I’ve been a student of movie mythology for about twenty years now, going back to the first time I watched Bill Moyers interview mythologist Joseph Campbell on PBS. In The Power of Myth, Campbell proposed that our ancient mythological and religious symbols are losing their potency, and if they are to remain relevant, they need to evolve in tandem with our constantly changing consciousness. During the course of the interview, Moyers and Campbell examined the possibility of finding mythological symbols in modern cinema, and whether Luke Skywalker’s Star Wars adventure provided a futuristic example of a mythological “hero’s journey” – the topic of Campbell’s (1997) highly influential book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Having grown up in a late 20th century New England town, and encountering the usual distractions in the path of a young man trying to find his way, it seemed to me that our ancient myths and religious texts could just as well have been written on Mars given their remoteness in time and space from my consciousness. But the idea that watching some of my favorite movies could be more than just a temporary distraction was compelling to me, and over time, I became more and more on the lookout for symbolic references in film.
Fortunately, there are some fairly obvious examples of ancient metaphor in movies. I had read somewhere that the Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? was loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, and learned during the opening credits that it was indeed so. I was also interested to see George Lucas expand the iconic Star Wars trilogy into the six episode epic of Anakin Skywalker’s fall into and resurrection from the dark side. I knew I had to see these films due to their acknowledged mythological content. On the other hand, sometimes I found mythology when I wasn’t even looking for it.
The title of a popular sports film became much more than a reference to a baseball team or even the chewing tobacco it was named after when I recognized that Kevin Costner’s “Crash Davis” – baseball’s version of Theseus – symbolically slays Tim Robbin’s Minotaur in Bull Durham. In another of my favorites, Bill Murray explores the comedic ramifications of Karma and reincarnation. I later learned that people of just about every faith known to man saw references to their religion in Groundhog Day.
But I found Apocalypse Now Redux by far the most profound and far reaching example of spiritual and mythological vision in film. Released as a director’s cut of Apocalypse Now in 2001, it is for me a metaphorical masterpiece deserving recognition not only in the world of film, but also in the disciplines of mythology and comparative religion. Outwardly, it is a statement on the insanity of warfare in general, and the Vietnam War in particular. On closer examination however, I also found it to be rich in references to at least three of the world’s great religions. Much of the imagery relates to the eastern traditions of the Hindu Tantric Chakra system and Buddhism, but interestingly, there are simultaneous allusions to Greek mythology and Christianity from the west.
As the film drew me in, the fact that so many of the symbolic images grew out of the experience of one individual suggested that they all referred to the same process, regardless of which tradition they may belong to. Francis Ford Coppola and co-writer John Milius had used these various symbols to unfold the story of their protagonist Captain Willard, creating a model Hero’s Journey: the psychological and spiritual odyssey of a human evolution. This was how Apocalypse Now Redux helped me see the parallels and similarities in religious traditions worldwide, and in spite of the violent events portrayed in the film, it became a message of compassion, using warfare as a metaphor for internal struggle.
Apocalypse Now Redux is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and like Conrad’s novel is the story of a hero who travels upriver to confront a man reportedly gone insane with power. Coppola has changed the setting to the Vietnam War.
Willard (Martin Sheen) is an army assassin assigned the duty of “terminating” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The Colonel has gone renegade, taken control of a Montagnard army in Cambodia, and gone about waging the war on his own terms. The film follows Willard’s passage up the Nung River, throughout which he encounters the madness of warfare in Southeast Asia.
Willard’s journey begins when he meets Colonel Kilgore, the commander of a helicopter cavalry unit who also happens to be obsessed with surfing. Kilgore decides to help Willard and his patrol boat crew pass through the mouth of the river because the beach there is great for surfing – in spite of the fact that it is enemy occupied. After passing through this “initiation”, Willard travels far upriver, encountering many obstacles in his path before arriving at Kurtz’ compound, where he is taken prisoner and nearly reduced to death by his confinement. Kurtz has him nursed back to health, at which point Willard finally completes his mission before laying down his weapon. The Montagnard warriors – taking him as their new leader – discard their weapons as well. In a voiceover, Willard states that Kurtz was resigned to death and perhaps even collaborated in his own assassination:
“Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take his pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier.”
In homage to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I’ve borrowed Joseph Campbell’s outline of the Hero’s Journey: Departure, Initiation – Apotheosis, and Return.
The Nung River is one of the most prominent characters, if you will, in the film. During the first act, Willard makes an interesting analogy by comparing the river to an “energized snake”:
“I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet.
Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a rive that snaked through the war like a circuit cable… plugged straight into Kurtz.”
Viewed from a spiritual perspective, Willard’s analogy brings to mind the tantric snake, and with this in mind, the scenes encountered on the river open up to an interesting interpretation – a symbolic representation of Willard’s consciousness travelling up the spine and through the chakra centers. The film seems to be suggesting that Willard and Kurtz are somehow connected by this “circuit cable”, as Willard continues:
“It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory…
There was no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.”
The Chakra System
As Campbell points out, the Hindu Chakra System is a set of symbols that describe seven energy centers in the body, beginning with the “root” chakra at the base of our torso. The second is found at the level of the sexual organs, the third in the region of the solar plexus. Continuing upward, we have the fourth at the level of the heart, the fifth in the area of the thyroid gland, and the sixth just above and between the eyes. The seventh is found near the top of the head.
The idea, he said, is that individuals can have their consciousness located in any of these chakras, depending upon where their energy is centered. When focused at the root chakra for example, the mind is mostly interested in the material needs of the human animal – food and shelter. At the second and third chakras, the psyche is concerned with sexuality/reproduction and the attainment of power in the world. People who engage in Kundalini yoga are, among other things, attempting to raise these vivifying energies up the spine to activate the higher chakras, and thus alter consciousness. The tantric snake is representative of the energies travelling up the spine through these centers.
Moving the energy into the fourth chakra brings about a leap of consciousness from which countless mythological stories and religious symbols draw their impetus. This is due to the fact that individuals entering the level of the heart are experiencing a profound change in perspective; while previously captivated by materialistic needs, one is now motivated by a sense of compassion for oneself and others. Passing through this level, the energies existing in the lower chakras can also be transformed into the energies of the upper three. The chakras become unified by the heart in this manner, leading to a balanced life.
This balance is attained when the two sets of chakras reflect each other. The fifth chakra, for example, becomes a mirror image of the third. Instead of being directed out into the world to gain power, energies focused on the fifth are directed inwardly, so the power of wisdom through contemplation may be gained. The sixth chakra reflects the second; now the sexual energy of physical love can also be transformed into a conscious compassionate love, altering the way we observe and interact with the world. And rather than experiencing the essentially animal existence of the root chakra, the seventh transfigures the consciousness to that of an enlightened and compassionate being with full knowledge of the unity of all things. Derived from that knowledge, it is believed, is the understanding that if anything in existence is sacred, then all things must be by definition – including oneself.
Coppola’s guided tour through the chakra centers of Apocalypse Now Redux encompasses a landscape governed by the lower three before “crossing over” into the realm of the fourth. Beginning at “Hau Fat”, a village/military base encountered by Willard and the crew, the American military machine appears obsessed with material wealth, as if throwing money and materiel at the war was a recipe for victory. Motorcycles, stereo systems, and alcohol were meanwhile made available to the soldiers to help them forget their predicament. In stark contrast, the Vietnamese are shown living a life of bare subsistence just outside the gates. In the context of the tantric system, the attitude of the military in this case symbolizes a psychology selfishly obsessed with the material needs of the human animal.
Hau Fat is also the location in which the Playboy Bunny show takes place, symbolizing a fixation on sexuality to the exclusion of compassion. This theme is further taken up at the River Outpost scene, in which Willard trades one valued material commodity – some diesel fuel – for what is evidently viewed as another commodity: “a couple of hours with the bunnies.”
I find it interesting that Coppola chose the name Do Lung Bridge as a major dividing line in the film. Beyond the bridge is Cambodia, a “no mans land” where American soldiers were supposedly not authorized to conduct operations. Given Coppola’s whimsical use of the name Hau Fat (how fat) to represent a center of American materialism in Vietnam, and his moniker for the surfing crazed Colonel Kilgore, it would make sense that he employed a similar device in naming the bridge. If so, Willard’s arrival at the Do Lung Bridge could imply the arrival of his consciousness at the third chakra, near the base of the lungs. It is here that we encounter a struggle for power in the world – the Americans build the bridge every night, and the Vietnamese “blow it right up again.” Leaving the bridge is to head for parts unknown…
And indeed, as the boat continues up the river into Cambodia, the crew begins to experience some very disconcerting events. In a portion of the film not included in the original release of Apocalypse Now but restored to the Redux version in 2001, the French plantation scene reveals the last vestiges of material attachment. Here, Coppola acquaints us with France’s colonial occupation of Vietnam before its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The cinematography of the scene is ghostly, as if the French inhabitants arrive out of the past to haunt the Americans and warn them of the mistake they are making:
Christian: “Why don’t you Americans learn from us, from our mistakes? My God, with your army, your strength, your power… you could win if you wanted to!”
To all appearances, these people are literally stuck in place – ghosts who can’t go home, governed by their desire to wield power over the land that they had taken:
Willard: “How long can you possibly stay here?”
Demarais: “We stay forever.”
Willard: “No, no, I mean, why don’t you go home to France?”
Demarais: “This is our home, Captain.”
Ironically, in their superior attitude and attachment to the past, they hold fast to their burden even as they caution the Americans:
Demarais:“See, Captain, when my grandfather and my uncle’s father came here, there was nothing. Nothing. The Vietnamese were nothing. So we worked hard, very hard, and brought the rubber from Brazil, and then plant it here. We took the Vietnamese, work with them, make something, something out of nothing. So when you ask me why we want to stay here, Captain, we want to stay here because it’s ours, it belongs to us. It keeps our family together. We fight for that! While you Americans, you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.”
Their attitude represents the will to power, the urge to dominate the material world in a controlling manner, and to hold on to the consciousness of the lower chakras. Grasping in this manner appears to restrain them both in the physical world of the film as well as in the spiritual world it refers to, preventing them from passing to the level of the heart and the compassion it gives. Coppola’s film certainly makes the point that the United States had fallen into the same trap as the French.
One other very important theme is introduced during the French Plantation Scene. The widow of a French soldier – Roxanne – becomes Willard’s lover, and during a conversation she makes a curious statement that will have significant implications upon the meaning of the characters Willard and Kurtz:
Roxanne: There are two of you, don’t you see? One that kills… and one that loves.
Hearing her comment in the context of the chakra system, we can imagine the one who kills being driven by the lower chakras, and the one that loves being motivated by compassion. Willard is of course the lover when this dialogue takes place, but we also know he is being sent upriver to kill Kurtz. We know furthermore that Kurtz himself is a brutal killer. If Willard truly does represent the hero consciousness traveling up the spine through the level of the heart, what do we make of the anti-hero Kurtz in this scenario? Might we consider the two antagonists an externalization of Willard’s own killer/lover conflict? Since Kurtz resides at the “headwaters” of the river, it makes sense to also imagine him at the “head” of the spinal column – the goal of the tantric snake. Perhaps Kurtz represents the human mind taken to its extremity when not informed by compassion – a mind obsessed with material matters and tortured by conflict between the logic of war and the injury it does to his soul. Willard must confront this aspect of himself, bring light to his “Heart of Darkness”, and terminate the schizophrenic division of killer/lover.
Through the Pairs of Opposites
Leaving behind the apparition of the French estate, the boat soon passes through a pair of opposing cliffs. Superimposed on either side we see two sculpted Buddhas staring in opposite directions. These sculptures – often seen in Buddhist culture as the sideways glancing faces on the “Three Headed Buddha” – represent a passage through what had been perceived as pairs of opposites, moving towards the realization that they are actually two parts of a single continuum. There can be no white without black, no left without right, and no Willard without Kurtz. The sculptures also represent the Judeo-Christian cherubim on the eastern side of the Garden of Eden, as well as the gate guardians found at the entrance to Buddha shrines – both sets of symbols having the same function as the opposing Buddhas. Willard is passing through the heart chakra, entering the threshold to understanding that all things are one, soon to become one himself by reconciling his opposing natures.
Western Religion and Mythology
Coppola’s most vivid Christian imagery was edited from in the original version of Apocalypse Now. When Willard is taken captive in the final act of the film, he is confined to a bamboo structure that is visible to anyone in the compound. Kurtz is determined to break the will of his prisoner, and at one point drops a severed human head into Willard’s lap, foreshadowing the climax of the film in which a bull is beheaded. In the following scene – restored in the Redux version – Willard then awakens inside a large shipping container from which he is soon to be released. Willard’s symbolic “crucifixion”, unconscious captivity in the container, as well as subsequent recovery suggests the death, entombment and resurrection of Jesus. Viewing once more from the perspective of spiritual growth via the chakra system, the scene indicates that Willard is himself capable of death and resurrection – dying to the realm of purely animal existence, and being reborn as a compassionate being.
Apocalypse Now Redux can also be seen as a metaphor for the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. In this story, King Minos of Crete prays for the god Poseidon to send a white bull as a sign that he approves of Minos’ reign. Once it arrives, Minos is to sacrifice the bull in honor of Poseidon’s favor, but he finds it such a magnificent animal he decides to keep it for himself. Poseidon punishes Minos by causing his wife Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull, and their offspring is the Minotaur – a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head. The Minotaur is confined in a labyrinth.
Once every nine years, Minos required that seven pairs of youths and maidens from Athens be sacrificed in the labyrinth to avenge the death of his son, who had been killed by Athenians. On one of these occasions, Theseus volunteers to be placed in the labyrinth so he can kill the beast. He had fallen in love with Ariadne (one of Minos’ daughters), who could help him navigate the labyrinth, and was thus able to slay the Minotaur by decapitation. Consequently, Ariadne is the Occidental corollary to the heart chakra; her love transforms Theseus, empowering him to overcome his fear.
Informed by this ancient myth, the Nung River becomes symbolic of the labyrinthine Hero’s Journey, and Kurtz becomes the Minotaur – controlled by its own urges at the cost of others. Kurtz’ mind, consumed by energies yet to be transformed by the heart chakra, has taken the will to power to its logical extreme; he is bent on dominating a world where ends justify the means because he has convinced himself that the only way he can feel inwardly safe is to annihilate anyone who disagrees with him in the outer world. But we know Kurtz is tiring of this cold logic. As Willard says: “Everyone wanted me to do it, him most of all”.
Finally, the “Theseus consciousness” represented by Willard, guided and transformed by the love shared with his own “Ariadne” (Roxanne), slays the animal consciousness holding dominion over his mind, allowing him to feel safe and at peace with himself. Indeed, as Willard terminates Colonel Kurtz, the image is crystallized when the Montagnard warriors slay a bull at precisely the same instant, and in so doing remove its head.
Apotheosis & Return
Francis Ford Coppola employed one predominant theme in the creation of his film Apocalypse Now Redux – the Hero’s Journey. Furthermore, he gives us the image of Willard “rising from the primordial slime” to suggest the journey as a process of human evolution. Using the symbols of various cultures, he also makes the point that there is a similarity to be found in human psychology and spiritual traditions worldwide, and that many of these traditions, while varying in their local costume, are intended as a means to the evolution he suggests.
Perhaps the most striking images used by Coppola to convey the idea of Willard’s evolution are the Buddha sculptures that bookend his film. During the introduction, our first glimpse of Willard arrives as a close-up of his inverted face, and as The Doors anticipate “The End,” the scene is interspersed with dreamlike images foreshadowing what is to come. In the process of this montage, the sculpted face of the Buddha appears next to the face of Willard, the two of them filling the entire screen. While Willard remains conspicuously inverted, Buddha’s face stands perfectly upright.
In the denouement of the film, after the destruction of Kurtz, Willard returns to the boat to begin his reentry into the world. The soft whisper of falling rain is interrupted by the sound of a male voice over the radio:
“Calling PBR Street Gang. PBR Street Gang, this is Almighty. Do you read me? Over. PBR Street Gang, this is Almighty.”
He turns off the radio.
Willard and the Buddha once again share the screen. This time both are upright, and as Willard gently moves his head to stage right, the two are perfectly superimposed, one upon the other. Willard has completed the Hero’s Journey through the heart of darkness, died and been resurrected, unified the chakras, and attained Buddhahood.
So finally, when all is said and done, what does “Apocalypse Now” actually mean? In traditional interpretation, the Apocalypse is a time when a final battle takes place between good and evil, culminating in the end of the world. But if we permit our religious symbols to be informed by our knowledge of the Tantric Chakra System, we find a much different meaning. Remembering that we turn the once external energies inward when we enter the heart chakra, we can read the religious symbols in a similar, inwardly turned way. Instead of reading the death and resurrection of Christ as an external event, suppose we were to see it as symbolic for internal events, representing a potential for human spiritual development? He who could help us attain the death of our “animal self” in order to be resurrected into a compassionate self would be a savior indeed… Willard demonstrates that this is the same process Buddha went through in attaining enlightenment, and finally, the same process we can all go through.
There’s no question that human nature is part animal, and there is also no question that there are things to be celebrated about this fact. The companionship of family, the enjoyment of a nice meal, and the joy of sexuality are good examples. But given that there is a dark side inherent to all of these qualities (warfare, selfishness, and exploitation to name a few), it seems we all have an apocalyptic battle to be fought inside of ourselves – a battle between forces of a purely animal, selfish nature, and those of a compassionate being who understands we are all in it together. This is the apocalypse that Francis Ford Coppola was asking us to grapple with. Either we remain stuck as a people in our animal state, and like Kurtz eventually succumb to the ultimate temptation to attain the highest power over others – “drop the bomb, exterminate them all!”, or we take Willard’s journey, killing the Minotaur within to discover the sacred within. Released, we are free to drop our weapons by the river, turn off the dualistic concept of an Almighty “out there”, and begin the journey towards true civilization.
Campbell, J. (1997). The hero with a thousand faces. New York, NY: MJF. Books.
Coppola, F.., Milius, J., & Herr, M. (2001). Apocalypse now redux (original screenplay). New York, NY: Talk Miramax Books.
Steven Brooks holds a Master’s Degree in music from the University of Southern California, and has years of experience teaching at the college level. He also has written and spoken on the subject of mythology and comparative religion, drawing on his decades long interest in and study of the religious and philosophical traditions of both the east and west. He has been accepted at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and will begin studies in the Mythology With Emphasis on Depth Psychology program in September.