“All plots tend to move deathward.”
______— Don DeLillo, White Noise
Endings are hard, as is well-documented in Hearts of Darkness, where we see Francis Coppola struggling to find some way to bring his project to a conclusion. In the original screenplay Apocalypse Now ended with a huge firefight that, in the context of what the movie had become, would have been completely incongruous. So Herr Coppola was left to concoct some way to wrap things up that would satisfy.
About the only thing that was never in doubt, it seems, is that Kurtz would die. This is the event toward which the entire movie has been building. It is the same event toward which every story builds, one way or another: yours, mine, and everybody we know’s. Deal with it.
* * *
To backtrack a little: In the runup to the climax, everybody is preparing. The natives are in the preliminary stages of a ritual. Kurtz is brooding in his compound, gathering his thoughts, girding himself for the end he knows is coming. Willard is back at the boat getting his game face on; he paints himself with camouflage as the radio — i.e. the world he has left behind — clamors, unsuccessfully, for his attention.
They were going to make me a major for this. And I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore.
He is also preparing mentally, telling himself the story he needs to tell himself in order to go through with it; which may well be a true story, but sounds like a convenient fiction nonetheless.
Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from anyway.
As the ritual heats up, Willard emerges from the swamp, somehow purified; no longer a soldier, or even an assassin, but just a killer, primordial and single-minded. At this moment Martin Sheen looks very much like his son Charlie, which is a little disconcerting for the modern-day viewer; but it soon passes.
When he finds Kurtz, the Colonel is dictating notes into a tape recorder like some corporate executive, though his subject matter is rather incendiary:
They train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes — because it’s obscene!
And with that, the hammer comes down. Or whatever it is that Willard is using — some kind of hatchet, heavy and crude but quite effective. Kurtz does not resist. Shots of Willard hacking at Kurtz are intercut with shots of the natives sacrificing a caribou. Heavy and crude symbolism perhaps, but again, effective. The thing rises, rises, climaxes (Are murder and ritual sacrifice sexual? Well of course they are.) and falls, and as he fades away, Kurtz/Brando intones those four words (or two words, twice) that we all know so well:
The horror. The horror.
* * *
What does this mean? On the one hand, it seems pretty clear. Death is not pleasant. There is no happy hunting ground waiting on the other side. When you die, you die. Like it or not, that’s the way it is, and candy-coating it isn’t going to help anything. In fact, knowing that the end is the end ought to encourage us to live every day on this side of the ground to its fullest, savor every last drop of what life has to offer.
On the other hand, I think that Apocalypse Now also puts the death of Kurtz into a larger context, that of rebirth, regeneration. With that in mind, I am cognizant of the last words of another larger-than-life figure, the late Steve Jobs — also two words, said twice:
Oh wow. Oh wow.
* * *
“The king is dead; long live the king.”
This is a cliche, but a lot of wisdom is contained therein. The individual dies; the idea lives on. The elders pass away but the tribe continues. Or as The Stranger would say, “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ it-self, down through the generations….”
In Coppola’s scheme, when Willard kills Kurtz, he becomes the king. This is why, when he emerges from the compound, the natives don’t set upon him and tear him limb from limb. Instead, they wait to see what he wants them to do.
After a moment’s thought, Willard drops his weapon to the ground. To the extent that you can call Apocalypse Now an antiwar film, this is why. It makes for a powerful moment, the weapon clattering to the ground, followed by those of everyone around. With this symbolic act of abdication, Willard is free; he finds Lance and returns to the boat. (Discussion question: What will Lance’s life be like after this?)
There they find the radio still caterwauling. Willard shuts it off, and this is how Apocalypse Now ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with one last echo of “The horror. The horror.”
* * *
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
“The horror! The horror!”
_____—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness