Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Question of Sanity and Insanity in Coppola’s film “The Apocalypse Now”

The Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness is a provoking and a powerful film, the power of which lies within all the questions – real brain twisters - which we, the viewers, ask ourselves. I guess that’s why it is difficult to say what the politics of the movie really are. One could say that the title itself calls for some sort of apocalypse, for the end of something, and as we see, it is the end of the insanity and the absurd of not only the Vietnam War, which is the theme of the film, but any war. However, the Apocalypse Now is not merely a simple statement of the Vietnam War; it invites the viewer to the path of insanity and when he comes close to it, it slaps him in the face, leaving him wandering about what ‘insane’ in fact means and if the meaning of it really accounts to the definition. The definition of the word ‘insanity’ in the Webster’s New World dictionary goes:” any form or degree of mental derangement or unsoundness of mind, permanent or temporary, that makes a person incapable of what is regarded legally as normal, rational conduct or judgment: it usually implies a need for hospitalization.« According to this definition the questions that come up in the film are not who is crazy or insane and who isn’t. The film already proves the madness, insanity and corruption of the Vietnam War, but it goes further in demonstrating the result of that insanity and corruption, which, as we see, leads to an apocalypse. The paradoxical question that is central is who the horror of the war made more insane and if we at all have the right to judge Kurtz an insane man and call him a murderer.

Focusing on the aspect of sanity and insanity in Apocalypse now, we see that there is no end to the discussion of the topic. One can come up with a conclusion but there is always a ‘but’ to it. And the reason there is always a ‘but’ to it is because all is relative when we consider the serious philosophical issues of the civilized and uncivilized, the rational and the irrational, the sane and the insane in the context of war. Who created the definitions of these words, who set the rules and who is breaking them? Even if we look at the issues of sanity and insanity from the ‘civilized’ perspective, the answer is relative. The definition says that an insane person is incapable of what is regarded legally as normal, rational conduct or judgment. What happens in a war already isn’t ‘normal’ or ‘rational’, especially not in the Vietnam War. Willard expresses this paradox when he is assigned to exterminate Kurtz, who is charged for killing four South Korean double agents, and because his “actions have become unsound”: “Shit. Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” As Coppola shows in the film the involvement of America in Vietnam was unnecessary and insane, because the Americans were “fighting for the biggest nothing in history.”

Coppola demonstrates the insanity of the characters through sailing into the darkest orbits of the human psyche (symbolized through Willard sailing up the Nung River to find the king of the hearts of darkness Kurtz), where all the characters in the film seem to be lost in their own mental world, not knowing whether they are animals or God (or both). The whole U.S. conduct throughout the film is seen as insane, excessive, destructive, futile... (cf. Phillips, 439). “Everywhere he goes, Capt. Willard sees signs of drugged stupor, loud, large, yet ineffective, as in the haunting image of the helicopter burning in the tree by the river […]. One meaning: an insane war breeds insane behavior.” (Phillips, 441). American soldiers, without even knowing why and who they are fighting, removed from the commands, ‘lost it’ and quickly began subordinate all around them. They quickly fell under the temptation to take things into their own hands and play Gods. The process of this ‘loss of reality’ and taking things into their own hands is described suitably in the novel Heart of Darkness:

“Going up the river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. […] You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps […] The reality – the reality – I tell you – fades […]” (Conrad, 41-2)

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