Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The omnipresent darkness in the film emphasizes the absence of civilization. Much of the film is shrouded in shadow, and it gets progressively darker as the PBR ventures farther into the jungle. The cinematography transforms the river from a broad, gleaming waterway to a dark, narrow stream overpowered by dense vegetation. The scene of the arrow attack is bathed in blinding fog, while the bridge scene is bathed in darkness, lit only by flares and what appears to be a searchlight. The erratic light adds to the sense of confusion and conveys the idea that the crew is now totally beyond the comforting glow of civilization. The dark/light contrast is heightened when Willard reaches Kurtz’s compound. Kurtz’s face is almost always hidden in shadow; only rarely is it seen in full, and it is never filmed in daylight. The climax of the film heightens the contrast to an extreme, as Willard slaughters Kurtz in a scene backlit so that the figures are silhouettes. While the action takes place in darkness, the presence of light suggests a way out of madness.
The intensity of war leads the characters in Apocalypse Now to seek escape. For some, escape comes in the form of drugs or alcohol. When we are introduced to Willard, he is intoxicated to the point of delusion—he practices martial-arts moves as if he were fighting some imaginary enemy—and his intoxication is his mask against the world. Chef and Lance also seek solace in intoxication, with marijuana and LSD. The photojournalist’s mania suggests he too is hopped up on something. Escape figures in the film not only through drugs but also through frenetic lighting schemes and surrealistic sets. Often, lighting schemes, especially in the slaughter scene, suggest that despite the cloying pervasiveness of darkness, there is a bright light somewhere, always some way out.
The soldiers’ longing for home permeates the film, and several scenes depict troops seeking reminders—any reminders—of life in America. At Kilgore’s camp, Kilgore strums a guitar by the fire. Willard reflects that “the more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” Music and women, especially, serve as symbols of home. Clean dances around to psychedelic rock blasting through the radio. The Playmates shimmy and strut to an emblematically American 1960s song, “Suzie Q,” reminding the troops of home and how far they are from it. The PBR crewmembers get mail at the bridge site, and they read their letters out loud. The film emphasizes that home exists as a faraway paradise for the troops. They are constantly missing it. Invariably each reminder of home makes them miss it even more but also serves to harvest further resentment for the forces that keep them in this strange, dangerous place, rather than enjoying the comfort and safety of the places they know best.