Sound in the Opening Montage
“This is the end…” Actually, just the beginning, of Apocalypse Now.
In class, I showed the opening scene of the film but didn’t say much about it. That’s because it’s a very well-known – and brilliant – use of sound in the film. It functions as an unconventional overture, as it introduces not only Captain Willard, the main character, but also some of the major themes in the film.
Let me focus on the song for a moment. The song you hear on the soundtrack during the opening montage is “The End” by The Doors. Why a song about the end at the beginning of the film? Because it indicates the end of Captain Willard’s illusions about the war, and the end of America’s illusions as well. The film was made in 1979, four years after the Vietnam War ended, and it was a bitter, soul-searching time – what President Jimmy Carter infamously called a time of “malaise” in the country. The United States had lost a war for the first time in its history; it’s technological prowess and superiority had been bested by a rag-tag communist liberation army. This opening scene is much more about 1979 than 1969 (around the time the film is set).
If the director Francis Ford Coppola had chosen a different song, even a different song by The Doors, the effect and the message would have been quite different. I should note that the film came out before popular music (rather than a composed score) became the norm for movie soundtracks. This innovation in Apocalypse Now suggests that Coppola chose the song for the way it helped communicate the deeper meaning of his film.
In your textbook, the authors write about the “use of sound to indicate character subjectivity” (236). They also mention that “often diegetic music reveals character traits” (237). All this is true of the use of the song at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. It takes us inside the boozy head of Willard in the hotel room. It reveals to us what Willard is thinking, in all it surreal contours.
We hear other sounds mediated through Willard’s subjectivity in this scene, such as the distorted sound of a ceiling fan, which turns into the distorted sound of helicopter blades – the ubiquitous sound we hear throughout the film, and throughout most Vietnam War films (Korean War films too, such as Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H.). These are sounds that Willard is hearing. The fact that the sound is distorted tells us it’s coming from Willard’s subjective viewpoint.
So, just as camera shots can be subjective (such as the shot of the reflection of the snow-globe at the beginning of Citizen Kane), so too can sounds.
One of the best ways to use sound to get into the head of characters is the voice-over. As you know, there is plenty of that in Apocalypse Now. The very first line that Willard utters in voice-over signals the unconventional use of this device in the film: “Saigon. Shit. . . . Still in Saigon.” In this one line, heard alongside the music of a marching band outside the window, Willard not only swears, but shows his utter revulsion in regards to the war, while at the same time showing that he can’t wait to get back to the jungle. Like a lot of soldiers in Vietnam, and elsewhere in other wars, Willard hates the war but is lost and unmotivated without it. It gives his life meaning.
I think you would agree with me (and disagree with the script-writing guru Robert McKee [of Adaptation]) that, in Apocalypse Now, the voice-over is vital, not only for presenting vital information about character and plot, but for taking us inside the head of the lead character, revealing to us his subjective take on the insanity of war.
Air Cavalry Scene
This is the famous scene where the cowboy-surfer Colonel Kilgore bombs a Vietnamese village “back to the Stone Age,” destroying a village in order to save it. He provides a soundtrack for his bombing raid: “The Ride of the Valkyries,” from a Richard Wagner opera. Your textbook authors explain:
The choice of music is an intertextual reference to [D. W. Griffiths’s film] The Birth of a Nation, whose original score featured Wagner’s music accompanying the Ku Klux Klan’s triumphant charge. Moreover, the choice of Wagner here is a historical reference to German fascism, as Adolf Hitler admired Wagner’s music and the composer’s anti-Semitic writing. (260).
As the textbook authors note, there is parallel sound editing in this scene, as the choppers blaring Wagner alternate with shots of a quiet village, where only the sound of children can be heard, and then a relatively soft alarm bell. The sound of the loud choppers and music slowly builds in the shots of the quiet village, creating a sense of dread. The textbook authors explain that
The abrupt movement from loud to soft shifts the audience’s identification, so that the excitement audiences might otherwise share with the soldiers onscreen gives way to empathy for the villagers. Sound editor Walter Murch’s manipulation of volume in this scene puts audiences in the position of the attacked, as well as the attacker. (260).
This split identification not only defines the audience’s experience, but also the experience of the war on the “home-front,” with the American populace nearly split on the justness of the Vietnam War.
Sound vs. Silence
The use of sound in this part of the film is also part of a larger sound design in the film, in which periods of quiet alternate with bombastic noise. Characters having to yell over the sound of shooting, bombing, and the cries of the wounded (and the sound of a priest saying mass during the raid, and the sound of a cow being lifted by a helicopter, etc.) – or use radio or megaphones – is not bad sound design. The noise is an inescapable part of modern, mechanized war. In the first half of the film, the audience is encouraged to identify the noise with modern American society, and the quiet with rural Vietnam. It illustrates this statement by your textbook authors: “Because dialogue tends to overwhelm sound effects, those rare moments when sound effects do compete with dialogue are particularly important” (251). In regards to sound in films, if it’s soft and hard to hear, it’s important. The quieter it is on the soundtrack, the harder you should listen.
Let me illustrate the sound vs. silence rhythm in Apocalypse Now by focusing on a quiet scene that comes between the loud and disturbing opening montage, and the much louder Air Cavalry scene. This is a scene that I discussed in class, where Willard meets with three men in the private quarters of a general, and is given his mission to kill Colonel Kurtz.
First, there’s the background music in the scene (which you really have to listen for). It’s what we would call “muzak,” or “easy-listening” music. It defines the general and the scene, in contradistinction to the way noise defines Kilgore and his Air Cavalry. It indicates that the general is genteel, and a little prissy – or, at the very least, old (at a time when hippies and activists in the counterculture were urging young people “not to trust anyone over 30”). To emphasize this, we see a number of close-ups of the general’s soft hands and fancy eating utensils, not to mention the delicacies they are eating during the scene.
In this scene, we also hear Col. Kurtz for the first time, on audio-tape. It’s significant that Kurtz is introduced in the film via sound. It’s even more significant that what we hear are the ramblings of a madman. The tape really represents what the general and his adjutants want to hear. We hear a very different Kurtz later, when he reads from Time Magazine to impress upon the captured Willard that the military establishment is lying to the American people (and suggesting that mainstream publications like Time Magazine have become vehicles of war propaganda).
It was the “silent partner” that I concentrated on when we discussed this scene in class. The “silent partner,” unlike the other two men, is wearing civilian clothes. He is most likely CIA. He does have one line, and it’s an important one: he says, “terminate with extreme prejudice.” What this basically means is: “do whatever you need to do to kill Kurtz.” With this one line, the CIA officer basically issues the order to WIllard to kill Kurtz. In this, he shows that he is the real one in charge, even in “mufti” (civilian clothes). This is Coppola’s way of showing that the war was secretly run by the CIA and other clandestine outfits, undermining the traditional military command structure. Coppola does this by using soft sounds in the aural mise-en-scène. Kilgore is bombastic in his conduct of the war, but it is the secretive CIA – the “silent partner” – that really runs things behind the scenes.
Silence in the Temple of Horror
Much more could be said about sound in Apocalypse Now, particularly the music on the soundtrack used to define different characters and different scenes. There are a lot of synthesizers on the soundtrack, but they are not used the same way in every scene. The music soundtrack, instead, varies the music for different scenes. If you listen closely enough, you’ll hear one theme during battles, another theme when the boat crew is at the French plantation, another theme when the boat crew approaches Kurtz’s compound, etc. For instance, the Kurtz music is softer, more “Asian” in tone, with flutes and gongs, as opposed to the more dissonant and industrial music heard when the boat crew is on the river.
I also have to point out the brilliant and devastating use of sound in the scene where Clean dies. You’ll remember that when Clean was shot he was listening a recording tape sent to him by his mother, and it continues on the soundtrack as the crew on the boat deal with Clean’s death (with the exception of Lance, who is more concerned with the missing puppy). We hear his mother say, basically, don’t get shot and come back to us in one piece, while the dead, shot Clean lies on the deck of the boat.
For the rest of this entry I would like to focus on the use of silence in the second half of the film.
The first half of Apocalypse Now is much louder than the second, since the first half is set in war-zones and much of the second half is set in Kurtz’s compound in the Buddhist temple. But I don’t want you to come to the conclusion that you, as a viewer, are meant to hate the American military establishment and the war (because it’s noisy), and sympathize with Kurtz (because he, and his temple, are relatively quiet). Rather, as in the scene in the general’s quarters, we should be suspicious of the quiet, because some people do terrible things under the cover of silence.
Case in point, Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz is a soft-spoken man who is drawn to the contemplative quiet of the Buddhist temple where he resides. There he can read his poetry (mostly T. S. Eliot) in peace. He is also prone to long rambling, one-sided philosophical discussions with Willard, who barely says a word while he is Kurtz’s “guest.”
The nameless photojournalist, played by Dennis Hopper (“Jordy” Jr. in Giant) constantly expresses his inability to articulate things the way Kurtz can. “I wish I had the words…” he says at one point. But inarticulation is also one of Kurtz’s preoccupations. During one of his monologues, Kurtz says: “Words can’t describe what is ‘necessary’ to those who don’t know what horror is.”
Kurtz knows what horror is, and he knows it can’t be suppressed by silence. In fact, the horror whispers in the shadows of the compound. For instance, often times on the soundtrack you can hear flies buzzing. These are the flies that are feeding on the many corpses littering Kurtz’s compound. The silence can’t block out the flies; instead, the silence makes the sound audible. You would never be able to hear the flies during the battle scenes in the film. Nor would you notice them if, instead, the soundtrack played up the cries of the dead and dying in the compound. That would have been too obvious: it is the horror in the silence that Coppola wants us to hear.
Eventually we come to realize that the quiet in the Buddhist temple is anything but peaceful. It is part of Kurtz’s insane tyranny: he commands it. That’s why the people are so quiet there. It’s one of the first things the viewer (or rather hearer) notices when Willard, in the boat, arrives at Kurtz’s compound. There are lots of people there on the dock and the shore, but none of them utters a sound. In fact, they scatter when the quiet is disturbed by the boat’s siren. They’re inarticulate because they are not allowed to speak.
Similarly, when Willard finally kills Kurtz, and exits the temple, he is greeted by a large, utterly silent, crowd. Willard is the new chief, the new tyrant. Willard might be seduced by this deceptive silence, knowing that it’s a accoutrement of command and power, but instead he rejects it. He will instead return to the noisy, messy world.
Apocalypse Now ends with Kurtz’s dying words: “the horror, the horror.” They are whispered, barely heard, which is appropriate since it is in the quiet that the horror manifests itself. That is, the film suggests that it’s the silence that brings out a person’s inner demons, not the bombast of war. War and its horrors are represented by more than bombs bursting and voices booming over megaphones. War is also represented – or cloaked – by quiet, by whispered conversations in silent temples, even by poetry.
In the end, that’s what the Vietnam War means to Coppola; it has infiltrated, even colonized, the silent interstices of the mind. Never again will war be known only by the sounds of explosions. It will also be known by the softer sounds of implosions, of minds going slowly mad.
University of Maryland