Apocalypse Then and Now: The Superimposition of Kurtz and Willard

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Francis Ford Coppola’s wartime masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, explores humanity’s ambivalent relation to the id and the superego through the fraught relationship between the aimlessly “civil” Willard and the object of his mission, the brutish rogue General Kurtz. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own,” Willard declares in deadpan voiceover. In the opening and closing scenes, Coppola shows us how these two are inexorably linked. The film is framed by images of the idol shown in relation to Willard’s face looking directly into the camera and the sound of a helicopter, all underscored by “This is the End” by The Doors.  This repetition implies that the aggressive instincts of the id manifest in Kurtz’s violence were always imprinted on Willard’s psyche before the two even met. Freud’s theory of the death drive argues that men are “creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness” (Freud Reader 749.) According to Freud, humans are predisposed towards destruction, as are both Willard and Kurtz. Willard says, “I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier,” suggesting that there is something inexplicable that links these men together. Like the yin and yang, one cannot exist without the other, yet as the film progresses the distinction blurs until only one can exist. Willard survives to live forever with the echo of Kurtz’s “horror.” The blurring of the morality and individuality of these two men is represented through the superimposed images that frame the film.

Freud’s theories, as expressed in Civilization and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo, illuminate Coppola’s purpose in superimposing images of Kurtz’s transgressive world onto Willard’s psyche. Freud uses the example of Roman archaeological sites to evoke the layers of the psyche. The mind contains remnants of the past that are “preserved, not destroyed” like the Pantheon built on Agrippa’s edifice along with the church of Santa Maria all in one space (pg 726-727.) Multiple views can be present at one time, such as the ambivalence felt by sons towards their fathers in Totem and Taboo. This ambivalence is shown in the final scene of Apocalypse Now as well. Willard both rejects Kurtz’s behavior, as the band of brothers do, and retroactively obeys him when he turns off the radio in deferred obedience to him as the ritually sacrificed totemic figure. This “burning sense of guilt to bring about a kind of reconciliation with the father” is seen in the images imprinted in Willard’s psyche (pg 502.) Superimposed images allow the viewer to see more than one image at a time, allowing us visual access to Willard’s conflicting thoughts.

Finally, the audience is allied with Willard throughout the film through exclusively his point of view accompanied by an intimate voiceover. We don’t know much about him, and he remains passive throughout most of the film. Willard is essentially a blank slate with which the viewer can identify. Perhaps his superimposed face looking directly at us proves that the confession is not only his, but ours as well. The horror lies in us.