Apocalypse Now is not exactly loaded with sentimentality, and one of the rare moments of overt — you might even say cheap — sentiment comes when Clean is killed by a tracer round fired from the jungle. At the moment of his demise he is listening to an audio letter sent by his mother, whose voice can be heard waxing optimistic about future grandchildren as her son’s corpse lies sprawled on the deck. (Kudos, by the way, to Hattie James, who I’m told is Larry Fishburne’s actual mother. She does an amazing job of sounding just like somebody’s mom would on a tape like this — stilted cadence, self-conscious laughter, and all.)
Some might call this instant (or at least rapid) karma, since it was Clean’s itchy trigger finger that set off the sampan massacre. Others might just say, eh, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you. What you think probably says something about how you view the workings of this universe we live in. I prefer to leave it up in the air, which definitely says something about me.
The crew’s reaction says a lot about them, too. Chef of course is emotional, shouting “You can’t die, you fucker!”; Lance detaches from reality, preferring to worry about the puppy instead; and Chief puts on a mask of quiet dignity, but you can tell that he’s suffering. Then the mask slips and we see a man grieving as if for his own son. This is the first sign that Chief, up until now a model of composure, may be starting to crack under the stress. It’s both very poignant and faintly ridiculous the way he pours all his anguish into one word: “Cleeeeaaaaan….”
Willard, meanwhile, has received some disturbing news: he is not the first man to have been sent on this mission. But the original assassin, Captain Colby, has joined Kurtz instead of killing him. Which of course has to raise some doubts in Willard’s mind: What did Colby see that unhinged him, caused him to tell his wife to “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids…I’m never coming back”? Was he tortured, drugged, brainwashed, or just swayed by Kurtz’s personal charisma? Will it happen to me too?
At this point, Kurtz seems less like a military officer than a cult leader…speaking of which, Charlie Manson pops up in this scene, in a newspaper clipping included with Chef’s letter from home. That is one of the few indications of when exactly Apocalypse Now takes place — if the Manson murders were in August 1969, the movie must be set in late 69, or if the mail was very slow to arrive (quite possible), early 1970.
I wonder if Charlie Manson saw this movie in prison. I wonder what he thought of it. I wonder if he thought it was about him. Probably.