The opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is quintessentially Freudian, its use of superimposition both revealing and creating meaning for the viewer from the film’s outset. Coppola’s employment of the dissolve, which effectively superimposes images atop one another, mimics the psychic process of free association that psychoanalysis aims to bring forth. The film begins with a static shot of a Vietnam landscape, rows of palm trees accompanied by the faint sound of a helicopter approaching. The sound immediately establishes a sense of anxiety, interrupting the peaceful stasis of the palm trees. A helicopter then crosses the screen before wafts of napalm rise, signaling the onset of the film’s signature song, The Doors’ “The End.” The napalm becomes cloudier as the music builds, the anxiety-inducing helicopter noise lingering in the background. When the lyrics begin with “This is the end,” the trees immediately blow up and the camera begins panning to the right. The use of “The End” in the opening sequence – also picked up in the film’s final scene – creates a circular logic mimicking the cyclical nature of wartime violence.
The fogging effect of the napalm induces a sense of ambiguity as the camera dissolves into Willard’s face, shown upside down. Right away, it is clear to the viewer that this is not a typical war film, but one marked with a concern for the psychic implications of trauma, brutality, and the military apparatus. With the landscape panning across Willard’s eyes, Coppola creates a subjective framework in which Willard sees the scene in his mind, reliving the primal trauma of war. The positioning of Willard, upside down and seemingly lying down, renders him a sort of analysand; he could easily be on Freud’s couch, reflecting on his past in Vietnam. The circular motion of the ceiling fan echoes that of the helicopter, as well as the overall circular logic of the film. The superimposition of the images of Willard’s face, the moving ceiling fan, and the helicopter create a visual parallel between these objects and their representational value, associating memory with fantasy. The hallucinatory, vibrantly hued images of the palm trees clouded in napalm – repeated in various forms throughout the film – reflexively underscore the ability of art and cinema to hide the grotesque nature of reality with beauty, inducing voyeuristic pleasure from images of violence.
Civilization, as Freud contends in his work “Civilization and Its Discontents,” is inherently brutal, prone to worship of demagogues and systems of constraint. Freud argues that the individual’s relation to civilization and its framework is inherently fraught, becoming one major source of discontent. He argued that social structures are based upon the suppression of instincts (or the id), becoming the vehicle by which the superego emerges in the individual. The superimposition of Willard’s face and the Vietnam landscape, torn apart by the American military apparatus, produces a visual representation of this relation between the individual and civilization. Western civilization establishes a sense of collective morality that frowns upon murder, yet the American military apparatus imposes systematic murder. Therefore, American civilization acts as a collective superego, its hypocrisy inducing neurosis in the divided psyches of its citizens.
The sequence continues with the overlaying of various moving images, a patchwork only achievable through cinema. The image of the taboo calls to mind Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” which discusses the significance of totem objects in ancient cultures. Freud postulated that the totem object, held as sacred in these communities, was the site of displacement of the individual’s Oedipal desire for the mother that would result in the murder of the father. The camera then switches to Willard’s environment, panning across letters (later revealed to belong to Captain Kurtz) until it arrives at close-ups of Willard’s body and face. We then see a glass and a bottle of whiskey, superimposed with a cigarette dangling from between Willard’s fingers. The images suggest a relationship between the realities of war and Willard’s presumed current state, dependent on drugs and alcohol. The seemingly seamless juxtaposition points to deeper psychoanalytic notions of the divided psyche; here, not only does the ego battle the id, but the reality principle of the ego actually fuels more desire to fulfill the pleasure principle and satisfy the id. The pleasure principle is, of course, illusory, as it does not provide real pleasure as much as a transitory Band-Aid for the inevitable void that comes when confronting the Real, according to Lacan. The final shots of the sequence are that of the gun and the ceiling fan superimposed, before the shot of Willard’s face crystallizes, half-cloaked in shadow. The gun is highly significant in a Freudian framework, as it signifies phallic power through its function of assault and murder. The gun epitomizes the paradox of civilization as a supposed beacon of morality through law enforcement while ultimately serving as an instrument of brutality. As the camera moves to focus on Willard and his psychic state, this is the dichotomy that looms over Coppola’s film as he continually explores the effect of society on the individual and the collective psyche of civilization.