The film opens with a massive spectacle of destruction that sets the tone for the rest of the film. It begins with a lengthy still shot on an area of jungle. There is no activity on screen besides the movement of smoke, the gentle swaying of trees, and the occasional helicopter flying over the jungle. These helicopters imply a threat of violence that taint the otherwise serene landscape and create an atmosphere of anticipation. Suddenly, the jungle ignites in a wall of flames that stretch up to the sky and fill the screen. From the perspective of the viewer, this overwhelming destruction seems excessive and totally without provocation. The wide angle shots hold the viewer at a fixed distance and prevent him/her from discerning any physical threat, such as enemy forces, that might explain the strategic purpose of the napalming. In fact, Coppola explicitly draws out the stillness of the jungle prior to the attack in order to call attention to the fact that nothing appears to be happening at all.
Furthermore, the attack is never contextualized within the diegetic space of the film, but instead floats outside the narrative. In this way, Coppola emphasizes that the story behind the napalming is irrelevant. It is a violence that has become detached from a greater meaning or military objective and now exists only for its own sake. In this scene, this concept of futility and lack of purpose within the military is also reinforced by the helicopters, which fly back and forth from opposite directions. In Vietnam, helicopters were used as mobile air firepower and troop transports. However, here they are not explicitly shown performing either function. They do not appear to be coordinated with one another in any way and their destinations and strategic goals remain unclear. The number of helicopters involved is never clearly established and it is possible that the same helicopters are flying around in circles. All of these elements contribute to the sense that the back and forth movement of the helicopters in the scene is ultimately aimless and purposeless.
The soundtrack for this opening sequence, “The End” by The Doors, reflects the addictive preoccupation with destruction that trumps military necessity. The lyrics begin as soon as the napalm explodes over the jungle, “This is the end, beautiful friend./ This is the end. / My only friend, the end. /Of our elaborate plans, the end. /Of everything that stands, the end.” In the context of the scene, these words aestheticize apocalyptic annihilation (the “beautiful friend”) and reinforce the sense of the napalming as a spectacle of excessive military power. In fact, this violence is so severe that it has shattered traditional systems of order, rationality and restraint and traded the “elaborate plans” of the military for unbridled chaos and destruction. This quasi-anarchic conflagration is also reflected in the lyrics, “Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain./ And all the children are insane.” The soldiers are losing themselves in an addiction to firepower and a collective insanity appears to be taking hold of the U.S. military.
Coppola adds another disorienting dimension to the scene with the introduction of surreal superimpositions. Willard’s face is layered upside down over the helicopters and burning landscape that are literally moving through his head. This arrangement suggests that Willard is fantasizing about these images of violence. Furthermore, the absorption of his face into the napalm flames signifies his obsessive fixation on war, which has become an essential part of his being. He appears to be in a trance-like state and his eyes move back and forth as if he is watching the spectacle of destruction unfold around him. Towards the end of the scene, the camera pans across a table next to Willard’s bed superimposed over the burning jungle. We move away from images of military order including dog tags, ID cards, and military papers and pass over reminders of Willard’s civilian life such as a picture of his wife and letters from home. Next, the camera crosses over the bed and arrives at objects of addiction including a bottle of alcohol, a cigarette, and finally a pistol.
This sequence suggests that war, represented by the pistol, is a powerful addiction for Willard that has little to do with patriotic duty or identification with any political or military objective. In fact, when Willard’s voice over begins we learn that he has divorced his wife and renounced the civilian world because all he could think about was returning to Vietnam. The significance of war for Willard is suggested by the face of a large stone idol which fades in next to Willard’s upside down head earlier in the sequence. The idol might represent the U.S. military, which has become so drunk on the power of its technical superiority that it has taken on the role of a vengeful god, wielding apocalyptic forces of death and destruction at whim. The juxtaposition of Willard’s face to the face of the idol suggests that it is this potential for god-like power that, in part, attracts Willard to war.
Another superimposition that appears over Willard’s face is a rotating ceiling fan that evokes the blades of the helicopters. The fan, which initially lacks context, contributes to the atmosphere of confusion and disorientation. Only later will we learn that the fan is on the ceiling of Willard’s hotel room and that he is lying on the bed looking up at it. These whirling fan blades can be interpreted as symbols of the repetitive and self-perpetuating cycle of violence that has no end in sight. They represent a military machine that is addicted to war and is in danger of spinning out of control. This loss of control is literalized later in the scene, when Willard suffers intense combat withdrawal and has a nervous breakdown in his hotel room waiting for his next mission. Significantly, the fan imagery superimposed over Willard becomes even more insistent at this moment, reflecting Willard’s downward mental spiral.
This theme of an out of control military machine is epitomized by the scene in which Sgt. Kilgore’s helicopters attack a Vietnamese village while blasting Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” out of the loudspeakers. Kilgore explains to Lance, “We’ll come in low, out of the rising sun and about a mile out we’ll put on the music…I use Wagner, scares the hell out of the slopes. My boys love it!” Here, Kilgore is the creator of spectacle, carefully orchestrating a highly theatrical display of destruction and military power. Kilgore is keenly aware of his target audiences. He is using the aggressive, war-like music as a tool of psychological warfare to terrorize the Vietnamese, but perhaps more importantly, he is also using the music to get his men in the mood for killing. The music provides a diegetic soundtrack to the attack, transforming it into Kilgore’s own quasi-cinematic spectacle. In this way, Kilgore casts himself and his men as brave heroes in a war film, boosting their sense of their own superiority and battlefield prowess. This is ironic since these men are, in fact, characters in a war film and their brutal destruction of the Vietnamese town is far from heroic. The dissonance between how Kilgore and his soldiers would like to view themselves and how they actually act during the battle reveals their deluded state of mind.
In addition, Kilgore’s musical selection of “Ride of the Valkyries” connects the attack helicopters to the valkyries of Norse mythology. These valkyries are flying supernatural beings who decide who will die on the battlefield. In this scene, the helicopters become angels of death that rain down god-like violence on the village in a show of power. The helicopters fire missiles at Vietnamese huts which explode in spectacular fireballs and machine gunners shoot at everything in sight on the ground below. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong defenders scramble around, largely helpless in the face of this vastly superior weaponry. The music effectively captures the bloodlust and battlefield ecstasy of the American soldiers who are experiencing a high of god-like power. Coppola further emphasizes the explosive emotional intensity of this moment through close ups on the faces of the American soldiers and their discharging weaponry. The soldiers have become completely absorbed in the ruthless killing frenzy. The close-ups also contribute to the atmosphere of excitement and the scene’s aestheticization of violence. The scene is shot predominantly from the perspective of the helicopters, encouraging viewer identification with the attacking Americans. For the soldiers in the air, the Vietnamese on the ground appear less than human. They are viewed more like insects that must be exterminated. This physical distance between the Americans and the Vietnamese makes it easier for the killing to spiral out of control. Even when the camera shifts to the ground, the Vietnamese are always kept at a distance and are never shown in close up. The attack plays like a scene from a bombastic propaganda film in which the excessive and disturbingly gleeful slaughter is fashioned into an act of twisted patriotism. However, the sequence is so over-the-top in its glorification and aestheticization of violence that it enters the realm of the absurd and becomes satirical and darkly comedic.
This absurdity is compounded by the fact that Kilgore’s mission is primarily motivated by his obsessive desire to surf with his men at an enemy controlled beach. Unlike Kilgore, Willard has an actual military reason for going to the beach. He has chosen this location as the entry point into the river that will lead him to Kurtz’ compound and the completion of his mission. In the scene before the helicopter attack, Kilgore originally refuses to take Willard to the beach because it is a strong enemy position and he does not want to endanger his men. However, he suddenly reverses his stance when one of his soldiers tells him that the beach has a “fantastic peak” for surfing. At one moment during the attack, Kilgore asks Lance, a surfer, “what do you think?” Lance assumes he is referring to the battle and responds, “Wow this is really exciting man” but Kilgore excitedly answers, “No, no the waves! The waves! Look at that, it breaks both ways, watch.” This goal is a surreal mockery of a military objective that takes the mission from pointless to ridiculous and emphasizes the aimlessness of the dysfunctional military machine. In this setting, a commander like Kilgore is able to abuse his power and put American lives in danger for his love of surfing rather than for the fulfillment of any practical and strategic military objective. For him, the primary objective of the attack is surfing, and Willard is just along for the ride. Thus, despite all of the flash and spectacle, the battle is absurd and the victory actually contributes little to the war effort.
In Apocalypse Now, the opening scene and Kilgore’s helicopter attack exemplify the film’s central theme of military power gone mad. Coppola uses these scenes of theatrical and violent spectacle to epitomize the excessive application of military force that has broken free of the cold logic of strategic necessity and taken on a life of its own. This violence is wielded by a directionless and dysfunctional military machine that is addicted to the godlike power derived from its arbitrary use of its devastating weaponry. The malfunctioning military apparatus is spinning out of control as it thrusts its soldiers and the audience into a chronic state of confusion and disorientation. The insanity of this war effort is summed up by Willard, “The war was being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were going to give the whole circus away.”