Cinematic Writing in Apocalypse Now

“I don’t see any method at all.”

From the script of the film Apocalypse Now, screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

In Saigon

When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife until I said yes to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there…all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now. Waiting for a mission. Getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get
weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush…he gets stronger. Each time I looked
around…the walls moved in a little tighter.

In Nah Trang

Walter Kurtz was one of the most outstanding officers this country’s ever produced. He was brilliant. He was outstanding in every way. And he was a good man, too. A humanitarian man. A man of wit and humor. He joined the Special Forces, and after that, his ideas, methods, became…unsound. Unsound.

Now he’s crossed into Cambodia with this Montagnard army of his, that worship the man like a god, and follow his every order, however ridiculous. Well, I have some other shocking news to tell you. Colonel Kurtz was about to be arrested for murder.

I don’t follow sir. Murdered who?

Kurtz had ordered the execution of some Vietnamese intelligence agents. Men he believed were double agents. So he took matters into his own hands.

Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity.But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And 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 have and I have them. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And, very obviously, he has gone insane.

Later, in Cambodia . . . 

Have you ever considered, any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinions of others. Even the opinions of yourself. Did they say why, Willard? Why they wanted to terminate my command?

I was sent on a classified mission, sir.

Its no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?

They told me, that you had gone…totally insane. And that your methods were unsound.

Are my methods unsound?

I don’t see any method at all, sir.

More quotes from the book this film was based on here (internal link)

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One reply on “Cinematic Writing in Apocalypse Now”

“Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinion of others…even the opinions of yourself? Kurtz feels like he’s beyond judgment, and that gives him the power to do what he wants.”

For most normal people, the judgment of others is what reins us in. And, oh yeah, our sense of right and wrong. Kurtz has indulged himself and become a godlike figure, worshiped by many, answering to no one or nothing. Kurtz justifies his unconscionable behavior by declaring moral judgment a liability in wartime: “It’s judgment that defeats us.”

Such an extreme characterization of Kurtz’s appalling lifestyle implies that freedom from all societal constraints results in insanity. Kurtz’s last words are “the horror,” a phrase that conjures up the darkest parts of the human soul, where Kurtz has resided since he “got off the boat.”

Despite Willard’s identification with Kurtz, he does not take up Kurtz’s throne, i.e.,

“Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

He leaves the compound, rejecting that darkest part of himself and presumably heading back into the civilized world. While Apocalypse Now implies that war effectively displaces the self and the rights and wrongs of morality, its conclusion suggests that the soul is capable of rejecting such darkness.

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