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.”
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.
Somewhere in here goes the French Plantation scene, which was excised from the original movie but restored in the Redux version. On the whole, I’d say it was a good cut; the scene is slow-moving, talk-heavy, and kills all the story’s forward motion. But it does have some historical interest and is worth a viewing or two.
In this version of the story, the boat finds refuge from the fog with a family of holdovers from Vietnam’s past as a French colony. Most of the scene is taken up by a formal French dinner where Willard gets into a long political discussion with the head of the family, de Marais, played by Christian Marquand. His gist can be summed up in a couple of sentences:
When you ask me why we want to stay here, Captain…we want to stay here because it’s ours. It belongs to us. It keeps our family together. I mean, we fight for that. While you Americans…you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.