Still Only In Saigon: Apocalypse Now Breakdown, Part 1

This is Part 1 of an ongoing analysis of Apocalypse Now. I’ll periodically discuss characters and scenes from this masterpiece. If you have not seen Apocalypse Now, do yourself a favor and watch it ASAP.

“Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger.”

I have never seen a film as thematically dense as Apocalypse Now. I’ve watched Francis Ford Coppola’s strange masterpiece more times than I can count and still discover new meaning in the portrayal of it’s unhinged cast of characters. As a result of arduous and genius film making, there are so many themes buried within it’s story, that you can watch the whole film over and over again and still thoroughly enjoy it without ever gaining comprehensive understanding. In this running Insights series, I will focus on breaking down different scenes and characters, since it would be nearly impossible for me to complete a single complete analysis of the film.

The premise of Apocalypse Now is simple on paper: Captain Benjamin Willard, an Airborne officer assigned to Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG) is sent on a mission to kill Colonel Walter Kurtz: a 5th Special Forces soldier who has apparently gone insane, killed several South Vietnamese agents, and retreated into the jungle with his murderous band of dissidents. But as Willard will soon discover, there is far more darkness clouding his journey ahead than he could ever imagine. Throughout the film, it is easy to become distracted by the mesmerizingly visceral set pieces and mystery surrounding the notorious Kurtz, and forget one of the central themes of the story: Captain Willard’s path to Enlightenment.

“When I was there, all I could think about was getting back into the jungle.”

This theme isn’t immediately apparent to the audience, but can be first established from the opening sequence of the film, where we meet an emotionally and spiritually disturbed Captain Willard. Hung over in a Saigon hotel, within a few lines we are clearly introduced to a man who feels caged and imprisoned by his evil doings as a professional killer. Killing is all he knows, and when he isn’t hunting Charlie, he grows insane in his impatience for a mission, unable to gain any introspective betterment. We see him crouched in a corner alone surrounded by dark walls, brooding, and finally, exploding in fits of bizarre martial arts, falling into a heap of agonizing emotion.

Actor Martin Sheen who portrays Willard is very vocal that this scene was his actual emotional outburst, including asking Coppola to keep the cameras rolling after he punches a mirror by accident, resulting in a bloody mess all over the room. It was his way of dealing with demons of alcoholism and heartbreak, but translated perfectly to Willard’s character. In a later scene, Willard says “I needed a mission, and for my sins they gave me one”, but this early sequence illustrates why to the audience. Willard has been sent on mission after mission and reassigned to dark rooms, waiting to be sent out to commit more violence, only to succumb to continuous pain. It is an endless cycle of no personal development, and our first clue that he symbolizes a soul lost in Buddhist Samsara, or rebirth. As we see Willard gain insights about his unique new mission, and have his eyes opened to the true horrors of War, we will further see his progress out of endless Samsara and into true Enlightenment.

One of the most open displays of true emotional outcry in film history

I know such a hypothesis may seem like a bit of a stretch, but as I’ll discuss in later write-ups, Apocalypse Now is filled with incredible metaphors for an overarching Buddhist context (appropriate for the South East Asian setting), and further narrative clues to provide gravity to Willard’s personal development. I look forward to illustrating his impressive spiritual journey as he embarks towards the darkness that lies ahead.