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Apocalypse Now is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. In the novel, the main character, Marlow, is taking a trip up the Congo River in Africa to meet the ivory hunter, Mr. Kurtz. Coppola’s movie is pretty faithful to the source material except in the portrayal of the character Willard, played by Martin Sheen. In the novel at the end of his ordeal in Africa, Marlow becomes embittered with society as a whole, where once he was a conforming member of it. As the movie begins, Willard is already at that stage in his story arc, but has a few vestiges of civilization left. Willard sinks even further when he meets and assassinates Kurtz, “With extreme prejudice.” The film is a metaphor for a journey into the self and shows how the self, in the face of war, darkens beyond recognition. As they move upriver, Willard and the PBR crew become more agitated and separated from reality. Each experiences his own kind of mental breakdown.
The first scene being when ‘Chef’ leaves the boat enters the jungle in search of ingredients, has a run-in with a tiger, and is no longer the same—his temper becomes shorter, and he withdraws further into drugs. Upon returning to the boat, the rule of ‘Never leave the boat’ is sealed. ‘Lance’ turns to drugs too, but he also camouflages his face, signaling a changed self. ‘Clean’ represents the young men who fought in Vietnam who is just seventeen year old—those who were still kids and didn’t know anything about war. He is basically cannon fodder, like many of the troops drafted into the war. Clean whiles away the time on the boat dancing to music and annoying Willard. He becomes momentarily unhinged during the sampan scene. When Clean is killed, ‘Chief’ breaks down emotionally and becomes a changed man. ‘Willard’, already broken from his first tour in Vietnam, becomes obsessed with his target.
Masks are used at key points throughout the film to symbolize the anti-self—the new identity each character assumes in order to deal with the war, an act that requires a symbolic killing of the old self. Willard’s smashing of his reflection in the first scene suggests such an act of self-destruction. By the end of the movie, numerous characters have donned masks or painted their faces with camouflage, signs that they are no longer themselves. When Lance seems finally to reach his breaking point, he drops acid and hides his face in camouflage paint. In the photojournalist’s eyes, Kurtz can do no wrong. The photojournalist has been indoctrinated into Kurtz’s philosophy and acts as a connecting character to bring Willard and Kurtz together. He is the fool to Kurtz’s king and provides comic relief during the film’s dark final scenes. Kurtz’s face is often obscured by shadow or darkness, and when Kurtz throws Chef’s severed head into Willard’s bamboo cage, he does so wearing face paint. Finally, when Willard prepares to kill Kurtz, he covers his face in mud. These masks underscore the dramatic transformation of the human self during wartime.
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