Apocalypse Now is a film that has haunted me since the first time I viewed it as a young teenager. It has always been a film that has held profound significance for me at various times in my life irregardless of what head space I was in at the time. As the years have rolled along I continue to gain a new found admiration for the picture as I peel back the layers upon layers of symbolism.
It is an especially apt film for this blog, which largely deals with esoteric symbolism, of which Now is heavy in. Officially the film is based upon Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, yet it is as heavily inspired by T.S. Eliot, Jessie L Weston and James Frazer, as the film itself displays toward the end. The Conrad novel was also influenced by much of the same source material, especially Eliot.
At the core of Apocalypse Now is the myth of the Fisher King, a ruler who's health is tied to the conditions of the lands themselves. Many cultures share a variation on the Fisher King myth, which likely originated from Ireland via the Bran the Blessed myths. In Medieval Europe the Fisher King was adopted into the Arthurian cycle in which he became the keeper of the Holy Grail. With the aid of the Grail he lived an unnaturally long life, but had become wounded and ill. Because of this wound not only did the Fisher King become sick, but so to did the lands themselves, which became the Wasteland. Finally some of the Grail Knights, usually Perceval and/or Galahad, come to the King's aid. Over the course of this blog this illusion as well as several others will be discussed.
I should also note that I will primarily be dealing with the original, theatrical release of Apocalypse Now and not the Redux, director's cut version. While both have their merits, I've always preferred the original cut, which seems much more thematically tighter than the director's cut.
Anyway, our film begins with images of fiery destruction set to the sounds of the Doors song "The End." The Doors are an apt group to usher in a Vietnam movie as Jim Morrison's father, the Admiral George Stephen Morrison, was instrumental in escalating the Vietnam War. You see, it was Admiral Morrison that commanded US forces during the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident which led a Congressional resolution authorizing LBJ to engage in military actions in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war. One suspects that the irony of using "The End" as the main musical key in the film was not lost on director Francis Ford Coppola.
The Martin Sheen character of Captain Willard is Now's resident questing knight. When first we meet him he is preparing for his initiation into the Mysteries. Initiation often involved a spiritual death on the part of the candidate, followed by his rebirth as an illuminated being.
"The essence of initiation... is death and rebirth. In puberty rites, the childish self dies that the adult self may live, the shaman is dismembered and resurrected, dying to his old bodily perspective and rising again with a new daimonic perspective. Many tribal peoples sanction 'secret societies' whose purpose is to initiate adults into the mystery of death and rebirth via rites which are the same as, but less extreme in degree than shamanic initiations. This was the norm also in ancient Greece, where everyone who was anyone was initiated into the Mysteries which took place at Eleusis. The wisdom of Socrates and the philosophy of his pupil, Plato, cannot rightly be understood without taking into account their initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries...
"In his treatise On the Soul, Plutarch specifically compares initiation into the Mysteries with the experience of death. For the soul at the point of death, he tell us, 'has the same experience as those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.' At first one wanders to and fro in the dark; then one encounters terrors which induce 'shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement,' until at last 'one is struck by a marvelous light' and received into 'pure regions and meadows, with voices and dances and the majesty of holy sounds and shapes."
(Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur, pg. 234-235)
Templar Knights were required to renounce their earthly possessions and swear a vow of poverty before entering the Order. And so to does Willard when first we meet in his hotel room in Saigon. In Willard's case, he renounces his old life back in the States:
"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 home after my first tour, it was worse. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle."
As Willard lays in a drunken stupor in Saigon he says goodbye to his old life once and for all. He's now ready to be reborn. An obvious visual cue for Willard's initiation into the Mysteries is the beer bottle that sits upon his nightstand, sporting a label consisting of nothing but the number 33.
Shortly after Willard hits bottom orders arrive that will send the good Captain on his quest to find the Fisher King, known as Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the film. The mission is seemingly simple: Willard will precede up river with a Navy PBR crew to Kurtz's compound and assassinate the colonel. And it is here that the initiation begins in earnest, displaying its key features which are fear and terror. Now surmises these features simply as 'the horror', to site its most famous line. More on the terror and fear of 'the horror':
"Like initiates into the Mysteries... all shamans stress the terror of initiation, including even the encounters with their helping or tutelary spirits, who can appear fearsome. But, as an Australian shaman advised, power can be gained from the spirits as long as we are not intimidated into panicking. There is no indication, in other words, that fear and pain are bad or wrong, as modern secular ideologies and psychotherapies tend to suggest. Dreams are full of fear and pain. So are myths. So are religions."The purpose of these daimonic beings in the Mystery tradition is most illuminating:
(Daimonic Reality, Patrick Harpur, pg. 236)
"Proclus tells us that 'in the most holy of mysteries, before the god appears, certain terrestrial [i.e. chthonic] daemons present themselves, and fights which disturb those who are to be initiated, tear them away from undefiled goods, and call forth their attention to matter.' The daimons here distract us from the higher symbolic purpose of initiation and redirect our attention back to the physical or, better, the literal world. Clearly these daimons are among Plutarch's terrors, for 'the gods exhort us not to look at these, till we are fortified by the powers which the mysteries confer. For thus they speak: it is not proper for you to behold them till your body is initiated.'"
(ibid, pg. 235)
In Now seemingly human characters fulfill the purpose of Greek daimons. Some may object to this reading, but it is my opinion that Coppola clearly intended a archetypal nature to many of the supporting characters in the film. For instance, in a sequence only appearing in the director's cut a surviving group of French colonists appear at a long forgotten plantation, yet Coppola has referred to them as 'ghosts.'
Another such figure that clearly seems to be archetypal and daimonic in nature is that of the beloved Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). Kilgore, a cavalry officers that turned in his stead in for a helicopter, is a continuation of the knight theme. He's also a Trickster figure, which Coppola seems to slyly allude to early on by associating him with a deck of cards known as 'Death Cards.'
While there are some reported instances of US troops leaving the actual 'death card', the Ace of Spades, at battle sites, I have found no evidence for full decks being employed a la Kilgore. Further, the practice of leaving the Ace of Spades seemed rather rare to begin with. Yet playing cards themselves are heavy in esoteric significance for the likely originally derived from the Tarot:
"Opinions of authorities differ widely concerning the origin of playing cards, the purpose for which they were intended, and the time of their introduction into Europe. In his Researches into the History of Playing Cards, Samuel Weller Singer advances the opinion that cards reached Southern Europe from India by way of Arabia. It is probable that the Tarot cards were part of the magical and philosophical lore secured by the Knights Templars from the Saracens or one of the mystical sects then flourishing in Syria. Returning to Europe, the Templars, to avoid persecution, concealed the arcane meaning of the symbols by introducing the leaves of their magical book ostensibly as a device for amusement and gambling."Again we see the Knight motif. I would also imagine that Kilgore's death card decks lack a Joker as the Colonel himself, as a Trickster figure, has already filled that role.
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 409)
"The zero card -Le Mat, the Fool -has been likened to the material universe, like the mortal body of man, is but a garment, a motley costume, well likened to cap and bells. Beneath the garments of the fool is the divine substance, however, of which the jester is but a shadow; this world is a Mardi Gras -a pageantry of divine sparks masked in the garb of fools. Was not this zero card (the Fool) placed in the Tarot deck to deceive all who could not pierce the veil of Illusion?"
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 413)
Kilgore certainly inspires a Mardi Gras-style atmosphere. He is also a truly terrifying figure -He essentially massacres an entire Vietnamese village so that he can go surfing. Yet he displays moments of strange compassion, such as rescuing a Vietnamese baby, in a scene that was cut form the theatrical version. He is a distraction to Willard, bringing him back to the material reality of Vietnam after a period of introspection on the boat. Daimons often distract us with the material so that we miss the spiritual. Yet Kilgore is also immensely helpful to Willard and company. Aside from aiding their ship get up river, he drives home the sheer insanity of Willard's mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz. As Willard dryly notes in his voice-over narration:
"If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone."Thus, while Kilgore may be a kind of post-modern knight, he is seemingly of the Elven variety and his aid proves to be invaluable as Willard completes his initiation.
But it is not just Willard that ultimately braves initiation, but the Navy PBR crew that follows him as well. They do not fair well, with every member except the seemingly most unlikely, a spaced out surfer from California named Lance B Johnson (Sam Bottoms), dying during the course of the film. But then, Lance is the only member of the crew, aside from Willard, that braves the Otherworld before descending upon Kurtz's compound.
During a sequence at the anarchistic Do Long bridge, the last Army outpost on the river, Lance drops LSD and then accompanies Willard along the bridge in the midst of a battle.
The movie itself adopts much psychedelic imagery throughout, but it is in this sequence that the film most openly displays entheogens and the altered states they produce as a part of the initiation process. For more on the links between entheogens and the other side, check here.
Lance emerges from his trip even more distant and spaced out than before, yet he effortlessly survives the insanity that soon consumes the rest of his crew mates. In a way Lance's LSD trip is comparable to Willard's dark night(s) of the soul in his Saigon hotel room before his mission arrived. Both experiences provided either man with a sense of purification that put them in the proper head space for the ordeal ahead.
After the sequence at the Do Long bridge, the world around Willard and company seems to race rapidly back in time. In the Redux version of Apocalypse it was here that Willard encountered the French colonists and their wraith-like plantation from a bygone era. In both versions the boat is attacked by natives armed with no more than bows and spears shortly before arriving at Kurtz's compound, implying that they've regressed to pre-colonial times.
If the natives are pre-colonial times, then Kurtz's compound is the Dawn of Civilization. It is here that the former Special Forces colonel has established himself as a priest-king over some kind of neo-Sumerian city-state complete with ample displays of human sacrifice.
Kurtz is especially found decapitation, a ritualized form of death heavy in esoteric significance. For more information on the occult meaning of decapitation, check here and here.
During his numerous conversations with Willard, Kurtz notes that there's nothing that he detests more than lies. His compound reflects this belief. Every illusion of civilization had been stripped bear. In Kurtz's domain, society functions at its most primitive, primal level.
And yet, the land has grown sick. This is instrumental in the myths of the Fisher King, and the much older traditions tying the vitality of the ruler to the lands. It is at the heart of the Killing of the Divine King ritual.
"...a series of divine kings on whose life the fertility of men, of cattle, and of vegetation is believed to depend, and who are put to death, whether in single combat or otherwise, in order that their divine spirit may be transmitted to their successors in full vigour, uncontaminated by the weakness and decay of sickness of old age, because any such degeneration on the part of the king would, in the opinion of his worshippers, entail a corresponding degeneration on mankind, on cattle, and on crops."Throughout Apocalypse Now Coppola draws attention to the sickness of the land. The most striking are images of ancient Buddhist shrines contrasted with the crass consumerism and militarism of the US invasion.
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 237)
Kurtz's severed-head littered temple is a microcosm of this sickness. And it falls upon Willard, as the crusading knight, to bring healing to the lands. In the priceless voice-over narration, the Captain acknowledges as much:
"Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway."As Willard hacks Kurtz to ribbons with a machete, Coppola inserts cuts of natives outside Kurtz' quarters sacrificing a cow in like fashion. It's a fine contrast, symbolizing the transition from human to animal sacrifices in the evolution of religion. When Willard emerges from Kurtz's chambers as the new King of the Wood, nobody disputes the claim.
The only quest remaining is if Kurtz'd blood would be enough to heal the lands. Given the sights Willard saw coming up river during his initiation, one can't help but conclude that the thirst for blood will be unquenchable.