Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Willard comments that he had been back home, only to find that it doesn't exist anymore. What does this say about his character? Why is he back in Vietnam?

    Willard has returned to Vietnam because his first tour has unsettled him. In order to conquer the demons that are eating away at him, he must come face to face with his internal darkness and choose to reject it. The Vietnam War toppled the post World War II American mentality of a soldier as a hero. WWII was painted as a clear conflict between good and evil, and the allies were perceived as unequivocally good. With only a vague understanding of the cause, the Vietnam War spiraled out of control. The line between patriotism and brutality became increasingly blurry, and many American soldiers could not grasp their mission on an ideological level. Many of them committed terrible atrocities in the name of patriotism (like Willard and Mr. Clean murdering the innocent Vietnamese people on the sampan). Back home, though, many returning soldiers felt lost, confused, and depressed. Willard deals with the alienation by returning to the only place where he feels like he is useful.

  2. 2

    After meeting the roguish Kilgore, Willard wonders what the US Army has against Kurtz. Compare the characters of Kurtz and Kilgore and the roles they play in the war. Why does one pose a threat to the American efforts in Vietnam?

    Kilgore is an archetype of American jingoism, the film's John Wayne character. His character is, on one hand, completely absurd (i.e. insisting that his men go surf while there is a battle raging on the shore). In a way, Kilgore is also fighting his own war, just like Kurtz. He is uninterested in his supposed assignment to escort Willard and his men to Vin Din Drop until he learns that it's a great place to surf; he is eking out a way of life in the midst of insanity. Meanwhile, Kurtz is living over the Cambodian border, preaching about the horror the Americans have perpetrated in Vietnam. Still, there are dead bodies hanging all over his compound, which, as the Photojournalist explains, are the result of Kurtz's tendency to "go too far." Despite the similarities in their methods, Kilgore still has his eye on American victory, no matter how skewed his definition of the word. Kurtz, on the other hand, has the opposite goal, and therefore - must be silenced.

  3. 3

    Describe Coppola's use of darkness and shadows, especially in Kurtz's compound. How does the extreme lighting enhance the story? How?

    The theme of light vs. darkness is at the core of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, so it is fitting that Coppola would utilize this contrast while telling the story of Willard and Kurtz. Coppola and Vittorio Storaro came up with a concept to reveal Kurtz in pieces, tiny slices of illumination cutting through the darkness, which is a subjective choice and aligns the viewer with Willard. At the beginning of Willard's journey, he (and the audience) believes that Kurtz is insane. However, as we travel further up the river and recognize the breadth of the destruction, both physical and moral, that has resulted from America's campaign in Vietnam, it is possible to understand how a man like Kurtz might snap. By the time Willard arrives at Kurtz's compound, Kurtz does not seem insane, rather, he is completely lucid about the darkness inside himself. Willard also has demons inside of him, and the only way for him to vanquish them is to face his internal darkness head on. The lighting in this scene is demonstrative of this struggle, though as its invention was one of necessity. Coppola and his cinematographer lit this scene to disguise Brando's girth, but in the process created an indelible and celebrated image.

  4. 4

    Why does Chief try to strangle Willard before his death? What does this say about both of their characters and how they are choosing to fight this war?

    At the beginning of their journey, Chief seems to be a serious, by-the-books military man. He performs his duty diligently, but there is something unapproachable and mysterious about him. He does not speak forlornly of home in the way the other crew members do. He is steely and determined, and the primary opponent against Willard's unorthodox mission into Cambodia. After he witnesses Willard shoot the wounded Vietnamese woman in cold blood instead of taking her to safety, he truly realizes the nature of this journey. However, Chief is the one who opens fire on the Montagnard attackers, leading to his death. He tries to strangle Willard because he believes that he is responsible for dragging the PBR crew into this terrible situation. It is a last gasp effort to rail against the system.

  5. 5

    Examine Coppola's depiction of the psychedelic drug culture in Apocalypse Now, especially in the characters of Lance and Chef.

    The drug culture that was rampant in America came with the country's youth into Vietnam. In Apocalypse Now, it's mostly a way for soldiers like Chef and Lance to stay numb from what's happening around them. For Lance, constantly being high allows him to maintain his childlike innocence. For example, he is able to distance himself from Mr. Clean's death, and only worries about his puppy. He uses a purple signal flare, which is supposed to be used for alerting others to trouble, as a way to create a "purple haze" (a Jimi Hendrix song as well as slang for LSD). Chef, on the other hand, "resents the mission and turns to dope by way of consolation" (Cowie 167).

  6. 6

    Why do you think Mr. Clean kills the people on the sampan before knowing whether or not they are dangerous? What does this scene say about the American effort in Vietnam?

    Mr. Clean is extremely young, and represents a lot of the Americans that went to Vietnam. The average age of the American soldier was only 19. A lot of these young men and women were unclear about why they were in Vietnam and what they were fighting for, and they were terribly impressionable. Coppola fashioned the sampan massacre after the My Lai Massacre, a much larger-scale slaughter of innocent people. Many of the soldiers who were involved in My Lai described just being completely out of control. Because the "enemy" was so elusive (the Viet Cong were experts in guerilla warfare) and military intelligence was often unreliable, many innocent Vietnamese people died.

  7. 7

    Describe the different journeys in Apocalypse Now, both literal and figurative.

    Willard goes on a literal journey throughout Apocalypse Now. At the beginning of the film, he is a broken man. He has seen some things during his first tour of Vietnam that he cannot forget, and done things in the name of patriotism that he cannot face. His journey to find Kurtz is the catalyst for Willard's own journey of self-discovery - he must dig into the depths of his soul and face his internal darkness, embodied by Kurtz, and then decide either to succumb to it or vanquish it. The physical journey is the PBR's voyage up the Nung River to find Kurtz. The mission has many casualties, including three crew members and thousands of Vietnamese civilians, as the PBR ventures deeper into the jungle. Only Willard and Lance survive, and both of them are eternally transformed.

  8. 8

    The sequence at the Do Lung Bridge embodies, in many ways, Coppola and Milius' ideology about the war. Describe how this point in Willard's journey is a microcosm of the war at large.

    The environment around the Do Lung Bridge is completely chaotic. There does not seem to be anyone in charge when Willard asks around. As Chief describes, "We [The Americans] build it every night, Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the Generals can say the road's open' (Cowie 168). It's emblematic of the war because even though the administration was eager to sell the importance of the war to the public, the soldiers on the ground were locked into this kind of futile exercise every day. The Sisyphean task of rebuilding a bridge only to see it blown up again is an expression of madness. The army, at this point, was decapitated, and had no strong moral center. The scene at the Do Lung Bridge really encapsulates this chaos.

  9. 9

    There are very few Vietnamese characters in Apocalypse Now who are distinct or actually have speaking roles. What does this say about Coppola's point of view about the war?

    Historians have often cited the guerilla skills of the Viet Cong as one of the reasons for the American capitulation in Vietnam. By choosing not to show the enemy, Coppola takes the audience into the American point of view. For example, at Do Lung Bridge, the soldiers hear "Charlie," who are using American slang in order to taunt their opponents. They literally have no idea who they are firing at. Generals like Kilgore saw nothing of taking out entire villages - the innocent lives meant nothing as long as they got to "smell victory." In this way, Coppola frames the American lies, not the Viet Cong, as the clear antagonists of Apocalypse Now.

  10. 10

    Scholars and critics (and Francis Ford Coppola himself) have often compared the production of Apocalypse Now to the Vietnam War itself. What are the similarities between the two?

    Francis Ford Coppola's wife, Eleanor, kept a detailed diary during the production of Apocalypse Now. She famously wrote: "More and more it seems like there are parallels between the character of Kurtz and Francis. There is the exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything, like the excitement of war when one kills and takes the chance of being killed" (Cowie 123). By this point in the production process, Coppola was behaving like a megalomaniac, but underneath, he was terrified that the film was going to be an epic failure as everything spiraled out of control. Meanwhile, during the Vietnam War, the American administration kept pushing forward, desperate to keep the citizens at home supporting an increasingly messy war effort. Media manipulation had a major effect on public perception, which Coppola indicates with his cameo as part of a newsreel crew, "directing" Willard to "just go through, like you're fighting! Don't look in the camera!" as he arrives at Vin Din Drop. Offset, Coppola had to keep the drama away from the media, too. During production, United Artists "sent a memo to the actors asking them not to give interviews, and that Gerald Rafshoon and Patrick Cadell, the Atlanta-based advertising team that handled President Carter's campaign, would be handling the picture and that all statements must first be checked by them and United Artists" (Higham). A film about a war waged in chaos and confusion was plagued by similar (though obviously lower-stake) problems.