Apocalypse Now is an introspective horror movie, which borrows heavily from the novella Heart of Darkness, about an owl melon struggling to be a soldier without becoming a monster. Like all melonheads, owl melons tend to archetype spiral, but they have a particular niche: they archetype spiral into society’s Jungian Shadow. In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando gives an incredible performance as a fully actualized King of the Jungle—an owl melon who has not so much accommodated his Shadow as it has accommodated him.
I’ve seen horrors…horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that…But you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face…And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces…Seems a thousand centuries ago…We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile…A pile of little arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried…I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized…like I was shot…Like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead…And I thought: My God…the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters…These were men…trained cadres…these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love…but they had the strength…the strength…to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral…and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling…without passion…without judgement…without judgement. Because it’s judgement that defeats us.
The key to deciphering the plot is to understand that everything is symbolic of the internal battles of Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard. The jungle represents the pagan darkness of his bloodthirsty, primitive subconscious mind and the homefront represents the enlightened civility of his conscious mind.
Well, you see Willard… In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
The movie begins with Willard trying to back-assimilate domestic life into his internalization of the jungle, and failing miserably.
This sets the stage for his movie-long struggle to remain human by conquering the beast within rather than becoming the beast, which is represented by his mission to kill Kurtz. But as Willard reads the dossier on Kurtz, he progressively realizes that Kurtz is not so much insane as too logical. In fact, Kurtz shows every sign of being the perfect warrior.
At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn’t believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Etc, etc… I’d heard his voice on the tape and it really put a hook in me. But I couldn’t connect up that voice with this man. Like they said he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive… I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots of the corporation. General, Chief of Staff, anything… In 1964 he returned from a tour of advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. The report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson was restricted. Seems they didn’t dig what he had to tell them. During the next few months he made three requests for transfer to airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia. And he was finally accepted. Airborne? He was 38 years old. Why the fuck would he do that? 1966 he joined the Special forces, returns to Vietnam …
Late summer-autumn 1968: Kurtz’s patrols in the highlands coming under frequent ambush. The camp started falling apart…November: Kurtz orders the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one woman. Two of the men were Colonels in the South Vietnamese army. Enemy activity in his old sector dropped off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right four people. The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold. And if he pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumors and rambling intelligence, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia.
Kurtz’s perfection as a soldier reflects his increasing embodiment of his Shadow, which is perfectly aware of man’s primitive inner nature and is thus able to predict and interdict apparently chaotic human behavior in wartime with incredible precision, effectively giving him superpowers. He’s like Neo from The Matrix, except instead of being able to see the code he can see the Heart of Darkness with absolute clarity. However, as we will see in part three, this superpower comes at the price of an overwhelming death drive, as seen in his constant Nietzschean self-talk: “don’t judge me, you can’t judge me, I am above your petty morality, don’t judge me…” This death drive gives rise to Kurtz’s motto, and by extension the movie’s title: