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Cinematic Style Comparison: Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove

(TL;DR;YBW)

Aside from having a mentally insane director at the helm of both movies, Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove are radically different movies; this is achieved by each movie’s aesthetic style. While neither film is particularly steeped in realism, they both feel real to the war experience because of the way their characters are treated. The content of the movies would be laughable – not in the good way, in Coppola’s case – if it were not for the environments enveloping each film. These are two dissimilar movies with the same message: war cannot be true when shown as the viewer expects to see it.

Introduction to Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now opens on what the viewer believes to be chopper blades and the lugubrious notes of The Doors’ “The End”. Yellow smoke rises and moments later the whole forest is engulfed in flames. The camera pans across to Benjamin Willard’s sweating face and a ceiling fan, the source of the chopped air, fades in. Pan to letters and photos, presumably unanswered and unreciprocated. Finally, a pistol under the pillow. Without a single CUT TO: or even a scene change, really, the viewer starts in the clearing of a forest and ends with the pistol under the pillow. This may go unnoticed stylistically, but it is hugely important. Without saying anything, Coppola has already put the individual US soldier, one Captain L. Willard, at fault for the massacre of the Vietcong. Additionally, Coppola has tried to throw the viewer into a state of confusion with the use of “The End” as the first song or even sound in the movie. What is The End? There is a sense of unnerving contradiction as the viewer tries to parcel out Jim Morrison’s lyrics while watching the forest burn and the psyche of Willard deteriorate. Hearing “this is the end… my only friend, the end” makes the viewer wonder whose end it is. Is it Willard’s? Is it the Cong’s? Is it humanity’s? It cannot be the end to any of these, for we are at the beginning of the movie.

Here is where Coppola’s movie becomes more effective than a real quote unquot war movie. Spielberg’s first seventeen minutes of Saving Private Ryan were some of the most phenomenal minutes in movie history, but they still couldn’t serve the same effect as Coppola’s. The faithful historian knows that, despite the losses, D-Day was a tremendous victory for the Allies. Coppola’s film doesn’t play by the historical rules. We hear “The End” and, in seconds, we already think, “Oh God, what has happened?” Only pure fiction could build paranoia in less than five seconds, and Coppola isn’t about to let this manufactured paranoia go to waste. Whatever hope the viewer had for “my only friend” is nullified by the opening lines of the movie: “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon”.  It’s an amazing sense of compression, retrospectively.  We are four minutes and fifteen seconds into the movie and Coppola has already created an atmosphere of purgatory, limbo.

Taking the style at face value, if this is the end, and he’s in Saigon, he’s not going anywhere. We don’t know Willard’s rank. We don’t know what he did in the past. We don’t know the status of the war. But we know he isn’t escaping its clutches. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if there’s a war going on or not because, as Willard looks through the slats, things are perfectly peaceful and Willard is losing it. This is perhaps what Morrison means by “The End”: society hasn’t reached its end, but you have, Willard. It’s the sense of “wanting to be there when I was here, wanting to be home when I was in the jungle” that he expresses moments later.

Willard’s solace in this war are objects that can be both. This is why Coppola faded in from the helicopter blades to the ceiling fan and why the ceiling fan is in most of the opening shot where Willard practices inebriated karate. Even when the fan should not seemingly be in the shot, the camera lowers to include it. The fan is always over Willard’s shoulder, watching him. When Willard is naked on the floor, covered in blood, the fan’s shadow whips around the room. This is a very big deal for a movie scene. Directors go to great lengths to make sure their shots are well lit, thus, a fan’s shadow circling the room would be considered a major error in another context. Coppola wants to remind us the fan is in the room, even if it distracts or ruins the shot. The fan is both a pedestrian fan and helicopter blades; it will not let Willard forget the war, both for his sake and to his detriment.

Introduction to Dr. Strangelove

Kubrick’s intro also features nothing but a song and he, too, gives us everything we need to know about the movie in about a minute and a half, if we are looking closely. The song featured in the opening credits is “Try a Little Tenderness” by Vera Lynn. It’s just about the most dreamily constructed song ever made. The B-52s are flying through the clouds side by side without a care in the world. And in one camera angle, Kubrick subtly changes the meaning of the entire scene. A side shot shows one plane refueling. Nothing unusual there. But then the camera is placed in the cargo bay of the leading plane and we see the long rod extending down to the other plane. The phallic visual is unmistakable: these planes are mating. And all of a sudden, this music isn’t elegant; it’s sensual. The viewer isn’t in a whimsical dream about flying. He’s watching the copulation of two war machines and, if he isn’t observant enough to realize this, he’s happy about it. The camera even holds its angle as the other plane pulls out and the apparatus is just dangling there. In the same way that Coppola subconsciously connected the Vietnam war effort to the fault of Captain Willard, so then does Kubrick put in our heads a satirically romanticized ideal of war without bombing anything or killing anyone. Compounding this effect is the title card. The big block letters that fade in and out over each other on a black-and-white screen is very much reminiscent of an old-time movie like The Wizard of Oz. Yet, they aren’t pretty letters. They’re the hasty, uneven scrawl of a human, which gives the movie its rightful 1960s effect. On top of a romanticized image of destructive forces, Kubrick has placed another amalgam of eras.

Focal Points in Apocalypse Now

Coppola’s cursed and bungled classic cannot be discussed without the napalm surfing scene. But what is of interest in this scene, second to the indelible quote “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, is the hectic nature of the camera. The perspective is all over the place. We get a close up of a bridge being destroyed. Then the explosions are forming a perfect line beside and below the helicopters. We’re up in the air with Kilgore and in the next shot, the noses of the choppers are facing us and the men are on the beach. This is far more elaborate than the smash cuts we are accustomed to seeing in war movies. When we see the bombers and the helicopters in the air, we are usually high above them or purposefully below them or they are racing almost out of the shot.

But when Kilgore has a line that’s longer than a few seconds, he’s the clear focal point. For instance, in the napalm speech, the soldiers’ heads are all that’s visible of them. Maybe an arm or a rifle will occasionally get into the shot. They frame the shirtless Kilgore, who’s waxing nostalgic about a massacre. Close ups of the flailing Kilgore, mad about the waves being ruined, are followed by wide shots. The scene is, in a word, artfully dizzying.

Coppola minimizes the importance of everything in this shot by keeping the perspective in constant flux. The viewer gets a sense of how the soldier feels not by intense personalization but by setting the never-ending LZ scene they would be accustomed to. Napalm must have seemed a horrid thing at first. Now it’s in the background. Here come the fighter jets. Wait, Kilgore is addressing me. Better take cover. What’s this about surfing? The waves do look nice. I wonder if that boy really can surf like he says. In none of this inner narrative are the soldiers thinking, “Holy shit, we are eviscerating this place”. And yet, at the same time, Coppola isn’t ignoring anything. He’s showing the destruction as it would happen. It’s just too frantic and unfocused, which is hardly an unfair critique of war.

Focal Points in Strangelove

Similarly, in the Doomsday Gap scene, the focal point is outside of where it should be. The men are cavalierly discussing a device that would end the world in a typical War Room. Light barely fills in through small openings on the side wall. What’s of interest is that the entire scene is basically an aside. Those who want to take part in the discussion must join their aside away from the enormous table. When the table full of military officials is shown, it is out of focus. It is as though Kubrick wants the men in the aside to have a private discussion aloud in the War Room. None of the men so much as approach the comically large War Room table while talking. Dr. Strangelove himself wheels away from it when summoned.

Kubrick switches the audience’s expectation again by presenting a very large object, as he did with the planes, and perverting it. The elephant in the room now is not that there exists a device capable of blowing up the world several times over, nor is it that another country is rushing to create one so they can both have a device capable of blowing up the world several times over. The elephant in the room is the presence of all other military forces in the room. They are by no means restricted from hearing the conversation – Strangelove even says, “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” – but that doesn’t mean they are a part of the conversation. What the Doomsday Machine advocates think they’re doing, and what Kubrick is doing with this shot, is advancing one technology far beyond the competition of another. The large table is out of focus and the conversation becomes an aside because the military men aren’t relevant to the conversation anymore. All the advice they could proffer would be battle tactics and troop formations. We think they should be at a big table in the center of a War Room because they are, for the moment. Until the Doomsday Device is used, they’re still theoretically in charge. But its mere existence, used or unused, fades them out of the picture.

Playing with Light

The massacre of civilians on the river boat in Apocalypse Now was interestingly framed. Although the scene was filmed in direct sunlight, Mr. Clean and company are the only ones who are fully lit. The civilian boat that’s gunned to death is kept in the shade throughout the scene. A few scenes later, with the puppy from the boat in tow, we have the grenade launcher scene where Mr. Clean once again defies the notion of rank. In that scene also, Clean is illuminated by a giant spotlight while the recipient of the grenade shell is off in the dark. The lighting here implies about a sort of false righteousness felt by Clean. Everything that is not in the open and illuminated by the sunlight or the spotlight is evil to him. He isn’t going to wait for it to come to light to assess its goodness. When Willard asks him, “Do you know who is in charge here?” and he flatly replies, “Yeah”, he means to tell Willard that there’s a simple chain of command here: what’s in the shadows is dead and what’s in the light is alive. Being outside the light is a go-ahead from an unseen superior to kill.

How do we know this? Remember that the only person on the boat who almost survives is the woman that they throw from the shade into the light. She is shot, but she survives temporarily, saved by her lack of obscurity in the shade. Willard proceeds to put a final bullet in her to prevent any more time from being wasted.

This idea of darkness and light becomes crucial when we finally meet Kurtz. Before Willard meets him, there are several changes in lighting. When he walks down the hallway, the light is shining directly behind him. The space between the hallway and Kurtz’ room is engulfed in darkness, which is where Willard waits on bended knee. Kurtz’ face is half-obscured and half-lit. (And what does Kurtz first talk about? Rivers, of course. Not a coincidence.)

During Kurtz’ speech, only Willard’s face is lit up. Kurtz is washing himself with water as he speaks about his clan being terminated and freedoms being taken away. The lighting is so perfect in this scene, it’s almost beyond belief. Behind Willard, Chef is also lit up, but nothing else is. Each man here has his own idea of righteousness, as indicated by the light. Kurtz believes he is in the right and that Willard is just “an errand boy”. Chef feels justified in calling in an airstrike on this maniac. Willard, the errand boy, feels justified in doing whatever he is told. He even stays there after Chef’s head is placed in his lap, not wanting to abandon his post. But what’s most important in this scene is that the lighting continues to change with the movement of each man. As they move through the war and the light, their righteousness comes in and out of play.

Playing with Stereotypical Characters

Dr. Strangelove ends when the Doomsday Device is triggered, but before that, Dr. Strangelove leaves his wheelchair and exclaims, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” Right before this we see Strangelove having extreme control issues with his limbic system. His arms begin to choke his own neck and each body part goes into fits. What Kubrick has done is essentially set up Strangelove as a parallel the Doomsday device itself. Strangelove’s body is going into convulsions, he’s struggling to maintain control, and just when it’s getting worse, he is able to get up and walk. This was the hope with the Doomsday Device: that we would be miraculously saved from the brink of destruction by possessing it, brought out of our own paralysis of war before it was too late. Strangelove hearkens us back to the “once a Kraut, always a Kraut” line by addressing the Fuhrer. Here we get a brief reminder that there is no pretending to be something you’re not. Strangelove rising from his wheelchair followed by the destruction of the world implies that, with the Doomsday Device, eventually we would be unable to pretend we weren’t going to use it. The visual of the wheelchair presents us with the idea of  “helpless”. Don’t look at us, we’re in a wheelchair; we’re not going to harm anyone. How could we? Sooner or later, with the Device, we were going to leave our false helpless state and use it. And before we use the device, we make our allegiances known.

The most iconic scene of  Dr. Strangelove features Pickens yee-hawing his way to the ground atop a nuclear bomb. Stanley Kubrick has served up a message here so effective that it requires almost no explanation: the symbol of American masculinity is about to wreak utter havoc. This is an especially pertinent message when considering the film’s alternate title, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb”. This satirical moment in the movie is a direct attack on the perception of the male war hero. Kubrick warns against buying into the bravado displayed in John Wayne movies like The Longest Day, which came out a year before, because it romanticizes the completely false version of war. (He shows the movies to be false by ironically making an even more untrue movie.) Pickens is not just a stereotypical cowboy in this scene. He is a man who is whooping and hollering atop the atomic bomb because that’s what war is to him, an American male. It’s an outrageous stage for male heroism. He has fully bought into the Hollywood notion that war is this grand thing for men to embark upon, even as the bomb is hurtling toward Earth. In the film, Dr. Strangelove defines deterrence as “the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack”. This has been the justification for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that America needed to send an unchallengeable message of militaristic strength. The bomb, in real life, may have been just that. V-J Day shortly followed the bomb, after all. However, Kubrick’s placement of the American cowboy atop the bomb changes the message entirely because it shifts the focus from the bomb to the lunatic on the bomb. No longer is it the American military that ended World War II, but the hubris of the American men, such as the President and the generals. Except, in Kubrick’s reality, the American male doesn’t solve everything. Rather, he triggers the doomsday device which ends the world as we know it.

Dr. Strangelove and Apocalypse Now are surreal movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely beyond dissection if the viewer is paying close attention. Though the content is strange, the meaning behind the camerawork, shot framing, and lighting is identifiable. It is fitting, then, that the movies only make sense once the surrounding environments are understood. War without context is just killing, after all.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu