Set in the middle of the Vietnam war, the plot of Apocalypse Now is disrupted by random and surreal pleasures for the soldiers and for the leaders of the troops. What does this mean? How does it contribute to our understanding of the traditional soldier?
One of the first instances of pleasure that we discover is surfing. All that Bill Kilgore can think about is the golden boy surfer among their ranks and where the surf will be the best. What does it mean to risk life and limb (bombs are falling into the water) just to surf? It could be a denial that the war is going on at all. Kilgore even flies his men into dangerous territory when he hears the surf is the best there. Surfing is also perhaps a hope to return to who he was before the war. It’s an outlet for the internal crises that soldiers like Benjamin Willard struggle with. Perhaps Kilgore refrains from a psychotic breakdown because he is able to connect to who he used to be while no one else can. Yet another possibility would be the mere principle of surfing as a pleasure response. He is not warring against anything. He is riding with the wave, with nature. It’s a vacation from killing men, which violates all nature.
Then, of course, there are the Playboy bunnies. Nothing is more out of place in this movie than the bunnies. Not so surprisingly, the troops storm the stage to get closer to them, thus freaking out the bunnies. This total lack of propriety on the part of the soldiers expresses the desperation in every soldier for a brush with even the smallest amount of joy. But why bunnies? Why not local women? Because the soldiers want to be turned on by what turned them on before the war. Rushing the stage expresses that this is impossible, in the sense that they have resorted to savagery. The red-blooded American male has given way to a pure animal. Or perhaps psychologically they perceive themselves to be the alpha male figure who deserves a bunny of his own. They have made their living by surviving and killing, something few other men can claim, and they know this. The bunnies could be less of a special treat and more of a payday or earned prize, in their minds.
As if the movie weren’t weird enough, one soldier tells another, “Hey man, that last batch of acid? I took it”. The choice of drug here is crucial. Acid is designed to make the brain see whacked out hallucinations. It’s not an escape from the war like heroin, cocaine, or weed. It’s an alteration. This tells the viewer a lot about the mental state of the soldiers. They have given up on trying to escape the war, in fact they may not want to subconsciously. They have resigned to living and even dying in Vietnam and now they will do anything to change their inescapable fate. It’s sort of brilliant. With acid, they are and aren’t in the war. The bullets are still flying, but none of it is grounded in reality. Maybe killing becomes easier when you are shooting at an insane hallucination instead of a human. Maybe losing your own humanity becomes less of a shock when it appears no one else is human. This method is also quite insane when considering the possibility of a bad trip. What does it mean to have a bad trip in the most horrible setting possible? Does it make the setting unreal or does it make it worse? What would the soldiers hope to see in their hallucinations? Remember that acid can also trigger flashbacks. There may be an equal mix of desired pleasure and pain in taking the acid. One wonders if they ever become one and the same.
We also have the music blared by the helicopters, Ride of the Valkyries. This triumphant music plays as napalm clears the beach. The question is the underlying message of the music. The music contributes quite literally to the idea of the ‘theater of war’ and could be interpreted many ways depending on the viewer. It could be an ironic usage, intended to suppress the inhumanity of the napalm strike. It could also be a signal of how bad things have gotten, that the slaughter of an entire beach via chemical warfare is now an actual triumphant moment. By losing enemies, the soldiers gain a greater chance of survival, but do they feel triumphant about this? Consider also that this song was used in Birth of a Nation, a movie about the Klan saving the day. Coppola would have known this beyond a doubt. Does he mean to associate the hate and injustice of the Klan with Americans in Vietnam? Is he making a reference to the way Birth of a Nation was formerly viewed as a parallel to Vietnam? (In other words, at first celebrated and later reviled?) Indeed in both instances, there seems to be the unfounded and retrospectively absurd idea of heroism.