as follows:
Kinski always says [the jungle] is full of erotic elements. I don’t see it as so much erotic…I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here…I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just… rotting away.
But in Apocalypse Now the aftermath of the tiger encounter is played for laughs, with Chef having a conniption fit and chanting his new mantra — “Never get out of the boat” — as Lance tries to calm him down.
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.