Bill Hartley, on Apocalypse Now
It’s possible to dress like Captain Willard. There are online retail outlets which stock his tiger stripe camouflage uniform. Whilst the world’s armies long ago abandoned this exotic style, out in the virtual world it is still available. Online discussions focus with intensity on whether the stuff is genuine or the product of a sweat shop in the Far East. Captain Willard was of course the observer-narrator in the 1979 war picture Apocalypse Now. The part went to Martin Sheen who did an excellent job describing the madness around him. There is a director’s cut of the film which is best avoided, since it contains a dreary interlude when Willard visits the French owner of a plantation. It slows the story down and wisely this never appeared in the original cinema version.
The film was based on the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, with the action shifted from the Belgian Congo of the 1890s to the Vietnam of the 1960’s. One of the central themes of his work is the concept of personal honour and what happens to a man should this be forfeited. We know almost from the outset that Willard is in search of the renegade officer Colonel Kurtz. Willard suspects that the war is probably lost but cannot leave it alone, rather like Frank Vann, the career soldier whose story is told in Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Bright Shining Lie. Vietnam seems to have provided several models for Kurtz: individuals who slipped off into the jungle to fight the war their way. Kurtz is winning his bit of the war but is doing so independently of the generals in Saigon and has therefore been adjudged insane.
Evidently, for some people, wearing the tiger stripe outfit is not enough. One online source offers the Captain Willard insignia collection. For $55, the buyer can adorn his uniform with name tag, various unit insignia and his two parachute badges from the US Army and the Army of South Vietnam. The Captain can be found pictured in a film still, sporting a total of nine badges, all faithfully reproduced.
Apocalypse Now was made over forty years ago and it is hardly a conventional war film. Apparently both Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were considered for the part of Willard, although it’s hard to image either actor being suitable for what is largely a passive role. After all, amidst all the killing, Willard only dispatches Colonel Kurtz. Perhaps those who enjoy dressing up in imitation of Willard are missing the point. A better role model for them would have been Colonel Mike Kirby, the character played by John Wayne in that very different Vietnam picture, The Green Berets. Unlike Kirby, Willard isn’t out to kill Commies but to highlight the insanity of the conflict.
Another item attracting attention online is Willard’s divers wristwatch. This year, Seiko have released a reproduction. This item probably passed unnoticed by the average film goer but clearly not by the eagle eyed enthusiasts who have studied every aspect of the Captain’s appearance. Willard’s version is naturally a rather clunky 70s model but for between $1100 and $1300, Seiko has a modern, slimmer version.
All this emphasis on the Captain’s appearance distracts somewhat from the complexity of his character. Through him we learn about Colonel Kurtz and a tantalising thought which arises throughout the film is whether or not Willard approves or disapproves of the Colonel’s unorthodoxy. After all, at one stage Willard tells us that he has been promised promotion to major if he completes the mission but also mentions that he ‘wasn’t in their army any more’. Similarly, whilst Kurtz’s methods, such as the assassination of South Vietnamese officials working for the North prove successful, Willard tells us that (in his view) the war is being run by ‘four star clowns’.
One of the sources for the film’s script was Dispatches, the 1977 book by journalist Michael Herr who had worked in Vietnam during the war. Certainly the dialogue in both book and film share a resemblance. There is a sense of Sixties counterculture spilling into and infecting this distant conflict: ‘lousy war, great soundtrack’ as someone observed. Herr’s book certainly makes some of the characters in the film believable; the kind of people who shouldn’t have been in any war but especially not this one. Again, to quote Willard: ‘charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500’. When Willard finally arrives at Kurtz’s camp it is clear that his mesmeric leadership has caught the allegiance not only of the Montagnard tribesmen but also sundry Americans, presumably remnants of an earlier attempt to dispatch the colonel. There is also a crazed journalist who has seen the light and acts as the king’s fool whilst he endeavours to convert the inscrutable Willard.
Kurtz was played in the film by Marlon Brando, who is only seen in semi darkness. Although his weight problem reportedly influenced the decision it enhanced one of the most frightening portrayals in cinema history. The shaven headed Kurtz calls to mind the monstrous Judge Holden in novelist Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Over the years there has been debate about the choice of books which the colonel has with him. Apart from a Bible there is also a (presumably abridged) version of Sir James Fraser’s The Golden Bough, together with From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, a study of the Arthurian legends. Kurtz also brings the literary theme full circle by quoting The Wasteland which in turn references Heart of Darkness. Willard does of course carry out his mission and Kurtz’s dying words ‘the horror, the horror’ are also the last words of his namesake in the Conrad book; perhaps a final realisation that he has behaved dishonourably.
Apocalypse Now is a film which follows in the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, although its surreal portrayal of war makes it a standalone picture. After more than forty years, it still remains powerful. There is much more to this film than an excuse to dress like a character who is hardly a war film action hero.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service