Like a Detective Story – But With a Lot More Helicopters

9 Nov

Saigon… shit.

The first line spoken in Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film starts with the sound of the fan set into ceiling of Captain Willard’s hotel room (or is it a helicopter) then the images of yellow smoke, palm trees and a napalm strike all played out over ‘The End’, by The Doors.

(It has been said so many times before, but while the Vietnam War was such an incredible disaster, not only for the US, but even more for most of South East Asia, the sound track really was outstanding).

Captain Willard goes on to muse that ‘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. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over I never wanted another.’

When I mentioned to someone, some years ago, that I had always felt that Apocalypse Now was a lot like a detective story I was laughed at and never really got the chance to explain or develop my idea.

(This seems to happen to me quite a lot. It’s frustrating. It’s one reason for starting a blog, however, because now I get to develop my ideas without being interrupted).

So anyway, I still think of Apocalypse Now as a kind of detective story, and more specifically I think it’s a lot like the kind of ‘hardboiled’ detective story that was often adapted into film noire in the 1940s and 50s. (Even if it does have a lot more helicopters than say The Big Sleep).

On the face of it this might seem like an odd idea given that classic film noire were shot in black and white, very often in highly claustrophobic settings and usually lit with the intention of creating deep and unsettling shadows around the main characters.

Clearly none of this applies to Apocalypse Now.

The look of the film as about as far removed from classic film noire as you can get. To illustrate this point, Willard says of one of the other character (Mr Clean of the South Bronx shithole) that ‘the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head’. And between them Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro (his cinematographer) capture that light and space beautifully. It really is a remarkably beautiful film to look at.

Having said that, many of the later scenes are dominated by shadow and darkness, and it seems to me that the firefight at the Do Lung bridge acts as a transitional scene, both in the look of the film and in Willard (and the viewer’s) perception of the war.

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this scene portrays a confrontation between light and darkness. (Which could have been nothing more than a clichéd metaphor for the conflict between good and evil, but in this case, the conflict seems much more elemental and amoral than that). But I think it goes beyond just the look of the film.

Up until the scenes at Do Lung the war has seemed to be efficient on a tactical level but lacking in strategic purpose. (Kilgore’s assault on the Vietnamese village is supremely effective, but his purpose seems to be as much about securing a beach to surf on as following the orders he apparently never received to help Willard on his mission). At Do Lung the war lacks even the tactical coherence Kilgore can offer.

This point is brought home to Willard when he asks one man who’s in charge only to be asked ‘ain’t you?’. The point is reinforced by Roach, (a disturbing, almost shamanic, figure who effortlessly drops a 20mm grenade on a VC soldier apparently by pure intuition) who, when asked if he knows who’s in charge, just says, ‘yeah’, and then goes about his (possibly drug fuelled) business.

From this point on it becomes clear that this war isn’t just misguided and brutal, (most wars are) it’s downright insane.

From this point on we move through dense fog towards Willard’s confrontation with Colonel Kurtz.

These scenes are pretty much dominated by shadow. (To a degree this was forced on Coppola because Marlon Brando he put on an enormous amount of weight and was apparently so self conscious about it that he insisted on being shot entirely in shadow – call it a happy accident, or maybe just making a virtue of a necessity).

So you could say that Martin Sheen’s scenes with Marlon Brando are the only ones that are truly reminiscent of the visual style of film noire, but I think there’s more to it than the use of shadow as a visual metaphor.

I suppose it starts for me with the voice over. Not an obligatory feature of detective stories, or even film noire. You don’t find it at all in such classic film noire such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it was common enough in film noire nonetheless and it also refers back to the first person narrative that was such a common feature of the pulp fiction that was so often the source material for film noire.

There is also an element of enquiry in Willard’s mission. His orders are to ‘terminate’ Col. Kurtz’ command and the instruction to pick up information along the way is almost an aside, but that isn’t quite the way the mission actually plays out.

In essence Willard, and the audience through his eyes, is learning about the war and about Kurtz. He’s gathering evidence, almost inadvertently, but the physical journey towards Kurtz in the patrol boat is matched by Willard’s progress towards understanding the man he’s been sent to kill.

What’s unusual for a detective story, and it’s definitely not what the Army wants, is that, however reluctantly, Willard is gathering evidence that turns out to be for Kurtz’ defence, not his prosecution.

And as in any decent detective story, there’s even a crime. Kurtz is accused of murder, the reason given for his execution, although it’s a charge that, as Willard notes, makes about as much sense as handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This brings me to another feature of Apocalypse Now that I find reminiscent of film noire, and more generally the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, which is the fact that Willard the (sort of) detective can’t trust his (sort of) client, the army. (By this I mean, not the ordinary soldiers, but the ‘four star clowns’ as Willard calls them, who’ve sent him on his mission.

These people give Willard some information, but not enough for him to fully understand what he’s doing and what information they do give him seems to undermine the case they’ve made for wanting Kurtz dead.

This leaves Willard is in the dark, metaphorically if not literally, the imagery actually gets darker as Willard learns more. This tells you something about the nature of what Willard is learning, but is also indicates that as Willard gains in understanding he loses whatever certainty he started out with.

And in Willard himself we even have just the kind of flawed central character that we’d expect to find in film noire. Most detectives of the ‘hardboiled’ school were distinctly compromised as champions of truth and justice. (Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is a bit of an exception here, he was a knight in a slightly threadbare suit, rather than shining armour, but a chivalrous figure nonetheless).

When we first see Willard he is alone, drunk and naked in his hotel room and one of the first things he tells us about himself is that, on his return to the United States after his first tour of duty he hardly said a word to his wife until he said ‘yes’ to a divorce.

He’s not exactly the clean cut, all-American hero type, then. For most of the film he’s a passive figure, observing as he’s ferried up the river, passing judgement, but seldom acting. When he does take the initiative, however, it is shocking. He seems to instinctively understand Kurtz’ views on ‘clarity’.

“…what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

Or as Willard puts it, “It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.”

This is the opposite of the dreamlike state that so many of the characters in Apocalypse Now seem to inhabit, from Kilgore and his beach party to the USO sending Playboy models into a war zone, to the ‘timid lying morality’ that Kurtz claims to be beyond. The same ‘morality’ that is behind Willard’s orders to kill Kurtz.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters. More than you find in most detective stories anyway. And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters, more than you find in most detective stories anyway.

And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

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