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Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now sustains a derogative perspective on the state of war and its corruptive influence. Set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, the action and narrative present the post-World War II era as a morally confused, hypocritical, and corrupt period, specifically as the film’s antagonist Colonel Kurtz illuminates moral subjectivity, and embodies the nihilistic and egocentric nature of war.
Corruption is expressed through the metaphor of Benjamin Willard’s mission, which acts as a transformative quality for the characters; specifically as his crew revert to escapism and facades to elude their own guilt and ignorance, as expressed through the symbolism of masks. This film indicts the apparent hypocrisy of American democracy, as the war on communism is an infringement on their core value of freedom of speech, with paranoia and egocentrism being at the heart of America’s shallow perspective. While current systems of governance remain narcissistic in scope and the tension between Communism and Capitalism at large, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now will retain relevance in a world skewed by human vice.
Whilst actions in war are considered blurred, the immorality of war itself innately ensures corruption, however amplified by modern warfare and the conflict between Capitalism and Communism. This is expressed hyperbolically through the characterization of Kurtz, whose amoral and nihilistic perspective is erred by the true madness of war, from which “horror and moral terror [must be] your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared”, which will inherently alter all touched.
Depicted as god-like and omniscient, his state of extreme pessimism and forced ignorance expresses the confining aspects of conflict and duty, and how toeing this line results in dehumanization and escapism, as Willard signifies in the following: “I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away” This is further expressed through the metaphor of Willard’s mission, wherein the rising action of the film is expressed through his journey towards humanities core barbarianism, and the role of masks as a symbolic crutch to destroy past moral machinations, as in the exposition he punches his reflection in the mirror, and in the climax wears mud as an illustration of his character’s transformation into Kurtz; taking part in “ruthless action” and “terminating with extreme prejudice” as ordered.
The psychological ramifications of this is signified through the crew’s mental deterioration, wherein they similarly create a fa?ade after reaching a “breaking point”, typically with face paint, and revert to drugs rather than Kurtz’s complete immorality to escape their reality, specifically as Chef “doesn’t care where (his soul) goes as long it ain’t here.” Evidently, the characters have been corrupted by their experiences and by the Machiavellian nature of morality (so to speak) in wartime.
As thus, true corruption finds standing through the hypocritical movements of the American’s and its allies during the Vietnam War, as US troops are shown to fire needlessly at will, with complete separation from their actions; illuminating a state of dehumanization and subjective ethics. This is expressed through the following: “… had a hill bombed, for 12 hours… We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body.
The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like… victory” This illustrates the power of paranoia during the Cold War period, as Egocentrism stands large as a pivotal force in the ignorance of the soldiers, who treated the Vietnamese like animals they could fix with a “Band-Aid” after blowing up, and Vietnam as a frontier to battle Communism, rather than a country that should be entitled to the freedom of speech the American’s are praised for. This voices Coppola’s concern with Western Capitalism and its selective view, as its shallow nature is symbolized by the concerns of the American troupes, which tend to circle around women, music and “surfing the whole fucking place!” rather than the effects their actions will have.
This remains as a core element of the film, as all actions undertaken by the cast are verbally downplayed, as Willard is “neither (a soldier nor an assassin). (He’s) an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill”, and as thus is perceived as a pawn with a corrupt objective, rather than personally corrupt. However this is disproven in the denouement, wherein he symbolically leaves Kurtz’s camp and breaks the radio, proving that war and its madness is a product of human choice, not duty.
Apocalypse Now expresses the power of subjectivity in inspiring conflict, from which forms a shallow-scope that incites moral confusion within society, which the characterization of Kurtz explores through the corruptive power of ignorant war and the threat of Communism in inspiring paranoia; thus breaking down the moral barriers in society and implicating hypocrisy within Democratic America, and in this breakage a removal of guilt and the truth of war’s horrors.
Thus, Apocalypse Now retains voice due to the universal scope of war; whilst we are deluded with righteousness and our vices, it is apparent that war remains a prominent figure in our society, specifically as we continue to rage it in foreign countries aimlessly, and often in conflict to our supposed morals. Coppola’s note on the madness of war continues to remain relevant, so long as we continue to fight ‘the good fight.’
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