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.”
His aspect reminded me of something I had seen — something funny I had seen somewhere. As I manoeuvred to get alongside, I was asking myself, “What does this fellow look like?” Suddenly I got it. He looked like a harlequin.
In the movie the harlequin turns out to have a familiar face: that of Dennis Hopper, whose acting career started all the way back in 1954. After many credits as a character and TV actor, Hopper made a big splash in 1969 when he directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in Easy Rider. But after that he made a flop called The Last Movie and went off the deep end with drink and drugs. In Hearts of Darkness he says:
I was not in the greatest of shape as far as my career was concerned. It was delightful to hear that I was going to go do anything, anywhere.
For a long time in Hollywood they had something called the “Dennis Hopper rule.” This rule was informal and unwritten, but in its basic form it went something like this:
Do not work with Dennis Hopper, because he is crazy.
Which leads me to believe that deep down, Francis Coppola must be something of a masochist; not only did he cast the famously difficult Marlon Brando, he voluntarily added Hopper to the equation, and even went so far as to put the two of them in scenes together. This is the directorial equivalent of juggling chainsaws while playing the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven on a harmonica. For a taste, watch the scene in Hearts of Darkness where Coppola and Hopper bicker amiably about Hopper not knowing his lines, then Hopper comes out with this gem of a non-sequitur:
These glasses…every crack represents a life I’ve saved.
Still, the role Hopper plays, an unnamed photojournalist who’s always wearing sunglasses and a half-dozen heavy-looking cameras around his neck, is necessary to the story. He interprets the situation for Willard and his crew, serves as an intermediary between Willard and Kurtz, and provides some much-needed comic relief.
Several of his lines, it’s worth noting, are straight out of Heart of Darkness, for example:
“Don’t you talk with Mr. Kurtz?” I said. “You don’t talk with that man — you listen to him.”
“I tell you,” he cried, “this man has enlarged my mind.”
Yeah, he’s enlarged it so much that it’s swelling right out of its casing. Hopper’s portrayal of a blown mind wasn’t much of a stretch; this is another case where the actor and character are essentially one and the same — a guy who has no idea how he got there or what he’s doing there, and may not even know his own name anymore. Yet it is absolutely essential that he be there, and he knows this. There must be some kind of peace in that, as long as it lasts.