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Apocalypse Now, A Film History & the Sacrificial Water Buffalo

by Simon Glassock

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous of all Hollywood films. It is a transposition of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, from the jungles of 19th century Belgian Congo to the jungles of Indochina during the Vietnam War. Released in 1979, just four years after the fall of Saigon, it has become one of the defining artistic representations of that traumatic conflict. Like the book, the film traces a river journey up-country in search of a European so far removed from his own civilisation that he has “gone native” and, by reason of this deracination, mad.

In Coppola’s version a renegade Special Forces officer, Colonel Kurtz, has raised an army from the Montagnard (or Moi, in Vietnamese) tribes of the Central Highlands of Vietnam and is leading them in an independent war against the Viet Cong from his base at an abandoned Cambodian temple. Kurtz has allowed himself to be deified by his followers and is assuming the power of life and death over all who come within his reach. With rumour about Kurtz and his methods swirling wildly, even among the North Vietnamese, American military command in Saigon decides that he has become an unstable liability and Captain Willard is sent on a clandestine mission to terminate Kurtz’ command, ‘with extreme prejudice.’

Filming on location began in March 1976; a mere two months later Typhoon Olga struck, destroying the set and other equipment with an estimated loss of $1.3 million.

Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the insane Kurtz was itself more than a little eccentric. He arrived on location for his three week shoot grossly overweight, demanding to be filmed almost entirely in shadow and insisting on an ad lib script since he declined to learn any lines, let alone read the novel upon which the film was based. In an interview 30 years later Coppola reported that Brando’s script was worked up from recorded conversations he had had with the actor, who would then learn his lines by listening to recordings through an earpiece. Coppola may also have resorted to reading Conrad’s novel out loud to his star, though in the same interview he declared that Brando did finally read the book, if only the night before his filming started.

The other lead actor, Martin Sheen, was battling alcoholism and suffered a near-fatal heart attack during filming which necessitated his brother being flown in to act as a double. Quantities of drugs and alcohol were ingested by the cast and crew and the temple complex was at one stage decorated, for want of a more appropriate word, with real corpses.

Several scenes from the film have arguably slipped into the public consciousness and helped define the war itself: to the rising crescendo of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s helicopters attack a Vietnamese village so that Lance Johnson can surf ‘Charlie’s break’; Kilgore strides around the beach, inviolate under fire and intoning the line that has probably accompanied a thousand charred barbecue sausages:

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

And all the while, a rock and roll soundtrack punctuates the episodes of death and destruction surrounding Willard on his journey upriver. Some of the most arresting images, however, come in the climactic closing scenes of the film which feature a graphic and disturbing sequence in which the sacrificial slaughter of a water buffalo is interleaved with Kurtz’s own execution.

Although these scenes appear to be highly stylised, the sacrifice was not improvised but part of a ceremony held by the Ifugao people, who had been recruited to play the Montagnards, and drawn to Coppola’s attention by his wife. The final act begins with Kurtz, silhouetted in the doorway to his temple sanctum, handing a buffalo to his followers. Illuminated only by lightning, massed ranks of candles and the guttering flames of torches, the buffalo is led to a carved stake, around which etiolated figures are dancing. To the accompaniment of a rapid, monotone drumming, men with shields and spears surround the motionless beast and shuffle rhythmically back and forth, enacting in symbolic slow-motion their killing thrusts. This puppetry is brutally swept aside as four parang-wielding men in loin-cloths step forward and hack down hard and fast and again and again into the animal’s body. Just as Kurtz is cut down by Willard, the buffalo is all but decapitated at the shoulders, its hind-quarters almost severed at the haunches.

As Coppola acknowledged, it was fortuitous that this sacred, and therefore blameless, violence took place at precisely the moment when he was seeking a way in which to portray Kurtz’s own death:

I was really desperately looking for a way to end the film, as the original script had an ending more appropriate for a war film in the style of A Bridge Too Far. So I decided, after much thought and conversation, to have Martin end by assassinating the great king (Kurtz), and utilise the fact that the Ifagao (sic) people were going to sacrifice their water buffalo on our last day of shooting.

Perhaps too, the film was by now touched by a certain madness which demanded a blood offering to expiate its own sins and fully complete the process of creation. Whatever the reason, Coppola deliberately associated the sacrifice with Kurtz’s death, underlining the symmetry of their fates by showing Kurtz gifting the buffalo to his followers just as he acquiesces in his own destruction and delivers himself up to Willard’s blade. At an artistic level the scene provides as powerful and logical a conclusion as exists in the visual arts, no matter how disturbing the content may be to some in the audience.

But, whether Coppola was aware of it, it was also entirely consistent to include an animal sacrifice that took place in the Philippines in a film set in Vietnam and Cambodia. More than a quarter of a century earlier Norman Lewis had travelled in Indo-China to report on the Viet Minh war against the French re-occupation of Vietnam after the Second World War. In A Dragon Apparent Lewis recorded his impressions of the Montagnard tribes of Vietnam and recalled witnessing a sacrifice at a Jarai village near Pleiku in which a buffalo was tied to a stake, hamstrung by men with coupe-coupes, the Jarai half-knife, half-axe, and then speared to death. Lewis also visited the Khmer ruins around Siem Reap in Cambodia where he may have seen the reliefs showing scenes of daily life which run around Bayon, the state temple at Ankgor Thom, Jayavarman VII’s (1181-c.1218) walled city.

Among these can be found a panel featuring a group of men with raised spears surrounding a buffalo tied to a stake. The depiction is realised with enormous skill. The taut figures, gathering to deliver their blows, threaten to escape the confines of the stone from which they are carved and the buffalo stares at the viewer, demanding participation in the unfolding drama. The sculptor holds life and death in delicate balance, suspending the moment but unable to change the outcome. The sacrifice is as real and imminent today as it was when the frieze was carved 800 years ago.

Although Buddhism became the Khmer state religion under Jayavarman VII the ritual portrayed at Bayon evidently predated the temple by a considerable time. No matter that the Khmer capital had been located at Angkor since the ninth century, the Moi regarded Angkor Thom as the product of strangers recently arrived in the country.

Lewis knew that the Jarai are related to, among others, the Igorot of Luzon in the northern Philippines but he may not have known that the sacrifice he witnessed was also a religious-cultural practice shared with tribes across south Asia, ranging from India through Indo-China to Indonesia, and including the Igorot, of which the Ifugao are a constituent. Water buffalo are of particular significance to these peoples. Lewis claimed that the buffalo was considered by the Moi to be more than an animal and hardly less than a human and it may be that they act as a substitute for human sacrifice. Not only are they routinely offered to appease ancestral spirits and to safeguard public constructions  (Lewis’ buffalo was killed to place a school building under the protection of tribal spirits, and, perhaps, the depiction on the Bayon frieze was of a sacrifice for Jayavarman’s temple) but, more pertinent here, they also assume special importance in funerary rites where they function as the symbolic carrier of the deceased’s soul to the afterlife.

Probably unwittingly, Coppola’s finale was thus thoroughly grounded in ethnographic reality to the extent that the buffalo sacrifice in his film is an almost exact copy of the Bayon panel. But without artistic intuition this alone, even if intentional, would be mere mechanics. Coppola’s transformation of violence into art was achieved by making Kurtz complicit in the sacrificial nature of his own death by allowing Willard to perform an act that had been sanctioned and legitimised by an authority greater than either man’s.

Crucially, Kurtz acknowledged this by giving his Montagnard followers a water-buffalo, the symbolic means by which to celebrate his death and convey his soul to the afterlife.

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