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Use of Cinematic Tools to Deliver an Anti-War Message in 'Apocalypse Now'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3287 words Published: 25th Aug 2021

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The 1979 movie Apocalypse Now was created in an extremely deliberate and thought out fashion by Francis Ford Coppola. There is a purpose behind how he filmed and what he filmed. Each edit, angle, shot, sound, transition, and lighting technique was filmed in such a way in order to convey meaning. The cinematic tools that Coppola utilized in the making of Apocalypse Now encouraged the American public viewing the film to take an honest look at how warfare is really conducted. Like many other movies created about the Vietnam War, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now has an anti-war message within it. This attitude is a shift in the way the American public had viewed war, since usually they were very patriotic and supportive. By making films that raise up issues regarding war, directors were taking advantage of the already troubled public and challenging them to look deeper and question the way in which they had previously viewed warfare and the preparation given to soldiers for it. The film techniques allowed Coppola to condemn military recruiters as well as army officials who did not properly prepare and condition soldiers to withstand the psychological affects of warfare. His method of filming also displays a critique of politicians who mandate warfare for political expediency. In this paper, I will discuss how Coppola used cinematic tools strategically in his film Apocalypse Now to show warfare for what it truly is and the effect on soldiers that combat had in order to inspire society to re-evaluate and change its attitude towards war.

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Apocalypse Now is a film that follows Captain Benjamin Willard on his second tour in the Vietnam War. When the film begins, it finds Willard in a hotel room in Saigon, Vietnam waiting for his next mission. In this scene, Willard offers a vague picture of his first tour in Vietnam and expresses how desperate he is to return to action. In the following scene, Willard is sent for by army officials and given his next mission which is to locate and murder Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, an American green beret who went rogue, created his own army of native Vietnamese people and subsequently appointed himself as a god over them. To complete his mission, Willard is accompanied by four soldiers who do not know the purpose of his mission, as it is classified information. On their expedition to find Kurtz, Willard and the crew come across Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, who commands them to take part in a brutal and merciless attack on a small Vietnamese village. As Willard and his crew continue on their journey upriver towards Kurtz, they attend a Playboy show, massacre a crew of Vietnamese fishermen, and fall under the surprise attack from natives on shore. When they finally reach Kurtz’s camp, Willard is taken captive by Kurtz and forced to listen to Kurtz’s philosophical concerns at length, for days. Upon being set free, Willard enters Kurtz’s private rooms and fulfills his mission, finally killing Kurtz. When the natives realize that Kurtz has been killed, they bow to Willard and accept him as their new leader and god. However, Willard passively rejects the role of their leader by taking the remaining member of his crew, boarding their boat, and riding away from the native camp as the film ends.

Within the film, there are various scenes that show the chaos, uncertainty and absurdity of warfare that often leave soldiers in a state of psychological trauma long after their time in combat. As a result of this story being told through the medium of film, Coppola is able to use cinematic tools he would otherwise not have had at his disposal. There are two particular scenes in which the tools he employs help to convey the significance of the scene with more impact. These two scenes are the opening scene of the movie and the scene known as “Ride of the Valkyries”. These scenes and the five cinematic elements employed in them, will be the focus of this paper.

In the opening scene of the film, Coppola employs elaborate editing techniques in order to show the phycological damage that Willard has been suffering from since his first tour in Vietnam. Although the focus is obviously only on the character of Willard, Coppola means for this to be a display of what happens to the mind of any soldier after returning from combat, where their minds are in a state of psychological turmoil.  The scene shows a green, peaceful treeline in Vietnam and then shows it exploding in flames as numerous helicopters fly close by (Apocalypse Now, 0:01:10). The film then transitions from this image in a smooth fade away to Willard lying in his hotel room (0: 03: 55). As the transition continues, it shows Willard take a long drag from a cigarette as the ceiling fan above him rotates fast and loud. The fade in this scene is significant because of its smooth transition from one picture and place to another; the helicopters in the scene with the trees make an near identical sound to the ceiling fan and the propeller of the helicopter looks like the ceiling fans blades rotating in Willard’s room. The way Willard’s cigarette lights up has the fading image of exploding fiery trees in the background. The editing is magnificent. It is clear from the scene, that the explosions and helicopters are memories from Willard’s first tour in Vietnam. The images of the blown-up trees cut and edited into the images of Willard’s tortured face in the hotel room portray a man who is really struggling with what he has experienced. While most memories fade over time and details are forgotten, victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often remember their traumatic experience vividly and the same way every time they think about it (Vees-Gulani 55). For many, it is not even that they are remembering but rather they are “living in a continual present… [and] an endless present” (Vees-Gulani 55). The memories that Willard cannot escape from, from his first tour, are “persistently intrud[ing] on him” (Vees-Gulani 62).  For him, something as mundane as a ceiling fan materializes into a combat helicopter and the burning of a cigarette is an explosion. Often throughout the movie, it seems as if Willard is one of the only men still sound of mind, but the first scene with its masterful edits to Willard’s first tour flashbacks clue the viewer in on the fact that Willard’s PTSD made him “bound in the timelessness” of warfare (Vees-Gulani 89). For the viewer to fully appreciate the genius of Coppola’s use of editing in this scene, one must recognize that PTSD is an illness that plagues the victim relentlessly and constantly. By displaying this scene and these ideas in one seamless transitional edit, Coppola is indicating to the viewers that soldiers who return from war may look physically unscathed, but that does not mean they are not haunted and harmed by their experiences in combat.

Another technique utilized in this first scene is that of lighting. Coppola strategically uses it in order to set a certain mood and feel for the scene. As Willard lies on his bed, he looks at the ceiling fan, which is black and yet there is a slight flicker of light from the fan. It catches the viewers eye and helps to create a more ominous scene, really giving the viewer a feeling for what was happening within the scene. It is fascinating that something so small as a flicker of light can add so much insight to a scene and enrich ones overall understanding of a story. In a captivating interview with Apocalypse Now’s production designer, Dean Tavoularis, Tavoularis described how the film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro purposely choreographed the lighting cues on many shots to add an extra level of significance to scenes and that the speck of light in the opening scene from the fan was one of such times (Gentry 96). He described how the flicker of light in this scene is like “an irritation, an insect”, an element that gets across to the viewer and adds to the chaotic scene to help display the psychological trauma that Willard is dealing with.  The flicker lasts for hardly a second, but it was intentionally put in at that time to help further the story and its message. Attention grabbing, this cinematic tool is used to its fullest potential in this scene.

The music in Apocalypse Now is also a cinematic technique that Coppola capitalizes on. Coppola deliberately chose the song “This is the End” to critique the sentiments preached by many of the benefits one receives when they serve in the army in order to ignore their societal duty to look after the wellbeing of veterans. Coppola is criticizing the way in which soldiers are prepared, or in from his standpoint under prepared, for war and how upon their return from combat, with their physical and mental scars, society neglects them. The song “This is the End” begins slow with pleasant guitar and a soft melody. The song fades out for a bit but then plays again as the scene transitions to Willard intoxicating himself in his hotel room (0:05:58). However, when the song fades back in, it sounds dramatically different. The guitar has picked up speed, the tempo is faster and the singer screams, “Fuck! Fuck me!”. As the songs intensity increases, the scene shows Willard strip naked, cut himself and cry uncontrollably. Coppola used the feeling given off from the crazed music to increase the intensity of the scene.  He uses the music almost as a metaphor for a soldier in their war experience. The soldier starts off by being told the war will award them with lifelong skills, such as loyalty and respect. However, they are not equipped for the psychological and emotional suffering from being in combat, the effects of PTSD, or the high suicide rates amongst veterans. The music starts out slow and pleasant but they soon find out on their own that the music changes, it is not predictable, it can become violent. Using music as a cinematic tool in Apocalypse Now, Coppola presses Western societies to stop romanticising the idea of war.

Towards the close of the scene, Willard is bleeding and crying on the floor of the hotel room (0:07:16), and the viewer can hear the song “This is the End” playing but cannot hear Willard’s crying. The silence of Willard’s cries is a message as well. The unheard cries of Willard can be seen as the unheard soldiers upon their return from war. They come back from combat scarred physically and mentally. Their minds cannot rest, they are never completely at ease and the constant suffering leads many to turn to destructive substances, like alcohol and drugs, just to escape from their own minds for a time. This is not a case of one veteran but rather a horrible trend that occurs to many, and it can be seen as a clear sign that they are calling out for help. Yet, it seems that Western society chooses to close their ears to their cries. The Music in the scene is used to send a message from Coppola that he condemns Western societies who promote war but deafen themselves against the cries of the soldiers suffering, which they helped to create. Coppola is highlighting how there is a great need for honesty about what effect the army can have on one’s life before soldiers are enlisted and how adequate resources are needed for their recovery when they return from combat.

In the scene known as “March of the Valkyries,” Lieutenant Kilgore orders an air attack on a Vietnamese village. It is in this scene that Coppola uses the tool of camera shots and angles to showcase to the viewer the absurdity and violence that soldiers endure during warfare. It is clear from the contrasting shots that Coppola used that he wished viewers would re-evaluate their opinions on war and question politicians’ inclination to engage in war. Coppola uses close-up camera shots in order for the viewer to feel as if they are in the sequences in the “March of the Valkyries” scene. As the helicopters approach the village, the viewer is privy to a conversation between Lieutenant Kilgore and a soldier named Lance, an expert surfer, as they discuss the different types of surfboards they prefer (0:36:20-0:36:55). The absurdity and backwardness of this conversation at that time is dumbfounding. They are in a helicopter that is about to attack and kill an entire village of Vietnamese soldiers and innocent civilians and yet, the Lieutenant does not review the battle plan with his crew or tell them to reflect on what they are about to take part in. Rather then do any of these normal and expected things, he is instead choosing that particular time to talk about one of his favourite hobbies. The only people in the frame of the shot are Kilgore and Lance, from their shoulders up, making the viewer feel as if they are part of the conversation as well. This is a strategic tool use by Coppola to get his audience to understand the soldiers who have these mundane conversations at inappropriate times and how these interactions skew with the soldiers sense of morality. It becomes clear that the soldiers have a hard time dealing with the guilt of murdering entire villages when it is equated to regular past times by their officers. The contrast of what they are going to do in the scene and what they are discussing is made evident through the cameras close shots. It is another example, by Coppola, of how army officials do not prepare soldiers for warfare since they make it less serious and make the consequences less harsh with conversations such as the one Coppola zooms up on.

Another example of a shots that Coppola uses to showcase the absurdity of war it close to the end of the “March of the Valkyries” attack, is when he shows two long shots. The first is of rockets and ammunition hitting the water, causing five enormous explosions of water to shoot up (0:44:55), and the second is of napalm bombs being dropped on the village, producing a huge fire (0:48:55). By zooming out on this shot, Coppola is showcasing the violence and devastation of war in all its totality as well as the beauty of nature. The blending of the beauty and the destruction enters the soldier’s awareness, making them flinch and recoil in horror and at the same time exclaim, “It’s really exciting, man!” (0:45:00). The contrast can add to soldiers mixed feelings about the war, morally and emotionally. Its exciting and incredible and its also terrible and monstrous. These long shots are used by Coppola to show that when you zoom out fighting for one’s country seems brave and courageous but up close it can hurt the soldiers in ways that are ignored by society.

The camera angles that are used in Apocalypse Now are also used by Coppola to critique war and its effects on soldiers. Kilgore and his helicopter unit land by the shore as the “March of the Valkyrie” battle ends. As they all try to take cover in a ditch, Kilgore stands above ground in the open and shouts orders. (0:46:02). The angle that the camera shoots Kilgore at is at level with the soldiers in the ditch, so it is as if the viewer is in the position of the soldier. He is shown to be glorious leader that none of them would disobey, even if his command seems insane such as when he says, “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach!” (0:47:10). During war, it is expected that soldiers will obey their commanding officers without question. There are times when this is absolutely necessary, however it can also lead to issues with trust. In an instance where a soldier witnesses his officer commanding a fellow soldier to do something that in turn leads to his death, the soldier may have issues trusting the judgement of his commanding officer. When officers in leadership positons, and by extension, the politicians who declare war, are given all knowing and godlike statuses among soldiers and society, it can create psychological trauma for soldiers and questions of faith within larger society. The camera angles used by Coppola are to put the viewer in a soldier’s shoes and to understand that leaders should not be seen as all knowing and all powerful and that it is important to question their choices before accepting them.

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It is clear that Francis Ford Coppola used many cinematic techniques in Apocalypse Now in order to convey to society that they must re-evaluate their views on war and be more considerate of the soldiers who have been hurt physically and mentally by it. The way in which he cut and edited scenes showcase the trauma that continues to haunt soldiers even after they return from war. Lighting is also used as a technique to further this message. The use of sound in certain areas and not in others is employed to accuse society of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the veterans who do not receive proper rehabilitation upon their return. Another technique Coppola used was to zoom in or out on specific camera shots to display the absolute absurdity of war and the effects that has on soldiers. Lastly, Coppola utilized camera angles to encourage society to think for themselves and never trust a leader without first questioning their true intentions, especially in the context of war. These five cinematic elements help to tell the story of Apocalypse Now in a way that a novel never could, since it is not just a film with a captivating plot but rather a movie in which cinematic techniques force the viewers to reconsider some troubling societal issues.


Apocalypse Now. (1979) . Retrieved March 20, 2017, from https://solarmoviez.to/movie/apocalypse-now-6743/74126-8/watching.html

Gentry, R. (2010, Winter-Spring). Dean Tavoularis. Post Script, 29(2), 93+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/ps/i.do?p=EAIM&sw=w&u=yorku_main&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA247223175&asid=3fccc0d830aca85bdf6a33f51c16a1bf

I found this source to be very helpful in my understanding of the movie Apocalypse Now since it is an interview that addresses not only the movie, but also some of the cinematic techniques used to create it. The interview covers a variety of topics about the film like plot, symbolism, character development and the tools used to showcase all of these ideas in the best possible way. Although I did not end up using many quotes from it, I found that it expanded my knowledge of the way in which the director and those who advised him chose to portray certain scenes. This source backed up the most essential of points for my essay, that everything Coppola did was deliberate and in order to draw the audience’s attention to certain things.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44.2 (2003): 175-184. Retrieved from http://literature.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/searchFulltext.do?id=R01664027&divLevel=0&area=abell&forward=critref_ft

I found this source to be incredibly useful on the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Soldiers. The source is an analysis of an antiwar novel in which the author wrote about their own experiences in World War II. I found that many of the points that were made about this man and his novel also applied to the soldiers in the film Apocalypse Now. When discussing PTSD and how it feels for an individual, it really seemed to be in complete conjunction with the way Coppola portrayed Willard in the opening scene of the movie. This article helped me to see the techniques that Coppola was using were in order to show PTSD as realistically as possible.


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