Sthitipragnya Dash

Movie in Focus – Apocalypse Now

Sthitipragnya Dash

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Films are a reflection of the times that we live in, and they remain one of the most effective ways of understanding the human predicament. All influential films that deal with the plight of the human condition have something unique and profound to offer. And, ever since movies have been in vogue, they have been beautifully portraying failures. Nothing is more tragic than looking at your impending doom without being able to do anything about it. And that is what Apocalypse Now takes you through and leaves you with near cathartic experience.

In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) of the US Army lies in a sordid and clumsy Saigon hotel room. The apocalyptic words of Jim Morrison (The End) ring out in the background, and he sees choppers leaving golden billowing napalm flames behind them, which engulf everything around. That is precisely what horrors of the war he had so ‘bravely’ fought are doing to his head when the war was nearing its end. Then we see alcohol, cigarettes, and a gun which are good indicators of the sequence of events that might unfold soon; and he is already piss drunk. In a fit of rage and frustration, he sees his reflection in the mirror, viciously punches it, bloodies his hand, and smears the blood all over his face. The disgust for self is pretty evident now. He falls on the floor, nude and in tears; but, before he could reach the stage where he pulls the proverbial trigger, he passes out.

Next, we see two uniformed soldiers coming to his room who have brought a mission for him. “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission. And for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service,” says Willard in a voice over. His mission was to terminate a certain Colonel Kurtz with ‘extreme prejudice’. And he laps at it – his ticket away from the sea of despair and meaninglessness. Or so he thought.
Colonel Kurtz had unleashed brutal violence on the enemy, first on the orders to shorten the war, and then for the fun of it. In the process, he had realised the futility of this war and the lack of any higher purpose to it. But, he needed a meaning to it; he needed a scheme of things in which all the savagery he had unleashed could be justified. And, in search of meaning, he had ended up creating one. He created a parallel society in a village near the Cambodian border and filled it with chaos.

Williard embarks upon his journey on the Nung River and begins to get highly inquisitive and fascinated with Colonel Kurtz. He reads about the Colonel’s family, his life and his fall from being a decorated officer to the embarrassment he was now.  While at it, he begins to compare the journey of the fallen hero with his own. In this comparison with the Colonel, he realised that he is in the same place mentally, that the Colonel was in few years ago. Thus, implying a tacit approval for the path Colonel ended up taking.

1 with borderThroughout his journey, the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War continues to hit Willard in the face. He sees Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore (possibly another Colonel Kurtz in the making), who would bomb a nearby village and then send a gunship to shoot the survivors, only to make the beach safe for his surfing. At the dining table of a French plantation owner, in a heated argument, he gets told what he is running away from, “…the Vietnamese, (we) worked with them, make something – something out of nothing…We want to stay here because it’s ours – it belongs to us. It keeps our family together. I mean, we fought for that. While you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.”
Finally, when he met Colonel Kurtz, whose silhouette resembled that of the Buddha, Willard could see the same lack of purpose and meaning plaguing him. It was reflected in the Colonel’s oration of TS Elliot’s The Hollow Men:

  • “We are the hollow men
  • We are the stuffed men
  • Leaning together
  • Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
  • Our dried voices, when
  • We whisper together
  • Are quiet and meaningless
  • As wind in dry grass
  • Or rats’ feet over broken glass
  • In our dry cellar”


The colonel wanted to escape it all in death and Willard did not really have an option but to oblige. All the events till now had led him to this. He had to kill the Colonel and relieve the Atlas of his burden by taking his place. To worsen it, before he did the deed, the Colonel robbed Willard of whatever little sense of righteousness he could extract out it, “I have seen horrors. Horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me.” As Willard emerged from the Colonel’s chamber with a blood soaked machete, the Kurtz-worshipping-villagers bowed down to him, accepting him their new leader. But, he rowed away in a boat as the screen faded to black with the dying Colonel’s words “The Horror, the Horror” echoing all around.2 border

Now did Willard escape his ultimate failure in that boat? Or did he not? I would argue he did not escape it at all. He never had a chance to escape it. A human being needs a purpose in life and a meaning to what he does. This resonates in the findings of leading psychologists like Charles Snyder, Ernest Becker, and Victor Frnakl.  According to the Terror Management Theory, derived from Becker’s work, we always are terrorised of our mortality and want to best it by leaving behind something greater than us that will outlive us. That is why the hero answers the call for adventure. That is why we all do what we do. That is why Willard went to Vietnam. That is why he murdered the enemy without judgment, burned the enemy villages, and scorched the land where the enemy treaded. Just like the Colonel. But, there was no higher cause to it. Just some men with stars on their shoulders, who lied about the love for their homeland and families to justify the monstrosity they had unleashed in Vietnam. And Willard was the instrument of that monstrosity. Just like the Colonel. What other fate could he have, at the end of this boat ride, but that of continued meaninglessness? As the lyrics of The End, by Doors, go, ‘This is the end, my only friend, the end’.

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