The Final Scene looks at the last few minutes of some of the most well-known movies of the past fifty years. This week, it's Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic, 'Apocalypse Now'...
As much as the ending of 'Blade Runner' was subject to various cuts, edits and interpretations by both the cast, the director and the audience, 'Apocalypse Now' has just as much baggage - but have the mystique surrounding it.
The story goes that Francis Ford Coppola didn't have an ending to 'Apocalypse Now' that he liked, and one ending which writer John Milius offered saw Brando's deranged Col. Kurtz convincing Sheen's shell-shocked assassin Willard to stay and repel a US attack on his compound. Both Kurtz and Willard would die, guns blazing, in an orgy of violence and pyrotechnics. This ending, however, was not put on screen.
Two endings were eventually shown on screen, both with distinct and explicit meanings and executions. The first saw Willard leave the compound in silence with Lance on their boat, as Kurtz's followers calmly throw down their weapons. We see the boat slip away into the night, with a stone idol's face superimposed over the image as it eventually fades to black and credits.
Another ending, one that was included in the 35mm wide release version of 'Apocalypse Now', saw the same thing happen, except the credits show Kurtz's compound exploding in flames after an airstrike is called in, all set to the ominous electric tones of Carmine Coppola's score.
Coppola, however, soon got wind that people were interpreting this ending to mean that Willard had called in the airstrike and effectively murdered Kurtz's followers as he left. To that end, Coppola ordered the 35mm prints to be returned, and the credits ran out over a black screen, yet this ending persisted on throughout the '80s and even made it on a LaserDisc release. For all this, however, Coppola said the explosions were intended to be a postscript to the story, and was merely added because he felt the images were visually striking.
Here's that ending.
The ending prior to this, however, is one that hasn't changed. Willard, slipping into Kurtz's compound, hacks him to death as outside, the Montagnards, hack a water buffalo into pieces as part of their rituals. The two play over each other, as Willard brings his machete down in rhythm with the Montagnards, one replacing the other on screen.
It's a horrifying moment, made all the more with the knowledge that a water buffalo really was hacked to pieces for the scene.
His work done, Willard sits calmly at Kurtz's typewriter and microphone, and takes a beat. We're left wondering if he was going to replace him, as that was no doubt his intention all along. Kurtz knew that his soul was dead, and that he needed someone to replace him. Throughout the movie, we see Willard refer to the river that leads to Kurtz as a power cable that plugs right into him, and the chaos and murder that they pass on the journey is a direct result of him.
Seeing the meaningless carnage, all of it, warps Willard and by the time they reach the compound, it's only a matter of time before we see it change. The horror, as Kurtz repeats in his death, is that it never ends. Willard sails away, silently, and we know that the Vietnam War would continue to wreak havoc and cause countless suffering. We know now that war still exists, and that the reason it exists is because the darkness within our own being is never-ending.
In that final moment, Kurtz - who talked about ending the Vietnam War by using moral terror, and argued for using brutal tactics in order to win - realises that it will never end, even if Willard replaces him or not. The original text of Joseph Conrad's source novel, 'Heart of Darkness', has the same dialogue as 'Apocalypse Now', except with this text describing the moment...
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – "The horror! The horror!"