Francis Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, but for six minutes or so here, it’s Marlon Brando’s show. The movie is going to sink or swim on Brando’s portrayal of, as Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness,
A character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul — and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it — and is destroyed by them.
This is a tall order for an actor. Although in some respects Brando presented an obstacle that Coppola had to overcome to finish the movie, in another way Coppola was relying on Brando to get him out of the corner he’d painted himself into. Apocalypse Now had no real structured ending at this point, and after flailing about for awhile Coppola decided to just wing it, hoping that Brando would be so brilliant and charismatic that audiences would buy him as this grand, tragic figure.
Did he succeed? The question is still open, I think. Certainly Apocalypse Now ended up being critically and commercially successful. But the character of Kurtz emerged as a strange mixture of “monumental” and awe-inspiring on the one hand, and ridiculous on the other. Nowhere is the dichotomy captured better than in this clip from Hearts of Darkness:
But then again, maybe the whole thing actually works on some level. Why should a character of Kurtz’s stature not also be a joker or a clown? Is not the situation in which he finds himself — the Vietnam War — in itself ridiculous? Consider the key anecdote he tells here, where the Vietcong chop off the arms of every child in a village. Horrible, yes, but also absurd; and equally absurd is the converse, the fact that the United States was willing to bomb Vietnam “into the stone age,” but not willing to do what it actually would have taken to win the war. If there’s one lesson from Vietnam that everyone of every political persuasion can agree on, it’s this: Don’t get into a war that you intend to fight with one hand tied behind your back.
This is what Kurtz/Brando is getting at when he talks about “what is necessary,” and you’d think it would be a lesson the United States would never forget. And yet we got into very similar, ill-defined conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is quite apparent at this juncture what the results have been.
And now this is starting to get into the realm of politics, which is not what we’re about here, so perhaps I should just let the subject drop. With summer approaching, we are finally nearing the end of this journey, and not a moment too soon I don’t think.