“A Roman Wilderness of Pain”: The Doors, Wagner, The Rolling Stones and Western Escapism in the Postmodern, Warring World of Apocalypse Now

“We’ll have ourselves a hellavuh airstrike tonight. A lightshow.
How do you like The Doors’: ‘C’mon Baby Light My Fire’?”

‘…I like it.’

“I love it.”

‘You’re crazy.’

    ~ Col. Walter Kurtz and Capt. Benjamin Willard,
Apocalypse Now, Screenplay (1979)

It begins in a hellish firestorm. Vietnamese tree-lines fill with fluorescent yellow smoke; their foreign soil engulfed by American napalm. Accompanying the inferno: the atmospheric opening chords of The Doors’ “The End” – haunting, swirling, traumatizing. These: the inaugural notes of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war-time symphony Apocalypse Now.

Apocalypse’s atmospheric opening montage cross-dissolves double and triple-exposed images: scorched Vietnamese trees melt into Captain Benjamin Willard’s thousand-yard stare; U.S. chopper rotors spin into rotating ceiling fans; on Willard’s nightstand, photographs frame memories… then it’s the sweltering tree-line again. All this to tune of Jim Morrison’s volcanic vocals and the beat of John Denmore’s drums. This montage – it barely needs to be said – was not originally in the film’s source novel, Joseph Conrad’s modernist masterpiece Heart of Darkness. Coppola transposes Conrad’s colonialist commentary from the Congo River to the Nung – from West Africa to North Vietnam – allegorizing Heart’s imperialism with American interventionism, twisting the text’s modernist stylings into a postmodern panoply. Conrad’s text, in Coppola’s creative hands, is amalgamated with other modernist works: Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland”, Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, The Doors’ “The End”, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, Eisenstein’s Strike, Godard’s Le Mépris. A modernist mix that – when mixed as it is in Apocalypse Now – produces pure, post-modern pastiche. For the American army-men in Coppola’s Vietnam, this post-modernity serves as escapism – Western culture seemingly allows them to leave the war-torn, fire-worn East – if only for a song or two. Yet, the film’s labyrinthine intertextuality and postmodern overtones don’t lessen its nuance or its “wane its affect”, as political theorist Frederic Jameson suggests postmodernist works should. Instead, Apocalypse Now challenges Jameson’s claims about postmodernity’s waning “affect and historicity”; Coppola presents patchwork pastiche that’s simultaneously “present” and historical, intense and affecting, artistic and commercial ­– a well-balanced, carefully curated powerhouse of American allusion predicated on its postmodernity.

Jameson, in his seminal novel, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, deconstructs and redefines postmodern pastiche and parody, critiquing the postmodern condition via a series of symptomatic prognoses. His first critical characteristic: postmodernity’s “historical deafness” – the movement’s tendency to neglect history in favor of what Jameson calls (co-opting Lacanian lexicon) a “schizophrenic” focus on and representation of the present. The genuine emotions and historical roots of the modernist movement, he argues, have devolved into quick shocks and thrills without depth, time, or history – located in a series of presents. To Jameson, postmodernist “pastiche” encapsulates these empty representations, these schizophrenic stylings. Pastiche, he writes, is essentially “blank parody”; it imitates a style or speech, but, unlike parody, does so neutrally, “amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter”.[1] While modernism was characterized by “inimitable” authorial flair and voice, postmodern pastiche leaves us with “nothing but a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm…the cannibalization of…the past, the play of random stylistic allusion”.[2] Thus, for Jameson, postmodernity’s equitable breakdown of “high” and “low” culture has precipitated the empty incorporation of “schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels [et al.]” into contemporary work’s “very substance” – a postmodern equation that yields both “the waning of affect” and “a whole new type of emotional ground tone… intensities”.[3] These two concepts form a quasi-dialectic, as, to Jameson, postmodernity’s superficiality and callousness instigate an inverse: the extreme, heightened representation of the present, with an “intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity”.[4] For him, a postmodern works’ surface meaning is the same as its nuanced one; the postmodernist’s text’s impact must be measured not by its affect but by its potentially “hallucinogenic intensity” – an intensity he argues detracts from the piece’s meaningfulness.[5]

For post-modern, hallucinatory intensity, look no further than Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s cumulative Apocalypse – a four-year project – is a combinative, collaborative, cinematic effort. Its postmodern pastiche sprung from modernist roots – citing the writings of Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot, borrowing filmic features from film noir and the French New Wave, sound-tracked by Rock n’ Roll innovators, Wagner, and late 1970s synths.

            Apocalypse’s depiction of the Vietnam War is a pseudo-historical one, half-real, half-surreal, but Coppola certainly endeavored for both historical resonance and contemporary relevance. During pre-production, he recruited a war correspondent for dialogue help; after the film’s release he provocatively declared his film “Isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam,” and could render the “entire government ridiculous to the American and world public”.[6],[7] Coppola embeds Apocalypse’s filmic space with American political history and popular culture, intentionally referencing and reworking western mythology – a tactic that somehow, in Coppola’s creative hands, doesn’t “cheapen” or “empty” the film, but rather accentuates, simultaneously, its historical realism and its expressionistic surrealism. Indeed, among Apocalypse Now’s emotional wellsprings seems to embody patiche’s “waning of effect” – characters attempt, but often fail to maintain//impose//recreate their Western mythologies, music, culture in the East: Playboy stage shows turn violent; beach surfs get firebombed; The Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” intimates a tragic rebelliousness; Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is entirely masculinized, and somehow rendered more hellish in Vietnam. It’s the very contrast between the idealized West, and its ‘wanted’, empty, war-time mutation from which Coppola’s film derives much of its haunting power. Given Apocalypse Now’s knack for citing, and then rewriting “Western”, it should come as no surprise that among the film’s footnotes is John Ford//John Wayne ‘cowboy’ collaboration: 1948’s Fort Apache.

There is no film genre more American than the Western. Film scholar Tony Williams notes that the United States GI was “conditioned by westerns from puberty”; Apocalypse directly affronts the Western’s characteristic war-time heroism ­– a heroism seemingly inverted by Robert Duvall’s reckless and homicidal Colonel Kilgore.[8] Donning cavalry hat and ascot, and strutting with a cowboy’s rugged confidence, Duvall’s Kilgore is the spitting image of Fort Apache’s John Wayne ­– but the comparison ends at the outfit. Wayne’s frontier charm has no place in Saigon; Kilgore is a myopic, delusional caricature of the Old West hero. Even his dialogue evokes and bastardizes Western mythologies: he offers beer for kills, blabbers endlessly about surfing, blasts “Ride of the Valkeries” because his “boys love it” and it “scares the hell out of the slopes”. His demeanor alone screams “Manifest Destiny”. Apocalypse Now is bookended by The Doors’ “The End” – and Jim Morrison’s lyrical musings aptly characterize American attitudes: “the West is the best,” he writes. For someone like Kilgore, that’s basically a mantra. Coppola’s postmodern allusions aren’t simply haphazard references but mutations and revisions ­– intentional recontextualizations of 20th century Western canon that, perhaps, induce affect particularly because of their emotionally devoid manifestations – Robert Duvall’s “Californian John Wayne From Hell”, Colonel Kilgore, is a glaring example of Apocalypse’s mutative allusions, and the jarring power they elicit.

Coppola’s allusions aren’t subtle – he was criticized, initially, for the “pseudo-intellectual garbage” final act, which contains T.S. Eliot’s poetry and a seemingly throwaway shot to modernist books on Colonel Kurtz’ bookshelf (more on this later) – but this intentional, as they garner affect through their conspicuousness – Apocalypse Now’s  twists, mutations, and appropriations of recognizable Western songs, poems, iconographies, genres – America’s popular culture and consciousness is brought to the front lines, and put on trial.

In one of the film’s quieter moments, Captain Willard observes Kilgore and his “boys” around a beach-side campfire, sipping beers, singing songs, seemingly “waiting for the summer rain”. Here, and through Kilgore’s constant invocation of Western symbols, Coppola’s framing of the Vietnam War as a ‘California War’ is palpable. Sex, drugs, Rock n’ Roll, and a myopically carefree attitude – the hallmarks of Western escapism, brought east. “The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it,” Willard notes, in his voiceover narration. This line’s content is undoubtedly relevant, but so too is Willard’s very utterance of it – for Coppola draws not only on the Western as a filmic wellspring, but arguably the only other definitely American genre, film noir.[9] Colonel Kilgore is about the only “Western” genre iconography deployed by Coppola in Apocalypse, instead, he hangs his narrative and his protagonist on Raymond Chandler, Dashell Hamet, and Billy Wilder-esque noir. Capt. Willard’s continuous monologue: a hard-boiled, skeptical narration of the film’s evens, of his own psyche, wouldn’t feel out of place in 1940’s Los Angeles – his lexicon deploys idioms, metaphor, and is laced with doses of cyanide cynicism that pair nicely with his alcoholism and callous detachment. Our introduction to Willard comes in the midst of the film’s opening montage: a close-up of his upside down face, cigarette smoking, dangling from his lip; a rotating ceiling fan above him; a close-up pan over his nightstand, books, snapshots, alcohol, cigarettes, Zippo, and, finally, the obligatory P.I. revolver on rumpled, assumedly unwashed bedsheets. Willard’s called into action by an institution – here, noir’s authoritative police are replaced by the U.S. military – and it’s in this sequence, shortly after the pan-montage that introduces Willard, that Coppola, yet again, mars and twists an American trope into destructive, almost parodic disfigurement.

Right from the outset of Apocalypse Now, it is clear that Willard lacks the noir detective’s moral certainty – Willard has already been to Vietnam, and upon leaving has found that home “just didn’t exist anymore.” Further, his return to Vietnam is without clear purpose: “When I was here I wanted to be there, when I was there all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” While the opening imagery establishes Willard’s identity as hard-boiled detective, it also asserts his diminished version of that figure. The close-up shots of a photograph of his ex-wife and of letters from home represent what he has forsaken – these American ideals of domesticity and settlement, in the noir world, are usually either unattainable or neglected fully; Willard has achieved them, abandoned them. His drunken practice of Oriental martial arts, as opposed to the controlled drinking and solitary chess-playing of Philip Marlowe, twists from tormented, individualistic purpose to purse self-destruction and defacement.

Sheen’s taut characterization embodies Willard’s deteriorated version of the noir detective’s cynical armor individualized idealism into James Dean-esque explosive, confused alienation. Willard’s narration has been widely derided as a banal parody of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, but it Marlowe’s sardonic worldview without the strong sense of personal identity conveyed by Marlowe’s penetrating wit. Willard takes the mission to assassinate Kurtz despite his feeling that “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500” – an uncertainty rooted in personal skepticism, for Willard could also be called a murdered given his record of unofficial assassinations. When the soldiers come with his orders Willard responds, liquored and bed-ridden: “What are the charges?” Noir P.I.’s have no so acquiescence to the law, to order, to the institution, let alone such self-acknowledgement. In short, they don’t stoop so low into self-wallowing, self-destruction as Willard does. His voice-over narration recalls Double Indemnity’s confessional structure, but without the confidence of Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff: “There is no way to tell [Kurtz’s] story without telling my own, and if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.” Willard departs his river-boat journey – a noir-like representation of an anarchic world-gone-to-hell – a hard-boiled detective who has made an investigation down the ultimate mean streets, his soul: “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’d never want another.” Thus, Coppola ends his twisted noir protagonist’s journey in a twist on noir’s trope – sure, the ‘detective’ completes his mission, but, unlike noir’s P.I.’s, he doesn’t return to the office and await another case… instead, Willard is just as lost as before, if not more so – homeless, mission-less, and jungle-less, too. There’s no restoration of moral order, no reassertion of his individual worldview; in Apocalypse Now, there’s just more madness, more rivers, more horror.

Coppola’s twisted vision of Vietnam is embodied by Willard’s elliptical, befuddled river-boat ride – a narrative structure half-French New Wave, half-“Fisher King” mythos. Among its many allusive surprises, Apocalypse Now shows the images of two key intertexts of high modernism prominently displayed in Kurtz’s compound: Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. These two texts on comparative mythology and religion underpin the mythological framework high modernism’s defining poem: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a sprawling text that is also considered the most significant poetic expression of World War I. Coppola cops this ethos, moving the source text’s “Fisher King” narrative into Vietnamese waters, moving Eliot’s Wasteland itself into the hellish firestorm of American intervention . Like Eliot facing the modern world after World War I, Coppola in the aftermath of Vietnam required “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, “Selected Prose,” 177). To accomplish the panorama, Coppola is almost forced into committing to his postmodern approach – how else could he capture the crazed, hazed, blazing world of 1970s Vietnam, and the American psyche’s attempt to navigate and justify it?

Coppola’s Willard is thus depicted as a composite, disparately postmodern protagonist, seemingly composed as the film goes on, emphasized and crafted by its myriad allusions. Does this composite protagonist lose affect in its disparate nature, as Jameson might suggest? It doesn’t appear so. Instead, Willard serves as an amalgamative, emasculatory ‘Western Protagonist” – part French New Wave-y in the elliptical exploration of his psyche, part cowboy, part film-noir detective – a standard-bearer for the classic American hero – only, twisted and mutated by Coppola, ‘Nam, and Kurtz himself.

The French New Wave – the filmic equivalent of modernism’s narrative experimentation – embeds Coppola’s text. Apocalypse Now’s elliptical structure is chronological, but its voiceover, ‘aware of the events in the narrative’ muddles this chronology – a modernist motif rendered in postmodern context. This self-reflexivity is solidified via Apocalypse’s beach landing sequence, in which, like Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt opening, Coppola makes a meta-appearance in a film crew, shooting the sequence within the sequence itself – a moment greeted with confusion by Willard, infused with modernist awareness by Coppola. Luis Buneal is, like Godard, similarly channeled in Coppola’s surrealistic, ambiguously historical yet fictionally rendered Vietnam – the episodic movement between visually expressionistic psychological sequences and realistic, narratively motivated movements recalls Buneal’s Belle de Jour.

Coppola directly invokes other modernist masters: most notably and famously Sergei Eisenstein and his Strike!. During Apocalypse Now’s climactic moment, Kurtz’s killing at the hands of Willard is juxtaposed with the ritualistic slaughtering of a calf via a Soviet montage sequence pulled directly from Eisenstein’s film, a political riff depicting the revolt of the worker’s against the bourgeoisie. The ‘slaughterhouse’ ritual around the cow recalls the American military airlifting a calf out of the wreckage of the bay landing – images that invoke the cannibalism and imperialism embedded in the film, and its source’s text. We’re reminded of Kurtz’s recorded, introductory monologue: “I watched a snail…crawl along the edge of a straight razor…crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving…This is my dream; this is my nightmare” – a narration that alludes to the fine line of between madness and sanity, life and death, humanity and chaos – a thematic line that’s cut, diced, sliced, and gashed just as Kurtz – and the slaughtered cow he’s juxtaposed with – are at film’s end. “The horror,” revealed, via Coppola’s editing.

Chief among Coppola’s post-modern tactics, is his fourth-wall breaking postmodernity…

Apocalypse Now’s narrative is punctured by fourth-wall breakages that signal to the audience that Coppola is talking to THEM, making claims about their complicity, and America’s, in the havoc, destruction, and horror on screen. There are but four moments of this, where the Lacanian gaze is fulfilled, where the horror looks back – the most potent of which comes in the film’s final sequence, when, a symbolic statue of the maddened Kurtz stares, superimposed with a wide-eyed and insane Willard, directly at the audience. Their collective gaze back at us brings us to our end, an end presented to us at Apocalypse’s beginning: “I’ll never look into your eyes again,” Morrison moans, over scorched treetops, dicing chopper rotors, hellish imagery. As Kurtz and Willard, driven insane by the madness and horror of Vietnam, look into our eyes, perhaps, Morrison reminds us, we may never want to look into theirs again – for fear of seeing ourselves.

A member of “The Movie Brats”, an American cinematic coterie that was film-nerds first, filmmakers second, Francis Ford Coppola, along with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Brian DePalma spearheaded postmodernism’s rise to celluloid prominence. Jameson cites Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) – with its hyper-stylized, variegated, and nostalgia-ridden 1950s ­– as a polished exemplar of postmodern film’s waning historicity and affect; (Jameson, 323). Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy incorporates the zest and zeitgeist of 50s and 60s TV serials; De Palma and Scorsese unabashedly ‘borrow’ shots and sequences from directors like Hitchcock and Lang, genres like Old Hollywood gangster films and hard-boiled noir. The Movie Brats’ work encapsulates cinema’s movement towards pastiche, and Coppola’s final film Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, stands as certainly the most mainstream of “Brat” art-films and perhaps the most ambitious and postmodern of the collective’s body of work. The work as a whole should qualify as what Frederic Jameson deems “the waning of affect”, falling under his criticisms of postmodernity’s “empty” pastiche: depth-less, ahistorical renderings that threaten the complete entrenchment of capitalist ideology. Yet, it seemingly subverts Frederic Jameson’s postmodern critiques ­– the history, and affect is omnipresent, even if it is an interpretive one – Apocalypse Now is perhaps, the antithesis of Jameson’s claims – its postmodernism rooted in a modernist expressionism and emotional resonance that, through methods both modern and post-modern, makes us fear “the horror”, relieved, grateful, and comforted by “The End”.



Works Cited

Coppola, Francis Ford, and John Milius. Apocalypse Now. Film Script. December 1975.
Available at http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/apocolypse.html Accessed 04/22/2017.)

Jameson, Fredric. ‘Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984.

Gleiberman, Jack and Rubin, Ari. “Backdoor Men: Debating the Doors and Apocalypse
Now.” Group Discussion, Crown Hall, 2017.

Apocalypse Now dir. by Francis Ford Coppola (American Zoetrope, 1979) 

[1] Jameson, 319.

[2] Ibid, 320-22.

[3] Ibid, 322.

[4] Ibid, 322-3.

[5] Ibid, 323.

[6] Coppola quoted from Lawrence Suid, ‘”APOCALYPSE NOW”: Francis Ford Coppola Stages His Own Vietnam War’ Cinéaste, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1978), p. 61.

[7] Coppola quoted from Frank Tomasulo, ‘The Politics of Ambivalence: “Apocalypse Now” as Prowar and Antiwar film’ From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), p. 146.

[8] Tony Williams, ‘Narrative Patterns and Mythic Trajectories in Mid-1980’s Vietnam Movies’ Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg, (Temple University Press, 1991) p. 130.

[9] John Hellman, in “Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now”, elaborates upon Coppola’s hard-boiled harkening-backs, but also astutely discusses The Deer Hunter’s twisting of the Western genre to suit Vietnam.



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