And I am feeling like an idiot having set in motion stuff that doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t match, and yet I am doing it. And the reason I’m doing it is out of desperation, cause I have no rational way to do it. What I have to admit is that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m like a voice crying out saying, “Please, it’s not working! Somebody get me off this.” – Francis Ford Coppola, from Hearts of Darkness1
“There’s danger on the edge of town.” You’re right, Jim Morrison. “Ride the King’s Highway, baby.”
On and on it plays, in and out, The End. Jim is currently making the rules on when it feels right to write about Apocalypse Now2. That’s not entirely true, but it helped to consult as many poets as possible.I was on my way back into the jungle.
Revisiting T. S. Eliot, watching documentaries, listening to The End. I thought of myself as Willard (Martin Sheen), digging through Kurtz (Marlon Brando)’s dossier. Pulling out books that suddenly and cathartically make sense, digging through old school papers and seeing Apocalypse mentioned. It really was the end, and had been for a very long time.
Apocalypse Then and Now
Writing this, I thought it would kill me after a while. Watching Francis Coppola groaning behind the scenes, I myself was feeling the pain of writing about this baby. How was it not supposed to push me right to the brink? How could I lick Apocalypse Now the way John Milius talked about licking Heart of Darkness with his screenplay? Maybe I can do it by telling a piece of the truth.
“There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession…then so is mine.” – Captain Benjamin J. Willard
I’ve loved Apocalypse since 2004. I was 14, a freshman at a new school in northeastern North Carolina. My history teacher had let me borrow the film in one of the piles of movies. We had bonded and would spend my lunch period watching movies and documentaries about surfing. A military brat, I had just moved there, and was a lonely soul. My love of both cinema and philosophy were shaped in that classroom. I don’t know if he was a fan of the screenwriter but I can’t help noting the similarity.
Something about Brando’s utterance, the horror, really got to me. By then, I knew it intimately. Too intimately for someone my age. I’d been the victim of an online sexual predator, and my mother had developed epilepsy. The deepest fear is of death, its otherness, the promise of facing the unknown. We know from watching movies that hearts can die before a body does, and it is, I think, a kind of feminine wisdom that holds there are worse, more terrifying things than death provided by our complex human lives.
That’s what this has always been about. Like Kurtz, I ended up at the end all broken up inside and no amount of intelligence could save me from the horror. No about of strength I’d cultivated from a very early age could keep me from the Final Cut. And it there’s anything my brain loves to do, it’s being impressed by the metaphorical.
Me and Jim Morrison are still here having this conversation beyond the grave, fundamentally concerning ourselves with dark hearts. Whether the original source or the film itself, the central theme is the horror.
I experienced Horror for the first time as a prepubescent girl watching Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999). Fate would have it that my mother’s multiple sclerosis would breed seizures throughout her brain in what you call grand mal seizures. Her body erupted in visually similar convulsions and electrical misfirings, eerily reminiscent of that depicted in the film—minus the fireworks. Her body may not have crisped, but her brain’s wiring—specifically, the myelin insulating her nerves and passing on electrical messages—was entirely obliterated by the time she finally died. With the same inescapable feeling, a young girl, trying to play content-keep-up with the adults, looked on in Horror.
In the years between this viewing and my first experience of Apocalypse Now I was becoming a woman at a time when the internet was a web of Wild Wests for little girls and little boys to discover. In the darkness of so many nights I sought the attentions of curious characters. Awkward, dark, hairy; all the insults my brothers hurled at me had no bearing here.
Horror would come to mean something akin to knowing how a thing will end, when it will end horribly, and still having to watch as you get there.
INT. GIRL’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Girl, 12, clacks away at a keyboard, her face lit by the computer’s screen, chatting with UNIXDAEMONS.
Can I see you?
Girl arranges her webcam, facial expressions of fear and desire punctuating her chat responses.
Will you be a good girl and pull up your shirt for me?
Confusion, a worried lip.
And so it begins, those inner seeds of horror. Of myself, and my desire, finally now the acceptance that no well-formed mind was ever made without cracking up like so many wasteful eggs. Wet emulsion, perverted seeds. Of beautiful, open, kindhearted things, cycling through pattern after pattern, cooing dream after dream, bleeding out and letting go like it—not I—was nothing. But maybe Joe Bob Briggs is onto something with his “Once they’re twelve, they’re legal” observation about young women and redneck philosophy in his touring How Rednecks Saved Hollywood3. Their desires, ever-so-malleable, their traumas adaptable; no one, except the offended, in a prison of shame, is the wiser.
As much as I want to believe unixdaemons was a bad man, a monster (he was—he was actually a disgusting 38-year-old Canadian forum administrator soliciting sex video online from underage girls), maybe Joe Bob Briggs was right, ’cause I was asking for it. I “consented.” I then spent years consenting and defending my right to do so, getting in arguments over the internet about what age is appropriate for consent. I offered myself like a happy meal to men who made my insides squirm. That’s right. Squirm.
1. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (1991; San Francisco, CA: Zoetrope, Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2019), Blu-ray.
2. Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1979: San Francisco, CA: Omni Zoetrope, Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2019), Blu-ray.
3. How Rednecks Saved Hollywood, performed by Joe Bob Briggs, Alamo Drafthouse, Raleigh, NC, August 28, 2019.
Hearts of Darkness
In Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution, Leonard Shlain identifies a link between iron and female reticence in sexual relations. In the quest to develop foresight, the human female stumbled on the knowledge of the connection between sex and what was, for her, a potential death sentence—the begetting of life. With this knowledge, she had a choice.
Her power to refuse sex was undeniably vast. The curse: Human females began to leak the crucial element iron at persistently alarming rates from a variety of avenues throughout their entire reproductive life.4
To obtain iron needing for her peculiar reproductive cycle, she needed meat. So began the fundamental exchange of male access to female consent via blood. Death and sex wound up tied together—his for the hunt, hers for her offspring. For Shlain, this event precipitated all the features of human evolution that separate us from the rest of the natural world. In exchange for passing his genes to the next generation of offspring, and the risks she would take to engage consciously in that process, she needed a Killer.
Why so cruel? Why so kind? The simple one-word answer is—sex. The savagery-charity antipodes were part of a two-step human-male mating dance, the first step of which required steely-hearted dispassion and cruelty.5
Kurtz is a quintessential villain due to his proximity to the protagonist, especially metaphysically. Willard and Kurtz, in superposition with each other, blending in the beginning, cut to their respective ends. Entangled at the very least, from the superposition of one shot over another, blending, dissolving in and out, the beginning and the end, one and the same. They are, both of them, excellent killers. They can turn off whatever it is that prevents someone from being a killer, and turn off the killer when they must. Kurtz simply found himself a comfortable spot to go full-time in his temporal transcendence of normative values. He elevates himself to Godlike status via knowledge and acceptance of his nature.
But who is Kurtz?
The Milius documentary (available on Amazon Prime) includes a fairly heady cast of interviewees including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and many other heavyweights of cinema who discuss the career of Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius. USC-graduate Milius took on the challenge to “lick” Heart of Darkness. Orson Welles couldn’t do it. Others had tried. This was doubly risky as the US Government and culture generally had cold feet about the ridiculous failure of the United States in Vietnam, where Milius set the stage.
From Milius’ screenplay: “We fight for the land under our feet, gold that’s in our hands, women that worship the power in our loins…you can live or die for these things. Not silly ideals that are always betrayed…”— Kurtz, from Hearts of Darkness
It was a fascinating time in the history of cinema. The studios, bought out by major corporations and looking for ways to make money, took the wisdom of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) success and invested in promising young minds out of USC and elsewhere. Armed with money, verve, and novelty, these were the guys refining their voices, many of whom would contribute to Apocalypse Now in 1979. This crew would include Milius, Harrison Ford, and Walter Murch (with unbelievably excellent editing). It was a glimpse of the aesthetic of that time. With the recent release of The Irishman (2019) I considered Scorsese’s oeuvre, Lucas’s mythos, Milius’ writing style and content draw. I mulled over Coppola’s madness and turmoil depicted in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. I considered the film’s thrall over me all these years. There seemed to be a common thread.
More than anything, it felt like articulations and investigations into masculinity. His flaws, His dreams. His victories. His horrors.
Apocalypse Now was principally a vehicle to explore what it means to be a man. It would doubly have contained His shortcomings had Coppola avoided the true character and nature of Kurtz, and the actuality of the conflict depicted in the film, and gone with Milius’ original ending. Nonetheless, the man’s appreciation for the classics of Western literature, his Zen Anarchism, as he calls it, have a truth to them that goes deeper than the man who wrote the words. He stood on the shoulders of giants. He was also smart enough to hand peaceful Martin Sheen a loaded weapon to record the narration.
Scenes included in Redux (2001) but absent from the 1979 Theatrical cut, partially included in Coppola’s final vision via 2019’s release of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, reveal a peculiar perspective on the Masculine/Feminine conflict in this thoroughly American cinematic epic.78 While present in all versions of the film, these conflicts are illustrated in greater balance in Redux, a harder watch than both the theatrical and Final cuts at a runtime of 202 minutes. The essentials are present in Final Cut, which I’ll argue is the best of the three films according to the accessibility of its meaning in the heart of its darkness. But you might judge me, too, for what I include and what I leave out.
Birth, death, and paternity, all of which are intimately bound to sex and indirectly connected to iron metabolism, molded every culture in the world into its present shape… [our appreciation of this] triggered a massive reconfiguration of society. Many of the sexist biases and social institutions that persist in the world came into being as a result.9
4. Leonard Shlain. Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 25.
5. Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power, 217.
6. Milius, directed by Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa (2013; El Segundo, CA: Gravitas Ventures, 2017), Video. https://www.amazon.com/Milius-John/dp/B077MVDD63/.
7. Apocalypse Now: Redux, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (2000: San Francisco, CA: American Zoetrope, Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2019), Blu-ray.
8. Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (2019: San Francisco, CA: American Zoetrope, Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2019), Blu-ray.
9. Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power, 338-9.
Missing Scenes, Common Dreams
Two major scenes, present in Redux, are absent in the 1979 theatrical cut. I’ll call the first ‘Bunnies R&R’. Shot during an actual typhoon in the Philippines, this one didn’t make the Final Cut. The second is known as the ‘French Plantation Sequence’, often cited as a distraction from the main narrative of the film and not a seeming necessity. Both scenes share a feminine perspective virtually absent from the rest of the movie. This will be included at its most fundamental via the French Plantation Sequence, which is included in Redux and Final Cuts. But first, we have the Tent Pole of Redux.
This gives the gang a chance to unwind, spending some quality time with a couple of Playboy Bunnies whom we’d seen earlier in the film during the USO exhibition. PBR Street Gang stumble on the outpost. Willard, seeing the boys literally fighting and wrestling with each other on the shore next to the boat, negotiates fuel for time with Playmate of the Month.
“Playmate of the year,” Willard corrects Chief.
Being Playmate of the Year is the loneliest experience I can imagine. It’s like, you try to express your feelings to someone and show them your heart–And there’s this glass between you. This invisible glass–and they can see your mouth moving. But they can’t hear what you’re saying. You can never really make them hear what you’re trying to say. That’s why I tried so desperately to show somebody that I had some talent…
I wish…I wish I could find…just one person…that could share my point of view.
— Cynthia Wood as Playmate of the Year, from Apocalypse Now: Redux
Awkward desperation ensues. Neither Lance nor Chef (Frederic Forrest) have any real interest in what their respective Bunnies have to say, Lance slowly undressing Playmate of the Year as she delivered her bitterly depressing monologue. Chef has deliberately misunderstood that Miss May is his beloved Miss December, putting a wig on her for good measure to complete his fantasy. Playmate of the Year trips over a cooler, a solider’s dead body falls out from inside.
These women aren’t there for wifery, even if some part of them really would like to share love with someone. Their entire lives are structured for their exploitation. Their traumas and troubles and tribulations splay out in the dog-eat-dog foggy mysticism of a pitiful war.
Speaking with other cinephiles about Apocalypse Now will often come to the French Plantation sequence. The general grumbling is that all the effort and momentum leading PBR Street Gang upriver toward Kurtz gets lost as soon as civilization sets back in. I’ve heard no such gripe about Bunnies R&R, but there’s a little more of a fanservice/USO flair on that one. The French Plantation sequence, rather than featuring naive, young, broken women, has at its center the character Roxanne. She is the core of the Family, the fighters, and to some extent, every and all wars—for her to be able to move freely and live without being concerned for her life or her safety in a world with strange men.
Her husband, dead, was also a “Lost Solider.” Like Sheen’s character was apt to do in the opening sequence of the film, he would rage and cry unable to comprehend or integrate the darkness he experienced of himself. In her soft, feminine way, she summarizes the conflict of masculinity, and provides Willard some respite from his toils.
“And he said to me, ‘I don’t know whether I am an animal or a god.’ But you are both…There are two of you. Don’t you see? One that kills, and one that loves.”
With the help of Francis Ford Coppola, I somehow found a way to feel compassion for men who have treated me as some subhuman slop to be used and thrown away. While some may frown on the excuse, I think to heal and grow from traumatic experiences is the only way forward. I came to appreciate Roxanne’s sentiments for Willard, important enough for Coppola to include in his Final Cut of this epic American masterpiece of cinema. “All that matters is that you are alive. You are alive, Captain. That’s the truth.”
As a so-called enlightened modern woman, one could reasonably expect me to call myself a feminist. While this used to be a linchpin of my identity I no longer self-identify. Like Masculinism, Feminism draws attention to an extreme on a nebulous scale of balance in gender normativities and expressions. Aside from becoming a fleeced excuse for popular representation of popular problems faced by a popular assortment of often wealthy Western women, feminism is just as guilty of straitjacketing human souls to standards of normativity as Masculinism is and of elevating one over the other. Both of these expressions are imbalanced and, I think, unhelpful to approach the betterment of self and other. Both/and, not either/or.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced a valuable metaphor when he made the distinction between the masculine animus and the feminine anima. He further divided each category into a light and dark side. For example, loyalty, heroism, and protection are masculinity’s nobler aspects; cruelty, violence, and bullying represent its shadow side. He made similar dichotomies between traits we commonly associate with the feminine, Love, generosity, and compassion illuminate its light side; cunning, masochism, and passive aggression represent the anima‘s dark aspect.Using Jung’s analogy, every individual’s psyche, regardless of sex, possesses both a feminine side (anima) and a masculine side (animus).10
Feminism offers no alternative to counter masculine deification. Making the Earth into a Goddess and calling that the balance is problematical for many reasons, not the least of which is the pesky expression of human consciousness as both masculine and feminine and, somehow, natural and unnatural. The real problem is a public perception problem—the feminine is simply not as strong as the masculine. The masculine feels it instinctively wrong to submit, even and maybe especially ideologically, to the feminine.
In any case, this special ability to balance anima and animus lies at the core of the first artifact we hear of Kurtz. It’s at the heart of every God-reference in the film. It also relates closely to insanity. And killing.
I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge. Of a straight razor. And surviving.
But we must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village. Army after army.
But Kurtz is the best of men. Kurtz understands the complementary need of a killer to have a sensitive side, one that reads poetry and praises the moral capacity of the men he could use to win the war. Kurtz is a perfect illustration of the feminine ideal of the masculine apotheosis. To be able to balance the lover with the killer, to satisfy the desires of the Other, whether for meat (resources) or simply to remain alive by expertise and self-realization. This demand is so extreme, and with such a high cost, that even to do this well is one way to go insane.
That, or maybe become the errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill. In the end, what’s the difference?
As Roxanne comforts Willard, “The war will be still here tomorrow.”
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.11
You can catch all three versions Apocalypse Now, along with the documentary Hearts of Darkness, in the new Blu-Ray and 4K edition release courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment.
10. Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power, 209.