Apocalypse then, Apocalypse Now

James Hill /
Aug 24, 2017 / Film & TV

Significantly, in the 38 years since the U.S. release of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now, one might expect the current zeitgeist to have moved beyond the sullied post-Watergate era.

In the late 70’s, the disillusioned auteurs of the American new wave sought responses to the political climate of fear, repression, social unrest and an unsatisfactory white house presence. In the present day, these themes are still omniscient in the trump era. Indeed, Apocalypse Now epitomised the disillusionment of the American people with the war and subsequent loss in Vietnam combined with a lack of moral agency within the administration. It is hard to imagine a film of such political and cultural power being made in today’s current film climate. Indeed, a film like Apocalypse Now would be denounced as a left-wing assault, a media concocted fabrication or simply, Sad!

Throughout the film, the themes of madness, the imperialism of Joseph Conrad and the ambiguity of war itself are expressed through the cynical eyes of Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. The cinematography moves the audience through a miasma of doubt and deception; the US military is portrayed as an unwieldy behemoth, fighting against the very nature of the jungle itself. Just this week the president has committed more troops to the ‘fight’ in Afghanistan, a conflict which has raged for nigh on 17 years, much in the same way Nixon and Johnson did in Vietnam. Apocalypse Now maintains its stark revelance as a piece of literature, not solely a cinematographic experience. The recurring nightmarish shots of outposts overrun and dead civilians are starkly placing the viewer into the hell of war.

However thematic resonance of the time depicted in Apocalypse Now and the modern era is not limited to the obvious impending Armageddon. Rather, it is a growing sense of dread expressed and stratified through the lens of a camera. In apocalypse now, Marlon Brando’s colonel Kurtz is a figure whose populist rhetoric has the capacity to captivate the minds of his followers. Whilst this article shall endeavour to avoid the direct trump bashing of outlets such as the guardian, what is undeniable is the echoes that the post-Watergate era has with 2017.

Apocalypse Now is rightly hailed as one of the most powerful films in cinematic history. It is frequently featured as a top 10 film on every critic’s list. The cultural zeitgeist during its initial release was one of relief. The end of the 70’s with its political undertones and Vietnam flashbacks had been replaced with the optimism of a pre-Reagan America. In todays politically charged atmosphere, parallels are constantly being drawn in film, literature and art to try and explain the current political climate; what I suggest is that looking for tenuous links is in of itself an exercise in futility. Rather, investigate the nature of films such as apocalypse now in which there is no hope of redemption.

There is no sense of justice in the legal sense. Only the true justice which Martin Sheen must perpetuate.  Apocalypse Now is the parable of the sheer madness of conflict. The film, directed so arduously by Coppola has a message for 2017: the ambiguity of its tones, the constant sense of unease, the idea that the ambiguity of man in the post-Watergate era is tangible and real. As real as it ever was and has ever been. Ultimately, what Apocalypse Now achieves is the constant reminder in our modern society that the horror lurks beneath the surface.

Still, a great film though.

Words by James Hill

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