RogerBW's Blog

Apocalypse Now (1979) 12 September 2021

1979 war, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall: IMDb / allmovie. Captain Willard is sent upriver to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, who's fighting the war just a bit too well.

This was the film that made the Vietnam War an acceptable subject for filmmaking: without this, no Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, and in turn probably no Aliens. The studios didn't want to fund it, even in the early days of the project when it was going to be George Lucas with a 16mm going to Vietnam while the war was still happening; by the time filming began in 1976, the war was over and I think a lot of people just wanted to forget about it as quickly as possible.

There are bits here that are excellent on their own, but break down when considered in the context of the bigger picture. Willard is presented repeatedly through the film as the one sane man, the observer of the perversions and madnesses who becomes the viewer's proxy; but we're introduced to him in a state of depression, smashing the mirror in his hotel room. So which is he? And why, other than "that isn't what happened in Heart of Darkness", not end with Willard taking over from Kurtz, having finally accepted that the only way to fight an insane war is to be insane yourself? Well, some of the attempts at an ending went in that direction…

But as it is, the plot could be summarised as: Willard is given a job to do. He does it. The end.

Looked at from the perspective of a story constructor, I think there's a lack of narrative drive after the first third (i.e. after the helicopter attack). The various events along the river form a picaresque: none of them influences the others, and they could be moved into a different order without severely affecting the flow of the narrative. (The "French Plantation" sequence, cut from the theatrical release but restored in later versions, was meant to be an anchor in an historical progression… but while it recalls the 1950s and Điện Biên Phủ, nothing else here really has an implied date to it at all.) There's an overall goal, "get to Kurtz", but that's just an end goal, a reason to keep moving; there's no countervailing reason to stop, to treat any of the intervening events as anything other than random encounters to be got past as quickly as possible. If I were using this as the template for an adventure, I'd much rather make it a trail of clues: we know X is somewhere up the river. This guy Y, also somewhere up the river, has seen him, so go and find Y. Y can only tell you where X was, so you go there and look for more information about where he might have moved to. And so on.

Still, if the storytelling were done better, there would be less to discuss.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Nick Marsh at 03:14pm on 12 September 2021

    As we discussed, aside from some pretty fundamental problems with the concept of the ‘heart of darkness’, my chief problem with the film is Brando. Kurtz needs to a charismatic, powerful figure, not the mumbling fool spouting pseudo philosophy that Brando portrays him as. For the film to work, you need to understand why people follow Kurtz. You don’t, and that’s why it ends with such an anticlimax.

    Robert Duvall, though. Gosh.

  2. Posted by dp at 06:44am on 14 September 2021

    I think I've only ever seen bits of this movie - the helicopter scene, a few other famous clips.

    As an adventure... that gives me flashbacks. I actually did try to do something a bit like this as an adventure last year (as TFT solo, River of Perils, for Gaming Ballistic), the PCs being boating down river through a jungle to find a lost expedition for various reasons; while I wasn't borrowing the exact plot, I did read Heart of Darkness for some atmosphere.

    And writing it was a hell and despair, it just wouldn't come together, to top it off, I had a flareup of illness half way through and in was pain much of the time. I spent a month or so suffering with it before deciding that it just wasn't working. The river was both too linear and at the same time gave the PCs too much freedom to avoid many encounters by staying on the boat (or detouring off it)...

    While working on it, I did use a trail of clues idea similar to yours: about half the encounters were avoidable ("no, we won't investigate That Weird Thing on the east bank") but doing so would often mean missing crucial info (or possible allies), and I had a matrix of various things you could pick up in each spot. Because the person they were looking for wasn't quite who they been lead to believe, so by talking to the people the prior expedition had interacted with, or seeing what they had done, they could maybe find that out in time to change how they approached the finale.

    Yeah, so after spending weeks and weeks more on this and doing tons of research on amazon rivers and jungle conditions and so on ... enduring illness and despair... I gave up and wrote something else different. (DARK LORD'S DOOM, which flowed smoothly and I completed in about 3 weeks).

    This is the curse of Apocalypse Now. Or something...

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 08:55am on 14 September 2021

    Well, writing GURPS Thaumatology nearly had Phil sacrificing an eye to gain arcane wisdom (or at least that's the fun version).

    I think that while one could argue that every adventure has a linear plot at least in retrospect it becomes much more obvious when there's an actual linear journey to go on and the decision is "stop here or keep going", and players can be sensitive to it. (When I'm a player I don't want to mess with the GM's plans, but I still find myself wanting to break out of the straight line in this situation.)

    As long as you didn't end up covered in mud…

  4. Posted by DP at 06:55am on 16 September 2021

    Ah, I remember Phil mentioning his scary eye event at the time, though I didn't know it was during his work on Thaumatology. Very Odin.

    No mud, fortunately. But yes, probably too obviously linear. Oddly enough, there were also some challenges due to the nature of the river, as there were always three states (left bank, right bank, or stay in the river).

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