Apocalypse now: an acid trip, a story about insanity, or both?

Apocalypse Now is probably one of my favourite movies of all time. Not only does it include countless moments where, even after watching it many times, I still am not sure about the intentions of the creators, but it also explores human boundaries and the limits of sanity and rationality. “Every man has a breaking point, even you and me”. It looks as though it is impossible, though, to avoid murder and insanity when going into Vietnam. Willard seems to have already gone mad from the beginning, so does it really make sense to send a mad man on a secret mission to capture another insane man? Is there a more legitimate reason behind this mission? Why does it not exist, nor will it ever exist? I have a theory.

The theme of the movie, in my view, is insanity, self-discovery and how human consciousness is what sets the boundaries for what is and isn’t rational. Psychedelic drugs, especially LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, are known to alter human consciousness in very profound ways, inducing states of what I like to call “psychedelic catharsis” (which i think we can see at the beginning of the movie when Willard is in the apartment going crazy!). It is widely known that this movie was very influenced by this type of experience (and even the lecturer last Monday went over this briefly). These drugs also cause very intense spiritual epiphanies, that make you feel as though you’re stuck in an endless loop, which Willard seems to have constantly (“The more they [the soldiers] tried to make it feel like home, the more they missed it.”). Not to mention the countless experiments that the US government funded throughout the 60’s and 70’s with psychoactive drugs (cannabis, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, MDMA, etc.) in order to create a “super-mind” or to find a drug that would help them win the war, or even a truth serum (MK Ultra, Edgewood Arsenal experiment,…).

Okay Vlad, cool rant, but how is this related to the questions you asked? It really does not make sense, though, and Willard (the narrator and the character) acknowledges this, to want to terminate a man for his insanity and for murder in a place saturated by these phenomenons.

Jim Morrison in catharsis?

To me the whole movie is essentially a bad acid trip’s stages exposed through a politically engaging scenario. The visuals / hallucinations that one experiences, that are always there in the background of the experience, are to be paralleled with the constant state of chaos (bombs, loud noise, screaming, dead bodies, fire, smoke) that doesn’t seem to bother anyone on the surface – because they pretend to be okay with it – but in reality it makes them feel very uneasy. The strange episodes in the movie, weird things that the characters say, and in particular the Playmates scene, are to be compared with the peak of the trip, a dreamlike state where irrational things seem to make perfect sense as unfamiliar and ridiculous as they may seem when contrasted with reason. Cool fact: when you dream you are actually under the influence of the most psychoactive chemical in the world, present in a plethora of living organisms, called DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), so everyone has experienced this type of feeling at some point, where something makes perfect sense when you’re dreaming but when you wake up you wonder “What the heck was I thinking?!”. Essentially every “psychonaut” has experienced this at some point, and it is where the boundaries of rationality and consciousness become the most blurred with irrationality and higher consciousness (the unknown, absurd).

Finally, the insanity and bizarre sense of power and freedom that Willard experiences mostly near the end, and that Kurtz seems to bathe himself in, represents the comedown of a psychedelic trip, where the ego is coming back to life and one starts understanding reality all over again, reconnecting with consciousness and coming back to the earth as we know it, rediscovering ourselves. This is in fact a very unpleasant stage, at which the person may feel schizophrenic! Most “psychonauts” have experienced this too, feeling like they’re stuck in this acid world forever. Maybe Willard is sent in a higher mission, so mystical that it doesn’t nor will it ever exist (maybe because it’s a trip!), to find Kurtz, to find himself.

I can’t help but to see Kurtz as his alter-ego, one that has broken loose from all boundaries imposed by reason, and lives as a God in his own version of reality, like Willard is tempted to do. Hence my Fight Club reference today! Why would they choose a man who’s already suicidal, bound to kill himself? Because he has nothing to lose. “It is only when you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”


Some topics I haven’t covered that are still tremendously interesting could be: why did they pick The Doors? Is this an effective critique of the war in Vietnam? If so, what exactly is it exposing about the war besides PTSD? What’s the meaning of the Playmates? Is this movie racist intrinsically or can the narrow / offensive view of the people of Vietnam be justified by the motivations behind making the movie, in other words exposing a certain point of view in order to prove that it’s bad?


One thought on “Apocalypse now: an acid trip, a story about insanity, or both?

  1. Really interesting reflections here! I had never thought of connecting dreams to psychadelic experiences, and didn’t know about DMT. So we can all get the sense you’re talking about, even if we haven’t experienced the psychedelic drugs you discuss.

    I like your point about Kurtz possibly being Willard’s alter-ego, and it makes me think that at the end, either Willard becomes Kurtz (and so goes beyond the boundaries as Kurtz has), or kills off that part of himself and comes back into the boundaries. The movie is left with quite an ambiguous ending, with Willard and Lance just driving off. It could be that they are going back into the usual world of the military and the war, because they’ve left Kurtz’s compound behind. Or it could be they’re going off into the wilderness, because Willard turns off the radio when the military, the “Almighty,” calls him in the last scene.

    As for the point about racism in the movie, I do think some of it is pointing out a problem. Col. Kilgore makes some racist statements, but I don’t think we are supposed to think he’s a “good” character; it seems to me when he says those things he’s representing a certain sort of person in the military at that time, not one to be emulated per se. But the movie still has the same problem as the book in that the “darkness,” the strangeness, the violence and horror, the “savageness” are associated with some non-white group. Kurtz is still like a god to the apparently “primitive” people. Their lives are treated as quite expendable, even the innocent people on the boat they raid (Willard kills the woman rather than taking her for medical treatment). Maybe Willard’s actions are to be criticized, though; the movie doesn’t portray him as a great person either, just as the book distances us from Marlow rather than having the reader easily identify with him.

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