‘Apocalypse Now’ was released in 1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stared Martin Sheen as lead character, Captain Willard. The extract of this film I shall be analysing is the opening scene in which the central characters, including Captain Willard, are introduced. This film attempts to reflect the brutal events of the Vietnam conflict as well as the trauma and anguish suffered by those involved. It was produced not just for profit or entertainment, but to remind people of the sacrifices made by soldiers in the Vietnam War during a period when the conflict was condemned by politicians, amongst many others.Order now
The scene opens with a still camera shot of a vast expanse of jungle. Peaceful silence is disturbed only by the movement of various wildlife, and the quiet yet repetitive sounds, of what the viewer believes to be the wings of a bird, or something similar. The camera remains fixed as nothing moves except a thin haze of smoke in the distance. Everything seems peaceful and natural, nothing disturbing the serenity of the shot until music, thus far the only non-diegetic sound, quietly fades in. The strings of the guitar are in keeping with the mood of the scene to begin with, but steadily become faster, building up as the silence is disturbed.
The smoke on the horizon now thickens, and flares yellow, destroying the natural theme along with the previous, repetitive sounds now loud, crude and obviously artificial. The viewer is now aware that there is more going on than they were lead to believe, as smoke continues to rise and thicken, and the noise in the background is now at it’s loudest – as if closing in on you and effectively pulling you into the scene. A helicopter flies past the camera, still fixed, moving swiftly with barely enough time to recognise exactly what it is, before it disappears off screen.
This is the point of realisation, in which the audience have some idea of what is about to happen. The steady build up of sound is shattered as vocals begin in the background music, and the canopy of the once peaceful jungle, abruptly bursts into flame. No explosion can be heard, with focus on the events on screen, only the sounds of the music and engine noises of more helicopters are included. The camera slowly moves to the right in a curve, as if calm, as chaos ensues on screen. Thick, black smoke fills the sky from fires raging below, and flashes of gunfire from speeding helicopters assault some, unseen foe.
As the camera returns to the area of jungle the scene opened with, we can see nothing but scorched earth as the camera slowly zooms on the devastation left in the wake of the sudden battle. Half of the screen is now obscured, as the face of Captain Willard fades in. He is introduced to us as a fatigued, dishevelled person who looks deeply troubled as his eyes dart around the screen, watching the destruction from an aerial perspective. The music steadily fades and the din created by the spinning helicopter blades grow louder until they are almost unbearable.
The original scene fades to black and we can now observe Captain Willard, the camera remaining focused on his face as he rises out of bed after awakening from a dream. He passes across a poorly lit room that covers half of his face in a shroud of shadow for the majority of the scene. Willard stares at a spinning air conditioning fan, placing shaking hands over his ears as the noise of the helicopter blades continue to drown out all other sounds. His actions reflect the torment his mind has suffered, and the horrors he has witnessed that haunt his memories.
The Captain’s first words are heard through his thoughts, which go on to be the main narrative throughout the film. Turning from the air conditioning fan, he stares through a filthy window and sighs to himself ‘Saigon, shit… still in Saigon…. ” The camera cuts to a top down view of the Captain’s dormitory. We see him swaying from side to side, almost in a trance when the narration begins once again, explaining how weak he feels alone, in his room, with the enemy outside gaining strength. Willard starts to exercise, fighting an imaginary enemy as he ducks and kicks before turning to a mirror and attacking the image, out of fright.
The mirror shatters with sound emphasis placed on the falling shards during post production. The Captain breaks down and sobs, his cries being the only sound in the awkward silence. Images fade into one another, with the camera remaining stationary giving the impression that either time is dragging on in his mind, or that he has spent a great deal of time alone in his room – both representing his solitude and broken mind. The camera switches between different views of the room, each one showing the quarters in poor light and never looking at a door.
The feeling of paranoia and solitude is also carried by the narrative, as the main character thinks aloud, in a soft, trembling, almost insane voice “Each time I look around, the walls get tighter….. ” In terms of post production, the editing is extremely effective at getting across Captain Willard’s mental state, with him explaining or doing very little to actually reflect this. There are few cuts between frames, the vast majority of the transitions fade into each other at varying speeds to show the mood. For example, during the opening conflict, the camera quickly fades between many different images, showing Willard’s dream-like state.
The Captain’s face also appears in most of the battle scenes, his eyes following the events just as the viewer’s would. Although the editing does vary at times the fading, hazy effect is maintained throughout – almost making the entire movie seem like a bad dream. The battle scene itself has few, if any, camera tricks or editing applied to it. One would normally expect a close up, frenzied style of filming the action in a battle scene but the methods used in ‘Apocalypse Now’ are quite contrasting, favouring the slow, distant glare that shows the overall carnage and horror of the spectacle, rather than the details and action.
To conclude, I agree with the critics who have commended this film as ‘unforgettable’. The original, and emotional manner in which war is presented captures the futility and horror of war, rather than glorifying it. The close attention paid to fading and cutting scenes helps to reflect the mindset of Captain Willard as well as the darkness, and claustrophobic feel of the room that is shattered by the sudden blast of light when the blinds are swiftly opened. I think this film has been effectively made to carry a powerful message that it’s viewers can understand. I strongly believe it fits the title of ‘Film Art’.