Mad World: The Lunacy of Imperialism in Apocalypse Now (Academic Article)

Academic Film Criticism of Apocalypse Now and the Imperialist Adventure Film

Francis Ford Coppola’s  Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now (1979) rejects the simplistic vision of expansionism that is propagated by the imperial adventure film and instead exposes Conquest as a complex tapestry of emptiness, glory, and devastation. Although the film perceives beauty in the biblical proportions of war, it ultimately condemns neocolonialism as a source of moral corruption, mass destruction, and large-scale suffering. The finished product is a nightmarish depiction of imperial progress, which subverts the ‘Imperial Imaginary’ and reveals the West’s frivolous dehumanization and annihilation of non-white cultures. 

 Film theorists Stam and Shohat define the ‘Imperial Imaginary’ as a system of tropes in cinema which support imperialist ideology. Action-adventure films and American Westerns, in particular, are guilty of holding up imperialism as they  “tell the story of colonialism from the colonizer’s perspective, … [and] idealize colonial enterprise as a philanthropic “civilizing mission” motivated by a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny” (Shohat & Stam 113). But Coppola reveals the perversion seated in these ideas. 

In a reversal of the ‘Imperial Imaginary,’ Apocalypse Now adopts the perspective of the colonizer and re-appropriates it to unearth the potent insanity beneath the surface of Imperialism. The film follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as he embarks on a classified mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a military genius gone mad. Though Willard is the film’s protagonist, he is in no way a hero crusading for the “benefits of empire” (Shohat & Stam 120). In fact, he is a lost and lonely man tormented by the horrors he has endured at its hands. When the viewer first sees him, he is laying alone in his hotel room, confined by his own terrifying memories. Throughout the film, he speaks often of the brutality and hypocrisy of conquest. After the PBR crew murders a Vietnamese woman sailing past in a houseboat, he remarks, “We cut them in half with a machine gun and then give them a band-aid. It was a lie, and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies.”  Here, the propaganda that adventure films would ordinarily expect their audiences to swallow is embittered. Disillusionment, terror, and derangement are emphasized frequently as symptoms of war in both the film’s style and its content. With the use of psychedelic visuals, eerie folk music, and the layering of Willard’s hopeless voice over, Coppola reflects the dreamlike derangement of Vietnam and solidifies his critique: imperialism is a broken mentality. Kurtz himself allegorizes the madness of the American people: drunk with power, deluded in their entitlement, and confident  that their arrogance is, in fact, godlike wisdom. 

 As much as the film denounces the war for it’s futility, it completely omits the voice of the Vietnamese people who are being massacred without purpose. They are shown only as extras milling around Kurtz’s camp, running from fiery explosions, or laying dead in gruesome photographs. Their invisibility, however, underscores the dehumanizing gaze of imperialism as they are treated like pests who must be exterminated before moving day. This disregard for ‘natives’ and the associated American entitlement to foreign territory is made extremely clear in a scene early on where an air strike team assembles to slaughter an entire village without just cause. In all of the scenes where soldiers come face-to-face with Vietnamese civilians, it is clear that the  presence of American democracy in developing nations is a violation which is met with great fear and grief. During the airstrike, school children run; mothers clutch their sobbing babes, and men attempt to fire a primitive machine gun to no avail. The audience is made to feel repulsed by Big Brother’s indifference to human suffering. 

These images of moral decay within the military stand in direct opposition to imperial adventure films of the 1930s-50s, which position imperial soldiers in a place to “quell ‘terrorist’ uprising[s]”  and ultimately “ legitimate … destruction and the paternal transformation of the friendly “elements” into servile allies, authorizing [their] right to establish new outposts (and implicitly to hold on to old ones)” (Shohat & Stam 120). Willard is never shown triumphant, and his actions reject the idea that imperialism causes minor distress in the name of the greater good. Kurtz ,who acts as a demented sage, is also an exemplar of the ugliness which drives conquest. He explains that for wars to deliver victory,  soldiers  must make “horror and moral terror their friends, or else they [will become] enemies to be feared.”  This horrific look at the spread of western ideology and what it entails places Coppola’s unforgiving war drama in line with post 1960s “realistic” Westerns which “project[ed] a less flattering vision of the expansionist project” and “depict[ed] the frontier as violent but un-heroic, often presenting Native Americans with considerable sympathy” (Shohat & Stam 126). In it, is a shift from cartoonish idealism to (some level of) public responsibility and guilt  that encourages audiences to regard racial stereotypes with skepticism. And though these images don’t solve the problem, they urge audiences to pity and sometimes empathize with the plight of peoples who have historically been dismissed as savage or uncivilized.

As Shohat and Stam suggest, “films arrange events and actions in a temporal narrative that … shape[s] thinking about historical time and national history” (104). If the imperial adventure film serves the pretense under which imperialism operates, Apocalypse Now looks at the perverse truth: in the pursuit of global domination, massacre and decimation are justified sacrifices.  Just as the film’s opening sees lush, green, trees being ignited by the careless fire of Western hubris, the ending sees Kurtz’s followers debased and destroyed for the sake of his madness.  These parallel images brilliantly underscore the film’s criticism of the large-scale greed that corrupts and disrupts the natural order of things.

Works Cited

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. “The Imperial Imaginary.” Unthinking Eurocentrism:Multiculturalism and the Media, 100-136. London, England: Routledge, 1994.Web.

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