Mistah Kurtz – he dead.
This bleak pronouncement closes Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, and opens T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, completes the circle by following the outline of Conrad’s novella – a voyage up a river to find a madman named Kurtz – and placing extensive quotations from Eliot’s poem in Kurtz’s mouth. Linked across three art forms and eighty years by the name of Kurtz, these three works form an arresting collage. Together, they tell nothing less than the story of modern man in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The plot of Apocalypse Now is simple. During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission up the Nung River to kill insane Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The film is engrossing less as a story and more as a series of spectacularly realized vignettes, a progression of darkening moods painted on one of the largest canvases imaginable. It is a rattling experience, drawing its power from profound contrasts: it is beautiful and frightful, tranquil and fevered, immense and intimate. Few films conjure such awe-inspiringly enormous sights; few films devote so much attention to the nuances of light and shadow playing across human faces.
Apocalypse Now takes such primal opposites for its subject matter. Like another film about the Vietnam War, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, it is preoccupied with the duality of man (“the Jungian thing, sir”). But the duality of man can be drawn along many different axes. Before sending him to Kurtz, a general tells Willard, “There’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil.” Later, Willard meets a French widow on a plantation along the river. “There are two of you, don’t you see?” she says. “One that kills, and one that loves.” She also recounts a conversation with her late husband: “He said to me, ‘I don’t know whether I am an animal or a god.’ But you are both.”
In Apocalypse Now, man’s torment stems from the fact that he is never simply one or the other. He is always both. Man is rational and irrational, good and evil. Man kills and loves. Like an animal, man is a body, material and mortal – and, like a god, man is a spirit, immaterial and immortal. The film is drawing from the same well as the most ancient tragedies. In his review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Joshua Gibbs, pulling from Peter Leithart, writes: “Only one horror story has ever been written and it is Oedipus the Tyrant by Sophocles… the riddle of the sphinx is a parable and prophecy about the sad fate of every man. Rational like the gods but mortal like the beasts, man is the only creature capable of contemplating his own death… The tragic nature of man is to be so like the gods, and yet so far.”
Apocalypse Now is full of these queasy paradoxes. As it opens, Willard is between tours, stewing in a Saigon hotel room in a drug-induced haze. Coppola fades between the room and the jungle; the whir of a helicopter rotor becomes the whir of a ceiling fan. It is unclear whether Willard is ruminating on the jungle he has left behind or the jungle he is about to enter; we are seeing him at the story’s beginning, but we are hearing his voice from beyond its end. The last face we see in the film, that of a stone idol, is seen briefly at its beginning. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own,” Willard says of Kurtz. It is a circle, a loop, a paradox. Even the title, Apocalypse Now, is paradoxical. The future is the present. The present is the future.
The ancients saw man’s dual nature as an inescapable plight, but the Enlightenment attempted to solve the paradox. In the age of reason and the modern era that followed, attempts to overcome man’s animal nature through the idolatry of reason were doomed to fail, instead reducing man to a petty, limited version of himself – Eliot’s hollow men, or what Nietzsche called the “last man.” Asked if he likes the jungle, Willard scoffs, “Never get a chance to know what the f–k you are in some factory in Ohio.” The jungle reveals some truth about man’s nature that is forgotten in the sterile, sanitized modern world of factory and suburb.
Apocalypse Now is set in 1969, which is as good a year as any to mark the end of an era. (Quentin Tarantino seems to agree, based on this summer’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.) In Solomon Among the Postmoderns, Leithart writes, “Postmodernity is Babel, the confusion of tongues that inevitably follows modernity’s attempt to build a universal tower to heaven.” Apocalypse Now posits that the modern Babel collapsed in 1969, with the end, per The Doors, “of our elaborate plans… of everything that stands.” The end of any era is the end of the world in microcosm; it is the end of a world. The film’s title is not overreaching, but justified.
“Apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the modern era ended when the falsehood of its promises was laid bare. Willard and Kurtz are disgusted by the “lies” of modernity – chief among them, the lie that man’s reason could overcome his animal nature – so they return to the primitive, irrational jungle. But there is no naïve indication that the return to nature will be easy, cozy, or cheerful.
“God is dead,” proclaimed Nietzsche in 1882, a mere seventeen years before Conrad wrote “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” In Nietzsche’s thought, the Enlightenment killed God, and it is the Enlightenment, in the form of the American generals, that sends Willard to kill Kurtz – who has made himself a god in the Cambodian jungle. The “horror” Kurtz sees is the void Nietzsche identified: the void left by God’s absence. It is out of this void, Nietzsche posits, that man must create his own values by sheer force of will. (The name “Willard” begins to sound like a Nietzschean pun; how easily it could be shortened to “Will”!)
One god dies, then, so that another may take his place. Coppola intercuts Willard’s assassination of Kurtz with the natives’ ritual sacrifice of a bull. When Willard emerges, covered in Kurtz’s blood, the natives bow down to him, but their new god leaves without a word. One manmade god is dead, but Apocalypse Now leaves little room to hope that any man is up to the task of making himself a god, for it never forgets that man is an animal, too.
Yet amidst the terror and despair, the absence and silence, the ritual points, however obliquely, to an eternal truth. Christ bore the cross of being stretched and torn between two natures so man could bear his own crucifixion. I am reminded, by the copy of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough on Kurtz’s desk, of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun:
No one between 1870 and 1917 did more than Nietzsche to resuscitate God in the hearts of men. That epoch had forgotten mankind’s ancient tradition of the God that died and rose again, was killed by his worshippers that he might be reborn, or was crucified that he might raise us all. Man’s faith in the death and resurrection of God runs like a red thread through the ages, linking the primitives in Frazer’s Golden Bough to the most enlightened service in a Protestant Church. Before Christ, the gods were thought to die in the twilight of fate, or in a frenzy of tribal ecstasy, like Adonis or Tamuz or Osiris. But Christianity, beginning with the Crucifixion, then in the Catholic Mass and the Protestant Service of the Word, showed that God dies from the unclean hands and lips of those who may partake in his resurrection. The whole meaning of Jesus’ forgiveness was that we remain God’s children despite the fact that we all do kill Him in our hearts at times.