Apocalypse Now Screening Recap

On Thursday, Nov. 2, an Environmental Studies topic class, ENST 200: Wilderness in the North American Imagination held a screening of the war film “Apocalypse Now” in the Warch Campus Center Cinema. The film is an adaptation and modernization by Francis Ford Coppola of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Set during the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now” is the story of an army captain, played by Martin Sheen, who is sent on a mission to hunt down and kill an American colonel (Marlon Brando) who is seen by the men in charge of the war as having gone insane. Much of the film takes place in the jungle of Cambodia and Vietnam, which is a wilderness in and of itself. However, the class focuses more on the metaphorical idea of a “wilderness of war,” according to the event’s information.

“Apocalypse Now” starts off in the hotel where Capt. Benjamin Willard is staying while he waits for a mission. We slowly watch as Willard starts becoming restless and acting out until two soldiers show up and escort him to a meeting with two senior officers. This is where he is given his mission to track down and kill Colonel Kurtz, an American commander who is seen as having gone off the rails and who has entered neutral Cambodia.

As it is found out later in the film, he has created a community around himself as a madman and friendly locals. Following this meeting, Willard teams up with the crew of a Navy patrol boat and convinces the commander of the First Cavalry, a helicopter-based infantry unit, to help them gain access to the river they are using to reach Colonel Kurtz’s last known location. In order to do this, the First Cavalry must storm a beachhead and the village nearby, thus bringing about one of the most iconic scenes form the film. Chaos unfolds during the landing as soldiers either mistakenly or purposefully disregard the civilian status of many of the local villagers or start killing, maiming and otherwise brutalizing the Vietnamese.

At one point, the viewer watches as a helicopter follows a pair of fleeing civilians and they are gunned down without even having a chance to surrender. Following this scene, the film follows the patrol boat and Captain Willard up the river, where they encounter a Vietnamese merchant and attempt to search his vessel for contraband. Willard instructs the captain of the patrol boat to keep going, but the captain stops and orders a search of the vessel anyway. One of the crew mistakes a gesture by one of the Vietnamese as being a threat and opens fire into the smaller vessel, killing everyone inside except a woman who was guarding a puppy.

As the crew prepares to evacuate the woman in order to have her wounds treated, Willard coldly and brutally kills her and instructs the crew to keep going up river. After more scenes like the two described above, the crew finally reaches their destination in the Cambodian jungle, a veritable wilderness itself, and Willard is captured by Kurtz, thus invoking an interesting end to the film that one must watch to understand.

The “wilderness of war,” which is the reason the film was examined by an Environmental Studies class, is both a psychological and physical wilderness in which the individual is unable to find civilization and the safety that comes with it. The warzones represented in “Apocalypse Now” and explained above are perfect examples of this kind of wilderness as the soldiers depicted are conducting raids on Vietnamese villages and people.

The former of the two scenes in particular portrays the brutality and chaos of war as we see many civilians being harmed and bodies strewn about. Furthermore, many of the scenes in the film take place in remote regions of Vietnam and Cambodia where there are few people most of the time and even fewer during a war, similar to how many areas of modern cities ravaged by civil war, like Aleppo, Syria, have become more or less depopulated.

The wilderness of war is also evident in the thoughts of Captain Willard that are played as voiceover while the film roles through some of the more mundane parts of his journey. The continuous feeling of isolation, which is one of the many aspects of a true wilderness, is overwhelmingly prevalent as Willard distances himself from the men he is serving with and the commanders that sent him there.

Overall, the screening had an enlightening outlook on the concepts that are being taught in “Wilderness in the North American Imagination” and this idea of the wilderness of war.