Inside the beauty of Apocalypse Now’s opening sequence

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Darkness. Muffled noises reverberate in a closed space that probably is our own head. The trees of the tropical forest, flourishing but dull, seen through the yellow steam of the human presence. Then the explosions, scary, silent. Apart from that recurring noise of a helicopter propeller, which flies in our braincase like a butterfly crazed inside a lightbulb, the only sound that you hear is the voice of Jim Morrison and The End. A peculiar way of representing Captain Willard’s state of mental alteration, those spirited blue-eyed that stare at the emptiness of that hotel room in Saigon. Vietnam. The war. Willard saw the horror too. But he didn’t know that there was much more than what he thought.

Apocalypse Now intro: The Doors, The End {1979}

This is the beginning of Apocalypse Now, one of the most fascinating representations of the war in the history of cinema. A beginning realized with an aesthetic vision that anticipates the way war, horror, is depicted in the film. The descent into the Heart of Darkness by Francis Ford Coppola does not happen through the harrowing screams of war wounds or the alienating sensations of human beings when they reach the most extreme conditions possible. The darkness of Coppola is in the dull faces, in the awareness of no longer belonging to any world, in the abandonment of the individual to himself, in a context in which individual action is the most meaningless ever. “Apocalypse Now is not a war movie”, as Coppola said to Vittorio Storaro, skeptical about his contribution in a film about Vietnam. In the end convincing him was a nice achievement: he was awarded with his first Oscar.

Nevertheless, the opening scene of Apocalypse now was born by chance, as the result of improvisation in a moment of tribulation during editing phase. Who was there that day remembers a restless, drunk Coppola lurking around the bins of discarded film, mumbling: “I need an initial scene”. He reached one of the bins and pulled out this long, abstract overview on an explosion in the forest, the largest that had ever been filmed before that day. At that moment someone mentioned The End, The Doors’s. And the joke was spontaneous: how funny would it be to start the film with the sentence “This Is the End”?

Apocalypse Now, the original poster

It wasn’t funny at all. Indeed, it was probably the most appropriate choice of the film. Upside down, just like Willard’s face faded in front of the burning napalm. In the late ’60, nothing was staying upright in Vietnam. The lack of sense in the military action taking place “in the Asshole of the world” was a feeling that America will realize what it was time, namely too late. But there is nothing political in Apocalypse Now‘s representation of the war. The question here was purely existential, and basically it came from Joseph Conrad’s story. What mankind is capable of, and what the single human being is able to accept in front of the horror, as part of the horror itself. A deadly trap from which you can escape only in the worst way. Leaving those places does not solve anything, because the place called home that waits for you out of that hell has already disappeared from your heart. Only darkness remains. To be visited alone.

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