Apocalypse Now illustrates the horror, the absurdity, and the futility of war, but most important it portrays war’s damaging psychological effects. As it charts the characters’ descents into literal and metaphorical darkness and fog, the film suggests that war indulges the darkest, foggiest parts of human nature. The protagonist, Willard, is introduced as a man already pushed off-kilter by his first tour in Vietnam. His unsettling behavior in the opening hotel room scene marks the beginning of his descent and immediately raises questions as to his sanity. He can barely stand up. He punches a fist into a mirror, destroying himself symbolically. He wails. He cannot wait to get back to the jungle. This scene, as well as its preceding narration, illustrates war’s capacity to change a person’s psyche substantially. Willard can no longer lead a normal life within the confines of civilization. He has tried and failed, and now he feels compelled to return to combat.
When the film begins, Willard is already psychologically damaged by the war, and his crewmates are about to experience similar damage. If one were to take “before” and “after” snapshots of the PBR crew, the changes that take place during their participation in Willard’s mission would be clearly evident. When Willard first boards the boat, its crew members seem excited by and perhaps somewhat naïve about the journey ahead of them. Lance, particularly unaffected by the war around him, occupies himself with his tan. Young Clean, clueless in combat, still gets a thrill out of the radio, and Chef is so much in denial that he thinks it perfectly safe to go on a mango hunt in the middle of the jungle at nightfall. Chief too seems overly calm and optimistic. But the crew’s morale plummets quickly as the journey progresses, and each character’s sanity becomes less certain. Lance moves further inward, helped by various drugs, and by the film’s end he is seen frolicking in a loincloth and face paint. Clean loses control during the inspection of the sampan, firing at will with little provocation. Chef reaches his breaking point after a run-in with a tiger, and Chief experiences an intense emotional breakdown when Clean is killed by enemy gunfire.
Meanwhile, Willard becomes increasingly infatuated with his elusive target, Kurtz. He obsessively reviews Kurtz’s dossier, ultimately aligning himself strongly with the philosophy therein. In narration, Willard reads aloud a letter written by Kurtz to his son, and momentarily the voice of the “I” is unclear—are the words those of Willard or Kurtz? Willard’s sense of self has become confused. He feels a strong admiration for and connection to Kurtz, while at the same time he harbors vague suspicions about Kurtz’s “methods”—even though he has yet to encounter the man or the methods first-hand.
Upon meeting Kurtz at last, Willard realizes that Kurtz has experienced a break from reality and is indeed insane. Kurtz has given into the primordial temptations of jungle life, killing at random and leaving dead bodies and severed heads as testament to his omnipotent mayhem. He has indulged himself and become a godlike figure, worshiped by many, answering to no one or nothing. He justifies his unconscionable behavior by declaring moral judgment a liability in wartime: “It’s judgment that defeats us.”
Such an extreme characterization of Kurtz’s appalling lifestyle implies that freedom from all societal constraints results in insanity. Kurtz’s last words are “the horror,” a phrase that conjures up the darkest parts of the human soul, where Kurtz has resided since he “got off the boat.” Despite Willard’s identification with Kurtz, he does not take up Kurtz’s throne. He leaves the compound, rejecting that darkest part of himself and presumably heading back into the civilized world. A descent too far inward thus becomes a descent into hell—a hell brought on by the metaphorical journey upriver. The atrocities of war have caused the each character to lose all sense of self and to become an other, an empty shell that can no longer recognize itself or, like Kurtz, discriminate along moral lines. But while Apocalypse Now implies that war effectively displaces the self and the rights and wrongs of morality, its conclusion suggests that the soul is capable of rejecting such darkness.