Talk about one of the great opening shots of a movie. We see a lush green jungle, but we hear the warped sounds of helicopter blades in the background. Then the strumming of a guitar picks up, we hear The Doors. A helicopter flies in front of the lens as some yellow smoke slowly drifts up into view. The whole atmosphere is surreal and dreamlike, but peaceful. Until the jungle explodes in dramatic reds and oranges as napalm is detonated, turning it into a hellish warzone, just as Jim Morrison starts singing, ‘This is the end..’.
Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam opus, is often considered one of the greatest war-movies ever made. Yet, for all the memorable images of combat, military life and it’s Vietnam-war based location, to me it’s not really a war movie. Save for the dramatic Huey-chopper assault on the village, there’s hardly any combat scenes. There’s very little story-time spent on explaining the Vietnam conflict, and the main goals of our protagonist have very little to do with war. To me it’s always been a story about insanity and darkness, just like the novel it’s based on, Heart of Darkness (which also wasn’t a book about colonialism). The war-setting is just a backdrop for this story about losing one’s moral compass and sanity, away from societal control.
Approached as a drama about the frailty of the human psyche, it’s much easier to identify the surreal style of the film and understand it’s intent. Though the movie never shows overtly surreal imagery (everything you see within the frame has a place in the reality of the story) it most definitely doesn’t feel real. Using a brilliant sound design and utterly captivating cinematography, Coppola directs an atmosphere of the un-real, without literally showing anything unreal. Thinking of the overt, dreamlike imagery of David Lynch or, for example, Kaminsky’s work in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, this is the opposite.
Helping Coppola achieve this magic is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, one of the great cinematographers of the 20th century. And though Coppola directed the movie with no unreal form or object in the frame, Storaro beautifully contradicted this realism with his choice of lightning and compositions. As grounded as the mise-en-scene is, so surreal is it’s capture on film. Artificial lights heighten contrast, creating a more extreme play of light and darkness. Smoke of all colors constantly penetrates the frame and obscures our vision, disorienting us. The further along we journey up the river, the more penetrating the darkness becomes, until we come to those classic scenes with Marlon Brando where only fractions of his face are exposed while the rest of the frame is covered in blackness.
Making it look ‘realistic’
It’s funny that often these days, directors and cinematographers tend to desire a form of realism in their image. I guess current audiences expect that in movies these days. As technology improves in its ability to seamlessly create a convincing (virtual)reality, we are less tolerant to visuals that appear less-then-real, until maybe it crosses a line (the opposite direction of the uncanny-valley maybe?) and we appreciate the surreal-design again (we tolerate this most often in animation). In any case, realism is often quoted these days as a desired style, especially in genre-filmmaking like fantasy, sci-fi, horror and -to a certain extend- war-movies.
Just imagine if Apocalypse Now had been filmed today. It would never have been filmed in the Philippines, but probably on more safe, secure and controllable locations. I would guess CGI would be used to recreate the larger combat-scenes and digital matte’s would be used to make locations look like Vietnam. If that would be the technique you used, than you would want the audience to not notice the artificiality of the visuals. You would want it to appear realistic. As what you capture on camera is so unreal you would need to invest a lot of time in making it appear real in the end.
In contrast, Apocalypse Now is, by its very design, realistic. It’s filmed on location. A location where war itself was just around the corner (being the civil war raging at the other end of the country). Its legendary production is filled with stories of madness and hardship. The choppers used in the village attack, at one point, were taken away from the shoot by the local armed forces to actually go and shoot. There is such a sense of realism in the production that the need of ‘making it look real’ with cinematographic tricks and post-production techniques becomes less of a necessity. When what you capture on film is so close to realism, you can go a lot further into the surreal with your style of filming before audiences will start to think they’re looking at something fake.
That’s why I believe surreal films work best when filmed in as realistic an environment as possible. So that the filmmakers must push and struggle to alter the reality into something surreal. So that there is a genuine effort needed to get to that level of abstract. And that’s where you want to focus your efforts on, to creatively make an abstract of something. That’s what art is in it’s simplest definition, an abstraction of reality.
If you have to put all your efforts into making something abstract (like a basic computer animation) seem real, in a way you’re doing the opposite of making art. Or going into the opposite direction at the very least.
The One Shot
Which brings us to that opening shot of the film. It is a complicated shot to talk about as it turns into a composite of two different layers; the exploding jungle and captain Willard lying on his bed. So it’s a combination of two shots (three if you count the rotating fan as separate from Willards’ face), which is what makes it so fascinating to me. Here it is:
First of all, I love that long shot of the exploding jungle. How it’s build up with the choppers and the soundtrack of The Doors. It literally suggests the start of ‘the end’. As if, at the onset of the movie, we’re witnessing The End. Of what exactly is unclear, but the destruction of the lush, green and vivid jungle suggests that the living world itself is ending. A great start for any movie about war!
Then slowly the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) fades into view, topdown, as he is staring up. And suddenly the destruction and ‘ending’ of the world is also suggested of taking place in the interior of his mind. Because a superimposed image on top of an actor’s face is often used as a technique to suggest thoughts or memories.
The connection between Willard’s world and the destroyed jungle is even further strengthened by the visual motif of the propellors of the choppers as they overlap with the rotating fan above Willard. And it’s that piece of visual glue that makes it work. Together with the brilliant sound effects of the warped propellors it blends together like aquarel paint.
Thematically it also immediately poses the question of reality and surreality, not by showing weird things, but by not explicitly making clear what it is you’re seeing and how it relates to one another in the reality. Are these images a metaphor for the mental death of Willard? Martin Sheen’s anguished acting certainly suggests he’s going through something painful. Or are the images memories of his past experiences in war? Or are they flash forwards of the napalm bombardement that’s actually in the movie later on?
So immediately we, as viewers, are disoriented about the narrative, getting us in the right mindset for the rest of the movie. At the same time it really underscores the fact that the movie will focus on psychological themes and will explore the inner battlefield, maybe even more so than the actual battlefield.
Interesting enough, the form of that shot is repeated at the very end of the movie. As Willard, after killing Kurtz, is leaving Kurtz’s compound, again we see a series of superimposed images, one of which being a shot of Willards face (and another layer showing the napalm bombardement again). Willard’s face is actually lit similarly to Kurtz’ face during his interrogation scenes, further suggesting that indeed Willard has taken Kurtz’ place as a witness to the darkness.
If the opening of the movie suggests a death of Willard from which he arises, the end almost molds him into a Perseus figure who has traveled to the underworld, to hell, and returns to the land of the living.
Apocalypse Now remains such a fascinating movie to me because it so brilliantly juxtaposes the Real and the Surreal. When you see the documentary about the production (Hearts of Darkness; a Filmmakers Apocalypse) you can’t help but be in awe of the raw and arduous production and the realism that seeps through every crack of the movie’s design. How the actors were often as high and drugged-out as their characters seemed to be, how Francis Ford Coppola seemed to drift off into madness along the way almost as much as colonel Kurtz seemed to, how the Huey choppers were shooting movies and shooting rebels at almost the same time.
Yet for all it’s inherent realism through its location-based production, Apocalypse Now is the most surreal war-movie I’ve ever seen. And more than that; it’s one of the greatest examples of how cinematographic techniques can succeed in creating a surreal dream out of nothing but real world locations and situations.
And few movies have been so effective in setting the tone of surrealism and psychological darkness in their openingsshot as Apocalypse Now.